logoMandy Merck replies to Eli Zaretsky’s article for HWO

I first read Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex in the early 1970s, as an American activist in the British women’s movement. Forty years later, Stella Sandford and I edited Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex, a reconsideration of Firestone’s relevance for contemporary feminism written by US, UK and Finnish women. With this background my perspective on both Firestone and the ‘split between feminists and the left’ differs significantly from that of Eli Zaretsky.

British second wave feminism was not created from a split within the left. Although some of its activists had withdrawn from male dominated revolutionary groups such as the International Socialists, others remained in or chose to join organizations that responded more positively to feminist demands, ranging from the Trotskyist International Marxist Group to the Communist and Labour Party. Yet, as in the US, autonomous organization was seen as fundamental to the creation of a feminist agenda, by enabling women to exchange confidences, socialize together, discuss political texts and theories, participate more fully in meetings and conferences and carry out activities unhindered by male opposition or their own deference to men. A small faction of separatists argued that any participation in mixed groups would be doomed by these factors and opposed co-operation with trade unions, broader campaigns and political parties, but the majority of activists disagreed. Seventies UK feminism divided into three sub-sections – the separatist minority; women’s rights campaigners with suffragist roots such as the Fawcett Society and professional organizations like Women in Publishing; and a substantial group of socialist feminists. There was some overlap between the second and third groups, but very little between them and the separatists. And contrary to the stereotype, lesbians were found in all three.

Although these political differences were strongly felt and sometimes fiercely expressed, feminists of every perspective would often collaborate on issues like the defense of legal abortion, and in December 1982 30,000 women circled the base at Greenham Common to oppose the deployment of US cruise missiles. Second wave feminism was – correctly – perceived by the British media as a left initiative and often attacked as such. Unlike today, there was no Conservative Party equivalent of the US feminist I met in the ‘70s who cheerfully identified as a card-carrying Republican. UK feminism arguably strengthened the left, enlarging its appeal to women and its membership, notably in the trade unions. Here another key campaign should be mentioned, the defense of immigrant women at the Grunwick photo processing plant in North London who sought union support after being sacked for protesting their working conditions and pay. In 1977 mass pickets of the plant brought together trade unionists (including large contingents of miners), members of revolutionary and centre left parties, anti-racist campaigners and many feminists. I picketed with Lesbian Left, a small group who met to support (and celebrate) our sexuality while engaging in campaigns to oppose racism, the then ascendant National front and, during one of its periodic Jubilees, the British monarchy.

Although Terry Eagleton has claimed otherwise, second wave feminism didn’t split the British left, and I would question assumptions about its divisive influence elsewhere. Organising around a specific category of oppression need not, and has not always, resulted in indifference to other forms of domination and their irrelevance. US feminists’ enthusiasm for Lean In may express the American enthusiasm for capitalism more generally. The book has not been positively received by British feminists. And in regard to anti-capitalism, Eli Zaretsky’s grounding of his argument in the biography (but not the ideas) of Shulamith Firestone seems particularly anomalous.

Although Firestone described her ideas as ‘dangerously utopian,’ she was a convinced socialist. The Dialectic of Sex opens with Engels’ argument in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that the first division of labour is that constituted by reproductive differences between the sexes. Endorsing the Communist admonition to seize the means of production, Firestone argues that women must also take control of reproduction, from their own fertility to the social institutions of childbearing and rearing that enforce both mothers’ and children’s dependence. In one possible future, a combination of industrial and reproductive technologies could abolish not only the class system but what she calls ‘the sexual distinction’: ‘genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally’. Although created by what she terms a feminist revolution, this future is neither anti-male nor bourgeois. Like the dictatorship of the proletariat, victorious feminism would yield to communal equality, indeed to love.

Firestone’s call to gestate children outside the uterus and replace the mother-child bond with affinity groups of non-biological parents has often provoked accusations of madness. Susan Faludi’s New Yorker article is a grand variation on this theme, effectively claiming that second wave feminism drove its exponents crazy. Firestone herself wittily complained that its anti-leadership line (more honoured in the breach than in the observance in the US) put its members in the ‘peculiar position of having to eradicate, at the same time, not only their submissive natures, but their dominant natures as well, thus burning the candle at both ends’. I suspect that the ‘trashing’ of prominent New York feminists reflected professional envy of already established journalists like Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Ellen Willis more than some principled feminist ressentiment. Many of these women nevertheless continued both their political and their professional lives, while Firestone’s was blighted by illness and institutionalization. Claiming that her personal tragedy is the consequence of either her theoretical views or feminism more generally is allegory, not historical analysis.

Alice Echols’ response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here

Tanya Serisier’s response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left | History Workshop

  2. Pingback: Tanya Serisier Replies to Eli Zaretsky | History Workshop

  3. Pingback: ‘A Party Without Men’: Shulamith Firestone, Women’s Liberation and the New Left | History Workshop

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