by Barbara Fischkin, Senior Editor
It was a memorial service – and a call to action.
Shulamith Firestone, the brilliant, troubled feminist author, artist and activist who died in late August, was remembered at a sad but energized Manhattan memorial service Sunday night at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery.
“The only box Shulie ever fit in was a simple pine box,” Firestone’s sister Laya Firestone Seghi told a tearful, multi-generational gathering, speaking about her sister’s funeral on August 31. More than a hundred mourners- including many feminist leaders- attended.
Seghi spoke about the life of her sister, a woman who fought a decades-long battle with mental illness, medications and hospitalizations. Firestone’s first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” published in 1970, is still taught in universities throughout the country. It is a complicated work which speaks about the toll childbirth and child-rearing take on a woman, and calls for gestation and birth outside the womb.
Seghi said that her sister “burned with a life force that was so intense and so powerful it consumed her.”
But while Firestone’s death at 67, alone in her East Village apartment, was heartbreaking, it has also prompted many progressive women to call for continued and renewed feminist energy. National Women’s Liberation is organizing “The Shulamith Firestone Women’s Liberation Conference,” now planned for the first weekend in March 2013.
Kate Millett, another pivotal influence on second-wave feminism and the author of “Sexual Politics,” was among those who spoke about both Firestone and renewed action. “I think we should remember Shulie because we’re in the same place now just about,” Millett said, referring to setbacks for women’s rights. “We should remember her because we have lost our nerve altogether. Let’s get it back!”
In an interview later, Millett said:
“This has got to start over again. A new bunch of women will come along and they will read our texts and they will be different. They will have different ideas but it will make for a new mix.” About setbacks, she said: “Who wouldn’t lose their nerve in this society? A lot of it was the Bush years and that went deep into society, and people didn’t tell the truth.”
Many of the speakers at the service knew Firestone at different stages of her life. But a young poet who never met her, said she was deeply influenced by Firestone’s work, and touched by the memorial gathering,
“This is what I came to New York for,” she said about those gathered. Then she added, “My mother like Shulie is paranoid-schizophrenic, and brilliant. My brother is also and both of them live these desperate institutionalized lives.” She added that she she found solace and reflections of her own family’s life and her feelings about it in Firestone’s later book, “Airless Spaces,” published in 1997.
A multi-layered quilt made by Firestone served as a backdrop to the service. It is a complicated creation that could reflect the inside of a brain in constant motion. Fabric, lace and a few ropes are among the materials used. The name “Simone,” is spelled out, in homage no doubt to Simone de Beauvoir, who greatly influenced Firestone. (The evening’s program includes a photograph of a beautiful young Firestone on the beach with de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex.)
Firestone was born in Ottawa and raised in Missouri, in Kansas City and St Louis. Her father had been an American soldier; her mother- who survives, was a German refugee. They were brought up Jewish and Seghi noted how difficult it had been last week to commemorate Rosh Hashanah so soon after her sister’s death.
Seghi described Firestone as a child, providing an insight into her development that has not been reported in the mainstream press. According to Seghi, her elder sister formed “all my perceptions of the world” and “was more than my parents knew how to handle.” Her sister, she said, would ask “endless” questions about the subjects the adults only spoke about in whispers such as Nazis and concentration camps. She brought home stray dogs, unsuccessfully begging her parents to keep them. In St. Louis, she mixed with “large Irish Catholic families,” led school activities, organized carnivals and even spearheaded a student visit to what was then called “The Jewish Home for the Aging.” Upon hearing a woman moaning in Yiddish, the young Shulie, according to her sister, “wanted to interview the old woman. “Had she been in the war? What did she see? What did she remember?'”
About her sister, Seghi said: “Shulie recognized a mystery when she saw one.”