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Two Books Check in on Feminist Revolution in Wake of Shulamith Firestone's Death

Two new books suggest we might achieve some level of equality if only we could embrace Firestone's radicalism.

The death of radical feminist writer Shulamith Firestone on August 28 brought her controversial stand on reproduction back into public consciousness. At around the same time, British journalist Caitlin Moran’s HowtoBeA Woman was released in the United States, while GagaFeminism: Sex, Gender, andtheEndof Normal by J. Jack Halberstam joined the extensive catalogue of writing on the state of womanhood today. With varying levels of success, both books evoke Firestone and suggest, in vastly different ways, that we might achieve some level of equality if only we could embrace her radicalism today.

Published in 1970 when she was 25, Firestone’s TheDialecticofSex: TheCaseforFeminist Revolution identifies female biological function, namely child-bearing, as the root of gender discrimination, and calls for its end in favor of laboratory gestation and birth. She believed that with advances in medical technology, many women would opt out of pregnancy, ultimately eliminating gender and parental distinction. She encouraged women to abstain from sex indefinitely, as she had, until such practices became standard, and took inspiration from Marxist ideology to examine women’s rights.

While Firestone’s theories were widely criticized and ultimately dismissed, they have gained a particular pertinence given the political threat to dismantle hard-won reproductive rights in the U.S.

Firestone said of her Dialectic: “That so profound a change cannot be easily fitted into traditional categories of thought, e.g., 'political', is not because these categories do not apply but because they are not big enough: radical feminism bursts through them. If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution–we would use it.” She admits that the change will require a ripple effect of reshaping, across political and social fronts, and that, Firestone asserts, is the point.

The media coverage of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which was published in Great Britain and 17 other countries before reaching the United States on July 17, has been overwhelmingly positive. Emma Brockes wrote for the New York Times, “‘How to Be a Woman’ is a glorious, timely stand against sexism so ingrained we barely even notice it. It is, in the dour language she militates so brilliantly against, a book that needed to be written.” Jezebel’s Katie J.M. Baker, called the book a “modern feminist manifesto.”

It’s impossible to know what mark Moran will make in the long term, but whatever the life span of its popularity, the book doesn’t fulfill the needs of modern feminists, particularly right now when rights are under attack. With as much focus on beauty and fashion as childbirth and reproductive rights, How To Be a Woman skews the focus from more important issues.

I would argue that we’re ready to acknowledge Firestone’s foresight and question the way we raise our kids and rely on the nuclear family ideal as J. Jack Halberstam has done in, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal.

Halberstam, an English professor and director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California, takes an entirely different approach to examine forms of feminism. Going beyond Moran’s reclamation, Halberstam introduces a new term—gaga feminism—that asks us to reconsider supposedly fixed principles like gender distinction, children’s sexuality, and the importance of the nuclear family, and suggests that those definitions of normal are no longer parameters.

It would be unfair to suggest that a book should speak for the masses, especially one like Moran’s that does not claim to be academic (“Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics”) and owns its categorization as memoir. But in response to the immense amount of attention the book has been paid, I would argue that we are wise to focus on something that challenges normal rather than a book that operates fully within it.