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.

The quality of Mitchell’s thinking is revealed by her ability both to be critical of certain aspects of the women’s movement, and yet keep herself free of the bitterness and disillusion of radicals of an older generation. She worries that the setting in which the recent phase of the women’s movement came into being, the small group, may now have become destructive: ” ‘Consciousness raising’ within the small group can turn round on itself and become a self-repeating, incestuous, personal-problem session; ‘male chauvinism’ as a concept can simply be used to evade the relationship of men and women within our society and as part of a ‘more-oppressed-than-thou’ campaign.” This book contains no venom toward men as a biological group, but anger with a society that has sorted men and women into very unequal “estates.”

Mitchell’s analysis of those unequal estates is made on three levels. It is, first, what American sociologists—with typical awkwardness—would call a “structure-functional” approach. Second, it is a method for showing how the injustices women face are a necessity, if the institutions of present-day society are to stay knitted together. Third, the analysis makes a prediction that the bonds of society need not hold, that change of a radical sort is possible, if both women and men act in a certain way.

“Structure-functional” theory deals with what in everyday language would be called social “processes.” To make a medical analogy, a researcher might dissect a cadaver to understand a particular organ while a doctor might try to understand the same organ by watching its functioning and malfunctioning during the course of a disease. Structure-functional theory is an attempt to combine both approaches in analyzing a society.

Mitchell sees the estate of women in society as based on four “structures” or processes: production, reproduction, socialization, and sexuality. None of these processes is a “root,” a first principle, in the sense in which Firestone uses biology. Take the increasing percentage of women in the American labor force as an example: what Mitchell would explore about that change in production is how it relates to changes in child-bearing, child-raising, and the relations between men and women at home. If women laborers in factories are increasing, and the size of their families is decreasing, there needs to be, in Mitchell’s theory, a connection; such changes in social processes don’t happen at random. But she also thinks it useless to try to arrive at a general theory of whether production “determines” reproduction or the other way around.

In the hands of many American sociologists, such analysis has become a liberal instrument: if nothing causes anything else but is only related to it, coherent radical social change seems impossible. If society is unjust, well, no one part of it can be held to blame.

The originality of Mitchell’s book is that she uses structure-functional analysis for entirely different ends. She doesn’t think you can describe a connection between production and reproduction, for instance, and then argue about whether the connection is just or unjust; it is not enough simply to state the fact that more women are becoming factory laborers and that these women are having smaller families. In Mitchell’s view, one cannot understand the possible connection between the two facts without also understanding the loss of freedom the connection causes women: birth control pills give women less family responsibility but of necessity, in her view, the production system grows so that these women will be employed in new kinds of very low status factory labor.

The idea of necessity is the critical issue in Mitchell’s theory. She is not an economic determinist; nor is she interested in analyzing, either theoretically or empirically, the meaning of terms like “class” or “capitalism”—a lack of interest on her part sharply criticized by socialist writers like Alice Harris or Margaret Benston, who want to inquire into the nature of modern capitalism by examining the labor of women. For Mitchell, society must necessarily oppress women because of a characteristic that, according to her hypothesis, all four structures share.

Each of the structures contains an internal contradiction. In her theory, men do not simply dominate women. Sexually, men and women engage in all sorts of subterranean exchanges and compromises, and Mitchell is acute enough to see that the timidity of husbands with their wives is as common as the opposite case. The only way these tensions of sexual life can be dealt with, in Mitchell’s view, is for the pressure to be relieved by exerting domination and clear-cut authority in another social process, like raising children. This is why today fathers often acquire certain “rights” over their children and women others. Similarly, contradictions in the productive order that push corporations to seek ever new sources of low level labor can only be relieved by such innovations as birth control pills that seem on the surface to promise women freedom. The image that comes to mind is that of a hydraulic machine.

This image is, I think, the major theoretical achievement of the book, even though it is only stated and illustrated rather than “proved” in an empirical way. Mitchell, unlike Firestone, really is a dialectical thinker. According to her, as contradictions in each of the four social processes occur, they interact with the others so that an uneasy equilibrium of oppression is maintained. Mitchell has found a way to show why social changes, such as increasing contraception, that, considered in isolation, seem to promise so much for human freedom, nonetheless have little impact on society. Unlike Herbert Marcuse, she does not subscribe to an idea of “repressive tolerance” to explain this. The paradox she proposes is that, precisely by the turmoil of its parts, precisely by the contradictions within each of the four social processes that prompt interaction with the others, does society remain knit together.

Again unlike Marcuse, Mitchell believes this uneasy equilibrium can be exploded in advanced capitalist countries such as Britain and the United States. “A revolutionary movement must base its analysis on the uneven development of each structure, and attack the weakest link in the combination. This may become the point of departure for a general transformation.” Although her text could be clearer at this point, I gather that she sees the family as potentially that “weakest link in the combination” of the four social processes. For her the family is the most important social unit in which society molds human feeling. She makes brilliant use of Freudian as well as structure-functional theory to show a contradiction facing the family at the present time.

The nuclear family, she asserts, is “ideologically” a private unit; it is thought of as a refuge from the larger society, a place where people recover from the terrors and the necessities they encounter in the outer world. But the social function of the nuclear family is in direct conflict with this privacy. The nuclear family cuts people loose from the ties of tradition and allegiance found in the old extended families. No longer are decisions about jobs based largely on what is best for the family, as in the old immigrant families. Rather, the simplicity and small size of the nuclear family make it possible for people to think of regulating the family according to the needs of the job market.

A nuclear family can be much more easily uprooted than an extended one, for instance, if the father is promoted by agreeing to work for his corporation in another city. The nuclear family accustoms people to think of themselves as individual creatures each with “careers” to follow and “success” to achieve. The family adapts them to a productive order where they are supposed to fend for themselves under ever-changing economic conditions; in turn, such people tend to assimilate into the intimacies of the home the patterns of dominance and control they have learned at work.

What results from the celebration of privacy and the practice of individualism, Mitchell points out, echoing R. D. Laing and Philippe Aries, is the eclipse of real sociability and long-standing intimate ties which people can trust. Since trust and intimacy are emotional necessities, this traumatic contradiction in the family ought to be the “point of departure” for a more general movement of liberation.

If I read Mitchell right here, I cannot help reacting with some misgivings, for the politics of exploding the nuclear family encounter the same kinds of difficulties that occur in Firestone’s book.

I am thinking, for instance, of a TV repairman I interviewed in Boston, as part of a study of working-class family life that Jon Cobb and I recently completed. To the repairman his job in itself is neither exciting nor dull; it’s just work. Still, the job has meaning for him: he thinks it will enable him to give his children enough money and a sufficiently stable home to “develop right,” get a good education, and move into a higher class. He thinks of himself as a sacrificer, in other words, and he uses that sacrifice as a terrible weapon to oppress his kids. If he’s devoting his life to them so that they don’t wind up “nobodies,” he feels he has a right to tell them what to do.

This is destructive and contradictory. His children resent him and may revolt. But I wonder what will happen to him if and when that occurs. Deprived of children to rule, he would be deprived also of the only means that exists in this society for him to dignify work that neither offers intrinsic satisfaction nor oppresses him so painfully that he too wants to rebel. How would you persuade him that the rebellion of his children against being objects of his self-denying, coercive love could help to free him too? I don’t know how that transformation can be effected, nor how this man can be prevented from feeling a terrible rage and urge to retaliate when his children rise up against him. Mitchell suggests how ripe for explosion the family is but not what the experience of this will be and how it can be handled.

I also think of many of the wives of unskilled day laborers I interviewed. Mitchell describes the social contradictions they face as mothers, house workers, and wives. These women, largely, dominate the household and many day-to-day family decisions; the husbands are usually away from home, or exhausted when they return. The power women have in the house often becomes oppressive to them because they have to cope in many demanding ways. They feel strongly that it is unjust to be saddled with all this responsibility; but they also feel sympathy for the labor of their husbands and look upon their household burdens as a way of comforting men who do hard work that commands little respect in the world. Of course their household burden should be lifted, but how are the sympathy and sense of respect to be replaced?

Nobody can argue that the injustices of family life are a good thing, but a program for radical change is unrealistic if it doesn’t take account of the complex experiences and emotional compromises that people squeeze out of bitter and frustrating and crippling circumstances, even out of cooking or cleaning. If Mitchell wants purposeful social action to flow as a logical consequence of the theory, then the theory has to account for the intricacies of the ways people live with and need one another.

This limitation on Mitchell’s theory is evident in her analysis of women’s groups themselves. She writes, “…we try not to imitate the style and structure of male-dominated radical groups. The refusal to allow leaders to arise is the most obvious aspect of this. A good instinct this—nevertheless it presents problems…. Leaders are rarely ousted by anyone other than would-be leaders. In not wishing to act like ‘men,’ there is no need for us to act like ‘women.’ ” There is no need, but her theory is not constructed to show how to avoid the danger. The title of the book is in this sense exact: to speak of women’s estate is to speak of a place where one has mapped contours of the landscape, noting certain obstacles and certain avenues of escape. Yet to draw a map is not to explain how people move on the terrain:

It might be said that in The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir sought more than twenty years ago to connect the facts of social oppression to complex personal feeling. Yet it is unfair to compare the past to the present. Remember that Beauvoir opened her book with these words: “For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over….” Twenty years later, the rebellion against repressive sexual identity is very much alive again among both sexes—but it remains to be shown how to act, how to bring the richness of personal experience into political action, how to arrive at a political ideology from which may follow not just humane goals but humane means.