Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970)

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012) was a writer and artist, part of what has been called the radical feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In this excerpt the starting point of Firestone’s argument is nature, or rather the natural inequality between men and women: women take on the burden of child bearing and rearing for both men and women. From this inequality come the ills – psychological, social, and political – that plague human life. The state of nature, so to speak, is unjust because unequal and thus something that women (and men) must free themselves from. Achieving liberty, equality, and justice requires abandoning nature. Firestone, therefore, turned to history or the historical method that Stephen spoke of. Liberty, equality and justice will come in time because historical developments, especially technological ones, will bring about a revolution that Firestone thought would establish what she called cybernetic communism. The revolution – the realization of true equality, liberty and justice – will mean an end to the family and gender roles, which means an end to the oppressive condition known as childhood, since these all derive from the original inequality forced on women by nature. It will also simultaneously be a true sexual revolution, since sexual restraint also derives from the original inequality. Sexual freedom, Firestone tells us, will result in polymorphous sexuality, and will include sexual relations with children.[1]

Firestone’s logic is impeccable and pursued fearlessly, whatever one may think of her premises or her conclusions. Yet, a fundamental issue remains open. If equality, liberty and justice are not natural, how does Firestone know that these are what humans should be striving for, especially as she presents them? What sanctions these objectives? How would Firestone prove that they were anything more than just her own preferences? It seems she would have to respond that she was arguing not for her preferences but for history’s. Cybernetic communism is the end, the purpose, toward which history is moving. This response would assume that Firestone understood history, that history was the kind of thing that could be known and its course predicted, that it was rational in some sense. If not – and Firestone never showed that history was rational, nor do we have any reason to think it is – then Firestone’s understanding of equality, her insistence that it be achieved, remains arbitrary, a mere expression of her personal preferences. No basis exists for preferring equality as Firestone understood it to inequality, no reason to prefer history to nature. After all, there was a time, only a few decades before Firestone wrote, when progressives argued that the races were not equal and that within races some individuals were inferior to others and should be sterilized.[2] How do progressives know that such a time will not come again? And when it does, how will they argue against it?

In so far as Firestone’s thinking is progressive – turning from nature to history – her groundless attachment to equality, and to liberty and justice is a problem not just for her thinking but for all progressive thought of the sort that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Firestone did not offer a proof that history was rational; she assumed it was. Modern progressives do not offer that proof either. They simply assume they are helping history along to a more just society. (In so far as their thinking concerns moral or political issues, the assumption of progress is perhaps best understood as the inertia of an eschatological optimism originating in a now abandoned Christianity.) Yet, their conception of justice is as groundless and therefore as arbitrary as Firestone’s.

Considering where Firestone’s account of equality leads, no doubt many will be relieved to conclude that the destination is arbitrary and not inevitable. Yet, Firestone’s premise (the escape from nature) is the premise of modern progressivism, as it is the premise of modern science,  and her logic is impeccable. As far as the sexual revolution is concerned, much of what Firestone predicted has come to pass, even without cybernetic communism.[3] In this sense, then, there may be something seemingly inevitable in her account, not because history is moving inevitably toward the cybernetic revolution, but because what she foresaw and hoped for is a consequence of pursuing equality severed from any conception of a natural order, particularly a moral order. Contemplating Firestone’s destination may encourage others to reconsider the connection between equality and human nature that she and the entire modern progressive movement denied.


[1] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 215.

[2] Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).

[3] This is clear with regard to gay marriage, which when Firestone wrote could not have been imagined as publicly acceptable, but also with regard to other phenomena which are steps toward Firestone’s polymorphous sexuality. See for example, Moira Weigel, “‘I Have Multiple Loves’ Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 3, 2017. Jenkins explains that the biggest problem with polyamory is scheduling.


Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution[1]

Revolutionary Demands

Women, biologically distinguished from men, are culturally distinguished from “human.” Nature produced the fundamental inequality – half the human race must bear and rear the children of all of them – which was later consolidated, institutionalized, in the interests of men. Reproduction of the species cost women dearly, not only emotionally, psychologically, culturally but even in strictly material (physical) terms: before recent methods of contraception, continuous childbirth led to constant “female trouble,” early ageing, and death. Women were the slave class that maintained the species in order to free the other half for the business of the world – admittedly often its drudge aspects, but certainly all its creative aspects as well.

This natural division of labor was continued only at great cultural sacrifice: men and women developed only half of themselves. The division of the psyche into male and female to better reinforce the reproductive division was tragic: hypertrophy in men of rationalism, aggressive drive, the atrophy of their emotional sensitivity, was a physical (war) as well as cultural disaster. The emotionalism and passivity of women increased their suffering (we cannot speak of them in a symmetrical way, since they were victimized as a class by the division). Sexually men and women were channeled into a highly ordered – time, place, procedure, even dialogue – heterosexuality restricted to the genitals, rather than diffused over the entire physical being.

I submit, then, that the first demand for any alternative system must be:

1) The freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible, and the diffusion of the child-rearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women.

There are many degrees of this. Already we have a (hard-won) acceptance of “family planning,” if not contraception for its own sake. Proposals are imminent for day-care centers, perhaps even twenty-four-hour child-care centers staffed by men as well as women. But this, in my opinion, is timid if not entirely worthless as a transition. We are talking about radical change. And though indeed it cannot come all at once, radical goals must be kept in sight at all times. Day-care centers buy women off. They ease the immediate pressure without asking why that pressure is on women.

At the other extreme there are the more distant solutions based on the potentials of modern embryology, that is, artificial reproductions, possibilities still so frightening that they are seldom discussed seriously. We have seen that the fear is to some extent justified: in the hands of our current society and under the direction of current scientists (few of whom are female or even feminist), any attempted use of technology to “free” anybody is suspect. But we are speculating about post-revolutionary systems, and for the purposes of our discussion we shall assume flexibility and good intentions in those working out the change.

To free women thus from their biology would be to threaten the social unit that is organized around biological reproduction and the subjection of women to their biological destiny, the family. Our second demand also will come as a basic contradiction to the family, this time the family as an economic unit.

2) The political autonomy, based on economic independence, of both women and children.

To achieve this goal would require revolutionary changes in our social and economic structure. That is why we must talk about, in addition to radically new forms of breeding, a cybernetic communism. For without advanced technology, even eliminating capitalism, we could withstand only a marginal integration of women into the labor force. Margaret Benston has pointed out the importance of distinguishing between the industrial economy based on commodity production, and the pre-industrial economy of the family, production for immediate use: because the work of women is not part of the modern economy, its function as the very basis of that economy is easily overlooked. Talk of drafting women en masse into the superstructure economy thus fails to deal with the tremendous amount of labor of the more traditional kind that – prior to full cybernation – still must be done. Who will do it?

Even paying the masses of women for doing this labor, could we swing it – multiply the 99.6 women-hours per week (conservatively estimated by the Chase Manhattan Bank) by even by a minimum hourly wage, times half the (previously slave) population, and you are calculating the overthrow of capitalism – would constitute only a reform in revolutionary feminist terms, for it does not begin to challenge the root division of labor and thus could never eradicate its disastrous psycho-cultural consequences.

As for the independence of children, that is really a pipe dream, realized as yet nowhere in the world. For, in the case of children, too, we are talking about more than a fair integration into the labor force; we are talking about the obsolescence of the labor force itself through cybernation, the radical restructuring of the economy to make “work,” i.e. compulsory labor, particularly alienated “wage” labor, no longer necessary.

We have now attacked the family on a double front, challenging that around which it is organized: reproduction of the species by females and its outgrowth, the dependence of women and children. To eliminate these would be enough to destroy the family, which breeds the psychology of power. However, we will break it down still further.

3) The complete integration of women and children into society.

All institutions that segregate the sexes, or bar children from adult society, must be destroyed. (Down with school!)

And if male/female-adult/child cultural distinctions are destroyed, we will no longer need the sexual repression that maintains these unequal classes, uncovering for the first time natural sexual freedom. Thus we arrive at:

4) The sexual freedom of all women and children. Now they can do whatever they wish to do sexually. There will no longer be any reason not to. Past reasons: full sexuality threatened the continuous reproduction necessary for human survival, and thus, through religion and other cultural institutions, sexuality had to be restricted to reproductive purposes, all non-reproductive sex pleasure considered deviation or worse: the sexual freedom of women would call into question the fatherhood of the child, thus threatening patrimony; child sexuality had to be repressed by means of the incest taboo because it was a threat to the precarious internal balance of the family. These sexual repressions increased proportionality to the degree of cultural exaggeration of the biological family.

But in our new society, humanity could finally revert to its natural polymorphous sexuality – all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged. The fully sexuate mind, realized in the past in only a few individuals (survivors), would become universal. Artificial cultural achievement would no longer be the only avenue to sexuate self-realization: one could now realize one’s self fully, simply in the process of being and acting.

[1] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 184–87.

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