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Painted Brain | Beyond Marx And Biology
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • September 6, 2014

Beyond Marx and Biology

In 2012, an obituary appeared in the New York Times: Canadian-born radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, author and long-time resident of New York City, had died at the age of 67.

Why had I not heard of Ms. Firestone before? As I am not a young man (I was born in 1956), and since I spent the first half of the ’80s on the editorial staff of a large news magazine, this was somewhat mystifying. I was determined to find out why. While looking into the details of Ms. Firestone’s life and career, I discovered the reason immediately: she had been “off the radar” for nearly 30 years.

Ms. Firestone’s original career path was in the arts. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Art Institute of Chicago. After moving to New York in 1967, she became one of the founding members of New York Radical Women, and later, New York Radical Feminists, both formed as extremist alternatives to the more mainstream National Organization for Women.  After writing many scholarly and memorable essays and manifestos for both organizations, in 1970 she published her controversial book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution in which she proposed a revised materialist view of history, based on the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It is Ms. Firestone’s assertion that women have always been an economic and social underclass because of their role in human reproduction and child care, and that this initial imbalance of power has been the ultimate cause of all subsequent class oppression and exploitation. She called for a neo-Marxist proletariat revolt on the part of women, to seize the means of (re)production in order to redistribute power equitably. Furthermore, she posited a new society where sexual differentiation would be rendered moot by divorcing the means of human reproduction from sex: all fertilization would be in vitro (take place outside the female body), embryos would gestate in an artificially-constructed surrogate womb, and children would be nurtured and reared by society collectively. She went so far as to say that, as long as women are viewed as “cattle” and men not socialized as nurturers, men will remain incapable of love.

One reads The Dialectic of Sex and, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Ms. Firestone’s analysis of history and its thought-provoking proposals, one thing is absolutely undeniable: she is a brilliant theorist, a gifted author, possessed of an incisive mind and the keenest of wits. Her theories and arguments are extremely well-constructed, each premise clearly stated, and her conclusions are reached by a clear and concise logic.

Ms. Firestone, while at the forefront of the “second wave” of radical feminism in the early ’70s, became disenchanted with the movement, ultimately refusing her role as a “professional feminist.” Instead, she chose to return to a life of art, as a painter. She took a self-described “plunge outside of history” and seemed to disappear from public life.

Ms. Firestone, who suffered from major depression, suffered a severe emotional and psychological breakdown sometime in the ’80s. Finding herself completely unable to function, she was institutionalized for a lengthy, yet undetermined period of time. She was finally stabilized on psychotropic medication and released from the hospital in 1998.

In that same year, Ms. Firestone also returned to her role as an author, after a 28 year-long absence from public life. She published a 160-page collection of fictional vignettes, called Airless Spaces. The fifty stories contained between its drab, hospital-blue covers are extremely short, some no more than a paragraph or two in length, and they are organized into five sections: “Hospital” “Post-hospital” “Losers” “Obits” and “Suicides I Have Known.” Most of the stories have very little to do with Ms. Firestone’s former life as a feminist author. Instead, they focus on depression, breakdown, hospitalization, medication and the difficulty of returning to life outside an institutional setting. Ms. Firestone seems to be speaking to us in splinters, fragments of herself scattered across her various protagonists. Her narrative, while inviting us to immerse ourselves in each character’s world, displays a simultaneous lack of empathy for them. Virtually all of her characters are anhedonic, unable to take pleasure in anything, or to feel joy. Many simply watch the clock, waiting for scheduled intervals of food and sleep, nothing meaningful to look forward to except death, without even the prospect of suicide as an option. Ms. Firestone makes it very clear that she is not the narrator of these vignettes, even saying so explicitly on the back cover of the book. The only story in the collection told in the first-person by Ms. Firestone is called “I Remember Valerie, ” a story about radical feminist Valerie Solanos, the author of The Scum Manifesto, and the woman who shot Andy Warhol.

It is interesting to note that Ms. Firestone was a harsh critic of Ms. Solano’s work, despite the fact that Ms. Solano agreed with many of Ms. Firestone’s feminist proposals. However, while Ms. Firestone sought to eliminate class distinctions and gender oppression, Ms. Solano went so far as to suggest that since human reproduction could be accomplished through parthenogenesis (without male fertilization), then men might be enslaved, or eliminated completely. Ms. Firestone claimed that Ms. Solano was not a feminist, but a matriarchalist and a counter-revolutionary, seeking to deify the inferior biological role of women while upending an unjust power structure, rather than seeking the means to transcend sexual oppression altogether. In the story, “I Remember Valerie,” however, Ms. Firestone seems finally to have discovered a kinship with Ms. Solano, not as a peer based on their shared feminist past, but on what they have in common as formerly-hospitalized mental patients.

If we accept that Ms. Firestone is speaking to us, to some extent, through her characters in Airless Spaces, it raises several questions.

While psychotropic medication made it possible for Ms. Firestone to return to life outside the hospital, one must ask – at how high a price?

Was her anhedonia, her inability to concentrate sufficiently to read a book, to empathize and to connect meaningfully with others the result of her mental illness or a side-effect of the medication which made it possible for her to be released into society again? We may never know.

This much is clear. Shulamith Firestone was a talented and gifted individual whose mental illness did not prevent her from making a powerful and lasting contribution to society. Indeed, in the case of her work, Airless Spaces, one might say that her depression and subsequent hospitalization go to the very heart of it.

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