Feminist Revolution

In the latter half of this century while the New Right has managed to remain unified, organized and focused the Left’s major weakness has been that it has been anything but; in fact it is difficult to ascertain whether the Left hold any shared tenets. There seems to be the vague understanding that left-wing politics are associated with being pro-woman, pro-labor and anti-racist; however even these extremely general sentiments are often confused and mistakenly conflicted.1 Feminists in particular agree on very little; that we are pro-woman seems to be the only consensus, yet still writers often drop phrases such as “feminist politics” as if there actually existed some agreed upon feminist manifesto. This paper will examine one branch of feminist thought that has all but disappeared, the branch of radical feminism as articulated by Shulamith Firestone that placed the development of reproductive technology as the primary agent of true women’s liberation. Also explored will be the other end of the spectrum of feminist thought, feminists of the reproductive rights movement such as Robyn Rowland, who are highly suspicious of the development of reproductive technology and the potentially unethical and anti-woman ends to which it may be put to use.

Shulamith Firestone: A Case for Feminist Revolution

Firestone’s theory essentially combines the Marxist model of political economics with Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Borrowing from Marx’s concept of the dialectic of class, she entitles her book “The Dialectic of Sex” because she believes that it is the division of roles based on sex and the ensuing struggle between sexual classes that is at the origins of all other class distinctions. Socialist analyses are insufficient she claims, because while Marx and Engels were ingenious in their analyses of class struggle and power, they were limited in the scope of their vision. Of Engels she says, “there is a whole sexual substratum of the historical dialectic that Engels at times dimly perceives, but because he can see sexuality only through an economic filter, reducing everything to that, he is unable to evaluate it in its own right.”2 That is, socialist analyses of women’s oppression see women as a class, oppressed by their distinct economic relationship to society (i.e. to the means of production), from which follows it that, should that relationship change, women’s situation will be enabled to change.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Freud’s primary contribution was that he was able to intuit the importance of sexuality and sex roles in human behavior. She holds that Freud made many important discoveries about psychology and identity development within patriarchal nuclear families but his main shortcoming was that he was, sadly, a chauvinist. While he perceived the process of women’s oppressive socialization under patriarchy he never did actually question the patriarchal structure or the legitimacy of the patriarchal nuclear family itself. Says Firestone, he

“ . . . observed psychological structures without ever questioning their social context.”3

For Firestone’s conclusions to make sense there are two premises one must accept. The first and perhaps most controversial is that women’s reproductive biology is the basis of our oppression. Superficially this borders on putting her in the same camp with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. However her argument is definitely not headed in that direction. She claims that women and men were created biologically differently, and, while “ . . . this difference of itself did not necessitate the development of a class system . . . the reproductive functions of these differences did.”4 To argue this premise she highlights four fundamental facts by which the biological family (the basic reproductive unit of male/female/infant) is characterized:

1) That women throughout history before the advent of birth control were at the continual mercy of their biology . . . [pregnancy, etc.] . . . which made them dependent on males (whether brother, father, husband, lover or clan, government, community-at-large) for physical survival.

2) That human infants take an even longer time to grow up than animals, and thus are helpless and, for some short period at least, dependent on adults for physical survival.

3) That a basic mother/child interdependency has existed in some form in every society, past or present, and thus shaped the psychology of every mature female and every infant.

4) That the natural reproductive difference between