Shulamith Firestone and the Private Life of Power

In The Reactionary Mind, I wrote:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power: “Here is the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Feminism—and the backlash against it—is the paradigm case of the battle over the private life of power. As historians have shown, the attack on Women’s Lib gave the modern conservative movement what it needed to achieve its counterrevolution in 1980. But to understand why that was the case, we have to recall just how radical feminism truly was: it sought to disrupt concrete and tangible relationships in the most private relations of power.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi has a wonderful profile of Shulamith Firestone, who died last August. Firestone was a pioneering radical feminist whose book The Dialectic of Sex did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism: it gave it a language and a shape, a fixture and a feel. But Firestone was not just the master of suspicion; she was also the master of disruption, organizing actions that confronted male power exactly where it lay: not merely in the far-off halls of Congress or the Supreme Court, but also in the office, the factory floor, the kitchen, the bedroom, the left-wing meeting. Understanding that sexist domination was above all in-your-face, she responded and agitated in kind.

By then, the groups that Firestone had founded, and a host of offshoots, were making headlines with confrontational protests and street theatre. They disrupted state abortion-law hearings in Albany; occupied restaurants that wouldn’t serve “unescorted” women; conducted a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” in Arlington National Cemetery (the deceased wore curlers); released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City. When Firestone was fired from a waitressing job and her boss withheld her wages, feminists stormed the restaurant and made him pay her on the spot.

But there was perhaps no better example of the catalytic power of radical feminism, the dynamite it perpetually set off—and that set off the conservative movement, which began attracting men made uneasy and unsettled by these very personal and intimate challenges to their power—than the publication of The Dialectic of Sex itself. For, as Faludi shows in a wonderful vignette, there was back story to that publication in the back offices of the book’s publisher William Morrow.
Meanwhile, “Dialectic” was stoking a small revolution at the Morrow offices. The female employees began asking questions: Why were all the secretaries and publicists women? Why were the few female editors underpaid? “We started having lunchtime meetings behind closed doors,” Sara Pyle, an assistant in the publicity department at the time, told me. “We all stopped wearing our little heels and skirts.” What made the women at Morrow “go a bit nuts,” Pyle said, was the book’s unvarnished radicalism. “Firestone took Marx further and put women in the picture,” she said. “This was our oppression, all laid out.”
The wonder of the feminist movement is not that it provoked a backlash—any movement worth its salt will—but that it managed to achieve so much, and so fast, despite the counterrevolution that would soon arise to crush it. Now that’s something we can all truly lean into.


  1. Freddie deBoer April 9, 2013 at 11:48 am | #

    I dunno. Some of my earliest political memories are the national mockery of the Amherst Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. And I worry that the experience by adults at that time has led to the visceral rejection of feminism I encounter in a lot of my not-explicitly-conservative students, who are their children. And in fact, that reaction is often most potent and most toxic among my female undergrads.

    • Freddie deBoer April 9, 2013 at 12:04 pm | #

      Not the experience of just that policy, I mean, but the whole Gingrich-Clinton rejection of “PC” that was so prevalent in the cultural conversation of the early 90s.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 10, 2013 at 8:58 pm | #

      I think you mean Antioch:

      > In 1993 Antioch became the focus of national attention with its “Sexual Offense Prevention Policy.” Under this policy, consent for sexual behavior must be “(a) verbal, (b) mutual, and (c) reiterated for every new level of sexual behavior.”

      Surely that *is* worthy of mockery. And more importantly, the thinking that produced it is deeply flawed.

      I think the genuine mistakes of feminist thought have something to do with the left-wing rejection of it. As another example, the feminist attitude toward “biotruths” is anti-scientific and, frankly, blatantly contradicts most of our lived experiences. (Like, I can get behind general opposition to “slut-shaming,” but I absolutely cannot get behind a subculture that censors a correct understanding of the *reason* that women lose status for having sex while men gain status for the same thing.)

      That feminism has constructed a subculture precluding even discussion of biological sexual differences shows a deep dysfunction (which reaches to areas other than “biotruths”). Feminist subcultures abound with thought-stopping cliches (such as “biotruths” itself) and dangerous conventions of speech-action which shun dissenters. Shut off from outside input by defense-mechanisms, it becomes cult-like, more extreme, incapable of correcting itself.

      Anyway, my point here is that rejection of feminism is not necessarily conservative. A lot of people just see it as crazy.

      • Freddie deBoer April 10, 2013 at 9:47 pm | #

        Right right! Sorry.

  2. Arsene April 9, 2013 at 4:50 pm | #

    fantastic read–

    but as a 53 yr old feminist, I find the landscape of liberal feminism today utterly devoid of any radicalism at all — only on the severely underreported margins. Whether in pop culture (the truly awful Girls) or ludicrously reductive groups like Femen whose feminism is merely colonialist white supremacy (with pretty young girls showing off their boobs–hardly radical) or fixations on some mildly silly comment from Obama about an attorney general’s looks, I see very little in the current western liberal feminist landscape to be inspired by. I see looks and weight and dress being just as much of an obsession and criteria for judging a woman as existed decades ago.

    • Alex K. April 12, 2013 at 4:50 am | #

      There’s a piece by Chitra Nagarajan in The Guardian on Femen’s alleged “colonial feminism.” I’ve commented on Pussy Riot vs. Femen below. I don’t think Femen are racist or colonialist coming mostly from Ukraine where race and colonialism (other than Russian/Polish imperialism perhaps) are non-issues. Besides, within a narrative of universal progress one has no choice but to accept that Arab societies are indeed backward, whether that sounds racist or not. My issue with Femen is different – I simply don’t see the point of flashing before Putin in Hamburg.

  3. Duen De April 9, 2013 at 8:37 pm | #

    “the counterrevolution that would soon arise to crush feminism. ??

    The women’s movement is alive and well. Social media has allowed contemporary feminism to flourish. Protests against sexual violence are spreading across south Asia. The women of Libya helped overthrow Qaddafi by smuggling arms and spying on the government, and now are fighting for a greater voice in society, a process being repeated in all the Arab Spring countries.

    In 1992, Sinéad O’Connor was nearly lynched after she tore up the Pope’s picture on live TV. Now, she is quoted in the Guardian, congratulating Pope Rat Zinger on his ‘greatest act’ – resigning in disgrace. A wave of protests have taken place across Ireland in response to the death of Savita Halappanavar. ‘Slut walks’, Pussy Riot, SWP rape trial…the list is endless.

    By the way, at Brooklyn College ‘women’s lib’ and ‘women’s libbers’ are putdowns and are offensive.

    • Tom April 10, 2013 at 9:37 am | #

      How is “Women’s Lib” offensive, for it is simply a contraction of Women’s Liberation? It carries no hidden meaning, no deep and dark etymological roots.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm | #

        I think he means that people there use the terms pejoratively. Like he’s heard people say things like, “don’t even bother with that one, she’s a women’s libber.”

  4. Alex K. April 10, 2013 at 9:48 am | #

    I’m not sure Femen have much to do with white supremacy or colonialism, but I don’t quite see the point of such protest – what exactly was the message, after all? In contrast, Pussy Riot did something quite radical by Russian standards and sent a pretty strong feminist/political/anti-clerical (though not anti-faith) message. One member of the group, though not one of the performers, named Shulamith Firestone as an influence.

    Another prominent Russian feminist, Nadya Plungyan, a painter, literary scholar and critic, says she spent years looking for a copy of The Dialectic of Sex and only located one in 2011 or 12 in a Paris bookstore. She opened a random page, it seems, and the first thing that caught her eye was the rights of children and their oppression, a reference mark for power distribution in a society. “I had a feeling of enormous gratitude and sympathy.”

    Sinéad found herself a public enemy partly because it was 1992, when John Paul II was idolized for his (probably not insignificant) role in bringing down communism.

  5. Alain April 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm | #

    It seems to me that part of what allowed feminism to succeed was the simultaneous emergence of neoliberalism. Just as women were being told it is good to have a career, the economy was stagnating and the influx of women into the work force helped suppress wages. I am not suggesting that men don’t continue to make more than women – they of course do – but the the large increase of labor helped execute the neoliberal agenda. Now it takes two incomes to sustain a middle class life. And this doesn’t tak into account the consequences of the Great Recession.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 10, 2013 at 9:09 pm | #

      The form of feminism that we have got today is fundamentally compatible with (or even an extension of) neo-liberalism.

      The woman isn’t liberated from dependency, but just given a new option: depend on a boss instead of a man. (I don’t mean to suggest this isn’t an improvement for women; but it’s far from the same thing as designing society to fulfill the needs of women.)

      “Wages for housework” or “guaranteed income” or the right to be a single mom *and not work a job* would be anathema to neo-liberalism and of course they aren’t on the feminist agenda anymore (not that they were super prominent in the first place).

  6. Corey Robin April 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm | #

    Freddie and Blinkenlights: Katha Pollitt had what I thought was a very shrewd and subtle take on those Antioch rules when they came out. Alas, I can’t find her piece now, but it was Katha at her best: she took what was the conventional wisdom, even on the left, and turned it inside out. Her basic argument, as I recall, was how far from casting a net over sex, and trying to tame with a thousand stipulations and rules, the Antioch code could actually heighten sexual experience. I know this is slightly off-topic, but my point is merely that I wouldn’t hold up those rules as a self-evident exhibit A of thoughtless PC. Lots of thoughtful people had some smart ideas about them.

    • YankeeFrank April 11, 2013 at 1:51 am | #

      I was gonna go there too. I don’t think its silly to make the point that many women implicitly go along with acts they may not want to partake in because of the inherently unequal and potentially dangerous results if they say no. This is not to say that women don’t desire and love sex. And perhaps we don’t all have to actually live the Antioch code, but to have the issue raised and “solved” in this way was and is important in my own awareness of sexual power dynamics. The derision such ideas spawn among men is frankly a testimony to the experience many women have when they do raise such concerns: they are informed that their concerns are foolish. They are not foolish. Many women have no problem saying no, but many do not. Its not loving or supportive to deride a simple mechanism for women to feel less intimidated, and if it cramps your style, then find a partner who suits your whims or conform. Pretty simple.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 11, 2013 at 8:08 am | #

        I’m actually a bit young to have much personal experience here but I do find it very difficult to believe that 1993 was the year when the issue of men pressuring women into sex was first raised. The novelty (and ridicule) seems to involve only the special significance attached to (the absence of) verbalization.

        As far as your last suggestion, “if it cramps your style, then find a partner who suits your whims or conform. Pretty simple.” —

        I really wonder what you mean. Do you mean attend a different college than Antioch? You couldn’t possibly mean that? Yet, at Antioch, no choice of partner could alter the definition of all non-verbal sexual escalation as rape.

        I have to wonder if we’re interpreting the rules in the same way here… I just don’t see how what you’re suggesting is possible.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 11, 2013 at 2:41 am | #

      Whether “the Antioch code could actually heighten sexual experience” is actually far from the issue with the code. Even supposing it could, that would not justify labeling men (or women) rapists (and expelling them), merely because they “escalated” sexually activity without verbalizing anything.

      Considering the number of escalations that are actually involved in a typically sexual encounter — pieces of clothing removed, body parts touched, body positions changed — the standard would seem to indicate that *every* sexual encounter *I’ve* ever had was (or involved) rape, yet I don’t think any of the women involved would agree.

      And I think that’s basically enough. Labeling an event a rape when neither party involved considers it to be so: that is self-evidently wrong.

      I don’t think it was “thoughtless” though. I think lots of thought went into it. But thought with the wrong mentality behind it. Thought intended to remove any kind of rights for the accused: the idea that rape, being so hard to prove, ought not to require proof. That we should err on the side of the accuser — because nothing else can truly protect women — nothing else can ensure rapists are prosecuted. That can’t be said outright, so mental gymnastics are employed, rape is redefined in the broadest way imaginable, and every man becomes guilty (at least upon accusation).

      Anyway that is my rationalization for it. Otherwise, I just don’t get it.

      It’s worthy of ridicule, either way.

    • Eric April 12, 2013 at 3:21 am | #

      I used to know someone who was a student at Antioch and this was his exact experience there. He said the policy created a context in which people became comfortable articulating exactly what they desired from their partner. It never occurred to me that this might be an outcome of what seemed like such a weird rule but I think it makes sense.

      • Eric April 12, 2013 at 3:25 am | #

        I meant his experience was matched up with what Katha Pollitt had to say. Just to be clear.

  7. BillR April 11, 2013 at 8:45 am | #

    Incidentally, Camus was an unpleasant colonial racist who public supported Nazi collaborators such as Maurice Papon who during WWII sent hundreds of French Jews to death camps and in 1961 unleashed a pre-planned massacre of hundreds of demonstrating Algerians in Paris. Camus the Algeria born colonial specialized in serving up half-baked “solutions [that fell] well short of majority rule and self-determination for Algerian Muslims, including bizarre schemes evocative of later Afrikaner designs to retain power in South Africa”. No wonder he’s a hero to Israeli colonists who believe that “there are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing.”.

    • Alex K. April 12, 2013 at 7:47 am | #

      Camus’ half-baked solutions were supposed to prevent a massacre of the pieds-noirs and their Arab/Berber allies (the Hakis). Under majority rule (so he thought) they were all but guaranteed. Indeed, 50 to 150 thousands Hakis were killed in the postwar reprisals.

      Whether Camus, and not Sartre, should be counted as the original voice of existentialism, is another question.

      • BillR April 13, 2013 at 11:22 am | #

        As the [French] government pressed on with peace negotiations, the OAS carried
        out a campaign of slaughter among Algerians and their supporters that
        rivaled in little more than a year the number killed in seven years of
        FLN terror. It hatched plots against de Gaulle and others in France,
        including Sartre. In Algeria this frenzy created the very conditions,
        once the FLN took power, that would force the pieds-noirs to abandon
        Algeria completely. It was a bloodbath. When Algerian independence was
        finally declared in July 1962, one million French Algerians were in the
        midst of fleeing to France and Spain, destroying everything they could
        not carry with them. Camus was dead, and so was his Algeria.

        The first OAS bomb aimed at Sartre, in July 1961, had been mistakenly
        placed on the floor above the one he lived on; the second in January
        1962, damaged his apartment. Sartre and Beauvoir had been holed up at
        an acquaintance’s but Sartre’s mother was home. Luckily, she was in
        the bathroom when the bomb went off, and was unhurt. Camus had worried
        publicly about FLN violence against his mother, but it was Sartre’s mother
        who came within a hair’s breadth of being murdered by OAS violence…

        Certainly Camus’s hatred of Communism was legitimate and was understandably
        fueled by his opposition to violence. But like many another anti-Communist,
        he wrecked his own moral and political coherence by avoiding talking about
        his own society. Casting blame on Soviet ambitions, Camus seemed to analyze
        everything but the fundamental changes required to end colonialism. Unable
        to speak about what his people would have to give up to become merely equal
        citizens, indeed a minority in postcolonial Algeria, Camus fell silent.

        de Gaulle was almost murdered by the quasi-Fascist OAS the same year they blew up Sartre’s apartment:

  8. Chris April 21, 2013 at 9:38 am | #

    “released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City.”

    You have to admit, those were pretty stupid, pointless things to do. Really, they demonstrate the political immaturity of sections of the feminist movement. Can you honestly say that someone who calls Playboy an “instrument of female torture” is not a idiot?

    Feminists need to stop glorifying inchoate rage and accepting every damn thing other feminists do and start coming up with serious, coherent theory based on fact, not the lit-critty interpretations of life that constitute what passes for feminist theory at the moment.

    • Corey Robin April 21, 2013 at 9:57 am | #

      “Feminists need to stop glorifying inchoate rage and accepting every damn thing other feminists do and start coming up with serious, coherent theory based on fact, not the lit-critty interpretations of life that constitute what passes for feminist theory at the moment.”

      You need to get out more. Feminism is a vibrant theoretical movement with many different strains — all of which, including literary criticism, are far more serious, coherent, and based on fact, than comments like these. Stop venting your spleen about things you don’t know very much about on this blog.

  9. Chris April 21, 2013 at 9:42 am | #

    “By the way, at Brooklyn College ‘women’s lib’ and ‘women’s libbers’ are putdowns and are offensive.”

    So what? If feminists don’t have the strength to brush off insults they won’t get very far.

  10. Amy Laura Hall April 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | #

    Corey, I love this. Celebrating both Faludi and Firestone in the wake of all the “Lean In” silliness is fantabulous. On the Antioch hulabalooh, which I remember well, I have suggested to the young men in my sexual ethics classes at Duke that living by such rules could be really great for them, in that they will enjoy knowing that the woman with them truly, really, wants them. And, if a man doesn’t find it really sexy for a woman to be very, very clear that she totally wants him, he probably has no business being with a woman . . . Regarding mice, bras-on-fire, and the like, such dramatic play is one way to deal with Godzilla and not be totally squished. (Now sort of wondering if the mice all escaped . . .) Mary Daly coined the term “gynergy” in part to name the kind of power that women expend when trying to engage with, live within, alter a patriarchal system. (If a reader balks at the term “patriarchal system,” not sure how to fix that in one “comment.”) Street theater is a way to reclaim spaces of intimidation as places for re-creative speech. The “winnable” in such organizing is less obvious than in most IAF efforts, but it can be a lively part of a movement to thwart artistically the usual rules by which we march dutifully around a campus, neighborhood, workplace, etc.

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