The XX Factor

The Three Tragedies of Shulamith Firestone

Where are all the renegade feminists?

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Time Warner

Shulamith Firestone’s death last year was tragic for several reasons. According to Susan Faludi’s sensitive profile of the pioneering radical feminist in this week’s New Yorker, Firestone died alone and impoverished, with no food in her apartment, after decades of struggle with schizophrenia. That’s one tragedy. Another is that she was rejected by both her biological family—very religious Jews who did not accept her—and her self-created family—the ‘70s-era New York Radical Feminist group she’d co-founded.

But the thing I found saddest about that New Yorker piece is that Firestone’s brand of truly renegade feminism was once considered mainstream and has since fallen out of fashion. Her 1970 polemic, The Dialectic of Sex, was a best-seller. In it, Firestone advocated for a total overthrow of the family structure and for babies grown in artificial wombs. She also reinterpreted Karl Marx through a feminist lens. It was a deeply intellectual—and, sometimes, thoroughly bonkers—book. Millions of women bought it, discussed it, and were changed by it. 

Contrast that with the feminist manual that’s currently No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list: The ubiquitous Lean In. Yes, I know, I know, you’re all sick of reading about it. But Sheryl Sandberg’s book is undeniably a phenomenon, and the phrase “lean in” has become part of the culture in just a few months—no small feat. Instead of encouraging women to overthrow or revolutionize or even really change any existing structures, Lean In tells young women the path to parity is buying into a conservative, corporate world.

This is not to say that I believe Firestone was always right. Faludi quotes a New York Times reviewer, who calls Dialectic both “brilliant” and “preposterous,” which sounds about right. But there’s something heartrending about the fact that what’s now called “radical” is a book advising women to play the corporate game the same way that men always have. It’s all pretty bland and boring in comparison to a book that compared childbirth to “shitting a pumpkin.”