31 Aug 2012

Why I Still Think Shulamith Was Right

R.I.P Shulamith Firestone, renowned 2nd-wave feminism who was found dead this week after an ongoing struggle with mental illness.

I first read Firestone's Dialectic of Sex at university, when I was considering writing my dissertation about the topics she dealt with in this ground-breaking book. My tutor proposed that Firestone's book, was 'too dated' and didn't say anything particularly new to a modern audience. I have to say, I disagreed then and I disagreed now. Firestone advocated overthrowing the "tyranny of the biological family" by ending "the reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both". Or, put another way, she did not believe women would ever be truly free until reproduction was divorced from the body. That was bloody radical then, and in this individualistic society where feminism has been warped to support all kinds of unwise behaviour, I think it's even more radical to say it now.

Yes, Firestone's vision sounds a bit sci-fi, but then so would the contraceptive pill, in vitro fertilisation and cell cloning sound barmy and unlikely to anyone living 70 or 100 years ago. How is it that we've mastered most other aspects of our biology and yet pregnancy and childrearing remain as restrictive as ever? That was Firestone's question 32 years ago, and it's a question I still ponder upon now. I do sometimes wonder if the only true way for women to achieve equality is to go on reproductive strike. If women refused to keep on getting pregnant and giving birth to benefit a society that will ultimately only punish them for doing so, perhaps things would change a lot more quickly. No more gender pay gap. No more insidious employment discrimination, where women aren't hired because we're all viewed as potential-wombs-on-legs, and no more mysterious cases of a woman about to take maternity leave when her boss suddenly says 'Funny that, we were going to sack you anyway'. No more lost earnings and forced reliance upon a male partner to subsidise you. No more being seen as 'just a mum' first and a person second.

Easy for me to say, I guess, as I don't want to have children anyway. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that one of the major deterrents from having kids is precisely the way society diminishes and disrespects motherhood, and punishes women for choosing it. Even if I had the slightest inclination towards having kids, I'd still stop and think very hard about whether I wanted to give the gift of my progeny to a society that is going to use that as an excuse to pay me less, offer me substandard employment or no employment after my pregnancy, refuse to provide anything near to state-sponsored childcare, and either force me to rely on a partner for income or go back to work when my episiotomy stitches are still healing just to pay for the eye-poppingly expensive private childcare I would need for my baby. Yeah...I have to say, I don't know why more women don't 'go on strike', but I suppose logic or a sense of collective responsibility can go out of the window if your maternal urges are strong enough.

The point is, I don't think Firestone's words are any less shocking and revolutionary now than they were in 1980. In fact, I think they may be more explosive, as we've become lulled into the belief that equality between the sexes has 'kinda-sorta' been achieved and no one needs to worry any more. But if we look at the amount of women in the British Parliament or the US House, the pitiful amount of women heading FTSE 500 or even 100 companies, the gender pay gap, and the continuing attempts to shove women back into gendered boxes regularly reported on the fantastic @everydaysexism, we soon realise the job is barely even half-done, if that. But to stand up and say 'It's because you keep having babies, dummy', will be met with even more outrage than it would've been 32 years ago, from feminists and non-feminists alike. Thanks to the ruthless culture of individualism (Yo, Thatcher!) that followed Firestone's work, the motto 'If I'm OK, who gives a fuck' soon replaced 'The personal is political' and many women decided as long as they personally felt free, then damn feminism and its progress. Although I do wonder how free anyone feels when they're chained to an incontinent screaming mini-person 24 hours a day, but as long as feminism is read as 'the freedom to do anything you want, as long as you remember to yell IT'S MY CHOICE!', nothing's going to get any better.

I think Firestone hit upon the truth when she applied Marxist theory to the sexist conditions of our society and identified reproduction as the main method of keeping women in an underclass. I have never met a man whose earning potential, professional reputation, body or standing in society was ravaged by having children, but I've seen it happen to pretty much every woman I know who's given birth. And yet they go back for more, and the next generation of women follows blindly. I can't understand it, and I don't know why more women don't opt for the alternative that I'm choosing, but I suppose the myth that 'it's different when it's your own kids' is sufficient to reassure women that they won't be 'that unlucky one' who loses her job/earnings/health/mind from having kids. I just wonder, if Firestone's vision of artificial reproduction, divorced entirely from the female body, came true, how many women would still want to 'do it the old way?'. And I also wonder, if my vision of the improbable reproductive strike were to happen in the meantime, how quickly women's lot as a class would improve? I would wager, VERY quickly. Because when people aren't using all their time, energy and money being an unpaid nursemaid, cook, cleaner and child psychologist, they tend to get quite a bit more demanding about what they want from life. And when half the population can't discriminate against the other half by simple virtue of biology, they either have to find some other excuse very quickly, or start treating them as equals.

Of course there are some softly-softly improvements that have been made to ensure that both sexes share the strain of parenthood, such as the Scandinavian model of non-gendered 'parenting leave, and Google retaining a greater number of female employees by increasing its maternity leave. But are these drops in the ocean what the 2nd wave feminists hoped we would have achieved by now? I seriously doubt it. I think they'd be horrified at the snail-like pace of progress for women even in the richest, most progressive countries in the world, and they'd wonder why. And maybe the answer is, that we never finished the job of truly challenging the society that punishes women for reproducing, and instead thought we could 'change it from within' and give childbearing and rearing a feminist makeover. But as the saying goes, you can't dismantle the master's house using the master's tools. At the moment, all we've got is some mildly tweaked laws and a whole lotta continuing discrimination. 

RIP Shulamith - you spoke to me, even if so few others seem to have listened.

1 comment:

Mira said...

Thanks Chas, well put as ever. RIP Shulie.

A couple of pieces that may interest you on Mute (ok one of them is partly by me but I promise I'm not plugging myself, the non-me parts are more pertinent to your post anyway!):

Past Caring

The Battle of all Mothers