Shulamith Firestone: Xenofeminist Before Her Time?
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex proved immediately controversial upon its publication in 1970. Its main thesis is that the origins of women’s oppression lie in biology: in the fact that it is women and not men who gestate and give birth to children. If Firestone’s analysis was stark, then her solution was revolutionary: since it is biology that is the problem, then biology must be changed through technological intervention. This would begin with contraception and abortion, but would ultimately end with the complete removal of the reproductive process from women’s bodies. The Dialectic of Sex imagines a post-revolutionary world in which human society has been transformed through the appropriation of technology for progressive goals. With reproduction taking place through artificial wombs, the nuclear family will have been disbanded and children will instead be raised – and enjoy unprecedented freedoms – in “households” of seven to ten adults with whom they need not have any genetic relationship. Automation will have rendered alienated labor obsolete, freeing people to pursue activities of their own choosing. Anatomical differences between the sexes will have ceased to be significant. And women, children and men will have been freed from the tyranny of an oppression that is rooted in biology.
While it is considered one of the founding texts of U.S. radical feminism, Firestone’s manifesto in fact always existed in a vexed relationship with that movement. Likely reasons for this include Firestone’s pro-technology stance and her staunch opposition to feminist celebrations of nature, which she criticized particularly in relation to the movement for natural childbirth, seeing this as “only one more part of the reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature” mentality.1 With its affirmation of the utopian possibilities of technology and its vision of a vastly transformed future, Firestone’s book was also easy for non-progressives to dismiss as preposterous and out-of-touch. It didn’t help that Firestone withdrew from the scene of feminist politics in the same year that the book came out. As a result, The Dialectic of Sex was in a sense, orphaned, cast out upon the world to fend for itself without the guardianship of an author who would defend it against misunderstandings and correct or revise its arguments as feminist theory evolved over the years. It became all too easy for the book to be dismissed in subsequent decades as a far-fetched, utopian hangover of swinging 1960s radicalism, and to be remembered among the texts of second-wave feminism only as the “mad one about artificial wombs.”
But what if Firestone was simply too far ahead of her time? With the recent emergence of xenofeminism as a feminism that affirms the potential of technology to open up a radical future, we have a new feminist theoretical framework that shares many of the coordinates of Firestone’s work. While The Xenofeminist Manifesto, first published online in 2015 by the Laboria Cuboniks collective makes no reference to The Dialectic of Sex, founding member Helen Hester’s recent book Xenofeminism is explicit in its acknowledgment of Firestone’s influence.2 Hester’s iteration of xenofeminism develops three key themes from the collective’s original manifesto – technomaterialism, anti-naturalism, and gender abolitionism – and draws upon The Dialectic of Sex in relation to each.3 Xenofeminism’s affirmation of the alien, in the sense of the non-natural and non-familial, would surely have been welcomed by Firestone, whose embrace of technology had always been motivated by her profound anti-naturalism and her desire to disrupt the biological family.
Firestone had famously argued that women’s oppression was, in a particular sense, natural since it was rooted in reproductive biology. Her core thesis was that throughout most of human history, before the advent of reliable methods of contraception and abortion, women had been at the “continual mercy of their biology.” The post-pubescent female could expect to spend perhaps 30 years of her life (should she live so long) pregnant, giving birth, or nursing small children, as well as suffering the female ills associated with her reproductive system. Firestone held that these facts, together with the protracted period of helplessness of human infants and their consequent need for care and supervision, entailed a severe curtailment of women’s capacity to take part in the productive labor that produced food, resources, and wealth. Children’s dependence upon women made women dependent upon men for the necessities of life, and from this division of labor – which sprung from “natural reproductive difference[s]” – emerged a system of domination. Men, Firestone believed, sought to fortify the power granted them through women’s dependence, and then also extended that domination wherever possible to other men, leading to the incessant formation of further divisions of humanity into unequal classes, castes, or races. It was in this sense, then, that for Firestone the oppression of women was natural: it was rooted in a reproductive biology that, for millennia, had not been within the power of human beings to control.
In analyzing gender inequality as natural, Firestone had always been offering an explanation, not a justification. Citing both Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir as influences, Firestone insisted that “the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value.” “Human society,” she wrote, “is an antiphysis – in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf.” She thus makes the perfectly sensible point that human beings do not, for example, passively submit to dying of exposure during the winter months on account of rain and snow being natural and therefore good, or at least unchangeable, but instead use technologies such as tools to build shelters and make clothes. Nature may have a certain explanatory power in showing how certain phenomena may arise, Firestone thinks, but it does not thereby establish those phenomena as being outside the scope of corrective human action.4
The key issue for Firestone was that in the late twentieth century, technology had developed to a point where it was possible to intervene into the natural conditions that inclined human societies towards forms of domination. She thus saw the new reproductive technologies that were on the horizon such as test-tube fertilization, together with existing technologies of contraception and abortion, as giving women historically unprecedented levels of reproductive autonomy, allowing them to choose whether, when, and how to become pregnant. She envisaged a future in which ectogenesis would extend possibilities of parenting beyond the biological family to adults of various ages and sexual orientations, while the choice of a non-reproductive lifestyle would also be valued and respected. Further, she saw cybernation as offering to emancipate people from alienated labor, enabling the development of a socialist society in which all human beings would be free to pursue work of intrinsic value according to their particular interests and abilities.
In 1970, with the birth of the first "test-tube baby" still eight years away, Firestone could be criticized for the supposed fancifulness of her predictions about technologies that seemed the stuff of science fiction. Now in 2018, with many of these technologies having become commonplace, and the suggestion that even artificial wombs may be on the horizon, objections are more likely to be leveled at her belief in their progressive implications. There are indeed good reasons to be skeptical about the in vitro fertilization and egg-freezing industries as the horrors of international commercial surrogacy have shown that reproductive technologies can be used to entrench rather than alleviate forms of domination. To frame these as objections to Firestone overall would be unfair, however. Despite her reputation in some quarters as a naïve champion of technology, she had in fact always recognized that under the existing conditions of patriarchal corporate capitalism, such technologies would be used to further entrench oppression. But she refused to accept that science and technology were inherently masculine or patriarchal endeavors, instead insisting that the misuse of technology in, for example, the creation of the atomic bomb, was a consequence of science and technology being shaped within a male-dominated culture. Her manifesto was a call for a revolutionary activity that would seize technologies of both production and reproduction from these forces and put them into service in the project of emancipating women, children, and ultimately also men (whom Firestone viewed as being psychologically deformed by the requirement to embody patriarchal norms). Her interest in the unrealized liberatory potential of technology proceeded from her trenchant anti-naturalism, her insistence that what is supposedly natural should not place limits on our imaginings of a better, fairer, form of society, or our attempts to bring such a society into existence.
And thus we return to Xenofeminism, which closes its own manifesto with the deeply Firestonian exhortation, “If nature is unjust, let’s change nature!” I am not trying to suggest that Xenofeminism is simply repackaging Firestone’s ideas. Far from it. Xenofeminism offers an exciting and fresh reorientation of radical politics that confronts specifically twenty-first century problems while drawing upon the lessons learned from both the successes and failures of second-wave feminism. Hester’s discussion of the hacking or repurposing of existing technologies such as 3D printing, hormone-growing, or medical diagnostic tests, for example, is far more rich and detailed than was Firestone’s call for the seizing of technologies, which lacked a clear praxis. Just as importantly, Hester’s emphasis upon intersectionality allows her to avoid many of the problems within Firestone’s text, particularly in her discussions of the historical entanglement of reproductive technologies in abuses against Black women (never properly acknowledged by Firestone), and the possible implications of Firestone’s ideas for trans people. More generally, xenofeminism’s advocacy of gender-abolitionism, while having significant points in common with Firestone’s vision of a post-gender society, in fact brings a welcome attention to plurality (“Let a hundred sexes bloom!”) where Firestone’s emphasis on androgyny can look like a somewhat worrying attempt to eliminate gender differences entirely.
I am suggesting, however, that the emergence of xenofeminism shows that it is high time for a critical return to Firestone’s text. This is, in fact, what I have attempted to do in my own recent book, Neglected or Misunderstood: The Radical Feminism of Shulamith Firestone where I argue for The Dialectic of Sex as an often deeply problematic text which nonetheless provides vital coordinates for addressing issues of reproductive justice today.
We are witnessing a global frontal assault on reproductive freedoms: on the ability of “impregnatable subjects”5 to access health advice, contraception, and abortion, and to undergo pregnancy free from a culture of surveillance and suspicion. At the same time, many global inequalities worsen, exacerbated by the effects of environmental damage, particularly in the Global South. The ability to choose whether to participate in biological reproduction, and if this is what is chosen, to do so in social conditions that provide autonomy and dignity for parents and children alike seems increasingly under threat. Firestone’s manifesto of 1970 and Laboria Cuboniks’ manifesto of 2015 together identify key precepts for a collective politics that does not accept this as the inevitable face of the future: that material/economic transformation is needed; that solidarities beyond those of the genetic family must be sought; that gender dimorphism damages everyone; that science, technology, and rationality must be embraced by a progressive politics; and that nature must not be allowed to function as the justification of any form of domination.
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- 1. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (London and New York: Verso, 2015), p. 181. Subsequent references are to this edition.
- 2. See Peter Heft’s review of Hester’s book in The Mantle (July 23, 2018). 9http://www.mantlethought.org/philosophy/genderhacking-alien-future-helen...)
- 3. Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge and Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), p. 3.
- 4. Editor’s note: For those interested in the meta-ethics behind this position, I would suggest G.E. Moore’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy (Principia Ethica §12) or Hume’s discussion of the is/ought distinction.
- 5. See Hester, p. 18. Hester uses this formulation in order to recognize – which Firestone does not – the inadequacy of the term ‘woman’ for designating all people who can become pregnant.