Mother of Radical Feminism’s Tragic End

Mother of Radical Feminism’s Tragic End

The following is an excerpt from the article “Death of a Revolutionary” by Susan Falludi (New Yorker, April 15, ’13)

When Shulamith Firestone’s body was found late last August, in her studio apartment…, she had been dead for some days. She was 67, and she had battled schizophrenia for decades, surviving on public assistance. There was no food in the apartment, and one theory is that Firestone starved, though no autopsy was conducted, by preference of her Orthodox Jewish family. Such a solitary demise would have been unimaginable to anyone who knew Firestone in the late 1960s, when she was at the epicenter of the radical-feminist movement, surrounded by some of the same women who, a month after her death, gathered in St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, to pay their respects…

Midway through the service, the feminist author Kate Millett, now 78, approached the dais, bearing a copy of “Airless Spaces” (1998), the only book that Firestone published after her landmark manifesto, “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution” which came out in 1970. Millett read from a chapter entitled “Emotional Paralysis,” in which Firestone wrote of herself in the 3rd person:

“She could not read. She could not write. . . . She sometimes recognized on the faces of others joy and ambition and other emotions she could recall having had once, long ago. But her life was ruined, and she had no salvage plan.”

Clearly, something terrible had happened to Firestone, but it was not her despair alone that led Millett to choose this passage. When she finished reading, she said, “I think we should remember Shulie, because we are in the same place now.” It was hard to say which moment the mourners were there to mark: the passing of Firestone or that of a whole generation of feminists who had been unable to thrive in the world they had done so much to create.

In the late nineteen-sixties, Firestone and a small cadre of her “sisters” were at the radical edge of a movement that profoundly changed American society…The radical feminists emerged alongside a more moderate women’s movement, forged by such groups as the National Organization for Women, founded in 1966 by Friedan, Aileen Hernandez, and others, and championed by such publications as Ms., founded in 1972 by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. That movement sought, as NOW’s statement of purpose put it, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society,” largely by means of equal pay and equal representation. The radical feminists, by contrast, wanted to reconceive public life and private life entirely.

Few were as radical, or as audacious, as Shulamith Firestone. Just over five feet tall, with a mane of black hair down to her waist, and piercing dark eyes behind Yoko Ono glasses, Firestone was referred to within the movement as “the firebrand” and “the fireball.” “She was aflame, incandescent,” Ann Snitow, the director of the gender-studies program at the New School and a member of the early radical cadre, told me. “It was thrilling to be in her company.”

…Most of all, Firestone is remembered for “The Dialectic of Sex,” a book that she wrote in a fervor, in a matter of months.

In some two hundred pages, “Dialectic” reinterpreted Marx, Engels, and Freud to make a case that a “sexual class system” ran deeper than any other social or economic divide. The traditional family structure, Firestone argued, was at the core of women’s oppression. “Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated,” Firestone wrote. She elaborated, with characteristic bluntness: “Pregnancy is barbaric”; childbirth is “like [excreting] a pumpkin”; and childhood is “a supervised nightmare.” She understood that such statements were unlikely to be welcomed—especially, perhaps, by other women. “This is painful,” she warned on the book’s first page, because “no matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper.”…

But going to the roots of inequality, Firestone believed, was what set radical feminism apart from the mainstream movement: “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 difference between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

In one of the book’s later chapters, Firestone floated a “sketchy” futuristic notion that she intended only “to stimulate thinking in fresh areas rather than to dictate the action.” She envisioned a world in which women might be liberated by artificial reproduction outside the womb; in which collectives took the place of families…

Millett, whose book “Sexual Politics” appeared the same year as “Dialectic,” told me, “I was taking on the obvious male chauvinists. Shulie was taking on the whole ball of wax. What she was doing was much more dangerous.”…

That intensity emerged in Firestone early, and it was a source of antagonism within her family. She was the second child and the oldest daughter of six children—three girls and three boys—born to Kate Weiss, a German Jew who had fled the Holocaust (she came from a long line of Orthodox scholars, rabbis, and cantors), and Sol Firestone, a travelling salesman from an assimilated Jewish family in Brooklyn, who served in the Army during the Second World War. In 1945, while Kate nursed the newborn Shulamith, Sol’s unit marched into the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. As a teen-ager, Sol, studying on his own, had become Orthodox…

[Within the radical feminism movement] Firestone was a catalytic force. “She already had the arguments, already had a plan,” Colette Price, an early member of the group, told me. “To us she was the American Simone de Beauvoir.”…

Hierarchy was anathema to many feminists, who saw leadership as oppressive and male, and sisterhood as a community of equals. Firestone ran afoul of this egalitarianism. She was impatient with “scut work,” her former comrades recall; she “refused to collate,” and “wouldn’t type.” The author and former Ms. editor Robin Morgan still sounds annoyed when she talks about the time that a few of the women decided to clean a meeting space, and Firestone said, “I’m an intellectual—I don’t sweep floors.”…

“The group is falling apart,” Firestone wrote to [her sister and best friend] Laya on May 26, 1970, and confessed to “a little bit of a sleepless night.” She added, “Basically, I don’t believe finally that the revolution is so imminent that it’s worth tampering with my whole psychological structure, submitting to mob rule, and so on, which is what they’re all into.” Some days later, the members of New York Radical Feminists gathered in a hall downtown for a general meeting. The West Village-1 group aired its complaints, women began shouting at one another, and then they voted overwhelmingly to abolish the structure that Firestone had crafted…Firestone…announced [her] resignation and left the hall.

Medical researchers have long puzzled over schizophrenia’s late emergence (it was first diagnosed in 1911, in Switzerland) and its prevalence in the industrial world, where the illness is degenerative and permanent. (In “primitive” societies, when it exists at all, it is typically a passing malady.) In 2005, when Jean-Paul Selten and Elizabeth Cantor-Graae, experts on the epidemiology of schizophrenia, reviewed various risk factors—foremost among them migration, racism, and urban upbringing—they found that the factors all involved chronic isolation and loneliness, a condition that they called “social defeat.” They theorized that “social support protects against the development of schizophrenia.”

The second-wave feminists had hoped to alleviate this isolation through the refuge of sisterhood. “We were like pioneers who’d left the Old Country,” Phyllis Chesler, a feminist psychologist and the author of “Women and Madness” (1972), told me. “And we had nowhere to go back to. We had only each other.” That is, until the movement’s collapse.

Last fall, as I interviewed New York’s founding radical feminists, the stories of “social defeat” mounted: painful solitude, poverty, infirmity, mental illness, and even homelessness. In a 1998 essay, “The Feminist Time Forgot,” Kate Millett lamented the lengthening list of her sisters who had “disappeared to struggle alone in makeshift oblivion or vanished into asylums and have yet to return to tell the tale,” or who fell into “despairs that could only end in death.” She noted the suicides of

Ellen Frankfort… and Elizabeth Fisher, the founder of Aphra, the first feminist literary journal. “We haven’t helped each other much,” Millett concluded. We “haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created community or safety.”

By the time “Dialectic” came out [in 1970], Firestone’s life was in severe disarray. The coup within New York Radical Feminists was “totally devastating to her,” Dell’Olio, one of the few feminists Firestone was still speaking to at the end of 1970, said. “It was like she’d been rejected by her family.”…

Sometimes Firestone hid in plain sight. Her friend Robert Roth, the editor of the literary magazine And Then, recalled her wandering the East Village in disguise—sporting odd clothes and hairdos, and calling herself Kathy. Sometimes she kept far out of sight. She took a summer fellowship at an art school in Nova Scotia, where she tried, unsuccessfully, to work on the multimedia project, and then lived, for a time, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked, unrecognized, as a typist at M.I.T.

John Duff recalled visiting her in the early seventies at her Tenth Street apartment and “this cockroach was walking across her desk. She went to crush it, and its guts smeared out in this really grotesque awful mess. And her remark? ‘That’s the story of my life.’”…

In 1977, [Shulamith’s parents] Sol and Kate Firestone announced that they were moving to Israel, and Shulamith flew to St. Louis to collect her paintings from the house. “Shulie and my father got into it again,” Laya said, and Sol threatened to cut her out of his will. Some weeks later, he received a certified letter from Shulamith, disowning him first. [Her two sisters], Laya and Tirzah, still have copies of a letter that their sister sent at the same time, to Kate. It was titled “Last Letter to My Mother”…[and concluded with the final words] “I DISSOLVE MY TIES OF BLOOD.”

Sol died, of congestive heart failure, in 1981, at the age of sixty-five. (Kate, who has Alzheimer’s, still lives in Israel.) Laya had to send friends to Shulamith’s apartment to get her to call, and, when she finally did, she was “ranting delusional stuff about how we were all part of a big conspiracy.” Tirzah told me, “It was when our father died that Shulie went into psychosis. She lost that ballast he somehow provided.”

In early 1987, Firestone’s landlord on Second Street called Laya to say that the situation had become “dire.” Neighbors were complaining that Firestone was screaming in the night and that she had left the taps running until the floorboards gave way. Laya flew to New York and found Shulamith emaciated and panhandling, carrying a bag holding a hammer and an unopened can of food. In the roman à clef, Firestone wrote that she had not eaten for a month—fearing that her food had been poisoned—and “looked like something out of Dostoevsky (which actually helped her beggar’s earnings).” The next day, Laya took the action for which, she said, “Shulie never forgave me,” and brought her to the Payne Whitney Clinic for evaluation. Her condition was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, and she was involuntarily transferred to a residential facility in White Plains. “I am in deepest despair with no movement possible in any direction,” Firestone wrote to Laya some weeks later. “Do not rest assured. Things are not O.K.” On the back of the page, she scrawled in red ink, “Are you even on my side? Are you on your own side?”…

The first hospitalization lasted nearly five months. During the next several years, Firestone was repeatedly hospitalized, at Beth Israel Medical Center…

In an anguished letter sent to the other members of the group the day after Christmas in 1989, Sarachild wrote that “none of us have been able to fulfill to our satisfaction any of our obligations as friends, neighbors, admirers and old political ‘co-conspirators,’ ” and that Firestone may now be “in greater danger of homelessness and starvation than when we began.”…

A second effort to convene a support system was more successful. Starting in the early nineties, and under the supervision of Margaret Fraser, a group of women met weekly with Firestone to help her with practical needs, from taking her anti-psychotic medications to buying groceries. The composition of the group fluctuated, but the most dedicated members were a few young women who had studied her writings, and Lourdes Cintron, a caseworker from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York…

The recovery didn’t last. By the late nineties, the support group had started to dissipate—Margaret Fraser moved, as did the psychiatrist who replaced her; Lourdes Cintron fell ill; the younger women found jobs in other cities—and soon stopped meeting altogether. Firestone again began to be hospitalized repeatedly, ultimately in the gritty public ward of Bellevue Hospital. She withdrew into her old seclusion, not answering the phone or the door, not speaking even to Laya. One spurned visitor recalled that she heard a torrent of Hebrew coming from inside the apartment. Firestone was reciting Jewish prayers. When Laya came to New York a few years ago, and her sister finally answered the phone, she begged her to at least show her face. “I said, ‘Shulie, I’m walking by your apartment. Just look out the window and I’ll wave to you.’ ” She didn’t.

On August 28th last year, after Firestone’s rent bill had sat outside her door for several days, the landlord sent the building superintendent up the fire escape to peer in her window. He made out a still figure, face down on the floor. The police were summoned…

Firestone was buried, in a traditional Orthodox funeral, in a Long Island cemetery, where her maternal grandparents are interred. Ten male relatives made up a minyan. None of her feminist comrades were invited. “At the end of the day, the old-time religion asserted itself,” Tirzah said. Ezra gave a eulogy. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as an insurance salesman, but he hadn’t spoken to Shulamith in years, and he broke down several times as he told how she, more than anyone else in the family, had tended to him as a child and taught him compassion. He recalled a story she told him when he was a boy, about a man on a train who realized that he had dropped a glove on the platform and, as the train left the station, dropped the other glove from the window, so that someone could have a pair.

Then he lamented Shulamith’s “tragic” failure to make a “good marriage” and have children “who would be devoted to her.”…

Related posts:

A Funeral Instead of a Wedding
The Unusual Clerk at the Interior Ministry
My Makeover with Rivka Malka!

6 comments

  1. How heart wrenching her life was – she who served “other gods”: “radical feminism that in the end could not give her the solace, compassion and sustained continuity of support and comraderie that she so desperately longed for. Furthermore, certainly the horrors of schizophrenia kept her isolated, suspicious and unable to accept and be nourished from those who somehow continued to care (her sister Laya)..Can we safely assume that her neshama during her life time on earth had to do some kind of tikun for some inexplicable reason.? These ruminations are best left up to the True Judge and Orchestra of all of our lives.

  2. You have to wonder about her groupies, who tried to help her in her infirmity. Did they not see her end as a product of the very philosophy they admired?
    I also think the part about schizophrenia in general is so interesting. There are many diseases that have become more widespread in modern, industrialized societies, but the prevalence of mental illness is most poignant. If only society would stop to examine itself, perhaps we could make some real change.

    • Hmm… What a thought…. So you are suggesting that mental illness could be prevented by social consciousness/personal awareness?

  3. The ultimate irony to see this post here: the woman despised our very existence and purpose! And still we have compassion for her. If only she knew it….

  4. What I found noteworthy was that the last sentence of the article. The way the author put the quotes made it seem facetious, and not with the purpose of actually quoting the speaker, like when people make the quoting motion with the fingers to signify some disingenuousness. To me, it clearly illustrated the difference in values between the Western world and the Jewish world. Whereas the Western world values feminism and independence, the Jewish world values marriage, family and building other people besides yourself. Whereas the author identifies with the Western philosophy, the eulogist is a truth-speaking Jew through and through. The sentence structure showed me the complete miscommunication and misunderstanding between worlds.

    And that be my two cents.

Leave a Reply