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Shulamith Firestone: the radical feminist who wanted to abolish pregnancy remains relevant

(28 Posts)
stumbledin Tue 13-Aug-19 13:39:11

Firestone believed the historical origins of women’s oppression lay in the uncontrolled pregnancies undergone by fertile women before effective contraception became widely available. The fact that most women of childbearing age would be caught up in a constant cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and nursing small children, meant that women became dependent upon men for provision of the necessities of life such as food and shelter and excluded from other social functions. This created the first class division among humans – male producers, female reproducers.

With women freed from their traditional roles in reproduction, Firestone believed that a different kind of parenting could emerge. The nuclear family, which she saw as a symbol of male power, could be abolished and replaced by a diffuse structure of parenting in which children would be raised by groups of adults, named “households”. Sharing parental responsibilities would enable women to become mothers without having to sacrifice their former occupations and identities. Children would benefit from having nurturing relationships with multiple adults, while parenting would open up to people unable to become biological parents themselves.

What makes her book worth returning to is its central recognition that the capacity to become pregnant is the ground upon which much exploitation and inequality still operate, and that addressing this will require society to think in radical ways.

The full article is here:

I copied this from a facebook thread which also has a link to a pdf version you can download of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution which some say is THE radical feminist text.

Pota2 Tue 13-Aug-19 13:57:45

I am pleased that her work is being read and made prominent as it shits on those who say it is gender identity not sex that is the source of oppression

NonnyMouse1337 Tue 13-Aug-19 14:05:53

Isn't the nuclear family a relatively recent phenomenon?

Many cultures formed around the joint family system, which still thrives in certain countries today. Women have a lot of support, especially from other female family members, in childrearing and new mothers are looked after quite well.
On the other hand, there is still a lot of oppression of women in these structures as gender roles are quite rigid. There can also be bullying of daughters-in-law by the mothers-in-law and other women in the household.

BronzeGoddess Tue 13-Aug-19 14:09:09

Gosh, I remember writing an impassioned essay about her for A Level politics back in the 90s grin.

I’ll have to revisit...

Prawnofthepatriarchy Tue 13-Aug-19 14:10:08

I definitely perceived pregnancy and maternity as the root of female oppression. If I hadn't been in the relationship I had I would never have had children but I married a man who enabled me to continue my career and wholeheartedly supported my independence. Most men wouldn't have been so supportive.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 14:17:14

I agree that a lot of the different social roles of men and women come from reproductive realities. Personally, I think even many feminists often forget this and it is good to be reminded.

I think the rest of her conclusions are kind of shit though. I cannot and will not think of biology in itself as oppressive, of my body working as it should as oppressive. And so I will not see social arrangements made to accommodate the biological realities of maleness and femaleness as always being oppressive or sexist. Yes, sometimes they can be, it creates an opportunity for that, and we should look at those things closely and carefully and try and eliminate them. But in a sexually dimorphic species is will have to be the case that society will develop in a way to accommodate and reflect those differences, and also that our culture will reflect them.

The idea that I somehow have to suppress or manage my biology in order to be "free" is IMO a profoundly oppressive idea, and I would also say reflects a kind of internalised distain for women.

As far as this idea of "households" replacing the father/mother role. I doubt it. There have been a few historical examples of societies where children are raised more by the mother's extended family, with men being more focused on the children of their sisters rather than their own children. I think that is fine if it works well, but is unlikely to make sense when families are small and men don't always have sisters.
I also think it is natural, and not to be discouraged, for men to have an interest and be affectionate to their own children as parents, and for children to be specifically attached to their fathers. I am very uncomfortable with saying we should discourage this because it makes life better for women - it's just another example of setting aside nature to accomplish some abstract goal, no different from the social constructivism view of sex, its a social constructivism view of the parent child relationship. Which is to say, it's false.

It's also been tried in the kibbutz movement, and there was only one generation raised that way - when those children grew up, they wanted to take care of and live with their own children. I have doubts about how well such a project would even work.

Prawnofthepatriarchy Tue 13-Aug-19 14:45:08

My favourite feminist slogan when I was young was "it begins when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink". I was determined no one would expect me to take on the mantle of domestic goddess.

Doobigetta Tue 13-Aug-19 15:05:15

Purely from a selfish perspective, what’s in it for non-parents? I can see why it’s an attractive prospect for parents who would be less isolated, be able to share the load of childcare etc. But it would seem to pan out in one of two ways for non-parents: they either have to take on childcare responsibilities in a “household”, which would seem to have all the drawbacks of parenthood without the actual benefit of having children. Or they aren’t part of a household, which would leave them isolated.
Is Firestone assuming that the only childless people in this world would be those who can’t have kids? And that they’d be grateful for the helping-out bone the system throws them? Because that’s quite a big assumption.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 16:23:22


I think the advantage for the childless would be someone to take care of them when they are sick or elderly. One way or another we all become dependent on the younger generation, unless we die young.

Along those same lines, in that sort of society I would think there would be significant social pressure for those people to participate in contributing to the social fabric, if they want the advantages of it for their own use.

But I think in another way you are probably right. Fathers and mothers have a particular interest in their own kids, as do extended families, uncles. We know that unrelated caretakers of kids are more likely to be abusive or take advantage of them.

Doobigetta Tue 13-Aug-19 16:48:58

There’s an implication there that the only way that a person can contribute to the “social fabric” is by raising children. I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s quite offensive.

Pota2 Tue 13-Aug-19 17:03:08

Well, a modified version could be achieved by having affordable and high quality state provided childcare like they do in the Nordic countries. There it is very rare for women to give up their careers when having kids, as it is here. There is also a cap on how much childcare costs with families not expected to pay more than about 5% of their income toward it. Compare to the UK where some women pay their entire salary in nursery costs and it’s just accepted as the way things are. Also, in those countries, if women would prefer to stay at home and do the child rearing themselves, they will get a special benefit from the state for doing it. Relatively few women want to do this though and most tend to want to carry on working.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 17:06:43

There’s an implication there that the only way that a person can contribute to the “social fabric” is by raising children. I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s quite offensive

We all do now in most western societies, we just don't do it directly. But your taxes go towards all kinds of things that are about raising the ext generation, schools, various sorts of child benefits, etc.

In different kinds of societies this happens in different ways, and in less bureaucratic ones it is often more direct rather than mediated through the state. It's also often the case in those societies that if you don't have your own children you don't have a social security net at all, so becoming a parent is almost a survival requirement.

If you don't want kids the ability to have security by helping raise those of other people rather than sounds like something of a freedom to me. None of us are really independent so hoping for that is just never going to happen.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 17:07:51

There it is very rare for women to give up their careers when having kids, as it is here.

Indeed. Even if they want to, it's not really affordable.

Pota2 Tue 13-Aug-19 17:13:12

Goosefoot the social security provision there is much better than here so it’s surely no less affordable for Nordic women to give up work than it is here? The point is that they are given a choice because they don’t bear full responsibility for child care.

NonnyMouse1337 Tue 13-Aug-19 17:14:38

High quality state provided childcare should be the goal, as well as payments to those who decide that they would rather do the childrearing themselves.
It allows those who wish to have children to be able to afford the cost of care involved whichever method they decide to go for.

Saucy99 Tue 13-Aug-19 17:39:37

Unfortunately the UK doesn't have a trillion dollar oil wealth fund like Noway and a traditionally 'conservative' leaning country simply wouldnt vote in a party with tax policies akin to the Scandinavians.

Doobigetta Tue 13-Aug-19 17:42:11

If you don't want kids the ability to have security by helping raise those of other people rather than sounds like something of a freedom to me.

It sounds like enforced babysitting to me! Funny concept of freedom grin

stumbledin Tue 13-Aug-19 17:49:41


There’s an implication there that the only way that a person can contribute to the “social fabric” is by raising children. I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s quite offensive.

I cant imagine where you got that idea from Shulamith Firestone was totally opposed to the notion that raising children should (1) be women's work and (2) be a milestone we should all want.

If the selected paragraphs from the article made you think that, then it isn't right.

And if you read the Dialectic of Sex you will see that she thinks being pregnant should not be imposed on women because of their biology and that a technical (ie articifical womb) should be used to produce children.

The alternative "family" structure was as much about freeing women / parents as sole carers of children, and that for those who dont have children but want to be part of raising a child should have the opportunity to do so.

But ultimately she was writing about destroying the myth of women being naturally maternal and / or wanting to fufil their "biological function". ie that adults should live lifes that aren't centred round childen, and that definitely the concept of a couple being a desirable life style should be seen as being oppressive. Particularly for women.

NonnyMouse1337 Tue 13-Aug-19 18:19:52

I would highly recommend people read up on Modern Monetary Theory to understand how money actually functions in an economy and that governments with their own currency (like the UK) do not need tax to be collected first to be able to 'afford' social policies for the public good. That's not how any of our public services are funded on a national level.
Taxation has many uses though and one of them is to remove some of the money that was spent in circulation to avoid inflation.
Money that hasn't been taxed out of circulation is what keeps the economy going and also forms the basis of people's savings.

High quality state funded childcare is neither unfeasible nor unaffordable, if there is the political will. The same applies to various other social and welfare issues. We are constrained by things material resources etc, just not money.

Doobigetta Tue 13-Aug-19 18:34:40

stumbledin, the inference was from the interpretation by other posters on this thread, rather than from Firestone herself.

NonnyMouse1337 Tue 13-Aug-19 18:47:32

But ultimately she was writing about destroying the myth of women being naturally maternal and / or wanting to fufil their "biological function"

The problem with that idea is that it assumes human beings are not part of the animal kingdom and that as a species they are completely independent of their evolutionary origins.

Life has evolved on this planet through a strong drive to reproduce and this influences a lot of human nature. Many women and men have a strong desire to pair bond, have children and raise a family. I don't understand it since I have never had that maternal instinct, but it is quite obvious that it exists and that many women find great joy and satisfaction in raising their children.

There are of course a lot of unhealthy and undesirable social and cultural expectations superimposed on this biological desire - such as if women in general enjoy motherhood, it means it is something that every single woman should aspire to, and if she doesn't it means she has failed at womanhood etc.

In my opinion, the goal of any society should be to help facilitate, within reason, people's dreams and ambitions. There are many paths to people's fulfilment and satisfaction. And a happier and fulfilled population is a healthier and more peaceful one.

Some women have no desire to have children. Some women do. Some are career driven and then happy to give up working once they have children. Others discover their career ambitions once the children are older. Some enjoy working part-time, others full-time.
I would like to see all these women supported and protected by good social policies that are designed to reduce or eliminate the inequalities that can arise from the different decisions they make.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 18:56:26

the social security provision there is much better than here so it’s surely no less affordable for Nordic women to give up work than it is here? The point is that they are given a choice because they don’t bear full responsibility for child care.

Well it isn't particularly affordable in any capitalist economy.

But once you have a system where there is very cheap or free childcare, it becomes a significant economic sacrifice to not use it, giving up a whole second income. And when it becomes normative to have two income families that in turn affects the affordability of housing and services, as well as people's social expectations of spending.

It ends up with the capitalisation of another sphere of life, which I have a hard time seeing as a positive.

Goosefoot Tue 13-Aug-19 19:05:55

It sounds like enforced babysitting to me! Funny concept of freedom

Yes, some people also think that paying taxes to support other people's children is an impingement on their freedom. People who choose children should pay for all of their needs, in their view.

I generally point out to them that if our social system didn't redistribute some of their productivity towards those families with kids, they really have no right to benefit from the social contributions those kids will one day make toward their own well-being, be it paying into social infrastructure, actually maintaining the necessities of life like roads or banks, or actually caring for the elderly in hospitals or nursing homes. It's only because we've socialised the risks of having no children that so many people can easily make the choice not to have any.

The problem with the socialised model though is that while it involves some monetary distribution, it doesn't really do much about the kind of social network or community that is really necessary to raise children. I think there is a strong argument that individuals do have a social obligation to assist with that as well, and that sounds in part like what this household idea is trying to accomplish.

People who really want to be without social obligation, like enforced tax paying, or enforced babysitting, etc, can manage that by living alone in the wilderness. That's what the individualistic concepts of freedom gets us. The rest of us are highly dependent on others whether we like it or not.

Doobigetta Tue 13-Aug-19 20:07:33

Oh, are you one of those people who thinks it’s selfish to choose not to have children?

Goosefoot Wed 14-Aug-19 02:26:44

Not sure how you got there. What is selfish is to reap benefits without contributing to the work in some way.

It's not an opinion that in many places without a social security system of some kind, people have children because if they don't, they will have no one to care for them or help them. Your family is what you have, and choosing to have no children has serious consequences in those circumstances.

It's the nature of human society that we aren't independent. As we age, or if we get ill, we all need the help of others. We need other people to maintain the basics of society as well. That means as we get old, we need younger people.

The reason that wealthier countries with more social infrastructure have lower birthrates is because the problem doesn't exist in the same way. People pay into social security and other forms of infrastructure, even pensions, and can draw on those resources as they need them. Particularly, as they age, younger people take over those tax payments and also do the work of directly maintaining society and actually caring for the elderly. Even those with no children.

But here is where there is a hitch, because if we consider that children are the private responsibility of parents, in terms of costs and the actual work of caring for them, it means the parents are taking on all the costs, risks, and work related to child-rearing. But the benefits of that investment are going to all kinds of people who have invested nothing.

That would clearly be unfair, which is why we redistribute social funds toward the needs of children in various ways. What often isn't really managed though through our social infrastructure is help with the hands on element - child rearing was never really meant to be done by just the parents, it doesn't work well. It's an activity that requires direct social supports of some kind, for example through an extended family.

As far as I can see this idea of non-related households is taking the idea that all adults have a social obligation toward the next generation and imagining what it would look like if instead of redistributing it through a hands off state run program, it was integrated into the family structure. Which is quite an interesting idea, it would be a much more integrated approach where people understood their interdependence, which can easily be hidden when it's all just the state redistributing your taxes.

I don't think it would supplant the biological family though, I just don't think that's likely or particularly desirable. But there are a lot of other reasons to think the nuclear family may be on its way out.

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