“The classic trap for any revolutionary is always, "What's your alternative?" But even if you could provide the interrogator with a blueprint, this does not mean he would use it: in most cases he is not sincere in wanting to know. In fact this is a common offensive, a technique to reflect revolutionary anger and turn it against itself. Moreover, the oppressed have no job to convince all people. All they need know is that the present system is destroying them.”—Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution (The Women’s Press, 1979), pp. 210-211
“Women everywhere rush to squeeze into the glass slipper, forcing and mutilating their bodies with diets and beauty programs, clothes and makeup, anything to become the punk prince's dream girl. But they have no choice. If they don't the penalties are enormous: their social legitimacy is at stake. Thus women become more and more look-alike. But at the same time they are expected to express their individuality ... they are kept coming and going, at one and the same time trying to express their similarity and their uniqueness. The demands of sex privatization contradict the demands of the beauty ideal, causing the severe feminine neurosis about personal appearance.”—Shulamith Firestone, “The Culture of Romance”
“Let me say it bluntly: Pregnancy is barbaric. I do not believe, as many women are now saying, that the reason the pregnancy is viewed as not beautiful is strictly due to cultural perversion... Pregnancy is the temporary deformity of the body of the individual for the sake of the species. Moreover, childbirth hurts. And it isn't good for you. Three thousands years ago, women giving birth 'naturally' had no need to pretend that pregnancy was a real trip, some mystical orgasm (that far-away look). The Bible said it: pain and travail. The glamour was unnecessary: women had no choice. They didn't dare squack. But at least they could scream as loudly as they wanted during their labour pains. And after it was over, even during it, they were admired in a limited way for their bravery; their valour was measured by how many children (sons) they could endure bringing into the world. Today all this has been confused. The cult of natural childbirth itself tells us how far we've come from true oneness with nature. Natural chilbirth is only one more part of the reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature, and just as self-conscious. Perhaps a mystification of childbirth, true faith, makes it easier for the woman involved. Pseudo-yoga excercises, twenty pregnant women breathing deeply on the floor to the conductor's baton, may even help some women develop 'proper' attitudes (as in 'I didn't scream once'). The squirming husband at the bedside, like the empathy pains of certain tribesmen ('Just look what I go through with you, dear'), may make women feel less alone during her ordeal. But the fact remains: childbirth is at best necessary and tolerable. It is not fun. (Like shitting a pumpkin, a friend of mine told me when I inquired about the Great-Experience-You're-Missing. What's-wrong-with-shitting-shitting-can-be-fun says the School of the Great Experience. It hurts, she says. What's-wrong-with-a-little-pain-as-long-as-it-doesn't-kill-you? answers the school. It is boring, she says. Pain-can-be-interesting-as-an-experience says the school. Isn't that a rather high price to pay for interesting experience? she says. But-look-you-get-a-reward, says the school: a-baby-all-your-own-to-fuck-up-as-you-please. Well, that's something, she says. But how do I know it will be a male like you?)”—
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialect of Sex (1970)
comments from Seebster:
My friends, now of baby-having age, are ALL about this natural childbirth stuff. One dear friend, while she didn’t make that mystical orgasm claim, was saying how the movements of giving birth are reminiscent of having sex. Another friend required major surgery sometime in her second trimester I think due to the fetus literally deforming her insides (due to a previously unknown anomalous digestive tract that would have given her no trouble had she not been pregnant) and experienced excruciating pain throughout her pregnancy with minimal medication - but for some reason plans to do it all again. Her twin sister had to watch all that terror…and yet is now pregnant herself and wants to do all the natural stuff, too.
I cannot relate to this level of masochism. I guess it’s good that there are plenty of women who seem to genuinely want this ordeal, since Firestone’s alternative (artificial wombs instead of women carrying and delivering) is an unappealing vision of the future. (I’m thinking: Borg babies.) All I know is that if I were to find myself impregnated for any reason, I would do anything to get it out of me. It does NOT sound “natural” to me, it does NOT sound mystical-orgasmic to me, it does NOT sound glamorous or a fulfillment of some feminine maternal destiny to me.
The truth is, maternal mortality is a real thing, and dying in childbirth is every bit as natural as a healthy delivery. Even in the United States. Even in cases where it should be preventable in this day and age, women die. (see http://www.arhp.org/publications-and-resources/contraception-journal/march-2011) The truth is, pregnant bodies are particularly vulnerable to state coersion. (see http://jhppl.dukejournals.org/content/early/2013/01/15/03616878-1966324.full.pdf+html) The truth is, women are still struggling to define our bodies as just that: our bodies, our being, our physical manifestation in this world - and being an incubator just doesn’t make sense to me as part of that struggle.
It’s almost as though we need to set aside a portion of the population that’s just for this unpleasant deforming processes, convince them that they want this horrible travesty that may potentially be a self-sacrificing death, convince them that it’s in their nature to want it, tell them it’s glamorous or valorous or orgasmic….
“Her old habits of seclusion and screening out distraction remained, but there was nothing to be secluded for. Once in a while she prodded herself to write, but the old excitement of creation did not return, or if it did, it fizzled by morning after her nightly medication. It was a dry fuck, every word painful and laborious. But like sex itself, even masturbation, it was the initiative that was most lacking.”—
“Emotional Paralysis”, Airless Spaces, Shulamith Firestone
The best description of this feeling I’ve ever read.
individual action vs. collective action by women's movements
So that “my dream action for the women’s movement is a smile boycott” quote by Shulamith Firestone is doing the rounds. Because I posted it, I see most of the reblogs on my dash, and I wanted to comment on a particular response I’m seeing repeatedly.
The comments include:
- “I still haven’t mastered this”
- “I’m going to do this”
- “I really need to work on this”
- “I am actively working on this”
- “I need to work on this”
And I really wonder what’s going on here, in that these responses seem kinda unrelated to the quote. It can be very powerful to find one’s scope of individual action on this kind of thing. But that’s not what the quote is about.
Firestone is suggesting an action for the women’s movement. She’s suggesting a smile strike. That is, an organised, concerted effort, taken by a great number of women acting in solidarity with each other.
But it seems like the only way many people are able to hear quotes like that is, “this is something more individual women should do”.
I wonder if that’s because a lot of people on Tumblr are fairly young and haven’t had the chance to see women’s collective action (for example, Greenham Common), or perhaps haven’t even heard about it?
Or is it because of a more insidious takeover of this kind of individual, liberal idea of what feminism is, because we’ve lost a sense that a “women’s movement” is a thing which exists, or if it exists, we don’t believe it can act.
I worry that women are beating themselves up about not being able to, individually, resist an entire social system which is designed (among other things) to force them to emotionally service men, including servicing them with smiles.
I’d be interested in hearing back from some of the women who made that kind of comment (or had that kind of thought on reading this or similar quotes). This is totally not meant as an attack on you, by the way!
I’d love to hear if it’s that you recognise what Firestone’s saying, and that kicked off separate thoughts of individual action? Or is it that you mistook her as calling for individual action? If so, why?
“Every woman is constantly and explicitly informed on how to "improve" what nature gave her, where to buy the products to do it with, and how to count the calories she should never have eaten--indeed, the "ugly" woman is now so nearly extinct even she is fast becoming "exotic.”—
Shulamith Firestone, “The Culture of Romance”
see: commodification of nerd girls
“Jo Freeman, a feminist writer and activist who worked with Firestone from the beginning, said at the memorial, 'When I think back on Shulie’s contribution to the movement, I think of her as a shooting star. She flashed brightly across the midnight sky, and then she disappeared.'”—At The New Yorker, Susan Faludi writes on the legacy of Shulamith Firestone.
“The sex privatization of women is the process whereby women are blinded to their generality as a class which renders them invisible as individuals to the male eye... When a man exclaims, 'I love Blondes!', all the secretaries in the vicinity sit up; they take it personally because they have been sex-privatized. The blonde one feels personally complimented because she has come to measure her worth through the physical attributes that differentiate her from other women. She no longer recalls that any physical attribute you could name is shared by many others, that these are accidental attributes not of her own creation, that her sexuality is shared by half of humanity. But in an authentic recognition of her individuality, her blondeness would be loved, but in a different way: she would be loved first as an irreplaceable totality, and then her blondeness would be loved as one of the characteristic of that totality. [emphasis mine]”—
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution (The Women’s Press, 1979), p141-142
I’m never sure of statements like “she no longer recalls”, especially when made of groups which are easy to look down on, like “secretaries”. I think women often have (though may not always articulate) double vision (at least) of our experience, even if one of those visions is blurred or held out of focus. We can simultaneously know or sense that there’s something we’re right now not “recalling” without this meaning that the knowledge is lost.
I get a better understanding of the blonde woman’s situation by substituting the Be-Spelling of “re-calling”, suggesting an action which has to be done again and again. Like eyesight, if not practised, our double (or triple) vision fades; a lazy eye, unused, will become lazier and drift further out of focus. Holding focus, however, is tiring, and holding multiple dissonant/dissident visions in focus at once can, while lending a deep multidimensionality to our perception, also give us a migraine, which makes it damn hard to finish the secretarial work set out in front of us…