Book Review: The Dialectic of Sex
Young Socialist, August 1971
by Kate Alderdice
The Dialectic of Sex, recently published in paperback, is one of the most provocative additions to the rapidly growing list of feminist literature being published in North America. Available in drug stores and supermarkets, it is being widely circulated and created an impact unseen since Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
Its author, Shulamith Firestone, a Canadian-born feminist, offers a sweeping analysis of freudianism, racism, the oppression of children, love and many other aspects of our sexist culture.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the author's analysis of love and the role it plays in the oppression of women. Basically a thoroughly healthy penomenon, she says, love in our society "becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance of power" between men and women. Largely restricted to the lowest-paid and most menial jobs, women are forced to look for economic security in love and marriage. Emotionally, love is the very justification of their existence, part of the never-ending search for male approval to give their lives some value. Small wonder, that with this kind of economic and emotional pressure, women are never able to love freely, as she points out.
In her chapter entitled Down With Childhood, Firestone points out that like women, children are also oppressed, and in much the same way. They have been made economically dependent, segregated . from the larger society and surrounded with all sorts of restrictions. Children must wear special clothes, play special games, be spoken to with a special language and above all protected from reality. This phony "consideration" of children is simply a compensation for their complete lack of power, much as it is with women. For a society which claims to be "child-centered" Firestone's exposure of its real contempt for children must be very unsettling.
Biology or society?
But for all the brilliance of her work on love and other subjects, Firestone's basic thesis has little to offer the feminists of today, who want to organize to win their liberation. Her fundamental thesis is that as women we are oppressed because of our biological makeup. It is women's child-bearing and child-rearing functions that have been. fundamentally responsible, through the ages, for our inferior status. "Nature," she says, "produced the fundamental inequality — half the human race must bear and rear the children of all of them — which was later consolidated, institutionalized —in the interests of men". The liberation of women, she later explains, can come only when we are freed from our reproductive biology. She puts forward this theory as a supposed extension of Marxism.
But Marxists have a quite different explanation for the origins of the oppression of women. It is quite true that in our society child birth and the care of children are a serious burden on women and that the struggle to control our own bodies is the most immediate task facing women's liberationists. But this is not the source of women's oppression.
Marxism maintains that the oppression of women is historical- and social in character, that it is the result of a social system based on class divisions and class oppression, not the biological makeup of women.
Women were leaders
A study of early human society tells us that women have -not always suffered their present oppression. For thousands of years before the existence of our class-divided, profit-motivated society, there existed a society which early anthropologists called the matriarchy. This society had no notion of private property and was based on human cooperation and egalitarian relations. Above all it was a society in which women were the recognized social and economic leaders.
In this society women's childbearing functions were no disadvantage; in fact it was because women were at one and the same time, the mothers, and the main producers of the necessities of life, that they had such prestige in this primitive society, a prestige which continually amazes anthropologists. In order to carry out their maternal functions women engaged in the first cooperative human labor which laid the basis for all subsequent human progress. Later this power was usurped and women dethroned through tremendous social upheavals.
. It is no accident that knowledge of-this primitive communist society, in which women were the leaders, is hushed up. It has very explosive implications.
Because if women once occupied that position then we can regain it. All the myths about the natural inferiority of women dissolve in the face of this fact. The discussion around the origins of the oppression of women then is not an academic one at all — because a correct analysis arms women to fight for our liberation right now. This is the strength of the Marxist analysis and the weakness of Firestone's theory of "biological oppression". ,
It is no accident that Firestone is unable to give any direction to women's liberationists. If it is biology, not society that is at the root of our problems, then it is our bodies not capitalism that must be overthrown.
In her final chapter she puts forward a series of four demands which women must strive for. They are (1) the freeing of women from the. tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available; (2) the full self-determination, including economic independence, of women and children; (3) the total integration of women and children into all aspects of the larger society; and (4) the freedom of women and children to do whatever they wish to do sexually.
These are fine goals and ones which women's liberationists everywhere can identify with. But she offers us no way to get there, no way for women to organize now in a mass movement to fight for our liberation. In fact she rejects what she calls 'broad, unitive single issue" movements, presumably movements like the one now being organized for repeal of the abortion laws.
She flatly opposes day care on the grounds that it "buys women off". She rejects the long struggle waged by our foremothers in the suffrage movement for the vote and other legal rights for women. In doing so, she denies our own history, the struggles which have made the women's liberation movement of today possible.
These conclusions are not so surprising. If it's true that our oppression is due in the final analysis to our biological makeup, then there's no need to struggle. We just have to wait for technology to free us from our child-bearing functions. Firestone's thesis, in short, arms us to do nothing but wait passively for our liberation.
But the Marxist analysis has far more to offer. It leads us to build a mass movement through which as women we can regain control of our destinies. Through this movement women will participate in a radical transformation of this society, based as it 'is on sexism,. racism and exploitation.
The liberation of women requires as its starting point a socialist society, based on the communal ownership and egalitarian relations which characterized the primitive matriarchies. The growing women's liberation movement is going to involve thousands and thousands of women in the struggle for this society.
We have already seen the power of this mass movement in action, particularly around the abortion issue. Canadian women have been organizing to win this basic right of control over their own bodies. Two major actions have been carried in Ottawa to confront the government with the situation and demand change, in addition to many demonstrations in cities across Canada. This campaign has been carried against the government, the church and all the other reactionary forces in this society which are opposed to giving women the right to control our bodies.
Against this opposition, the abortion campaign has radically changed the attitude to abortion in Canada. Public opinion in favor of legal abortion has grown rapidly, and even the Canadian Medical Association, one of the most conservative institutions in Canada. has come out for legal abortion. It is obvious that with a continuation of this pressure, the government will soon be forced to make some concession to legalize abortion.
This is only a small taste of what a mass organized women's liberation movement can do. As thousands more women are drawn into the movement, more victories will be won, victories on issues like abortion, free twenty-four hour child care and equal pay, which will help relieve some of the worst injustices that women suffer. But above all, this mass movement, by involving women in political struggle, shows us how profound our oppression is — and teaches us that by collective effort we can help to create a new social system based on the full equality and integration of women.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All