Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left

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Shulamith Firestone. Photograph by Michael Hardy, circa 1970.

Susan Faludi’s biographical study of Shulamith Firestone in the current New Yorker is required reading for anyone interested in the history of the last third of the twentieth century. It restores to her proper place one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of modern feminism. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism, which had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work, and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.
Faludi gives a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath. Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex and when she died last year, at the age of sixty seven, she was alone, impoverished, forgotten and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic for decades. In recounting this tragic story, Faludi touches on a related topic, the split between women’s liberation and the Left, in which Firestone participated. In my view this is one of the most important, if not fully understood, stories of recent U.S. history.
As I see it, it is partly thanks to this split that there is no Left in the United States today. We do, of course, have protest movements of all sorts, but no Left in the more emphatic sense of a social and intellectual tendency capable of understanding American capitalism as a whole and critiquing it from an egalitarian point of view. Closely related to the absence of a Left in this sense is the decline of a radical tendency within feminism; just compare Firestone’s Dialectic, which came out of and partook of the New Left, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. While some today think of the New Left as a brief explosive upheaval, which burnt out by 1968, the New Left actually had its roots in a preexisting radical tradition and a small but significant minority shared the goal of creating a permanent radical presence– a Left– in the United States. The defeat of that effort, which played itself out in the 1970s, has been important to the triumph of neo-liberalism, the drastic growth in inequality, the evisceration of public life, and other obviously problematic features of today’s world. For many young people, figures like Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama, are what they know of a Left. For someone like myself, who can still remember what a Left means, this is an incredible loss.
Faludi shows how truly mad the psychological milieu in which Firestone operated was. Both Firestone and her contemporary, Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, were driven out of the women’s movement by feminists who accused them of being male-identified, “unsisterly” “leaders.” This was known as “trashing,” a term that signified cleaning the ranks. In Faludi’s words, “Like a cancer, the attacks spread from those who had reputations to those who were merely strong; from those who were active to those who merely had ideas; from those who stood out as individuals to those who failed to conform rapidly enough to the twists and turns of the changing line.” One’s first thought might be that this was not just true of the early women’s movement, but of the whole New Left, indeed of the old Left, or even of the Occupy movements today. There is truth in this, but the truth does not obviate our responsibility to understand the irrationalities that characterized all these movements, and the differences amongst them.
In understanding the persecutory culture to which Firestone was subjected, a few qualifications are important. For one thing, it is necessary to distinguish the mass feminist movement, best represented by Betty Friedan and NOW, and squarely in the liberal tradition, from the far smaller women’s liberation tendency that included Firestone, and that was originally part of the Left. It was only in the latter that “trashing” occurred, and one would like to know why. Secondly, any one who has studied the history of revolutionary movements like women’s liberation knows the profound emotions and antinomian theories stirred up by the possibilities of liberation. Finally, trashing was condemned by advocates of women’s liberation of the time, such as Anselma Dell’Olio, the founder of the New Feminist Theater, who in a 1970 address, “Divisiveness and Self-Destruction in the Women’s Movement,” warned that women’s “rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism under the ‘pro-woman’ banner,” was turning into “frighteningly vicious anti-intellectual fascism of the left.”
With these qualifications, understanding Firestone’s milieu helps establish the mentality in which advocates of women’s liberation decided to split with the New Left and pursue a stand-alone feminism. In Faludi’s account, which follows canonical texts of the period such as Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open or Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad, women left the Left because of the intransigent sexism of New Left men. Here are Firestone’s own words, published in the Guardian in 1969: “We have more important things to do than to try to get you [i.e., men] to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you. . . . The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.” In support of this view, Faludi provides many still-horrifying descriptions of Firestone and other women being shouted down at male dominated New Left events.
But is it really likely that the same women who were so irrational in their relations to figures like Firestone were rational when they thought about the men in the New Left? While there is an obvious experiential truth to the perception of men’s obtuseness, a moment’s reflection will convince the reader that it is an inadequate explanation. At root, the explanation minimizes women’s capacity to build the kind of mixed Left they wanted. It emphasizes women’s strongly negative experiences of working with men but it does not call attention to women’s powerful positive wish to be in an all-woman movement. Whatever failings the men of the New Left had, and no doubt they were many, it is far more reasonable to conclude that women left the Left because they wanted to, than because male sexism drove them out.
The costs of this split were great. As Barbara Deming, another feminist activist of the time, wrote, the split was a “tragedy.” The consciousness of the great movements of the 1960s was based on a shattering of social identity and a reaching out at the deepest possible level to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself. This was not only characteristic of the civil rights movement, whose original message was universalist and social democratic, but also of the student movements of the period. By contrast, the identity politics that fueled women’s liberation counter-posed the fight against one’s own oppression against what was perceived as the oppression of others. Anyone reading the literature of women’s liberation will find statements like that of Cathy Cade, a lesbian documentary photographer who explained, “in the black movement I had been fighting for someone else’s oppression and now there was a way that I could fight for my own freedom.” Or Mimi Feingold: “women couldn’t burn draft cards and couldn’t go to jail so all they could do was to relate through their men and that seemed to me the most really demeaning kind of thing.” Or the feminist collective that proclaimed, “the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” This is the language not only of women’s liberation but also of neo-liberal economics, born at the same time and as part of the same process.
Tragic though the split was, and important as it is to rethink it, there was a profound element to it that I want to end by affirming. Historically women had subordinated themselves to others. They had sacrificed to give the socialist movement its ethos, to build the civil rights movement in the South, and to support the draft-age men who refused to fight in Vietnam. Above all they had sacrificed to maintain the family, the institution that Firestone identified as the core of human oppression, not just of women, but of all human beings. To be sure, Firestone was wrong in her attack on what she called “the biological family.” The family is our salvation as well as a source of darkness and inequality. Nonetheless, it was right and good that the reliance of the family on women’s nurturant and “giving” qualities end, and that these qualities be shared by both genders. Women’s liberation was a way of saying that women would not be the sole givers and caretakers anymore, and that recognition will surely be indispensable to any Left that we create in the future.
Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument.