Women’s History Month – Reading The Dialectic Of Sex

quote-power-however-it-has-evolved-whatever-its-origins-will-not-be-given-up-without-a-struggle-shulamith-firestone-73-19-42So this post will be a bit different from the others in that it is not about the law. But I thought since today is the beginning of the arbitrary “Women’s History Month,” I might as well use the occasion to give y’all a glimpse into a project I’m working on. That project is Reading The Dialectic Of Sex, a comprehensive companion book to Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Firestone is one of the great feminist theorist, and particularly her contribution to feminism is valuable to those of us who are Marxists because it employs historical materialism rather than liberalism, post-structuralism, etc. So see below for a draft of the first chapter, and I would love to hear any feedback:


Firestone opens her book with a profound statement: “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.” In one sentence, Firestone tears at the liberal formal equality that plagues the non-radical feminist movement: that the oppression of women is “a superficial inequality, one that can be solved by merely a few reforms.” But Firestone also goes after the classic Marxist idea of feminism, that women’s position will be equalized when there is “full integration…into the labor force.” She also takes this opening paragraph to introduce her dialectic of sex: that patriarchy is a “biological condition,” and as such overthrowing it is so profound a change as to be “more all-embracing than revolution [sic].” This task requires feminists “to question, not just all of Western [sic] culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature.”

It is also here where a lot of modern feminists, across the political spectrum, will already be averse to Firestone. Such a reaction, at least initially before Firestone goes into depth, is warranted. Starting with Anténor Firmin and then exploding into academic prominence with Stephen Jay Gould (eleven years after The Dialectic of Sex), much of Leftist anthropology over the past few decades has been dedicated to tearing down the ideology of biological determinism. Biological determinism is the belief that a person’s physiology can be used to determine their actions, life, personality, or society. It is most infamously present in the eugenics movement but can even be found in progressive movements, such as transgender activists who argue a “female brain” theory of why transgenderism exists (as well as their critics, who argue that chromosomes alone should determine gender). Biological determinism has been rightly pushed out of most Leftist analysis.

But, as my former college professor Michael Blakey once said to me, rejecting biological determinism does not mean rejecting biology or the influence it has upon people individually and socially. Shulamith Firestone was not a biological determinist – rather, she understood the biological component to patriarchy and wished to overthrow it through a combination of consciousness, solidarity, and technology. She does not dismiss that there are other components, but she does believe that when approaching patriarchy from a dialectic materialist perspective that it is a fundamental component from which all others originated.

Firestone describes dialectic materialism as “s[eeing] the world as a process, a natural flux of action and reaction, of opposites yet inseparable and interpenetrating…to trace the development of economic classes to organic causes. By understanding thoroughly the mechanics of history, they hoped to show men how to master it.” But she differentiates her own approach from that of Marx and Engels, writing that “although correct in a linear sense, it does not go deep enough. There is a whole sexual substratum of the historical dialectic…[Engels] acknowledged the sexual class system only where it overlapped and illuminated his economic construct.” It is worth noting that Engels’s limitations have unfortunately been perpetuated even by Marxist feminists, who often posit the development of the sex class at the invention of agriculture.

Modern anthropology and history has shown this theory to be “a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise.” But it is not merely bad history: it is also bad feminism, defining women “quite narrowly as those who give birth and nurture, who identify themselves in terms of their relationships, and who are closely allied with the body, nature, and sex…this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests.” There is nothing egalitarian about that, and to posit it as such either dismisses motherhood (pregnancy, nursing, etc.) as labor or assumes that every pregnancy was planned and voluntary, which given the material conditions of those times is laughable.

Again, Firestone is not a biological determinist. In fact, she asserts that, “[sex] difference of itself did not necessitate the development of a [sex] class system.” Instead, it is reproduction that created the sex class system. Firestone defends this claim with the following four part argument: (1) prior to birth control, women were at the mercy of their reproductive capacity; (2) human infant development takes far longer than for most animals, and they are more helpless during it; (3) the bond between mother and children is evinced throughout the historical record; and (4) therefore reproductive difference created the first division of labor. As Firestone points out, even in those supposed pre-history matriarchies, a lack of birth control still meant there was “still some dependence of the female and the infant on the male.” At this point I must admit a desire to be a fly on the wall when Firestone first disclosed this ideology to some of the moon-worshipping pagan feminist primitivists of her time. Unfortunately, despite Firestone and others rebuke, such ahistorical beliefs in pre-history matriarchy persist through organizations like Deep Green Resistance.

But it is important to understand that for Firestone the reproductive difference represents the origin of patriarchy, not its totality (as one would hope is evident from infertile women facing just as much sexism as any other). Eliminating the reproductive difference will not end patriarchy, and technology could be used to entrench it. The continuing prevalence of sterilization, from transgender women in the Ukraine to Ethiopian women in Israel, shows that Firestone was right. Instead, Firestone calls on both the seizure of the means of reproduction as well as the abolition of sex difference. That is not to say that Firestone wanted all people to have some sort of Ken doll surgery on their sex characteristics, but rather that those sex characteristics would be absolved of the sociological determinations that come with them. This abolition of sex difference is perhaps the best argument that Firestone would support the gender self-determination advocated by the modern transgender movement, further hinted by her assertion that pansexuality would supersede heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Later we will see that not all of The Dialectic of Sex is as in line with the transgender movement, both in productively challenging ways as well as prejudicial ones.

As to seizure of the means of reproduction, Firestone asserts that it would require nothing less than universal access to artificial reproduction, the abolition of sex assignation at birth, replacing motherhood with parenting by a small group, ending use of superior strength against children, and the abolition of capitalism (which Firestone’s hints at being by full automation with her parenthetical “cybernation”). But not only does Firestone include the abolition of capitalism, she emphasizes that without the other measures of sexual liberation that capitalism will never be overthrown. While limited to the abolition of patriarchy, this ideology of liberation would later be expanded by intersectional feminists like the Combahee River Collective (asserting that white supremacy would also need to be overthrown) and some of the more well-developed Marxist feminists like Maria Mies (including colonialism and the environment).

Firestone ends the chapter by giving a roadmap of how she will apply her historical materialist approach to the work of Freud to rescue its most valuable insights from “an absolute existential[ism]…[comprised of] a priori constructs.”

For the modern feminist, there are three questions which arise from this chapter that should be kept in mind throughout the rest of the book: (1) has Firestone’s analysis been vindicated by the evidence now available, (2) what portions of the analysis seem at odds with modern feminism, and (3) how can Firestone’s analysis be incorporated into modern feminist praxis. As I have already in part done, modern conditions and knowledge can be used to vindicate Firestone’s dialectical materialism. Throughout this text, I will weave these proofs into the explanation of the text itself. The second question will be addressed at the end of each chapter. And the third question will be addressed in the conclusion of this text.

How was this chapter at odds with modern feminist ideas? First, modern feminism is heavily informed by queer theory, which is a sexually-focused iteration of post-structuralism. Unlike dialectic materialism, which seeks to use the history to both explain the present conditions as well as how they can be changed, post-structuralism is philosophical navel-gazing. As previously mentioned with the admittedly easy target of Jack Halberstam, this feminist theory is particularly suited to critiques of culture. Firestone, as will be seen in later chapters, also critiques culture but does so only for the purpose of providing the means to overthrow the patriarchy they were born of. Modern queer theorists, conversely, focus not on systems but subjects and seek to find the feminism or queerness within things rather than how they are situated in patriarchy. At its best this aim can be somewhat valuable, if incomplete, when directed to those resisting the current system, such as Judith Butler’s analysis of the novel Passing by Nella Larsen. At its worst is arguing that Dude, Where’s My Car? is a queer film rather than the transphobic patriarchal odyssey that it is.

The second contention is a bit more appropriately critical of Firestone. Firestone asserts that the sex class created all of the “physically-differentiated castes.” There is simply no evidence of this other than an assumed phenomology that one physically-differentiated caste must have opened the floodgates for others. It is hypocritical to assert patriarchy’s pre-historical presence by biological empiricism but to then treat other physically-differentiated castes (like disability) as not being similarly bound. Like modern patriarchy, the modern disableism is very different than what would exist pre-history, but that does not mean that those with disabilities were not left to die and shunned. Disability has its own share of pseudo-science claiming that prehistoric people were predisposed to compassion, and that simply cannot be judged by a small sampling of burials with possible alternative meanings. She also asserts that sex class is deeper than racial class, and consequently talks little about race other than to play this odd Oppression Olympics of claiming that patriarchy and capitalism are the systems to be destroyed and ignoring white supremacy and colonialism…

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