When my wife and I got married she owned a copy of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, not to mention several other feminist works of the time, which in retrospect should perhaps have worried me a little. But in the early '70s most college girls with any sort of intellectual inclination read things like that, and at any rate any case the worry would have proved unfounded. The book is gone now, dumped in one of our periodic purges of books that we're pretty sure we never want to read again, or perhaps have accepted we will, after all, never read.
I did leaf through it once, though, and found at the end a truly bizarre vision of the future. It included a list of the stages through which humanity must pass on the way to perfect freedom and equality. As I recall, the elimination of legal and social gender differences was only the beginning; it progressed (if that's the word) through elimination of the family and all consciousness of family relationships, ending with a sort of techno-feminist-communist society in which babies are produced in artificial wombs and childbearing itself, as the foundation of all the oppression to which women have been subject throughout the ages, no longer exists.
Here's a passage quoted on her Wikipedia page which seems to be the summation of the vision:
So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility - the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud's 'polymorphous perversity' - would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.
I remember thinking "This person is completely deranged." And I think any reasonable person would agree. But there are probably a considerable number who would say, as they often say of communism, that it's a good idea although it would be hard to put into practice.
"What do conservatives want to conserve?" is a perennial question, and a good one. Not asked as often, at least in my experience, is its counterpart: to what goal are progressives progressing? I wonder how many would see Firestone's vision as a desirable utopia. Not so very many, I would guess. But those who would are probably in academia or government or journalism, and wield an influence out of proportion to their numbers. A good many more would probably go at least halfway to Firestone's goal, and agree with her basic view of relations between the sexes. No doubt the book remains useful for stoking rage in young women.
I have been thinking about the book and the woman who wrote it because I recently ran across this retrospective in The New Yorker. She didn't do well after Dialectic. After participating in the frenzy of theorizing and agitating that was feminism in the early 1970s, she turned her back on the movement, withdrew and became isolated, suffering bouts of madness and often living in poverty. Although she came out of that for a time in the 1990s (with the assistance and friendship of a woman named Lourdes), she withdrew again, and when she died alone in her apartment last year, a week went by before anyone noticed.
Of course one who has looked at the book is not surprised, or ought not to be, to hear that her mind broke down at times: her rage was against the very nature of reality, as she herself said:
Feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature.
The very organization of nature. To rage against that is to see, in a distorted way, the fundamental human problem; to believe you can fix it is, eventually, to despair. She was to feminism as Nietzsche was to atheism: someone who was willing to see the implications all the way to the end. There is something admirable in her demand for purity, although it was a kind of purity not only impossible to attain but not even desirable to a healthy spirit.
It is obvious to anyone, if Faludi's account is correct, that a troubled family life had a lot to do with Firestone's anger and her problems (not to mention the sick atmosphere of politicized personal quarrels--or should that be personalized political quarrels?--so frequently present in the feminist movement). And to a Catholic eye it's also obvious that a very misguided religious impulse was at work. Another profile, this one at The Atlantic, ends with this observation: "in her fervor she at times resembled a martyr or a saint." She did a lot of damage, to herself and others, but God would have seen the resemblance, too.
(from a book she published in 1998, Airless Spaces)