Critical reflections on feminism, insanity, and the institution of childhood on the occasion of Shulamith Firestone’s death

Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist writer, died on 28th August 2012, aged 67. She is best known as the author of  the groundbreaking polemic, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), written when she was only 25 years old.

It has taken me more than a fortnight to complete this piece, which I knew I wanted to write as soon as I learned of Firestone’s death. I kept delaying, abandoning, and redrafting because my feelings and thoughts about her life, her work, her reception, and the gap she leaves in the landscape of feminism, have been hard to untangle and to articulate. And also because they matter so much to me. Firestone was — and is — one of my feminist inspirations; she was a sex-critical luminary and a queer thinker avant la lettre, shining the light of counter-intuitive insight on cultural commonplaces that pass as natural, and illuminating the obfuscating mechanisms of oppression that make them appear so. She grasped the harsh and unpalatable truth of the female condition in the culture in which she lived. She described — controversially — female lives and identities circumscribed and defined by the tyranny of biology (“maternal instinct”, compulsory pregnancy, childbirth, nuclear parenthood), and she was unafraid to speak against these shibboleths of femaleness and femininity, and to imagine alternatives to them based on the harnessing of burgeoning bio-technology.

The obituary of Firestone that first alerted me to her death appeared in The Villager. While, on the one hand, it acknowledges that her work was “pioneering” and “key” to the development of twentieth-century feminism, on the other it emphasizes, perhaps disproportionately, the idea that she “suffered from mental illness” throughout her whole life (citing her alleged paranoid-schizophrenia, reported by one of Firestone’s “few friends”). It makes much of the fact that her final years were characterized by solitude and poor health. (She was, towards the end of her life, reputed to be a recluse; her body was found in her apartment roughly a week after she had died.)* While these biographical facts are not irrelevant to a consideration of Shulamith’s life, the emphasis on them comes at a price — and at the expense of paying sufficient attention to the searing truth and import of her work. And this effect is not accidental or innocent. It is part of a common cultural narrative and a normalizing strategy, both of which I want to unpick.

Mental illness carries a huge and unfair stigma in our culture. Damningly, in the case of writers and thinkers, that stigma risks coloring perceptions of their work. And perhaps it is particularly true of female writers that their biography trumps and is used to explain away or downplay their achievements. (I am reminded of the recent cruel and loathsome Telegraph obit of Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, which criticized her for having written so frequently about mother-daughter dynamics given that she had no children of her own.) It is not wrong per se to record the fact that Shulamith Firestone suffered from mental illness. The danger lies in the probability that emphasizing this biographical detail will provide an alibi for those — and there are many — who would justify dismissing Firestone’s contentious political ideas as “mad”, “far-out”, “unrealistic”, and “delusional”. For patriarchal, heteronormative, pro-reproductive culture has a huge investment in reducing Firestone’s claims to the products of her alleged madness.

That women are trapped by biological essentialism and the myth of maternal instinct, that childhood is a state of humiliating indignity and the nuclear family a sadistic paradigm of ownership and control, are dangerous ideas that Firestone propagated. One would have to be mad to make such claims, the convenient line goes. For the natural and deterministic import of female biological reproductive capacity is an idea upheld (though with radically different ideological agendas) by both right-wing, God-bothering patriarchs, keen to preserve traditional gender roles in which women are nurturers and by certain types of feminist, particularly those in the Mary Daly mold, characterized by a belief in an innate, life-giving gyn-ergy unique to “biological” “women”.

Accusations of child-hating and internalized misogyny plagued Firestone’s reception in life. Yet Firestone was in so many ways more of a champion of those young persons lumped together under the class “child” than the most ardent proponents of the sentimental discourse of infantile innocence. “Childhood is hell [and] the result is the insecure and therefore aggressive/ defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child”, Firestone wrote in Dialectic. She railed against the abject status children are allocated in our culture. She railed too against the infantilizing, de-humanizing  misogyny of the fact that the “women and children are always mentioned in the same breath”. These groups are linked, she claimed, by nothing more than “shared oppression”, by the imperative to be “cute”, passive, harmless, and lovable at the expense of personal dignity and human sovereignty. Only in a post-patriarchal utopia, in which childhood and the nuclear family would be mere shadows of memories of a long-ago nightmare, could people of all ages and sexes apprehend the meaning of freedom.

In her novel Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler writes of her female protagonist — a mother — that: “The mere fact that her children were children, condemned for years to feel powerless and bewildered and confined, filled her with such pity that to add any further hardship to their lives seemed unthinkable.” Although Tyler’s middle-brow novel is far from espousing a radical feminist position, I immediately thought of Shulamith when I read that sentence. It is a truth, seldom expressed, but oh so powerful. I am not, and will never be, a parent, but I can remember my childhood and my own feelings of humiliation at having the patronizing label “child” and all that it conveys ascribed to me.  I can remember my indignation at my lack of personal bodily autonomy based solely on my age, a temporary, contingent condition about which I could do nothing. I can remember my resentment, too, at the presumption on the part of any (however well-meaning) adult that they had the right to condescend to me, to pat me on the head, to pinch my cheek, to talk about me in the third person, as if I was not there, to violate my boundaries in a myriad of small ways, to curtail my will. (And my individual childhood was far from traumatic in the greater scheme of things, and in comparison with so many others’. Rather, as Firestone wants us to understand, modern Western childhood as such, as a universal experience,is traumatic.) Yet these routinely degrading aspects of childhood are so rarely acknowledged, while the clichéd stereotype of a lost age of nostalgic bliss is taken for granted.  Firestone called for a world in which childhood was not a “hell” and the hierarchical nuclear family no longer the dominant form of social organization. To explain away such an unthinkable agenda on her part, many are more than willing to have recourse to her mental illness.

And yet, there is another discourse at play in discussions of Firestone’s work and her mental health — a stereotype too — that I realize I am skirting around. It is lurking in the background of what I am writing, and I am determined to push it to the surface, to make it explicit, and to refuse to indulge it. I want to defuse its potency by deconstructing the nature of the glamour it possesses. It is the ever-so seductive idea that only the mad person, the Shakespearean fool, the Romantic lunatic-touched-by-genius, the idiot savant, can articulate what the rest of us cannot — can see clearly (an ableist metaphor if ever there was one). Madness was lauded by Foucault in his earlier writings as the privileged voice of culturally disavowed truth. The label of “exceptionality” is routinely ascribed to those individuals who speak or act against the social order, and it seems like a magical thing — to be exceptional, different, above the common herd. Yet its effect  is often to downplay the fact that these exceptional individuals are members of a class and that the discontents they are able to articulate will also be experienced just as powerfully by those without a voice. It is deployed, in short, to de-politicize words and acts issuing from the margins, even by those admiring the mad genius.** For these reasons, I urge us to be cautious of attributing the brilliance of Firestone’s insights to her Romantic brand of  genius-madness, just as I would criticize those who use claims of her madness to invalidate her work. This said, I do think that any subject positioned outside of the norm (by dint of gendered, sexual, economic class-based, racial, psychological or neurological difference and disadvantage) is more likely to be able to apprehend critically the biases and instances of oppression that pass as neutral and that are largely invisible to those located at the unmarked centre. But I am determinedly reluctant to idealize madness, to transform Firestone’s (and any other person’s) suffering into a “gift”. I am more sympathetic to the idea issuing from anti-psychiatry that what we call madness is an adequate, if incredibly painful at the individual level, response to a cultural system characterized by inequalities and forms of violence that are symbolic, psychological, and physical. Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it best, perhaps, in opining that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

There are some social realities so painful and disturbing that they are commonly, and by silent mutual agreement,  silenced and disavowed. Daring to acknowledge them; daring even to speak out about the disavowal of them; daring, finally, to draw embarrassing attention to the determined collective cultural mental work put into maintaining the silence around them, call forth recrimination. Such truth-tellers are labelled troublemakers, dissenters, eccentrics, radicals and — as I have been discussing — are all too often characterized as insane.  Shulamith Firestone’s posthumous reputation risks being one of either dismissal as a deluded sick woman or hagiography as a mad genius, depending on the political sensibilities of the commentator. I want instead to see her work remembered, re-read, engaged with anew, and deployed as a devastatingly accurate social critique. We must not let either willful or well-meaning misrepresentation of Firestone’s work thrive after her death. An excellent recent collection of essays on The Dialectic of Sex, edited by Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford, which I reviewed in glowing terms for MAMSIE, constitutes a serious attempt to re-evaluate Firestone’s work and to highlight its relevance for the twenty-first century. I hope that the sad event of Firestone’s demise might prove the spur for more critical work of this kind. We simply cannot afford to ignore her message, to interpret it as a symptom of a past era of feminist idealism and extremism, or to employ with regard to it the convenient trope that it is merely the imaginative and extravagant product of insanity.

This post is for Shulamith Firestone, with love, and in the hope that she may rest in peace.

* Several other, more balanced and valuable obituaries of Firestone have since appeared. See especially those by Emily Chertoff for The Atlantic and Julie Bindel for The Guardian, which can be found, respectively, here and here. (I quite often disagree with Bindel’s politics, but her obituary of Firestone strikes me as a model of how to write about the loss of a valued feminist worker and writer without engaging some of the troubling discourses I have critiqued in this post and that Lincoln Anderson’s obit in The Villager liberally deployed.)

** A critique of the notion of the exceptional individual is one of the broad arguments pursued in my forthcoming book about the cultural function of murderers: The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (Chicago University Press, February 2013).