Sexual Dialectics: Evolution or Revolution?

(6/2/14)  When it comes to the broad subject of sex in America, fewer sub-topics generate more bone-between-the-teeth-clenching, heel-digging-in fervor than feminism.  The divisiveness is somewhat understandable.  After all, the issue is at its core all about power; so when it comes to who has it, who lacks it, who is trying to keep it and who is trying to gain it, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a certain amount of passionate posturing.  The differences of opinion within the associated arguments are even fine (and in fact, we probably need more rational discourse), but it seems that when “radical factors” intrude that the whole thing careens wildly off the rails.  Is it really necessary for such detours to occur in order to make progress?  Or is it a case where what we see as mad diversions in the present are just a matter of ideas that are ahead of their time?

You might think that “truth” should be true regardless of when it’s uncovered, but that’s hardly ever the case when it comes to social, economic and political dynamics.  It’s an interesting quandary that an unlikely character took on–head on–at the height of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s.  Except to perhaps the most-invested participants (or maybe a few nerdy historians), the name Shulamith Firestone probably doesn’t stand out as one of the vanguards of feminism during that era, yet she’s responsible for producing what’s considered to be a classic and influential feminist manifesto in the form of 1970’s, The Dialectic of Sex:  The Case for Feminist Revolution.  The problem with “classics” of course is that they don’t usually appear to be that way at the time they arrive and this work was no different.  Though well embraced by the more fringe elements of the women’s movement then, Firestone’s book was heavily criticized on multiple levels (some rational and some not) across the board, including by many prominent feminists who professed a more moderate, mainstream-friendly approach.

Oversimplifying Firestone’s premise, the basic “truth” that she attempted to outline was that a combination of biological factors and socio-economic reliance on a patriarchal nuclear family structure was directly responsible for perpetuating a sexual class system that subjugated women.  Making her case by interpreting the writings of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud likely caused the work to be unfairly perceived as well outside a reasonable approach, but attacks at the time also included a range of elements from lacking credentials (her education had no sociological or political foundation and, in fact, terminated with a degree in fine arts) to simply advancing a rebellious nature, having come from an Orthodox-Jewish background.  Ultimately, the book was an easy target that, while making a huge noise in feminist arenas and provoking a lot of thought and discussion for years to come, ultimately led the diminutive and feisty activist to withdraw from the scene altogether.  From the early 1970s, “Shulie” quietly lived as an artist in New York, eventually relying on public subsistence, battling mental health problems and becoming increasingly reclusive until her death in 2012.

The irony is that, even if not precisely in the manner or for the reasons she laid out, much of what she called for as initial steps to balance the playing field have actually come to pass during the last 40 years.  Scientific leaps have enabled significant expansion in reproductive options while political, economic and social shifts have broadened the concept of “family” well beyond the “Leave it to Beaver” borders of earlier times.  Compared to an era where every major profession was male-dominated and the matter of abortion had yet to be addressed by the Supreme Court, today’s field is much more inviting, equitable and continuing to move in a better direction all the time.  While a lot of that may have been due to rational evolution instead of radical revolution, it bears out a “truth” that was always true, but just apparently a little ahead of its time.

What do you think?

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