Ms Firestone attended Yavneh (Rabbinical college) of Telshe Yeshivah, near Cleveland, soon switching to Washington University in St. Louis and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a Fine Arts in painting. While living in Chicago, Ms Firestone joined with Jo Freeman to organize the Westside Group, a group which would evolve to become the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, often called the first women’s liberation group in the US.
In October 1967, Ms Firestone moved to New York and co-founded New York Radical Women and published three essays: “Women and the Radical Movement”, “The Jeanette Rankin Brigade: Woman Power”?, and “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A.: New View”. When NYRW dissolved due to ideological differences between liberal and radical feminist approaches to activism and theory, Ms Firestone and Ellen Willis co-founded the radical feminist group Redstockings, named after the Blue Stockings Society which was a women’s intellectual group founded by Elizabeth Montagu in mid-18th century Britain. Red was chosen as the colour of revolution and socialist upheaval. Ms Firestone left Redstockings after less than a year to co-found New York Radical Feminists with Anne Koedt, but was only involved for a year, as schisms again developed, this time between older and younger activists.
In late 1968 she edited Notes from the First Year, followed by Notes from the Second Year (1970), and Notes from the Third Year (1971). By the time The Dialectic of Sex was published in 1970, when Ms Firestone was still only 25 years old, she had largely ceased to be politically active outside of her writing. She was incensed by the sexism she and all women experienced whilst campaigning for Civil Rights and for emancipation, and would continue her activism within what became known as ‘radical feminism’.
In The Dialectic of Sex, Ms Firestone united theories expounded by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir amongst others into a radical feminist theory of politics. Ms Firestone also acknowledged the influence of Lincoln H. and Alice T. Day’s Too Many Americans (1964) and the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich. It became a classic text in second-wave feminism in the United States.
Ms Firestone argued that gender inequality originated in the patriarchal societal structures imposed upon women through their biology; the physical, social and psychological disadvantages imposed by pregnancy, childbirth, and subsequent child-rearing. She advocated the use of cybernetics to carry out human reproduction in laboratories as well as the proliferation of contraception, abortion, and state support for child-rearing; enabling them to escape their biologically determined positions in society. Firestone described pregnancy as “barbaric”, and writes that a friend of hers compared
labour to “shitting a pumpkin”.
Throughout the book Ms Firestone addressed the issue of raising children after their incubation period by imagining a communal living arrangement in which biological parents would not be solely responsible for their offspring; instead a household of eight to ten adults would raise a child. Such units could apply for a license to have a child artificially, Ms Firestone theorized, or a female member could carry the child by natural means but would not be its only parent.
Her book was also radical in urging the unrestricted free access to contraception and government-subsidized child care in order to free women and, she argued, the human race, from what she termed “the tyranny of the biological family.... For unless revolution uproots the basic social organisation, the biological family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.” Among the reproductive technologies Ms Firestone predicted in her text were sex-selection and in-vitro fertilization.
The book met with widespread criticism and reviews were largely antagonistic in the mainstream media, but The Dialectic of Sex became a part of the reading lists for many women’s studies/gender studies courses and was a bestseller.
Ms Firestone withdrew from politics in the early seventies, moved to Saint Marks Place and worked as a painter. By 1987 she began to suffer with mental illness which was later diagnosed as schizophrenia. In 1998 she published a haunting account of life, in and out of psychiatric hospitals, titled Airless Spaces, which was to be her last publication. However, because of the impact and far-reach of her book, she is considered one of the key figures in radical feminism and what became termed the second wave.
During her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago Ms Firestone was the subject of a documentary film which was never released. The film was rediscovered in the 1990s by experimental filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, who did a frame-for-frame reshoot of the original documentary. It was released in 1997 as Shulie, winning the 1998 Los Angeles Film Critics Association award, Experimental 1999 US Super 8, a Film & Video Fest-Screening Jury Citation 2000 New England Film & Video Festival and Best Experimental Film Biennial 2002.
Ms Firestone died in around July/August 2012 in New York, where she had been living a reclusive life in relative poverty. It is not known what the exact cause of her death may have been and when she was discovered on 28th August she had been dead some time.
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson