Shulamith Firestone and the Private Life of Power

Firestone did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism.

In The Reactionary Mind, I wrote:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great blast — the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington — is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power: “Here is the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments — not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else — can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.

Feminism — and the backlash against it — is the paradigm case of the battle over the private life of power. As historians have shown, the attack on Women’s Lib gave the modern conservative movement what it needed to achieve its counterrevolution in 1980. But to understand why that was the case, we have to recall just how radical feminism truly was: it sought to disrupt concrete and tangible relationships in the most private relations of power.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi has a wonderful profile of Shulamith Firestone, who died last August. Firestone was a pioneering radical feminist whose book  did for feminism what Camus did for existentialism: it gave it a language and a shape, a fixture and a feel. But Firestone was not just the master of suspicion; she was also the master of disruption, organizing actions that confronted male power exactly where it lay: not merely in the far-off halls of Congress or the Supreme Court, but also in the office, the factory floor, the kitchen, the bedroom, the left-wing meeting. Understanding that sexist domination was above all in-your-face, she responded and agitated in kind.

By then, the groups that Firestone had founded, and a host of offshoots, were making headlines with confrontational protests and street theatre. They disrupted state abortion-law hearings in Albany; occupied restaurants that wouldn’t serve “unescorted” women; conducted a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” in Arlington National Cemetery (the deceased wore curlers); released dozens of white mice to wreak havoc at a bridal fair at Madison Square Garden; held an “ogle-in” on Wall Street, to dole out some payback to leering men; and, most notorious, hurled brassieres, high heels, pots and pans, copies of Playboy, and other “instruments of female torture” into a Freedom Trash Can at the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City. When Firestone was fired from a waitressing job and her boss withheld her wages, feminists stormed the restaurant and made him pay her on the spot.

But there was perhaps no better example of the catalytic power of radical feminism, the dynamite it perpetually set off — and that set off the conservative movement, which began attracting men made uneasy and unsettled by these very personal and intimate challenges to their power — than the publication ofThe Dialectic of Sex itself. For, as Faludi shows in a wonderful vignette, there was back story to that publication in the back offices of the book’s publisher William Morrow.

Meanwhile, “Dialectic” was stoking a small revolution at the Morrow offices. The female employees began asking questions: Why were all the secretaries and publicists women? Why were the few female editors underpaid? “We started having lunchtime meetings behind closed doors,” Sara Pyle, an assistant in the publicity department at the time, told me. “We all stopped wearing our little heels and skirts.” What made the women at Morrow “go a bit nuts,” Pyle said, was the book’s unvarnished radicalism. “Firestone took Marx further and put women in the picture,” she said. “This was our oppression, all laid out.”

The wonder of the feminist movement is not that it provoked a backlash — any movement worth its salt will — but that it managed to achieve so much, and so fast, despite the counterrevolution that would soon arise to crush it. Now that’s something we can all truly lean into.