Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67


Shulamith Firestone, Feminist Writer, Dies at 67
Margalit Fox

Shulamith Firestone, a widely quoted feminist writer who published her arresting first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” at 25, only to withdraw from public life soon afterward, was found dead on Tuesday in her apartment in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. She was 67.

Ms. Firestone apparently died of natural causes, her sister Laya Firestone Seghi said.

Subtitled “The Case for Feminist Revolution,” “The Dialectic of Sex” was published by William Morrow & Company in 1970. In it, Ms. Firestone extended Marxist theories of class oppression to offer a radical analysis of the oppression of women, arguing that sexual inequity springs from the onus of childbearing, which devolves on women by pure biological happenstance.

“Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself,” Ms. Firestone wrote, “so the end goal of feminist revolution must be ... not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

In the utopian future Ms. Firestone envisioned, reproduction would be utterly divorced from sex: conception would be accomplished through artificial insemination, with gestation taking place outside the body in an artificial womb. While some critics found her proposals visionary, others deemed them quixotic at best.

Reviewing “The Dialectic of Sex” in The New York Times, John Leonard wrote, “A sharp and often brilliant mind is at work here.” But, he added, “Miss Firestone is preposterous in asserting that ‘men can’t love.’ ”

The book, which was translated into several languages, hurtled Ms. Firestone into the front ranks of second-wave feminists, alongside women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. It remains widely taught in college women’s-studies courses.

A painter by training, Ms. Firestone never anticipated a high-profile career as a writer; she had come to writing through preparing manifestoes for several feminist organizations she had helped found.

The crush of attention, positive and negative, that her book engendered soon proved unbearable, her sister said. In the years that followed, Ms. Firestone retreated into a quiet, largely solitary life of painting and writing, though she published little.

Her only other book, “Airless Spaces,” was issued in 1998 by the experimental publisher Semiotext(e). A memoir-in-stories that employs fictional forms to recount real-life events, it describes Ms. Firestone’s hospitalization with schizophrenia, which by the 1980s had overtaken her.

The second of six children of Orthodox Jewish parents, Shulamith Bath Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein was born in Ottawa on Jan. 7, 1945, and reared in Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis.

The family Americanized its surname to Firestone when Shulamith was a child; Ms. Firestone pronounced her first name shoo-LAH-mith but was familiarly known as Shuley or Shulie.

After attending Washington University in St. Louis, Ms. Firestone earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967. Around that time she helped found the Westside Group, a Chicago feminist organization, before moving to New York.

There, she was a founder of three feminist organizations — New York Radical Women, the Redstockings and New York Radical Feminists — begun as alternatives to mainstream groups like the National Organization for Women.

Ms. Firestone came to renewed attention in 1997 with the release of “Shulie,” an independent film by Elisabeth Subrin. Ms. Subrin’s 37-minute film is a shot-for-shot remake of an earlier, little-seen documentary, also titled “Shulie,” made in 1967 by four male graduate students at Northwestern University.

The 1967 film, part of a documentary series on the younger generation, profiles Ms. Firestone, then an unknown art student, as she paints, talks about her life as a young woman and undergoes a grueling review of her work by a panel of male professors.

In the 1997 remake, conceived as a backward look at a social landscape that seemed to have changed strikingly little in 30 years, Ms. Firestone is portrayed by an actress, Kim Soss. Her dialogue is uttered verbatim from the original documentary.

Ms. Subrin’s film, which was shown at the New York Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Biennial and elsewhere, was well received by critics. But it distressed Ms. Firestone, who said she was upset that she had not been consulted in the course of its creation, her sister said this week.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Subrin said that she had sent Ms. Firestone a rough cut of her film through an intermediary. The intermediary later told her, she said, that Ms. Firestone “could appreciate it as a labor of love, but she hated the original film and didn’t see how my film was different.”

Besides her sister Laya, Ms. Firestone is survived by her mother, Kate Firestone Shiftan; two brothers, Ezra and Nechemia; and another sister, Miriam Tirzah Firestone.

In “Airless Spaces,” Ms. Firestone writes of life after hospitalization, on psychiatric medication. The account is in the third person, but the story is her own:

“She had been reading Dante’s ‘Inferno’ when first she went into the hospital, she remembered, and at quite a good clip too, but when she came out she couldn’t even get down a fashion rag. ... That left getting through the blank days as comfortably as possible, trying not to sink under the boredom and total loss of hope.”

The story continues: “She was lucid, yes, at what price. She sometimes recognized on the faces of others joy and ambition and other emotions she could recall having had once, long ago. But her life was ruined, and she had no salvage plan.”