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by Chris Lombardi

SUSAN BROWNMILLER, author of Against of Our Will: Men, Women and Rape

Quote: "She was the first radical theorist. Her stuff on human reproduction -- no one was saying it back then."

History: In 1968 Brownmiller joined New York Radical Women organized by Firestone and others the previous fall. A few years later the group, renamed Radical Feminists, was still led by Firestone. It compiled the book Notes of the First Year, often seen as the canonical text for the women's liberation movement. Brownmiller this week remembered Firestone as a "brilliant organizer," although not an easy person with whom to work. The times though were contentious. She was not alone in being difficult.

During the famous women's occupation of the Ladies Home Journal building in March 1970 Brownmiller recalls that Firestone was aghast to see other members of the group talking to the press. "Am I your leader in New York Radical Feminists?" she asked Brownmiller. "Then tell the reporters they must speak to me!" A few hours earlier Firestone had stormed the desk of the magazine's editor John Mack. Another woman, Karla Jay contained her with a judo move. The editor then decided to negotiate with the women. A few months later, Firestone published her flagship text, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, "which changed everything," Brownmiller said.

ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS, Hoxie Professor of Labor Studies at Columbia University

Quotes: "She didn't do what other feminists were doing, which was to just tear Marxism apart for being sexist which it was, of course." Kessler-Harris added that instead, Firestone "took Marxism and without rejecting it, went beyond it into a new place." Firestone's analysis, she added, "was the first time any of us saw sex as an analytic category - now we call it 'gender.' In those days, women thought they were being edgy if they critiqued the advertising industry." Kessler- Harris added: "She was the first to explain why sex and reproduction mattered, to count them as work," she said. "In the consciousness raising groups we'd talk about the constraints of work, whether we were valued and then came Firestone."

HISTORY: Back then Kessler-Harris called herself "a radical feminist." She added that Dialectic, -written in what would now be considered an anachronistic sixties hipster argot and meant to be turned into action was later consumed voraciously by consciousness-raising groups. Kessler-Harris has assigned the Dialectic in history courses and women's studies seminars for 30 years. Most recently, she added, students in the upper-level seminar "Feminist Texts II" love the book "and they read it in a way that's entirely fresh." After all, Firestone's "way of thinking about the construction of gender - it was so far ahead of anything at the time, and it speaks to them. To us."


BROWNMILLER ADDS: Susan Brownmiller agrees with Kessler-Harris that Firestone's work was considerably ahead of its time. But she adds that the innovative nature of this work was also a liability at the time.

Those who were not reiterating Firestone's message included the authors of the other feminist books to rock the publishing world that year: Kate Millett in her literary critique Sexual Politics, Robin Morgan in her collection Sisterhood is Powerful, and Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch, the last of which hit the stores at the same time as the Dialectic. Instead of embracing Firestone's innovative melding of Marxism and feminism, critics swirled around the sexy Australian professor (Greer) who dared talk about "tits" on camera.

"I don't think she ever got over" that, Brownmiller adds. "She really thought of herself as the American Simone de Beauvoir, and expected to be acclaimed as such."

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See Also: Shulamith Firestone and Me by Jennifer Baumgardner in Hot Topics, On the Issues Magazine


Michael Robert Brown posted: 2012-09-15 18:22:05

This Blog was most helpful, your ideas are straight to the point, and the colors are cool too.

Matt posted: 2013-01-02 20:37:05

Imma gonna comment here inteasd of MamaFesto because I don't want an google or openID account. Sorry if this is a bit disconnected as a result.I just wanted to say that I loved your paragraph about it taking years to understand intersectionality because it speaks to my own experience. I became feminist (although I didn't know or use the term) at a very young age because the sexism (outright chauvinism) in my life became overwhelmingly apparent when my first brother was born. I was three. I'm sure it took some time for me to understand why things were not fair and I doubt I could articulate it beyond, but why does he get when we don't ? It was also a very christian fundamentalist household so there was a lot of stuff to unpack there too. I very nearly didn't become a true feminist I nearly stopped at exceptional girl/woman and not a feminist, I'm an equalist on the path, but thank goodness I kept going because I don't think I would have grokked intersectionality at all without becoming a feminist. But I didn't learn over night. Sure, I was a progressive, I had GLBT, non-neurotypical, and differently abled friends and roommates, I had friends and lovers of other races, but I still didn't get it. I thought I did but hoo boy like most white people, I was still soaking in kyriarchy and greasing its wheels. Without thinking I would accept stereotypes, laugh at inappropriate jokes, and generally be a really sucky ally because I didn't even see the problem unless it was really blatant.I don't have any children, but there are a lot of children in my life. I try to use teaching moments to talk about these sorts of things, to try to pass on some of this awareness so that their road to getting it is further along than mine, but there is only so far that I can take them as a non-parent. Kudos to everyone who is a parent and giving their kids a head-start on that path. It's a long hard road and most society is encouraging us (the privileged) to take the easy path inteasd. But it's the hard road that leads to a better world.

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