by Alyssa Pelish, Associate Editor
The sad news of Shulamith Firestone’s death in August has, it turns out, given new life to the radical feminist’s legacy.
Although academics have been teaching her groundbreaking book, The Dialectic of Sex, for years, many more readers have became aware of it since her death. Recently, about 100 mourners, including many prominent feminist activists, gathered at a memorial service to reflect on how integral Firestones’s work was to the women’s movement.
And now, some of those who gathered to remember that work are trying to pay it forward with a very specific gesture: the “Committee for the Shulamith Memorial Apartment” is petitioning Firestone’s landlord to reserve her now vacant half-railroad flat for a feminist activist who would pay below the market rate.
Four women and men leading this effort gathered Wednesday afternoon outside 355 East Tenth Street to formally present the petition to Robert Perl, president of Tower Brokerage. Fran Luck, who spearheaded the petition, said it has so far been signed by over 60 people. “It may seem like a relatively small number,” said Luck, who is a longtime executive producer of a feminist radio show on WBAI, “but we focused on quality rather than quantity, on gaining the attention of activists and figures invested in this effort.”
And this effort, in particular, aims to make it possible, the petition states, for feminists coming after [Firestone] to be able to live in this neighborhood and do feminist work here, such work usually being unpaid or poorly paid, and therefore requiring an affordable rent. The petition also points out that, had Firestone tried to rent the apartment today, she would not have been able to afford it. The average monthly rent for new renters in the Lower East Side and East Village neighborhood is $2,100, a rate that, the committee points out, has diminished the creative, activist character of the neighborhood.
But Perl said, in a telephone interview with On the Issues, that he has already done his share by allowing Firestone to remain in her apartment at the vastly below-market price of $400 a month. Perl, who has owned the property for 19 of the 30 years that Firestone lived there, said that he has received an outpouring of thanks from family and others connected to Firestone for maintaining the low rent and services when he could, in fact, have filed an eviction action for the kind of nuisance created by a person who was obviously very disturbed. “Firestone, who died at age 67, had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in the late.”
The memorial committee, however, states its goal in terms of a legacy beyond Firestone herself. “We would consider and carefully select an activist or scholar who is making an important contribution to the feminist movement yet is not well remunerated,” said Luck. “We see this “feminist in residence” as an heir to Shulamith Firestone, whose work we want to continue.”
Committee member Pete Dolack insisted that a below-market rent is “more than feasible” for the landlord, whom they say can make the necessary repairs to the apartment without having to charge the rates that “have risen astronomically, many times over the rate of inflation.” Perl, though, cited dramatic increases in city taxes that necessitate the increase in rent.
He added, though, that he plans to rent the apartment to a relative at below-market price.
“I think it’s a noble cause,” he said of the committee, and “I appreciate their making the effort.” Nevertheless, Perl said that this specific cause is not one he’ll take up. He was out of his office when two of the committee members ventured into Tower with the petition, but when On The Issues asked him whether he would consider it, he was firm in his decision. He stressed that he does believe people have a responsibility to contribute to their community, pointing out his own contributions to a neighborhood arts collective. “But I’m not in a position to do that, in this case,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Committee for the Shulamith Firestone Memorial Apartment says they will not give up their cause so easily. The members said that, while they themselves do not have the financial resources to fund a memorial apartment, they will continue to look for a way to do this.
Alyssa Pelish is the new associate editor at On the Issues.