“My hero: Shulamith Firestone”

At the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman submitted a resolution that would still be controversial today: they wanted marriage and property laws to be more equal, women to have control over their own bodies and to be represented to the strength of 51% on the conference floor. “Cool down, little girl,” the chairman said, and, as Freeman remembered, “literally patted Shulie on the head”. Firestone didn’t cool down: at 22, she would set up the first radical feminist groups in New York; at 24, she would organise the first abortion speak-out in America; at 25, she would write The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, now brought back into print by Verso after 45 years.

The Dialectic of Sex is dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir, “who endured”, and it borrows her method from The Second Sex. Firestone tears through Freud, Marx, Hemingway and Mailer, showing how their work has upheld ideas about femininity she wants to sweep away. The family traps women and hobbles children; contemporary forms of romance demean women; current feminism has failed them. While the world is as it is, she wearily admits, there is nothing to do but play along. But what if society were organised differently? If contraceptives and robots freed us to organise in household units of 10 to 12, children could be brought up communally, chores shared and people freed to do the work they choose. At the end of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan proposed letting someone else make the bread; Firestone imagines a new society.

Firestone abdicated her position at the centre of radical feminism after her book’s publication. She worked as a painter and spent periods in psychiatric hospitals, before writing a book of short stories, Airless Spaces, about the experience. On her death in 2012, her life as an activist, short and fire-bright, was celebrated by everyone from Kathleen Hanna to Kate Millett. With a name like Shulamith Firestone, how could you not change the world?

Joanne Briggs

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