Thoughts on “The Dialectic of Sex”

When summer started I tasked myself with becoming more familiar with some of the more obscure feminist classics. There was no grand plan behind this idea – I just decided that since grad school was over I was going to start reading for pleasure again, and I just happen to take pleasure in both radical feminism and classic fiction and nonfiction.

A couple weeks ago I finished reading Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex,” and while I don’t feel qualified to comment on her interpretation of Freud (since I’ve barely skimmed Freud’s major works), some of her other observations ring depressingly true to a woman living 33 years after Firestone published her “case for feminist revolution.”

When Firestone penned “Dialectic,” the mainstream feminist movement had already counted some legal victories. Eight states had legalized abortion to some degree and Griswold v. Connecticut invalidated state laws that banned the use of contraceptives. The labor force participation of women in their 20s and early 30s grew by 9 percentage points during the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. And although more successes kept coming through the 1970s, 80s and 90s – the passage of Title IX, the legalization of abortion, the increased recognition and criminalization of rape, the first female Supreme Court justice, the first female vice presidential and presidential candidates – in many areas women’s progress did not seem so assured.

Today, households still operate under a traditionally gendered division of labor (including childcare), victims of sexual and domestic violence are still overwhelmingly female, and even though women are enrolling in and graduating from college at a greater rate than men, the pay gap persists and women are underrepresented in the highest-paying professions.

Firestone was a radical feminist and as such explored in her “Dialectic” the subtle way that cultural and biological forces – specifically, childbearing and childrearing – undermine women’s autonomy and limit their potential as individuals. Radical feminists believe the root of women’s oppression lies in the patriarchal division of society by gender, and that women will truly be free when gender roles are erased in their personal lives (in other words, mere legal equality of rights is not enough). Indeed, it was Firestone and her co-editor Anne Koedt who selected the title “The Personal is Political” for Carol Hanisch’s landmark essay that appeared in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. In that essay, Hanisch touches on the ways in which the leftist movements of the 1960s were hostile women’s liberation and ignored or discounted gendered inequities that today we (mostly) recognize as important feminist issues:

“They [male activists] could sometimes admit that women were oppressed (but only by ‘the system’) and said that we should have equal pay for equal work, and some other ‘rights.’ But they belittled us to no end for trying to bring our so-called ‘personal problems’ into the public arena – especially ‘all those body issues’ like sex, appearance, and abortion. Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man.”
– Carol Hanisch, 2006 introduction to “The Personal is Political”

Firestone and other radical feminists correctly determined that a dramatic reorganization of how women are viewed culturally, socially and biologically would be the only way to bring about further progress in the women’s liberation movement. In “Dialectic,” Firestone identifies the norms that animate traditional heterosexual relationships as the main factors limiting this progress. The gender-based oppression she identifies occurs both in casual dating and sexual relationships as well as in traditional long-term pairings.

Unlike many feminists of the 1970s and today, Firestone critiques the sexual revolution. To Firestone, the culture of sexual freedom that pervaded the late 1960s actually put women in a “double bind.” According to “Dialectic,” the sexual revolution changed what men expected of women (that they put out without much fuss), but did not actually change what men expected of themselves (“for it is still true that even the hippest want an ‘old lady’ who is relatively unused”) or how society treats women who engage in extramarital sex. Thanks to the sexual revolution, the woman who is conservative in her sexual exploration would now be “prudish,” a “ballbreaker” or a “cockteaser,” while the woman who enjoys sex without reservation would still be a slut. Frequent attempts to legally limit women’s birth control options, the investigation of rape victims’ sexual history, and other examples of sexual policing demonstrate that Firestone was spot on in the latter observation.

While the advent of reliable birth control and the partial relaxation of sexual shaming for women has given them the (not unfettered) ability to pursue sexual relationships free of commitment, most women (and men) eventually choose to couple up. Indeed, Firestone points out that the strategizing women inevitably put into getting and maintaining romantic relationships is often necessary for women’s social survival in a culture that devalues the work that has traditionally been theirs – the care and keeping of children and the home – while refusing to fully admit them to the respected sphere of creative work.

“To be in love can be a full-time job for a woman, like that of a profession for a man. … In a male-run society that defines women as an inferior and parasitical class, a woman who does not achieve male approval in some form is doomed.”
– “The Dialectic of Sex,” pg. 48

But the likelihood of finding true companionship and equality is just as slim for women who are paired as is it is for women who are single. We still live in a world where men and women are frequently called on to engage in what Firestone referred to as the “traditional polarity”: the woman attracting the majority of the costs and duties of relationship maintenance, home maintenance, and child-rearing, and thus needing to repel the prerequisites for professional success – and the man facing the opposite demand.

Our current society is at a crossroads in this respect – women today live in an era in which they do, at least, have some choices about how to live their lives. Today’s woman can either cling desperately to the old social order, in which people coupled up and the women and children were provided for by the man, or she can forgo coupling, commitment, etc., and enmesh herself in the masculine world of career achievement and attempt to gain legitimacy that way. It’s no secret that combining the two – a satisfying family life and a challenging career – is still incredibly difficult. Thirty years after Firestone published her oeuvre, we are still only beginning to search for a way out of this traditional polarity.

Firestone also critiques as inherently anti-feminist certain aspects of the counterculture, specifically the “reactionary hippie-Roussian Return-to-Nature” trend of natural childbirth. She says, bluntly, “pregnancy is barbaric … [it is] the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species,” and that trying to imbue the process with a sense of beauty and “glamour” does nothing except fill women with performance anxiety. Obviously desire for natural childbirth is still with us, although Firestone’s description of the trend in the late 1960s reminds me more of today’s militant exhortation for new mothers to breastfeed or the increasing emphasis on attachment parenting (which, from a feminist perspective, is a horrifying development).

Communal movements in general draw Firestone’s scrutiny for perpetuating a traditional division of labor. Firestone concludes these communes fail partially because there is “no development of feminist consciousness and analysis prior to the initiation of the experiment.” Speaking first of the Israeli kibbutzim, and then of American communes:

“In my short stay I observed the following: an American registered nurse could not land a job in the infirmary – because all women were needed in the kitchen. A job in the sandal shop was given to a boy apprentice, rather than a woman skilled in leatherwork. Only foreign girls were so naive as to question why women aren’t out in the fields, but instead confined to the laundry, the sewing room, or at best, the chicken house.”
– “Dialectic,” pg. 201

“The division of labor remains, because woman’s role in (child) bed or kitchen has not been questioned, nor male the role of the provider. And since mother/child symbiosis remains intact, it is no wonder that when the commune breaks up, all the ‘godparents’ disappear, as well as the genetic father himself, leaving the mother stuck – without even the protection of an ordinary marriage.”
– “Dialectic, pg. 206

So, if the problem of women’s oppression lies primarily in unequal and oppressive cultural expectations based on biology, how does Firestone propose we solve it? “The classic trap for any revolutionary is always, ‘What’s your alternative?’” Being up to the challenge, “Dialectic” lays out a complete social design Firestone refers to as “cybernetic communism” – conditions that society must meet for women (and everyone) to be truly free. It has four broad tenets:

1. “The freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible, and the diffusion of child-rearing to the society as a whole, to men and other children as well as women.”

Here Firestone offers the solution that she is most known for outside of feminist circles, the widespread use of artificial reproduction to eliminate the need for pregnancy, labor and female-dominated childrearing practices. According to her, “The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics).” Firestone also eliminates the nuclear family structure and replaces it with a system of licensed “households” that consist of unrelated individuals of different ages who live as a unit for a specified period of time. Members could join and leave as they wished, as long as they fulfilled the term specified in the (freely agreed to) household contract. One purpose of such a household would be childrearing, although these responsibilities would divided and no one person or group of people would be involuntarily committed to doing most of that work. Larger family groups would also encourage the more equal division of household chores.

2. “The economic independence and self-determination of all.”

Firestone advocates for encouraging women to take on what she terms “single professions,” or lines of work where it is seen as natural or even necessary to remain unmarried. She notes that many such professions – from the knights and cowboys of prior centuries to today’s astronauts and pilots – have been open to men, but similar roles for women, such as stewardess, rely on sex appeal instead of developed skill and are therefore not sufficient for women who won’t soon be moving out of the workplace and into the home. She also comes back to cybernetics here, saying that toilsome work inside and outside the home could eventually be eliminated by the widespread use of machines.

3. “The complete integration of women and children into the larger society.”

According to Firestone, growing up in a household instead of a family would altogether be a healthier experience, since children would be encouraged to participate in the adult world to whatever degree they can – there would be no segregated roles, places or activities for children – and would be able to develop relationships with people of their own choosing instead of a preconfigured set of parents and siblings. With the family structure gone, women and children would be fully protected by the law, instead of existing in some part as the property of patriarch.

4. “Sexual freedom, love, etc.”

In this new liberated society, Firestone predicts a “more natural polymorphous sexuality” wherein “genital sex would no longer be the central focus of the relationship.” All close relationships – romantic and friendships – would include some form of physical love, because “the physical” would be divorced from the taboos that control it now (taboos against homosexuality, polyamory, etc.). Instead of elevating genital sex as the pinnacle of human interaction and at the same time denigrating it as filthy act, it would be merely one part of all “total physical/emotional relationships.”

Firestone ends “Dialectic” by noting that the aforementioned program is merely a “very rough plan in order to make the general direction of a feminist revolution more vivid: reproduction and production would both be, simultaneously, reorganized in a non-repressive way.” But has it moved in that general direction? In the United States we’re still having the same conversations over reproductive rights, family structure and women’s roles as we were 33 years ago. In many parts of the world, those conversations have barely started. Keeping works like “Dialectic” part of the public consciousness will hopefully help lead us toward a more liberated society.


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