Shulamith Firestone: Feminist author of radical second-wave landmark January 7 1945 - August 28 2012 Print E-mail


 New York ~ August 30, 2012

Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist, wrote best-seller, 67

Shulamith Firestone.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON

Shulamith Firestone, a pioneering feminist who shot to fame at age 25 with her best-selling book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” was found dead in her East Village apartment on Tuesday. She was 67.

Alerted by neighbors, who had smelled a strong odor from her apartment, her superintendent peered in through a window from the fire escape and saw her body on the floor. Her landlord, Bob Perl, said she had probably been dead about a week. He said her one-bedroom unit included rows of books, including Greek classics.

Suffering from mental illness, she had shut herself off from contact with other people. Perl said the cause of death is unclear at this point — police said it wasn’t starvation — and that the coroner’s report should provide an answer.

Perl purchased the building, 213 E. 10th St., in 1993, and figures Firestone lived there, on the fifth floor, for about 30 years.

“She was not well for many years,” Perl said, noting that her family members and “strangers” would pay her rent when she was unable to. “She was a prodigy. But she had been ill for so many years, she lost contact with the outside world.”

Firestone grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Ottawa, Canada. According to Perl, she leaves at least two sisters, one of whom, Tirzah Firestone, is a rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.

Published in 1970, her “The Dialectic of Sex” was a key feminist work that presaged today’s issues surrounding birth and science. The book influenced her feminist contemporaries as well as those who followed behind her.

“No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical, inflammatory, second-wave landmark,” said Naomi Wolf.

According to Amazon.com, “The book synthesizes the work of Freud, Marx, de Beauvoir and Engels to create a cogent argument for feminist revolution. Identifying women as a caste, she declares that they must seize the means of reproduction — for as long as women (and only women) are required to bear and rear children, they will be singled out as inferior.”

According to Wikipedia, “She advocated the use of cybernetics to carry out human reproduction in laboratories as well as the proliferation of contraception, abortion and state support for child-rearing; enabling [women] to escape their biologically determined positions in society. Firestone described pregnancy as ‘barbaric’… . Among the reproductive technologies she predicted were sex selection and in vitro fertilization.”

Firestone wrote in “The Dialectic of Sex”: “…[J]ust as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so…the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction… . The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: … [T]he dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general… . The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”

One of her few friends in her later years was Lourdes Lopez, who met her about 10 years ago through a mutual friend. Lopez, a Lower East Side native, is a human resources administrator at Columbia. She said she enjoyed going to movies and museums with Firestone.

“She was very down to earth,” she said, noting that Firestone painted people who were close to her.

“She was isolated at the end and had changed her locks,” Lopez said. “We tried to get Mobile Crisis in there. She pretty much, because of her illness, cut off people. I was really pretty much the only person she trusted at the end as her illness took over.

Between hospital stays, we would hang out for a few months until she went off her medication,” and then the process would repeat, Lopez said.

She said Firestone was paranoid-schizophrenic, as far as she knew, and had been hospitalized many times over the years.

Nevertheless, “She did write two other books and continued to paint,” she said.
Lopez is openly lesbian. As for Firestone, she said, “Honestly, she was never really tied to anyone,” and never spoke of her own sexual orientation.
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 September 02, 2012

Shulamith Firestone dies at 67: wrote feminist classic 'The Dialectic of Sex'

The reclusive author's 1970 book 'The Dialectic of Sex' became a feminist classic with its calls for a drastic rethinking of women's roles in the bearing and raising of children.

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

Shulamith Firestone, whose 1970 book "The Dialectic of Sex" became a feminist classic with its calls for a drastic rethinking of women's roles in the bearing and raising of children, was found dead Tuesday in her New York City apartment. She was 67.

A recluse who struggled with mental illness in later years, the author apparently died of natural causes, said her sister, Miriam Tirzah Firestone.

Only 25 when "The Dialectic of Sex" was published, Firestone vaulted to prominence as a leading theorist of the second wave of feminism that crested in the 1960s and '70s. But unlike leaders such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who made legal equality for women a priority, Firestone preached freedom from "the tyranny of the biological family," envisioning a brave new world in which fetuses were developed in artificial wombs and children were raised in communal households.

"A revolutionary in every bedroom cannot fail to shake up the status quo," Firestone wrote. "And if it is your wife that is revolting, you can't just split to the suburbs. Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society."

Subtitled "The Case for Feminist Revolution," Firestone's book was considered essential reading for feminists and in college courses on women's studies.

"No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical … second-wave landmark," feminist writer Naomi Wolf wrote when the book was reissued in 2003.

Firestone emerged as a radical voice during a fertile era for feminist theory. Her "Dialectic" became a bestseller the same year as Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics," a feminist critique of works by D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer; and Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch," which examined history, literature, biology and popular culture.

Some feminists believed that Firestone "had found the solution" to sexual inequality, according to Ruth Rosen in "The World Split Open" (2000), a history of the modern women's movement. But other feminists were incensed by her ideas, particularly because, Rosen wrote, "Firestone seemed to accept men as the normative human being, rather than demanding that society accommodate — and honor — women's important biological contribution as the bearers and rearers of children."

One of six children of Orthodox Jewish parents, she was born Shulamith Feuerstein in Ottawa, Canada, on Jan. 7, 1945. Her family later changed its last name to Firestone. She grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis.

She attended Washington University in St. Louis before earning a bachelor's of fine arts in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967.

Seeing how the civil rights and antiwar movements treated women as second-class citizens, she co-founded three feminist organizations: New York Radical Women, the Redstockings and New York Radical Feminists. She also edited three important collections of feminist writing, beginning in 1968 with "Notes from the First Year."

When "Dialectic" was published in 1970, it won high praise in the New York Times, where critic John Leonard wrote: "A sharp and often brilliant mind is at work here."

As the book rose on bestseller lists, however, its author receded from public view. She rejected the demands of celebrity and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

"She wasn't prepared for the crush of publicity and notoriety that came her way," her sister said in an interview Friday. "She pulled away from all that public fame. She was a very interior person."

Firestone is also survived by her mother, Kate Firestone Shiftan; two brothers, Ezra and Nechemia; and a sister, Laya Firestone Seghi.

Her hospitalizations inspired "airless Spaces," a 1998 collection of short stories. The back cover of the book alludes to her personal struggle: "Refusing a career as a professional feminist," it read, "Shulamith Firestone found herself in an 'airless space' — approximately since the publication of her first book 'The Dialectic of Sex.'"

Around this same time, Firestone reneged on an agreement to allow "Dialectic" to be reissued as part of a series of writings by major feminist thinkers.

Feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who planned to oversee the series, was shocked. "I sputtered something about how my generation should have access to the book, that it could change lives and consciousness, and didn't she care about that?" Baumgardner wrote in Dissent magazine in 2002.

"If your generation really wants it," Firestone told Baumgardner, "there are a few old copies available on Amazon.com. I don't feel a responsibility to bring out the book just because you want it. I'm very sorry."
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