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The Problem of Sex

Without radical change, disquiet finds other outlets. Dystopic visions have replaced Shulamith Firestone and Adrienne Rich’s utopian ones.

In 1951, W. H. Auden awarded the Yale Younger Poets Award to a Radcliffe College senior named Adrienne Rich. Three years later, Rich married a Harvard economist named Alfred Haskell Conrad. Near the start of Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience, Rich would reflect on those early years: “I have a very clear, keen memory of myself the day after I was married: I was sweeping a floor. Probably the floor did not really need to be swept; probably I simply did not know what else to do with myself … I felt I was bending to some ancient form, too ancient to question. This is what women have always done.”

In the seventies, the question of “what women do” was more in flux than at nearly any time before or since. Thinkers like Rich and Shulamith Firestone, both of whom died in the past year, were part of a vibrant and far-reaching intellectual reimagining of social life. Having been politicized through the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, they were both deeply engaged with the economic arguments of the Left, insisting on a place in public life even as they critiqued its core institutions. It was one of the rare moments in which intellectual work and practical politics not only reinforced each other, but became nearly indistinguishable. In texts like Of Woman Born and Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, women thinkers built on their understanding of the relationship between biology and the oppressive division of the sexes. They asked how we had organized ourselves in social and economic relations, what the consequences of these organizations were, and how it might be done differently. The result was not a laundry list of “issues” to be dealt with, but an analysis of a system that deforms everything from work and family to art and science. It’s an analysis that continues to resonate, even as public discourse declares on the one hand that feminism’s goals have been accomplished, and on the other that they were always impossible.

Firestone’s work stands out among that of other radical feminists during that period. She resisted the common notion that sexism is an easily fixable glitch in an otherwise just and functioning society, noting that conventional wisdom instinctively understands this. When anti-feminists say, “This is how relations between the sexes have always been,” she argues, they are speaking a truth about the depth of the problem. Near the start of The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone dismisses the search for egalitarian models in long-lost matriarchal pasts or indigenous cultures as “anthropological sophistries.” The nuclear family may be a recent construction, she notes, but a biological, patriarchal family is not. But, she asks, so what? We accept many things into our world that have not been there before; we need not accept oppression because of its long history any more than we accept disease. “The ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value.” And yet the biological structures persist. “The problem becomes political, demanding more than a comprehensive historical analysis, when one realizes that, though man is increasingly capable of freeing himself from the biological conditions that created his tyranny over women and children, he has little reason to want to give this tyranny up,” she writes.

Where Rich begins her book as a new wife cleaning the kitchen floor, Firestone begins by comparing herself, favorably, to Friedrich Engels. Earlier feminists, she argues, were like Fourier and Owens, forced to rely on moral appeals and the reader’s inherent aversion to oppression. But contemporary feminists, like Marx and Engels, have the tools to analyze the diffusion of production and reproduction along sexual lines and the psychology of power that goes along with them. The Dialectic quickly overflows its formal framework, becoming a freewheeling, eccentric description the ways that the current system of sex division, like capitalism, makes people miserable.

Throughout this misery tour, Engels and Freud are replaced by another voice, one instantly recognizable as conventional wisdom. At times, Firestone refers to it as the voice of women gossiping or men having a drink. Instead of railing against prevailing ideologies, she suggests that the conventional wisdom about the sexes reflects our lived experience.

The Dialectic reflects the collective theoretical work of radical feminist groups of the time, including several Firestone co-founded. Rather than argue for the moral righteousness of women’s equality, as earlier utopians might have done, she outlines the ways in which sex inequality is embedded in every aspect of culture and society. Until that changes, she suggests, it’s no good to try to dissuade a mother from telling her daughter that she must employ certain tricks to “trap” a man. Until it changes, there’s little chance of changing anyone’s mind about what men and women are really like or what they have always done.

Take the chapter entitled “Down with Childhood.” Most adults accept the necessity of school and the separate spheres of the adult world and the child world. To suggest that children have rights — let alone that they are an oppressed class whose situation is analogous to that of women, as Firestone does — is to invite ridicule. And yet she demonstrates that even the traditional association of women and children is not without foundation in our current social roles. Both women and children have been told that their exclusion from the public sphere is for their own good, and both are conditioned to placate others in exchange for affection and protection. Women are romanticized to maintain the illusion of innocence; children, the illusion of a golden age. “In a culture of alienated people, the belief that everyone has at least one good period in life free of care and drudgery dies hard. And obviously you can’t expect it in your old age. So it must be you’ve already had it.” But isn’t it better that children go to school, no matter how soulless, than to the factories? And aren’t the family and the consolations of love and romance better than the corruptions of the workplace?

Firestone would say that neither is better. “What we ought to be protesting, rather than that children are being exploited just like adults, is that adults can be so exploited. We need to start talking not about sparing children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about eliminating those horrors.” She at once refuses to accept private relations between men, women, and children as they have been; the exclusion of women from the public sphere; and the public sphere as it is.

Rich’s sense of desperation is quieter than Firestone’s, but it is desperation nonetheless. Her accounts of early motherhood are horrific: giving birth under twilight sleep, callous doctors, a cancelled reading at a prep school because her pregnant body would be too much of a distraction for the young boys. She published her second book of poems the year her first son was born, and describes her world at the time as one of anxious faculty wives clinging to the pretext that their conversations were taking place in a Paris salon. The setting resembles any number of New Yorker stories, awaiting the inevitable alcohol-soaked dinner-party epiphany. Attempts to assuage the problem tended only to underscore it: Rich notes how, under the guise of sympathy, women’s magazines urged their readers to “take time for themselves,” implying that motherhood is something from which one needs escape. Unlike the characters in an Updike story, Rich knew a change of scenery or wouldn’t have altered her desperation, as the desperation was not hers alone: “Slowly I came to understand the paradox contained in ‘my experience’ of motherhood; that, although different from many other women’s experiences, it was not unique; and that only in shedding the illusion of my uniqueness could I hope, as a woman, have any authentic life at all.”

Rich speaks to the long tradition of “exceptional women” — women who carved out small spaces in public and professional life, provided they didn’t upset their benefactors, didn’t agitate for other women, and took it as a complement when they were told that they had “male minds.” It is often forgotten that women were present in the professional sphere prior to the movements of the sixties and seventies; as far back as the end of the nineteenth century, women in the professions were tolerated as long as they accepted secondary status and sacrificed or hid their private lives. It was a bargain Rich knew well, having been singled out by her intellectual father as an honorary son and feted by Auden at twenty-one.

What she wanted was for women to be taken seriously as intellectuals without disguising any traits that would mark them as female, an aim that would necessitate the rearrangement of work and family structures. It was also essential that the experiences of pregnancy, marriage, and motherhood not be so profoundly alienating as to contribute to women’s isolation.

Today, Rich’s reflections on maternal ambivalence and the struggle to lay claim to one’s own experience are familiar. The women’s health movement did much to rectify the medical field’s paternalism toward women, though anti-choice politics have threatened this progress. But as the backlash against feminism took hold in the 1980s, discussions of private and public became distorted. The notion that the two spheres might be reorganized has disappeared from public consciousness, and the question has become whether women can “have it all,” or whether those spheres can be “balanced.” There is now more possibility for humane relationships between the sexes, but little economic and political support for alternative family or communal structures. Discussions of the social dimensions of relationships run constantly up against the idea of “choice.” Feminists concerned with economic and racial injustice recognize these injustices as the limits of choice. Yet even these discussions are often more focused on recognizing those limits than thinking about how a different social context might change things.

In the absence of radical change, disquiet finds other outlets. Dystopic visions have replaced Firestone’s and Rich’s utopian ones. As Kate Millett noted in n+1, Firestone’s most provocative notion — that artificial reproduction would be necessary in to order to uproot the material cause of women’s oppression — is now more likely to bring to mind nightmarish visions of exploitation than the technological utopianism Firestone evoked. We can see the shift in feminism’s creative expression as well: in 1976, feminist and antiwar activist Marge Piercy wrote Women on the Verge of Time, which juxtaposes possible utopian and dystopian futures. By contrast, among the most influential works of feminist literature in the eighties was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopic fable of reproductive coercion.

This change was also reflected in many of the issues that came to consume feminist energies in the eighties and nineties. In particular, much has been written about the dubious alliance between anti-pornography feminists and the religious right in the eighties. Whether one objects to sexual liberation per se or to images perceived as violent and theatening to equality, the impulse is the same: to rid the culture of the distressing symptom. Prominent anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin shared Firestone’s understanding of a society defined by the fundamental split between the sexes. Yet instead of declaring the world unacceptable, as Firestone had, and working out how it could improve, Dworkin envisioned the world as a permanent sexual dystopia. It’s not surprising that, as the backlash against feminism took hold, Dworkin’s vision came to embody radicalism for many younger feminists. Like Firestone and Rich, Dworkin offered readers the shock of recognition, an airing of the previously taboo. For readers in the eighties and nineties, she spoke to the suspicion that there was more and deeper unfinished business between the sexes than securing recent feminist gains, closing the pay gap, and getting men to “do their share” around the house. In her telling, the unfinished business felt timeless: it connected sex, power, and violence.

All social movements face resistance and backlash, even when their advances have been modest in comparison to their goals. Firestone describes the practical political efforts of dozens of organizations and countless individuals that were required to secure women’s suffrage, and the backlash that followed. Her description of the 1920s brings to mind much of what happened in the 1980s: “The cultural campaign had begun: emancipation was one’s private responsibility; salvation was personal, not political. Women took off on a long soul-search for ‘fulfillment.’” With this history in mind, she begins The Dialectic by evoking the resistance to the radical movement of which she was a part. This opposition to feminism represents an understanding, not a misreading, of its implications, she argues:

Sex class is so deep as to be invisible. Or it may appear as a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms, or perhaps by the full integration of women into the labour force. But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child — ‘That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!’ — is the closest to the truth. We are talking about something every bit as deep as that…. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.

The problem with the more circumscribed forms of feminism, whether embodied in mainstream women’s rights organizations or in liberal discourse around rights and equality, is not simply that the goals are wrong or insufficient — though they are. It’s that even the most modest goals require radical change. A full consideration of basic issues like workplace equality, equal pay, and humane working conditions inevitably raises questions about what kind of work is valued and how our public and private lives should be structured. It asks what it would mean to have autonomy over our time, to freely organize humanity in ways that serve our common aims. It asks what kind of world women are integrating themselves into. In 1938, Virginia Woolf, wondering how women struggling for education and respect could possibly think about confronting the militarism and fascism of the day, put it like this:

We, the daughters of educated men, are between the devil and the deep sea. Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed. The one shuts us up like slaves in a harem; the other forces us to circle, like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property. It is a choice of evils. Each is bad. Had we not better plunge off the bridge into the river; give up the game; declare the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it?

But before you take that step, Madam; a decisive one, unless you share the opinion of the professors of the Church of England that death is the gate of life — Mors Janua Vitae is written upon an arch in St. Paul’s — in which case there is, of course, much to recommend it, let us see if another answer is not possible.

Writing under the shadow of fascism and war, Woolf wondered what it meant for women to lay claim to their rights at a moment when their world was growing ever more violent and corrupt. Rich, Firestone, and other radicals of the seventies asked similar questions at a moment when opposition to American racism, imperialism, and economic injustice had opened a cultural and political space that viewed those in power with an intense degree of hostility. In this environment, radical feminism argued that skepticism should be extended to our most private institutions as well as to our public ones: to the family as well as to the government, to arrangements of reproduction and care as well as to arrangements of production, to medicine as well as to the military. The incredible gains of the movement in reproductive health and choice, in access to education and the workforce, should not obscure the fact that its radical thinkers also offered visions that are hard to articulate in today’s cramped political climate. As much a host of outstanding policy items, the unfinished business of feminism may be to revive this imagination.


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