Posted in: Feminism
Published on Nov 12, 2012 by Phyllis Chesler
On a recent Sunday afternoon I and 149 others attended the Memorial Service for feminist firebrand, Shulamith Firestone, the painter and the author of The Dialectics of Sex. A reduced version of my comments appeared at N+1 Magazine.
Firestone—and many of us who gathered there—were the "downtown girls," the radical feminist activists and visionaries who began our work in 1967. Whether or not the world or the media knows or remembers our names, these are the women with whom it all really began (at least in New York City).
I am talking about the founders of New York Radical Feminists, Redstockings, WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell), and New York Radical Women—which led to ever more consciousness-raising groups, pamphlets, booklets, sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, petitions, lawsuits, alternative schools, etc.
I brought with me my tattered and treasured copy of Notes From The Second Year: Women's Liberation, Major Writings of the Radical Feminists. Firestone edited both the 1968 and 1970 versions. This is what should be taught in Women's Studies and American History courses today but I doubt that it is.
The names of the contributor-activists should be inscribed in the Women's Hall of Fame. They include Ti-Grace Atkinson (Radical Feminism), Lucinda Cisler (On Abortion and Abortion Law), Roxanne Dunbar (Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution), Jo Freeman/Joreen (The Bitch Manifesto), Carol Hanisch (The Personal is Political; A Critique of the Miss America Protest), Anne Koedt (The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm), Pat Mainardi, (The Politics of Housework), Irene Peslikis (Resistances to Consciousness), Kathy Sarachild, (A Program for Feminist Consciousness Raising).
Firestone, Kate Millett, Ellen Willis, and Meredith Tax are also known as the authors of their own books. They were also contributors as were Anselma dell'Olio, Marion Davidson, Lucille Iverson, Bonnie Kreps, Suzie Olah
For feminists, 1967-1973 was a shining and transcendent moment the likes of which will not return anytime soon. Overnight, or so it seemed, we were Making History merely by analyzing our own female lives with clarity. We were all doing this at once. We were all Ibsen's Nora and we had shut the doors on our past lives at the same moment in time.
I literally left my medical college research laboratory, still wearing a white lab coat, on my way to find the "feminist meeting" someone told me about. It was 1967 and I made my way to the National Organization for Women and was soon on a committee which met in Ti-Grace Atkinson's apartment.
Now, forty five years later and I did not recognize a few women. Could the women whom I still (and whom I will always) think of as vibrant, energized, and potentially dangerous have actually turned into white and silver haired seniors--into beings whom Time had humbled into moving more slowly and carefully?
Afterwards, at dinner with Kate Millett, Sophie Keir, and Barbara Love, we talked about another dear feminist, Bettye Lane, who had just died. We laughed at our various physical and medical limitations but they are all too real. I mentioned that I kept a list of our feminist dead.
When I spoke, I said that I wished we could have reunions like this when we are still very much alive.
The next day, I spoke to Alix Kates Shulman and she wisely said: "We will be meeting like this more and more often as more of us die. "
I said to Ti-Grace and Kate: "Please promise not to die on me, okay?"
We laughed. But I mean it. Here is what I prepared to honor Shulie Firestone:
For Our Shulamith
For a long time, our movement had been haunted by the terrible absence of Shulamith Firestone, who was also known as Shulie. The disappearance of so shining and brilliant a star was almost like Sylvia Plath's sudden demise. People—feminists too--have always identified with greatness cut down too soon.
Only in this case, Shulie/Shulamith was very much alive. Either she was holed up in her fifth floor apartment in the East Village or holed up in a lunatic asylum. She was still here—but no longer really here.
I remember reading The Dialectics of Sex when it first came out in 1970. I was writing Women and Madness and this book inspired and challenged me to dare even more. The work is fierce, as sharp as a diamond; logically precise, somewhat frightening, but extremely liberating. I will never forget how her chapter on Love (as an illness) made me laugh right out loud with relief.
And the fabulous Notes from the First and Second Years: Women's Liberation. Major Writings of the Radical Feminists! Shulie was the Editor-in-Chief, Anne Koedt was the Associate Editor. The collection was bliss, true "badass" bliss. (Koedt, by the way, wrote about the "Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" in this same issue).
We—and the rest of America—had never seen anything like us before. Cracked, belligerent misguided, strangers to each other, radical feminists were nevertheless also giants on the earth. Since the mother-daughter relationship had been painful and humiliating for many of us, we called each other "sisters." But as Ti-Grace Atkinson quipped: "Sisterhood is powerful—it can kill sisters." Although we knew that this was true, most feminists denied that it was really true.
Many years later, Shulie and I were talking. She said:
"Phyllis, if only you had written Woman's Inhumanity to Woman long ago, it might have saved our movement."
"Shulie, I doubt that any book could, at the instant, reverse our own internalized sexism and automatic aggression towards other women—but how kind, how dear of you to say so. You do know that many feminist leaders were nervous about my writing this book and that their disapproval stayed my hand for years."
"Why did you listen to them?" She was a bit agitated. We hugged. I said:
Once, before this conversation, Shulie had called and asked me to visit her in my capacity as a psychotherapist. I immediately agreed to do so. However she said:
"But you will need to come to the fifth floor by climbing up outside the building on the fire escape. I will talk to you through the window."
I told her I couldn't I might fall to the earth and shatter. Still, I could not persuade her to open her door.
Her book, Airless Spaces, is a small and tender gem. Humbly, carefully, she wrote about her madness and her time in various asylums. When it was published, she asked a small group of us, myself included, to read aloud from it at her book launch. And so we did. I remember that Shulie stood off a bit, watching, listening, perhaps approving of her words and of our reading, but she remained silent, at a remove, always removed.
For many years now, I have been keeping a list of the feminists we've lost. At one memorial service in 1987 in a large West Village courtyard I saw the faces of many Second Wavers: they were ashen, shocked, stunned, frightened. I remember speaking and doing a ritual at a Memorial Service for our lesbian feminist dead probably in the early 1990s. We have lost so many dear friends. And now, Shulie has joined them.
But her work will continue to inspire women to dare to be brave, to understand that heroism is our only alternative.
May she rest in peace, and may her memory be as a blessing.
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