by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - October 8, 2012) What ever happened to the feminism and the feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s? That question came to mind immediately after reading the news of the death of Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when just about every woman I knew had embraced sexual liberation, feminism, and endless revolutions. If they weren't in consciousness raising groups, on communes, in collectives, and experimenting with sex I don't know where they were. They bashed their husbands and boyfriends, had affairs, fell in love with other women, tried lives as lesbians, put on pants, discarded bras, kept family names if and when they married, and thought of themselves as warriors in the dialectic of history. Shulamith Firestone was one of their gurus, along with Kate Millet, T- Grace Atkinson and Marge Piercy. Firestone spoke to her sisters and for them.
Where are they now? In their sixties and seventies; mothers, grandmothers, aunts, retired from jobs, or planning to retire, taking care of sick and terminal ill husbands, living lives as widows, and some of them lesbians now as they were forty years ago. I knew them then. They were my wife, my lover, my sister, my co-conspirator, and they were also antagonists in the war between the sexes. Sometimes I was treated like the enemy, or like a brother, or their soul mate. It might have been the worst of times to be a male; you were almost automatically a male chauvinist pig or a sexist, or part of the patriarchy, but feminism gave you -- it gave me -- permission to shed body armor, forget about being the man in the Arrow shirt and the Brooks Brothers suit and to become anything and anyone I wanted to be: a New Age sensitive guy, a house husband, a celibate, or a sly seducer in feministic drag. Any role was possible. In the dialectic of sex, men seemed to be the main beneficiaries. They didn't lose their jobs, take cuts in salary, or suffer economic hardship, and they had the opportunity to rebel against their fathers, embrace their mothers, and bask in the sun of self-liberation.
Forty years later, the men and the women, the husbands and wives -- those who have survived cancer -- seem to be on the same side of the sexual divide. They've made peace with one another. They're happy they don't have to have sex, that they're monogamous, that they have health plans, that the stock market has been fairly steady of late, and that their children have jobs, are married, and have children. Of course, not everyone is happy or in a couple or with successful children. Some live with tragedy -- a death in the family, a suicide, a long-term debilitating illness. But to a woman, they stand by their man. They're loyal, loving, though usually not adoring, and they don't bite their tongues.
In 1970, they read Firestone's book and discussed her ideas, but not many followed her dialectic that seemed to lead, as it did in the case of the author herself, to madness, loneliness, and extreme isolation. As 1970 turned into 1971, and into 1972, as the decade rolled on, it wasn't possible to keep up the frenzied pace of feminist revolution, and, like most revolutions, it ran its course, though many of the original feminists from the '70s still say they've kept their radical faith and believe in revolution. Here and there, they're still on the barricades, but at 60 or 70 it's much harder than it was at 20 or 30. Biology proved to be a lot more significant than ideology, as Camille Paglia pointed out some years ago.
The feminists of the 1970s were always my harshest as well as my best teachers. I learned from them the basics I ought to have learned in grade school: that I had emotions, that I could express them without mortal injury, and that I had to "own my own stuff," and not project onto others. I also learned to be polite, respectful, and to listen. I didn't embrace Firestone's notions, but I did accept her basic idea, that there was something called the "dialectic of sex" and that it ran through my life, both public and personal, whether I wanted it to or not. From Firestone and from her feminist sisters such as Marge Piercy, Kate Millett, and Doris Lessing I learned that I could choose what to do about sex, sexual identity, and the sexual images in my own head. I didn't have to be a prisoner of sex. Looking back, I can say that feminism and the feminists I knew then made a man out of me.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)