For Shulamith Firestone, Who Endured

I ploughed through all the second-wave feminist “iconic” works quite some decades ago now. And, of course, I was never the same again. Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (the first chapter is online here) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (yes, I’m a wee bit behind on my chapter-by-chapter re-readings, but this has inspired me…so stay tuned) were, for some reason, the ones that really stayed with me. Yes, I liked Friedan’s Feminine Mystique at the time, but when I re-read that a couple of years ago, couldn’t quite understand why. (It is just so terribly middle class.) I did read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics but now I can’t remember it and I haven’t given it the re-read treatment yet. From memory, having only dipped back into Dialectic but not given it a thorough reading, I loved how unequivocal, unashamed, un-what’s the right word(?) she was, how she didn’t hum and haw or try to “soften” her analysis. She was angry, and you could tell. (I was angry, too. Still am.)

When I found out yesterday that Firestone had died, it was one of those a–light-has-been-snuffed-out moments for me. I still feel a bit of a mysterious sadness that she has gone. It’s funny (not ha ha) that about a month ago, I realised that somewhere along the way, I had lost or lent out or something, my copy of Dialectic, so I went on to Amazon and bought a cheap second-hand paperback version. One that once belonged to someone called Diane Keat. Her name and address is written on the cover page along with a phone number. She’s from Des Moines. I started wondering about her and what she thought of the book and how it ended up in some second hand bookshop that’s trading on Amazon. But I digress. So I have the book, and it’s on my pile, and I’ve been, as I mentioned, dipping into it occasionally, just flipping through the pages. I think I still like it.

About a year ago, I actually tried to track Shulamith Firestone down. I wondered what she was doing now, where she was, what else she’d written. But even in the age of Google, from which I thought no one could hide, I couldn’t really find out much about her. I wanted to write to her, via some publisher or some something, and tell her how fabulous I thought her book was when I read it all those years ago. How important it had been to me. But, of course, failing to find any trace of her, I never did.

Now, reading her obituary in The Guardian (there’s one in The New York Times too), I find she had indeed withdrawn from the world, but also that in 1998 she published a book called Airless Spaces, and that there’s an indy movie about her called Shulie. The Times has a quote from Airless Spaces, written in the third person, but about the aftermath of Firestone’s hospitalisation, when she is on psychiatric medication:

“She had been reading Dante’s ‘Inferno’ when first she went into the hospital, she remembered, and at quite a good clip too, but when she came out she couldn’t even get down a fashion rag. … That left getting through the blank days as comfortably as possible, trying not to sink under the boredom and total loss of hope.”

“She was lucid, yes, at what price. She sometimes recognized on the faces of others joy and ambition and other emotions she could recall having had once, long ago. But her life was ruined, and she had no salvage plan.”

I rather think that anyone who confronts, head on, the situation of women in society in the way Firestone did is likely to be driven a bit mad. For that, and a lot of others reason (e.g. the latest book by Naomi Wolf…which can’t be where feminism went???) I mourn her death. I feel a post on re-reading Firestone brewing; perhaps it should come before the next Beauvoir instalment. Oh, and speaking of Beauvoir: the dedication in Dialectic says: “for Simone de Beauvoir who endured”.

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