Department of Sociology
Lancaster University

'The Dialectic of Sex
Shulamith Firestone

(feature prepared for 'Sybil'
magazine, 1988)
Sarah Franklin
Department of Sociology
Lancaster University
Lancaster, LA1 4YL, UK

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Shulamith Firestone famously argued that reproductive technology was necessary to liberate women -- and now we have more of it than ever.

So do women benefit from genetic engineering? Has reproductive technology given women greater freedom? Sarah Franklin, author of Embodied Progress: a cultural account of assisted conception (Routledge 1997), argues that the new technologies of reproduction in Britain today are not what Shulamith Firestone was looking for.

Shulamith Firestone was a founder of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. She was a member of the Redstockings and New York Radical Feminists, and she wrote for the radical feminist journal Notes. In 1970 she published The Dialectic of Sex: the case for feminist revolution - one of the most influential feminist manifestos alongside Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. My paperback copy of The Dialectic of Sex is from the seventh printing of the second edition, published by Bantam Books, and its pages are yellowed with age. But what has become of her revolutionary call ‘to overthrow the oldest, most rigid class/caste system in existence, the class system based on sex’?

One of the claims for which The Dialectic of Sex remains most famous is Firestone’s insistence that ‘women must be freed from the tyranny of their biology by any means available’, and that part of ‘cybernetic socialism’ must include complete technological control of reproduction. As long as women are ‘the slave class that maintain the species in order to free the other half for the business of the world’, they cannot be free.

Other than rather vague references to artificial placentas and to ‘the more distant solutions based on the potentials of modern embryology’, Firestone said much less about the hows of artificial reproduction than the whys and shoulds and musts. It should be added that she also called for the abolition of work, of sexual difference, of the family unit, and of childhood as we have known it. Like most revolutionary writers, she is more convincing in her analysis of the problem than in her proposed solutions.

In the meantime, however, ‘the potentials of modern embryology’ have indeed become one of the most prominent arenas of late-twentieth century scientific innovation. And they have done so in the opposite direction entirely from what Firestone imagined. As she presciently warned, ‘in the hands of our current society and under the direction of current scientists (few of whom are female or even feminist), any attempt to use technology to “free” anybody is suspect”. Let’s look first at what modern embryology has delivered, and then at what it might have otherwise conceived.

The first test-tube babies were born in the late 1970s -- and not just in England, also in India and North America. The 1980s saw a major expansion of prenantal screening and diagnosis worldwide, the routinization of ultrasound scanning, and a huge expansion in the market for fertility services based on in vitro fertilisation and other methods. At first, IVF was used for women with fertility problems, and later for diagnosis of infertility for both women and couples (where the causes are often unknown). Later, it began to be used to treat male infertility through ‘ICSI’ (intracytoplasmic sperm transfer), and for diagnosis of genetic disease through ‘PID’ (pre-implantation diagnosis). Today, IVF is no longer just for women, or just for fertility problems: IVF now has a range of applications that is sure to widen and to connect with new embryological techniques, such as cloning, whereby human embryos can be used to make essential ‘spare parts’, like bone marrow.

There is no doubt these techniques have done much to alleviate the suffering of thousands of women and couples who have been enabled to give birth to much-wanted children, to detect genetic disease early in pregnancy, or to prevent it altogether. But this is not the direction reproductive technology would have taken in Shulamith Firestone’s post-revolutionary laboratories. For the reproductive technologies of today are in no way aimed to challenge the nuclear family, to enable women to be less defined by their reproductive capacity, to develop more feminist definitions of biology, or to dissolve the patriarchal structures of society. To the contrary, it is almost the reverse situation, in which the defense of techniques such as IVF is precisely in the name of ‘desperate’ infertile women, ‘incomplete’ nuclear families, and the ‘right’ to reproduce. Shulamith would not be happy with this outcome.

In fact, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to change the direction of science, and many feminists openly wonder why an egg cell nucleus can’t be used to fertilise another egg, for example, thus freeing women to procreate among themselves? But this is also not what Shulamith had in mind, for she was an outspoken critic of the insitutions of parenthood whereby children ‘belong’ to their ‘biological’ parents. She wanted something much freer than this for children: she wanted them to live in gangs, to grow up cheeky, smart, and self-reliant because they had basically been left to their own devices (a view she formed while teaching children in New York city ghetto schools).

The kind of technology Shulamith might be happy to see more of today is one we don’t hear quite so much hype about anymore - plain old contraceptives. The main problem of reproductive control for most women in the world is that they have no access whatsoever to contraceptives -- none, nada, nil. There is an obvious irony I’m sure would not be lost on Shulamith today that thousands of comparatively privileged women worldwide - women with more technological, material and educational advantages than at any time in world history - are preoccupied and consumed by the pursuit of much-wanted progeny through (often arduous and unsuccessful) techniques such as IVF. And at the same time, many times as many other women, who are in many ways poorer than in any other era - who are displaced migrants, without land or food or water - lack some of the simplest but most ingenious technological means of reproductive control, such as the pill, condoms, or injectable contraceptives.

We also have to return to the well-worn feminist question of why, if it is possible to send a man to the moon to play golf, is it so hard to develop a male contraceptive pill? But the answer is, of course, simple: because even if a male pill were available, many men would not want to take it, and many women would not necessarily trust them enough to do so. In terms of what The Dialectic of Sex has to say to us today, we might agree with what Women’s Studies tutors have been saying about her argument for decades -- that it overstates the power of technology to bring about forms of social change that have to begin inside peoples’ heads before they will go anywhere else. Technology alone will never bring about what years of political struggle have failed to achieve, just as IVF will never lead to the collapse of the nuclear family.

Books often come to be known by a particular phrase or argument which does them little justice: Freud did not argue that ‘anatomy is destiny’, and neither did Darwin use the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (it was ‘fitted’). Shulamith Firestone is often represented by exam questions in sociology courses such as ‘Do you agree with Firestone’s argument that reproductive technology will liberate women?’ Students have to be daft to miss the right answer to this one: ‘No, Firestone’s technologically-determinist arguments are mistaken for the following reasons...’. But this is an unhelpful over-simplification of Firestone’s arguments because The Dialectic of Sex still offers us a valuable critique of the kinds of cultural values that brought us IVF, ICSI, PID, genetic engineering and Dolly the Sheep. These techniques are not immaculate conceptions of the petri dish: they are born of the desires and hopes of the scientists who invent them, the clinicians who use them, the patients who ask for them, the institutions which fund their development, the laws that legalise them, the media that reports on them, and so forth. Above all, they are born from the ways in which reproduction is defined and controlled in our time. And at the end of the twentieth century, that turns out to be pretty much the same as ever: technology or no technology.

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