Shulamith Firestone, who died last week at the age of 67, was the sort of woman who seems almost unimaginable to us today. She was a “political celibate,” a Marxist who applied her political theories to her intimate life on a profound level, a woman who argued, in her landmark work The Dialectic of Sex, for the implementation of “cybernetics” so as to relieve women of the burdens of pregnancy and childbearing, a woman who wanted not to end gender-based oppression but to end gender: “the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself.” And when she went, with her went part of the legacy of radically creative feminism.
Feminist writing nowadays seems mostly to stay at the level of “critique,” of protest. We have certain well-established truths — people should be able to get abortions; people should not rape or sexually harass each other; women should not have to model themselves on sexist male fantasies; ladies have complex inner lives and enjoy sex, just like men; a true feminism should be intersectional, in order to account for the experiences of all women — and we largely stick to them. They are good truths; I’m a fan of them all. They provide a very solid foundation. But, having established them, we often stay at the level of pointing out which people have recently failed to uphold them, and why they’re wrong.
Plunging into the intellectual climate of the ‘70s and ‘80s, if one is conditioned largely by contemporary feminism, is like entering an alternate reality. It feels like what would happen if your RSS feed were filmed by David Lynch. The theories were often wild, and wildly creative. Point me to a feminist working today who would propose a theory as perverse and inflammatory as Andrea Dworkin’s idea that penetrative intercourse was the model for all male domination. Or even Adrienne Rich’s theory that all women existed primarily on a “lesbian continuum” of relationship to women, and were thereafter policed into heterosexuality (or at least the appearance of heterosexuality) by men, as a means of controlling and constraining them. These weren’t critiques; they were constructions, fundamentally questioning and re-organizing the shape of culture itself.
The feminist theorists of the ‘70s and ‘80s were magpies, re-appropriating and mining psychoanalysis (Ellen Willis, Carol Gilligan, Dorothy Dinnerstein) or Marx (Firestone, Angela Davis, Kate Millett) or theology (Mary Daly) or anything else they could get their hands on, in the hopes of figuring out exactly how culture got to be so male-dominated and what they could do to fix it. They were unafraid to look crazy, destructive, out-there, or frankly just stoned out of their gourds, as in the case of feminist academics Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble, who record a feminist “click moment” wherein “Karen felt our room literally tilt, and Vicki proceeded to have a life changing vision of Goddess energy and transmission of ancient wisdom.”
The result? A hand-drawn Tarot deck of happy, multicultural naked ladies, whereby women could consult the inner Goddess wisdom of their matriarchal ancestors. Alice Walker endorsed them. I owned a set; they were extremely hard to shuffle, because feminism dictated that the cards themselves must be round. Rectangular cards were tools of the patriarchy, constraining female intuition as they did with their sharp, phallic angles. It sounds ridiculous — largely because it really, really was — but at the time, even serious scholars such as Riane Eisler and Marija Gimbutas were positing that humanity’s original structure had been matriarchal and woman-worshipping, and that this therefore represented the most authentic and ideal social arrangement.
Of course, the sins of this wave weren’t confined to phantom room-tilting. There was a deep current of bigotry; women of color, such as Rebecca Walker (who coined the term “third wave”) or bell hooks, have often written against the white-centric, middle-class ideology of the movement. The bigotry became even more open, and ugly, when it was aimed at transgender women; for people who were supposedly concerned with ensuring that “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter,” in Firestone’s words, radical feminists were unusually concerned with policing other people’s genitals. Trans women were often depicted as “men in disguise,” for some reason changing their entire gender simply so that they could infiltrate radical feminist spaces and play with the round tarot cards. Mary Daly’s transphobia was pronounced to the point of being genocidal, as was that of her disciple Janice Raymond; even a thinker as nuanced, mature, and resolutely intersectional as Adrienne Rich was apparently swept up into the current. (Raymond quotes her, and thanks her, in The Transsexual Empire.) Sex workers or BDSM enthusiasts who declined to be “saved” by the feminists who had decided their orgasms were primarily responsible for patriarchy were also subject to silencing and brutal treatment.
But the goofiness, if not the bigotry, can maybe be explained with a saying of Gertrude Stein’s: “[When] you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.” Making contemporary feminism, as the 20th-century thinkers did, required striking out into new territory, working in the dark, coming up with theories — any theories, every theory, even supremely silly or unworkable theories, like Firestone and her gender-free cybernetic baby vats — to provide a foundation for female resistance. Young feminists come in with the benefit of history, of fundamentals; we can “make it pretty,” reasonable-sounding, acceptable, nuanced, because we already know much of what we have to say.
But one wonders what we’ve lost, in the process of re-making feminism “so everybody can like it.” Reasoned, moderate critique is good, and necessary; being reactive and newsy, it sells papers (or click-based advertising). But the courage to invent, to create, to put forth our wildest ideas on how the whole woman thing works, or how it could work in the future, even at the risk of being wrong — well, if more of us adopted it, that might produce a lot of silly columns. But they might also be more interesting as a result.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.