by Chris Lombardi
SUSAN BROWNMILLER, author of Against of Our Will: Men, Women and Rape
Quote: “She was the first radical theorist. Her stuff on human reproduction — no one was saying it back then.”
History: In 1968 Brownmiller joined New York Radical Women organized by Firestone and others the previous fall. A few years later the group, renamed Radical Feminists, was still led by Firestone. It compiled the book Notes of the First Year, often seen as the canonical text for the women’s liberation movement. Brownmiller this week remembered Firestone as a “brilliant organizer,” although not an easy person with whom to work. The times though were contentious. She was not alone in being difficult.
During the famous women’s occupation of the Ladies Home Journal building in March 1970 Brownmiller recalls that Firestone was aghast to see other members of the group talking to the press. “Am I your leader in New York Radical Feminists?” she asked Brownmiller. “Then tell the reporters they must speak to me!” A few hours earlier Firestone had stormed the desk of the magazine’s editor John Mack. Another woman, Karla Jay contained her with a judo move. The editor then decided to negotiate with the women. A few months later, Firestone published her flagship text, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, “which changed everything,” Brownmiller said.
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS, Hoxie Professor of Labor Studies at Columbia University
Quotes: “She didn’t do what other feminists were doing, which was to just tear Marxism apart for being sexist which it was, of course.” Kessler-Harris added that instead, Firestone “took Marxism and without rejecting it, went beyond it into a new place.” Firestone’s analysis, she added, “was the first time any of us saw sex as an analytic category – now we call it ‘gender.’ In those days, women thought they were being edgy if they critiqued the advertising industry.” Kessler- Harris added: “She was the first to explain why sex and reproduction mattered, to count them as work,” she said. “In the consciousness raising groups we’d talk about the constraints of work, whether we were valued and then came Firestone.”
HISTORY: Back then Kessler-Harris called herself “a radical feminist.” She added that Dialectic, -written in what would now be considered an anachronistic sixties hipster argot and meant to be turned into action was later consumed voraciously by consciousness-raising groups. Kessler-Harris has assigned the Dialectic in history courses and women’s studies seminars for 30 years. Most recently, she added, students in the upper-level seminar “Feminist Texts II” love the book “and they read it in a way that’s entirely fresh.” After all, Firestone’s “way of thinking about the construction of gender – it was so far ahead of anything at the time, and it speaks to them. To us.”
BROWNMILLER ADDS: Susan Brownmiller agrees with Kessler-Harris that Firestone’s work was considerably ahead of its time. But she adds that the innovative nature of this work was also a liability at the time.
Those who were not reiterating Firestone’s message included the authors of the other feminist books to rock the publishing world that year: Kate Millett in her literary critique Sexual Politics, Robin Morgan in her collection Sisterhood is Powerful, and Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch, the last of which hit the stores at the same time as the Dialectic. Instead of embracing Firestone’s innovative melding of Marxism and feminism, critics swirled around the sexy Australian professor (Greer) who dared talk about “tits” on camera.
“I don’t think she ever got over” that, Brownmiller adds. “She really thought of herself as the American Simone de Beauvoir, and expected to be acclaimed as such.”