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

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 How to Be A Woman was released in the United States, while Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of 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 The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist 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.

Where Moran focuses on women’s wedding obsession—“Weddings are our fault, ladies. And you know what? Not only have we let humanity down, but we’ve let ourselves down”—and tendency to spend massive sums of cash on the big day, Halberstam says that heterosexual marriage as we know it is on the decline, citing rising divorce rates and an increase of non-hetero and single headed households.

Like Moran, Halberstam does draw from her own experience as a trans person who embodies what she terms “female masculinity.” Mostly regarding her interactions with her partner’s two young children, and impressions of heterosexual relationships at Parent Teacher Association meetings, her theories do build from her life.

For instance, Halberstam says that kids view gender as unfixed, if given the freedom to do so. When one of her partner’s children asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Halberstam explains, “When I did not give a definitive answer, they came up with a category that worked for them—boy/girl.” The point being, rigid gender rules are prescribed, not natural, and kids growing up now will likely have an entirely new perspective than even young adults today.

On the other hand, How To Be a Woman skims the surface. As a memoir, the book is hilarious and vivid. I found myself rapt by her childhood experiences, often laughing aloud, waiting for adulthood chapters to bring on something new and more developed that never arrived.

Moran writes that everyone with a vagina is automatically a feminist: “Do you have a vagina?” she asks. “Do you want to be in charge of it?” If you said yes to both, “Congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

Here, it is clear that Moran is speaking to white, western cis women. Although a crucial population of women in a discussion of reclaiming feminism, it leaves out most of the world’s women. Moran tackles workplace sexism with a similarly simple rule of thumb.

In her chapter, “I Encounter Some Sexism!” Moran discusses sexism at work saying, “Don’t call it sexism. Call it ‘manners’ instead. When a woman blinks, shakes her head like Columbo, and says, ‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil,’ a man is apt to apologize.”

It is not helpful to rename the offense as something un-gendered. Moran agrees that sexist attitudes are commonplace in office settings, which is all the more reason to promote a direct response. Indeed, her suggestions are often inactive.

“We don’t need to riot or go on hunger strikes,” Moran says of women at large. “There’s no need to throw ourselves under a horse, or even a donkey. We just need to look [sexism] in the eye, squarely, for a minute, and then start laughing at it.”

Certainly, feminism need not outlaw humor to be effective, but laughing at such issues as work place sexism is not a solution. Further, it ignores the fact that we are in a time that demands changes be made; in 97 percent of congressional districts women earn 77 cents to a mans dollar on average, but in some parts of the country and among some racial groups, the number is much lower. Instead, it suggests that attitudinal shifts are all we need.

Moran’s conclusion is this: “To just...not really give a shit about all that stuff. To not care about all those supposed ‘problems’ of being a woman. To refuse to see them as problems at all. Yes—when I had my massive feminist awakening, the action it provoked in me was a…big shrug.”

The pages shortly before this statement focus on the expense of laser hair removal, and the waste of time that is feeling fat, hairy, and unfashionable. This statement tells us that all it takes for equality between men and women is the right attitude. That said, her own attitudes toward certain women are less than accepting.

Women who’ve had the needle, or the knife, look like they’re saying: ‘My friends are not my friends, my men are unreliable and fainthearted, my lifetime’s work counts for nothing, I am 59 and empty-handed. I’m still as defenseless as the day I was born. PLUS, now I’ve spunked all my yacht money on my arse. By any sane index I have failed at my life.”

This homogenizes women, as if all women experience the same challenges, without beginning to attend to specificity. Moran describes her opinion of strip clubs in a similarly reductive way.

Of women who claim to be paying their way through school by working as strippers she says: “One doesn’t want to be as blunt as to say, ‘Girls, get the fuck off the podium—you’re letting us all down,’ but: Girls, get the fuck off the podium—you’re letting us all down.”

In numerous prescriptive critiques of Brazilian bikini waxing, high heels and stripping we are presented with superficial shoulds. That these women should simply get off the podium oversimplifies the issue for the 60 to 80 percent, mentioned on the following page of the book, who have experienced sexual violence, and those who have no financial alternatives. Further, it overlooks the fact that some women choose to work as strippers over other options, and implies that all sex workers are suffering victims whether they know it or not.

Conversely, Moran tells the story of her own abortion explicitly and eloquently; this is where the book shines. She opted for abortion shorty after the birth of her second daughter, and does not feel traumatized by it in retrospect.

The chapter works because it suggests an alternative discourse to the one that insists a woman must reel from and reflect on her abortion for the rest her life. Here, she acknowledges that enormous power relations need to change, not just the way a woman presents herself publically.

The time spent discussing beauty and fashion elsewhere skews the focus away from much larger issues at hand. That said, Halberstam’s more radical approach is anchored in the idea that big change is already underway.

Halberstam invokes Firestone’s theories to suggest that we are already moving beyond the power relations laid out in the nuclear family despite pop culture and political discourse’s refusal to stop returning to it.

“We are living in an age of artificial reproduction,” Halberstam writes. “This is a great moment to revisit the propositions laid out by Firestone, the ideas she advanced about the dependence of gender roles upon an ossified but wrongheaded set of connections between reproduction and nature.”

Halberstam states that Gaga Feminism isn’t just about Lady Gaga; this new form uses the term gaga, or going gaga, to describe people or movements that disrupt the class and race based definitions of “normal.”

Lady Gaga plays a role in both Halberstam’s and Moran’s writing, although far more prominently in the former. Moran says that we’re still recovering from years of “sexist bullshit” and therefore have achieved less than men historically. She sees female pop stars as contributing to the relatively slim cannon of female-made art as indicators that “action is getting underway.”

Halberstam would have us believe that we are in a state of action, and that Lady Gaga’s rise to fame is just one of many indicators. She says that kids who’ve grown up seeing alternatives to the nuclear family are demanding different definitions of male and female and the roles attached to those terms.

“These feminists are not ‘becoming women’ in the sense of coming to consciousness, they are unbecoming women in every sense—they undo the category rather than rounding it out…[they] also [look] carefully at the new forms of intimacy, sociality, and politics that surround us…”

Firestone’s predictions are visible today all over the place. They stood the test of time to some extent because they were striving for something outrageous and new. How to Be a Woman is one woman’s well drawn immensely entertaining story, but it asks very little of us and does not fall in amongst the ranks of the radical.

“If we are now living in the age that Firestone predicted,” Halberstam writes, “could it be that we have in fact begun the arduous process of changing our understanding of sex roles and bringing them more in line with lived reality?”

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