By Jennifer Baumgardner, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine.
Almost 15 years ago, I picked up my ringing phone and the voice on the other end identified herself as Shulamith Firestone. I almost dropped the receiver.
Second wave feminism had many iterations and reverberations. As readers of On The Issues Magazine no doubt know, some women, like Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown, claimed space for women in previously male activities and institutions. But the activists and thinkers who actually created the Women’s Liberation Movement didn’t want what men had; they wanted freedom from patriarchal, woman-hating culture with its pre-programmed roles and compliance with our biological destiny.
Shulamith Firestone was, briefly, the most significant producer of radical feminist theory and organizing. Between 1967 and 1969, she co-founded New York Radical Women, Redstockings and New York Radical Feminists. She was among the first to reclaim the suffragists as radical forbears rather than irrelevant, racist pragmatists. In 1970, she published The Dialectic of Sex—a cogent, shocking, albeit witty best-seller that attempted to liberate women from traps of sexism misunderstood as vital and positive. These traps included romantic love and procreation.
When that call came I was in touch with many second wave feminists, but no one I spoke with knew how to reach Shulamith or anything about how she survived since, decisively, quitting the movement she helped launch. Not one to show up at Veteran Feminists of America gatherings or 92nd street Y panels, she didn’t appear to want to dine out on her past or even preserve it. She was the rarest bird.
That day in 1998 Firestone informed me she had written a small book of interconnected stories called Airless Spaces, her first published work after The Dialectic of Sex; she hoped that I could review it. You have to understand: meeting the women who created radical feminism felt like my life’s work. Alice Echols’ 1989 Daring to Be Bad was my guidebook, alerting me to the conditions and personalities that led to the explosion of theory and action that became contemporary feminism. I had searched for years for word of Shulamith. Earlier that year I had met Elisabeth Subrin, a talented younger filmmaker who made a frame-by-frame reproduction of a film made about Shulamith (“Shulie”) from her art student days. Subrin hadn’t met Shulamith but told me that she had heard from an intermediary that her source material was so incensed about the film that she put a hex on Subrin—not the reaction Elisabeth was intending with this homage.
That out-of-the-blue call from Shulamith led to the two of us meeting. She lived, it turned out, just a few blocks from me in the East Village. She had short, brushed back hair, an open smile and a short, trim body clad in jeans and sneakers. She wore a denim jacket and was fun and genuine. We had dinner, she came to an event I held in which second wave and third wave feminists read each others’ work, we grabbed beers at St. Dymphna’s. I even asked her about Subrin’s film and she said her critique was that the actress portraying her in the film didn’t have anything approaching her fire. Hers was a unique intellect and uniquely powerful charisma.