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Blame, Shulamith Firestone, and Movement Building

May 12, 2013
Body paragraph

In a previous blog about Shulamith Firestone I touched on how movements tend to eat their own. My recent blog reflected on how the destructive phenomenon of blame pervades every aspect of our culture and personal being, including my own, ending with a note on the incredible power of empathy and compassion. But getting to the place where becoming the change we want to bring to the world is a major priority is a piece of work.

Here I want to bring the themes of those two blogs together. This time, however, I am going to leave the heavy lifting to Phyllis Chesler. Here is a reduced version of her reflections in a collection of tributes to Shulamith:

For a long time, our movement was haunted by the terrible absence of Shulamith Firestone. The disappearance of so shining and brilliant a star always reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s sudden demise. People—feminists too—have always mourned young genius cut down too soon. Only in this case, Shulie was very much alive. Either she was holed up in her fifth floor apartment in the East Village or holed up in a hospital. She was still here, without really being here.

I remember reading The Dialectic of Sex when it first came out in 1970. I was writing Women and Madness and this book inspired and challenged me to dare even more. The work is fierce, as sharp as a diamond—logically precise, somewhat frightening, and extremely liberating. I will never forget how her chapter on Love (as an illness) made me laugh out loud with relief.

And the fabulous Notes from the First and Second Years! Shulie was the editor-in-chief, Anne Koedt the associate editor. The collection was bliss, true badass bliss. (Koedt, by the way, wrote “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” in Notes from the Second Year.)

We—and the rest of America—had never seen anything like us before. Cracked, belligerent, misguided, and strangers to each other, radical feminists were giants on the earth. Since the mother-daughter relationship had been painful and humiliating for many of us, we called each other “sisters.” But as Ti-Grace Atkinson quipped: “Sisterhood is powerful—it can kill sisters.” Although we knew that this was true, most feminists denied that it was really true.

Many years later, Shulie and I were talking. She said: “Phyllis, if only you had written Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman long ago, it might have saved our movement.” I told her that no book, at the time, could have reversed our own internalized sexism, competition, and “indirect” aggression toward other women. Many feminist leaders had been nervous about my writing the book, and their disapproval stayed my hand for years.

“Why did you listen to them?” she asked. She was a bit agitated.

Once, before this conversation, Shulie had called and asked me to visit her in my capacity as a psychotherapist. I immediately agreed. However, she said I would need to come to the fifth floor by climbing up the fire escape. She would talk to me through the window.

I told her I couldn’t. I might fall to earth and shatter. Still, I could not persuade her to open her door.

Her second book Airless Spaces is a small and tender gem. Humbly, carefully, she wrote about her madness and her time in various asylums. When it was published, she asked a small group of us, myself included, to read aloud from it and we did. I remember that Shulie stood off a bit, watching, listening, perhaps approving of her words and of our reading. But she remained silent, at a remove. Always removed.

For many years now I have kept a list of the feminists we’ve lost. At one memorial service in 1987 in a large West Village courtyard I saw the faces of many second wavers: they were ashen, shocked, stunned, frightened. I remember speaking and doing a ritual at a memorial service for our lesbian feminists gone probably in the early 1990s. We have lost so many dear friends. And now, Shulie has joined them.

But her work will continue to inspire women to dare to be brave, to understand that heroism is our only alternative.

May she rest in peace, and may her memory be as a blessing.

The full version is here, and some excerpts from Airless Spaces are here.


Finally, a blurb for Chesler’s Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman puts all of this in a fuller perspective:

“Man’s inhumanity to man”--the phrase is all too familiar. But until Phyllis Chesler's now-classic book, a profound silence prevailed about woman’s inhumanity to woman. Women's aggression may not take the same form as men's, but girls and women are indeed aggressive, often indirectly and mainly toward one another. They judge harshly, hold grudges, gossip, exclude, and disconnect from other women. Like men, women are exposed to the messages of misogyny and sexism that permeate cultures worldwide. Like men, women unconsciously buy into negative images that can trigger abuse and mistreatment of other women. But like other social victims, many do not realize stereotyping affects members within the victimized group as well as those outside the group. They do not realize their behavior reflects society's biases.How women view and treat other women matters. Are women oppressed? Yes. Do oppressed people internalize their oppressors' attitudes? Without a doubt. Prejudice must first be acknowledged before it can be resisted or overcome. More than men, women depend upon one another for emotional intimacy and bonding, and exclusionary and sexist behavior enforces female conformity and discourages independence and psychological growth.Continuing the pioneering work begun in Women and Madness—Chesler's bestselling book that broke the story on double standards in psychology—Woman's Inhumanity to Woman draws on important studies, revolutionary theories, literature, and hundreds of original interviews. Chesler urges us to look within, to treat other women realistically, ethically, and kindly, and to forge bold and compassionate alliances. This is a necessary next step for women, without which they will never be liberated.

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