Originally published in 1970, when Shulamith Firestone was just twenty-five years old, and going on to become a bestseller, The Dialectic of Sex was the first book of the women s liberation movement to put forth a feminist theory of politics. Beginning with a look at the radical and grassroots history of the first wave (with its foundation in the abolition movement of the time), Firestone documents its major victory, the granting of the vote to women in 1920, and the fifty years of ridicule that followed. She goes on to deftly synthesize 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. Ultimately she presents feminism as the key radical ideology, the missing link between Marx and Freud, uniting their visions of the political and the personal. The Dialectic of Sex is as remarkably relevant to today s society a testament to Shulamith Firestone s startlingly prescient vision. Firestone died in 2012, but her ideas live on through this extraordinary book.
Combines ideas from Freud and Marx. Like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, it relies too heavily on Freud (who was no friend of woman, if you ask me). Actually, it's worse than de Beauvoir, as de Beauvoir at least is sometimes ambivalent about accepting Freudian ideas. Firestone buys into them nearly completely, just mashes them into slightly newer boxes to prove her point. For example, saying that penis envy is a metaphor for envy of power such as men hold, rather than actual desire of a physical characteristic; or describing race relations in terms of Oedipus and Electra complexes.
The now nearly forty year old slang comes off as quaint. As does the view that we have a great technological future to look forward to. Where are my flying cars and artificial wombs, damn it?
In the plus column, chapters 4 and 6-7 are not to be missed. Chapter 4, on childhood and the oppression of children as a class, is particularly striking, and not something I've read in many other feminist works. Or in works on any topic, for that matter. I wouldn't say that chapter 6 changed my life, as the front cover said it might, but that's partially because I've been around the feminist block a few times already. To readers in 1970, when the book was first published, it may have been life-altering. To readers now, who have had no previous exposure to feminist thought, it might still have an effect. Chapters 6-7 describe what a raw deal women get in sexual/romantic relationships with men, and how opting out or patterning themselves upon men aren't really viable options either. Chapter 8 covers culture, especially art and literature.
At this point, because feminist and general cultural discourse has changed so much since 1970, and the knowledge required of history, psychology, and economics required to make heads or tails of parts of it, I'd say that this is not for the beginning feminist. As Twisty says, advanced patriarchy blaming only.
Firestone’s beginning in this work is to show how the likes of Marx and Engels and Freud were on the right track, but that they did not go far enough. Because they thought and wrote from the male perspective, they completely missed something fundamental, which ultimately led to the failure of their work.
Firstly, Marx/Engels - Firestone suggests that they forgot something important. They failed to see that the first “class” division, the first division of labour, is that between the sexes. The allocation of certain kinds of labour to women and other kinds to men applies at all levels of society, and results in universal oppression of women in all patriarchal societies. All men have an interest in perpetuating this female oppression, and numerous social customs and institutions serve to reinforce it: in particular the family.
The nuclear family is worst, but all forms of family serve to reinforce the oppression of women because all forms of family assign roles by sex, and oblige women to do the work of reproduction, which prevents them from advancing their own lives as far as they might otherwise be able to do. And the whole is bound up in the powerplay inevitably seen in families – with father having power over both mother and children, and mother having power over the children – a host of complicated alliances and oppressions springing up between mother and children and, again, among the children. Thus oppression and “power-over” is what children learn about the world. Because the communist thinkers failed to appreciate this key divison in society, and failed to understand the importance of the family in perpetuating power-over and its consequent oppression, their theories and utopias could never help women to be free. And if women could never be free, class oppression can never successfully be abolished.
Secondly, Freud - Firestone argues that Freud is right to trace emotional problems – particularly what Firestone describes as a psychosexual preoccupation with power relations – to the repression of sexual feelings that a child once experienced towards his or her parents. However, she argues that Freud was wrong to accept that this was an inevitable repression, such that we cannot address the cause but only try to treat the symptoms with psychoanalysis.
Firestone argues that in fact we can and must address the root cause, which she identifies as the incest taboos that universally arise where children grow up in biological families, and the use of power to dictate what (sexual) feeling is permissible and to repress whatever is not, resulting in a sexuality that is inextricably bound up in power. This psychosexuality of power is perpetuated and reinforced as each generation plays out the same game, over and over.
Once you’ve got your head around that, the rest of the book is plain sailing apart from one hard chapter about racism, some peculiar ideas about the “causes” of homosexuality, and a touching faith in the power of science to create a utopian world in which all people are released from any form of compulsory labour (both productive and reproductive) so as to enable society to be truly free and happy. Let's put those aside for now. Particular highlights in the rest of the book are: a brilliant chapter on the oppression of children; a scathing analysis of romantic love and the culture of romance; and a seriously interesting assessment of the state and direction of culture, one which is not entirely true today but which does certainly resonate.
But the key thesis, if you only take away one idea from the book, is this: the institution of the family must go. It is the source and cause of all oppression, including the primary oppression of women which assigns to them all reproductive labour. We must come up with other ways of living.
Firestone does not leave any aspect of the case for feminist revolution uncovered. She even delves into the stages of fashion for children in medieval times. For the male child dress was not to symbolize just age but to also announce sex, social rank and prosperity, whereas the female child did not have stages of fashion. She went from swaddling directly to adult garments. There was no need to differentiate social rank and prosperity because women had neither.