Shulamith Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex”

Shulamith Firestone is one of the most important, if not the most important, feminist philosopher of the 20th century.  Though little known to most, she is required reading in most gender studies and women’s studies courses.  Her most famous work was published when she was 25 years old: The Dialectic of Sex.  In her work she synthesizes Marx, Freud, and Beauvoir into a new revolutionary feminism which may sound familiar to us today.

Shulie, as she is fondly remembered by those who are endeared to her, argued that the oppression of women is not merely a socio-economic and political one. She argued that the oppression of women is deeply biological.  Since man is an erotic animal, and woman the childbearing and child birthing counterpart, greater pressure and control is placed on woman because she is the key to reproduction.  Sure, man must first have sex with a woman, but women possess the egg that is to be fertilized, women bear the fertilized egg within them as they mature to birth, women must give birth to the child, and then women must nurture the child.  Women, materially and biologically, are “oppressed” in the sense that they lack the freedom that man has because man simply needs to ejaculate and that’s the end of it.  The rest of the burdens of sex fall upon women.

Furthermore, her analysis of courtship and marriage reinforces this theme of women oppression.  The courtship of women, though some defenders see it as “romantic,” is really about control.  A man courts a woman with the intention of making her his. Man seeks to control the woman.  And since humans are nothing more than bodies, that means man seeks to control the woman’s body.  The woman’s body is simply a tool to please man’s erotic desires.  Marriage is the consummation of bodily ownership.  Women are not free to please their bodies as they so choose but are subjugated and tied to a single man who controls the act of sexual pleasure itself.  For it is man who determines when to have sex and not the woman.

The establishment of the sexual binary is, for Shulie, the first and truest form of hierarchal and patriarchal domination.  She criticizes “bourgeois feminists” who seek to be recognized as equals to men and to perform the same jobs as men and have the same pay as men.  These bourgeois, or liberal, feminists are not real feminists.  They remain tools of the capitalist-class.  These bourgeois feminists do not understand the real essence of feminist struggle.  To this end Shulie relies on Simone de Beauvoir and her Marxist-brand of feminism.  (I will cover some of Beauvoir’s feminist thoughts in the future.)

For Shulie, and she follows Beauvoir in this thinking, “love,” “marriage,” “family,” “courtship,” and “dating” are all social constructions that men created to give themselves meaning in life.  The culture of love, of romance, of courtship, of marriage, all work to fulfill man while oppressing women.  Women who submit to these constructs destroy themselves.  (She follows the footsteps of her hero Beauvoir here.)

True feminism, then, is about the elimination of the sex distinction Shulie argues.  For if the binary distinction between man and woman exists, woman will always remain oppressed.  Furthermore, the constructs of marriage, romance-courtship, and woman’s inability to control the function of reproduction, must also be eliminated for women to be truly free and equal with her counterpart – which is to say that there cannot be “man” and “woman,” there is only a uniform sex for oneness is the only guarantee of equality because ‘we are all the same’ rather than different.

Shulie’s main argument is an inversion of Marx’s political-economic argument.  In Marx the capitalists oppress the proletariat through controlling the means of economic production.  But over time the proletariat will grow in their consciousness to learn of their oppression and learn that they, not the capitalist class, truly control the means of production because labor is the source of all value (because the proletariat are the ones who labor, work the machines, make the goods, etc.)  Shulie rereads Marx in the context of the hierarchy of sexual dominance rather than economic domination.

For Shulie, men are like the capitalists who oppress the women who are like the proletariat.  In controlling women men control the means of sexual reproduction.  Control of the means of sexual reproduction include male-headed filialism, male-oriented courtship, and that those who inaugurate sex are men.  (Recall that in the 1960s and 1970s it would have seen as obscene and taboo if a woman advanced on a man first.)  However, like the proletariat, Shulie argues that women really control the means of sexual reproduction.  Why?  Because they’re the ones who actually bear and borne children.  This is what Shulie conceives of as “the sexualized division of labor.”  Men, like capitalists, through power and fear, “control” production by keeping women, like the proletariat, submissive to them.  Women, like the proletariat, are the ones who really do all the work in the nine-month continuity that is a sexual encounter.  Man simply understands the art of sex as instantaneous and in the moment.  Women know better, the act of sex and the sexual drama is a nine-month process from the encounter of sex to the birth of the child – moreover, it is technically longer than nine-months because women are then tasked with raising the child.

In order for woman to be truly liberated, woman must seize control of the means of sexual reproduction.  This is entails regaining control of their bodies, first and foremost.  The next step is that they control the encounter of sex.  Instead of “submitting” to men when they seek to dispense of their sexual desire, women invert the patriarchy wherein they control sex and determine when – if ever – sex is allowable.  The next step is that women control the direct process of reproduction.  This is, of course, through the right to abortion.  Shulie envisioned a time when technology would become an ally to the feminist cause and aid women in their seizing control of sexual reproduction.  And, of course, like the proletariat, women technically control the means of sexual reproduction.  They just need their consciousness raised to the point of female recognition of this potency and power that they have.

In confront social constructions that oppress women consciousness, Shulie argues that the nuclear family must be dissolved because the nuclear family is the most powerful social structure that reinforces sexual division of labor.  “The biological family unit,” she writes, “[is] for [the] reproduction of species.”  And the burden of reproduction falls solely on the shoulders of women.  As long as the nuclear family remains in society, or at least remains a healthy part of society, it will suppress women consciousness by having women adopt the conventions of the family: Child bearing and child rearing, cleaner, cooker, maker, etc., “owned” by the husband, and so forth.

Furthermore, Shulie discusses “male privilege.”  Men have privilege because they are in the position of sexual power and control.  Men have privilege because they do not need to bear children and raise them.  Men are free to do as they please.  The burden of the continuity of the human species rests entirely on women, thus subjugating her to male dominance and power.  It has been male privilege to see themselves as the superior of the two biological sexes.  Since men and women were not created equal, this dualism implies someone is superior.  Man took that position for himself.  This is why family, marriage, courtship, and dating are all to the advantage of men and not women.  They placed themselves in control of their own creations to “rob” women of their sexual reproduction power.

Following Rousseau, who loathed science, Shulie argued that the elimination of biological science from the consciousness of people would be necessary for women to be liberated and truly free.  Why?  Biology is used to justify patriarchy and the sexual division of labor.  Because chromosome composition is XY and XX, the defense of this oppressive binary will draw upon biological science to defend itself.  Because biological science informs society that women have reproductive eggs and men do not, when the patriarchy is threatened the system will fall back upon biological science to defend sexual binaries.  As she states, “Unlike economic class, sex class sprang directly from biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equal.”

Shulie takes the issue of sexual inequality to its most pristine conclusion.  She at first acknowledges that women and men are, in fact, different biologically and naturally.  But this is not a desirable position for women to be in.  Equality is not the biological or natural state of being.  Rather, women must make themselves equal.  This is the struggle at hand.  The class struggle for women is not a struggle for political or economic inclusion.  It is the struggle for the eradication of the sex-class hierarchy.  Since the sexual division of labor and biological nature of women is the cause of woman’s oppression, woman must control the sexual division of labor and their biological nature in order to be truly free and equal.  Only by controlling the sexual division of labor can women exert their power over and against their oppressors – men.  The sex-class oppression is because of reproductive functions.  If women fail to control reproductive functions they will always be the oppressed sex-class.

This is why Shulie argues against bourgeois feminists who are trapped in the socio-economic and political reading of feminism and not the nature-biological reading of feminism, which is where her true oppression lies.  The true class system that feminism needs to overcome is not the material haves and have nots.  The true class system that needs to be overcome is the biological class system.

Shulie’s equality and freedom and women is the androgynous human.  But the only way to make this possible is if women truly do control sexual reproduction, which, when it comes down to it, is control over “making babies.”  The heart of the Marxist revolution was the elimination of the economic-class distinction.  Therefore, the feminist revolution has to achieve the elimination of the biological-sex distinction itself.  As Shulie concluded in her final chapter, “In the case of feminism the problem is a moral one: the biological family unit has always oppressed women and children, but now, for the first time in history, technology has created real preconditions for overthrowing these oppressive ‘natural’ conditions, along with their cultural reinforcements.  In the case of the new ecology, we find that independent of any moral stance, for pragmatic – survival – reasons alone, it has become necessary to free humanity from the tyranny of its biology.”  In other words, women, and their allies (and men can be allies in this struggle), must overthrow the tyranny of science itself.  “We believe in science,” has become a popular phrase among many leftwing political activists.  Shulie sees such people as the enemy because biological science, in some fashion, is the enemy.  Only by ridding humanity “from the tyranny of its biology,” can true freedom and equality for all be had.  This comes about one of two ways: Either elimination of the biological distinctions and their meaningfulness in culture, or by transforming human biology altogether.

To this end Shulie reads a certain evolutionary story in humanity’s “progress” to equality.  For humans began their existence as brute animals who were oppressed by nature.  Humans had to struggle against nature to win their freedom.  The full control, and domination, of nature marked humanity’s greatest evolutionary achievement.  This control of nature is what allowed animals to become free.  The control of nature, e.g. biological nature, is the final step “to a major evolutionary jump” as she says.  That major evolutionary jump is the woman’s ability to control her nature.  This achievement, Shulie tells us, would be seen as such, “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” She continued, “A reversion to unobstructed pansexuality would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.”  This is the true revolution that authentic feminism aims; not increased labor participation, female CEOs, and “equal pay.”

 

This essay was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 24 March 2018.

2 thoughts on “Shulamith Firestone’s “Dialectic of Sex”

  1. Interesting and I agree with her mostly. But I’m not sure that all branches of biology and science were oppressive to women. However, I wonder if all women want the liberation she is pointing at.. anyway great post!

    Like

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