The Dialectic of Sex
In 1920 the German communist Clara Zetkin had a long talk with Lenin on the subject of women. Lenin railed against what now would be called the “consciousness-raising” groups radical women in Germany were then conducting: “The first state of proletarian dictatorship is battling with the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world,” he told her, “…but active Communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage.” Zetkin stood her ground. These discussions were necessary, she argued, to clear away the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Lenin and Zetkin talked and talked, they seemed close to an understanding, Lenin took her arguments seriously. Then, ushering her out at the end of the interview, “You should dress more warmly,” he suggested. “Moscow is not Stuttgart. You need someone to look after you.”
His suggestion would now be called “sexist,” and yet Lenin tried to abolish the nuclear family in Russia, open the way to easy divorce, and provide abortion on demand. All his efforts were overthrown by men who were more “realistic” about the needs of the proletarian dictatorship. Does it really matter that Lenin treated Zetkin as a frail creature in need of a protector?
It does matter, to people who are now engaging in radical politics of a very different kind from Lenin’s. The only protest groups that have survived the 1960s and the era of Mao-Nixon tea parties are those that are challenging sexual mores. In addition to women’s groups, the movements for male liberation and for gay liberation, male and female, all began as intimate discussions; the people involved felt their sexual identities oppressive and needed the insights and comfort of others with the same feelings. Few of these groups intended to form political cadres when they began—indeed, for many women it was the contempt they suffered in organized groups like SDS that prompted them to start the discussions.
To find a politics that is organized and has ideological coherence has nonetheless become a problem. A gay woman sleeps with girls, but society, titillated, calls it morally repulsive and may put her in jail. As therapy, consciousness-raising groups soon reach a dead end because the people in them are not the authors of their own distress; the oppression or shame comes from outside the individual. Women and men who share their wounds are not, by meeting and talking together, put in a position to erase the sources of their injuries.
Lenin was acting for the masses whom he believed could not spontaneously organize themselves. But what kind of ideological position is appropriate for people who, acting for themselves, have explored themselves and their sexual identities in intimate groups and then found they have to deal with more general and impersonal social forces? How are the lessons of experience, the “raised consciousness” of sexual identity to be made a part of an analysis of society? These are the questions raised by Juliet Mitchell and Shulamith Firestone in their quite different books about the oppression of women.
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex is an extraordinary book. Its strengths are its intellectual boldness and willingness to theorize. Firestone argues that the biological differences between men and women create a “sexual class system”; biology ties women to making and raising children, frees men for world-taming. This biological unfairness leads “dialectically,” she argues, to unfair classes of labor. Society is mapped out by biology, then; history is not so much a creative process as the unfolding of a primordial conflict. As the socialist writers Gail Pellet and Juliet Mitchell have commented, this is not “dialectic” in the sense in which either Hegel or Marx used the term. By dialectic Firestone means that the economic classes can arise only because in a state of nature human beings are already divided into unequal classes.
The program that flows from this is clear and daring: biology, being inherently oppressive, has to be changed by technology. Contraceptive devices, medical advances in abortion, the growing of babies in laboratories rather than in women, all are technological ways of delivering women from their primary oppression. Technology in this sense can become the first creative act of culture, the point at which accumulated human knowledge takes society a step beyond repeating again and again the iniquities found in the state of nature.
Many objections at once spring to mind: if technology is now the creature of a society dominated by men, how can it ever be of itself an independent force for easing sexual oppression? Almost all birth control pills on the market are for women, for example, while technologically it has long been possible to make birth control pills for men. The thesis of the book, that oppressive economic conditions “arise” from biological oppression, is stated again and again, but never concretely demonstrated. How can Firestone be so sure, then, that erasing biological differentiation will induce a change in oppressive economic practice?
Still, the theory is striking, for it challenges the assumption that economics is the primary condition of human beings, without falling into the sentimentality of dismissing modern technology and science as irrelevant to ideals of personal freedom. The Dialectic of Sex comes apart, however, when Firestone tries to relate personal experience to her general theory. Let me give as an example of this failure Firestone’s discussion of love.
Love in its best sense, she says, “is being psychically wide open to another. It is a situation of total emotional vulnerability. Therefore it must be not only the incorporation of the other but an exchange of selves.” Loving can be corrupted by an unequal balance of power, and biology creates the conditions for corruption, harnessing women to the reproductive power of their bodies while freeing men for power in the world.
How does Firestone relate actual human experience to this general idea? She cites the following comments by Theodor Reik’s patients. Women: “I took off my dress and my bra and stretched myself out on his bed and waited. For an instant I thought of myself as an animal of sacrifice on the altar.” “Have I nothing to offer this man but this body?” “I don’t understand the feelings of men. My husband has me. Why does he need other women?”
Men: “It’s not true that only the external appearance of a woman matters. The underwear is also important.” “The girl asked me whether I cared for her mind. I was tempted to answer I care more for her behind.” “When she is sick she turns me off. But when I’m sick she feels sorry for me and is more affectionate than usual.”
The conclusion Firestone draws from these “typical feelings” is that men can’t love; for further proof she refers readers to Screw magazine.
To reduce relations between men and women to this brutal level is to become blind. Firestone’s rhetoric excludes the corrosive problems of sexual identity whose essential character is not brutality. Working-class men and women in their forties and fifties, for example, do not speak about themselves and each other in this way. The anxieties they feel about being men and women concern not so much getting into bed as feeling that the tasks of nurturing children and working that society has set out for them create barriers to love between themselves and their children; the children often think of their parents simply as functions, with low status outside the family, rather than as human beings. Firestone’s theory ought to account for these anxieties, but she writes about the lives of people in such a black and white manner that diverse experience becomes inadmissable evidence.
More important, personal experience portrayed in this way permits readers to “escape” from her argument. If a man does not read Screw magazine, if he thinks of women as nurses who should look after him, say, rather than as bodies, Firestone has set up the argument so that he can believe he is free of “sexism,” that it isn’t a problem for him. Every man who reads these passages, in other words, and thinks, this is not the man I am, has no reason to accept the powerful insight in her conclusion that so long as an image of masculinity exists, no man can love. Nor has Firestone found a way to “raise the consciousness” of those women who say that for them “sexism” isn’t a problem because they are happily married.
Does her theory dictate her rhetoric? To call biological differences the exclusive source of complicated social relations, to believe one root can be named, means that whenever the writer wants to show the connection between experience and its origins, experience risks being simplified and coarsened. The one indisputable fact about being a man or a woman in day-to-day life is that the roles are ambiguous and contradictory. Good and evil are too blunt in this book for the author to speak to the pain of those ambiguities.
The argument also makes concrete political strategy difficult. What are the steps to building the androgynous society Firestone wants? Clearly, if women conquer the technological tools now dominated by men, and the tools remain in use as before, one oppressive sex is simply replaced by another. As Gail Pellet has observed in an article in Socialist Revolution, how changes in the class system are to be made cannot be determined simply by arguing that class itself has deeper roots.
If dominating men is an unsatisfactory solution, because the sexes just switch places; if equality of men and women is an illusion, because women advertising executives still use tools and manipulate power in a world defined by men; if withdrawal from men is impossible because no one can flee from this primordial conflict and because to define oneself as not-man is still to depend on him; if androgyny is a necessity: something must be done to change men. Yet Firestone’s argument permits men who read the book and believe the theory only to feel guilty. Guilt, however, is a notoriously unreliable emotion. To feel I have sinned and must sin again, that nature requires it, is a comforting notion. I can enjoy the fruits of unjust power, and know I will enjoy them again, with a feeling that I have somehow “paid for” the injustice by admitting I have done wrong.
The rhetoric of the book puts Firestone in the same position as Lenin. To both one asks, how do you conceive of human behavior as having “roots” so that these roots will explain the complexity of experience? So long as that question remains unanswered, people emerging from small discussion groups have nowhere to go, no way of relating shared experience to politics.
Juliet Mitchell is a writer who is concerned with the complexity of experience, who views the ambiguity of intentions and desires as a reality that has to be understood in its own right. Before discussing the substance of Women’s Estate, however, I should insert a cautionary note about its style. Mitchell’s prose reflects the complexities of her thought; it is dense, occasionally obscure and dull. The best way to approach the book, I think, is to start on page 75, where begins material from Mitchell’s “Women, The Longest Revolution,” an important essay which appeared in the New Left Review of December, 1966. Those who read to the end will then be prepared to tackle the first seventy-four pages, which are an account of the origins of the women’s movement in the 1960s. The first third of the book is good history, but so ponderous and poorly written that the reader may think the book is an academic obituary, while in fact the rest of it is an original and disturbing argument.