“The myth of childhood has a [great] parallel in the myth of femininity. Both women and children were considered asexual and thus ‘purer’ than man. Their inferior status was ill-concealed under an elaborate ‘respect’. One didn’t discuss serious matters nor did one curse in front of women and children; one didn’t openly degrade them, one did it behind their backs… Both were set apart by fancy and nonfunctional clothing and were given special tasks (housework and homework respectively); both were considered mentally deficient… The pedestal of adoration on which both were set made it hard for them to breathe… In each case a physical difference had been enlarged culturally with the help of special dress, education, manners, and activity until this cultural reinforcement itself began to appear ‘natural’, even instinctive, an exaggeration process that enables easy sterotyping: the individual eventually appears to be a different kind of human animal with its own peculiar set of laws and behaviour.”
Firestone’s beginning in this work is to show how the likes of Marx and Engels and Freud were on the whole right, but that they did not go far enough. Because they thought and wrote from the male perspective, they completely missed something fundamental, which ultimately led to the failure of their work. (Unfortunately, Firestone assumes in her book that the reader has some familiarity already with the ideas she critiques, which I don’t. It didn’t mean I couldn’t understand her, it just meant that it was hard going, at least in the early chapters, and that there were probably a few key points that I just didn’t get. However, I understood enough, I think, to offer some thoughts.)
Firstly, Marx/Engels. As most people know, they were the great communist thinkers. As I understand it, they wrote copiously on the way in which over history society has progressed from primitivity through feudalism to capitalism, and they wrote about the way in which capitalists tend to use various tactics to reinforce and perpetuate the oppression of the proletariat, and they wrote that a revolution cometh – after which class and class oppression will be abolished and, with it, the need for state interference in our daily lives.
Firestone suggests that they forgot something important. They failed to see that the first “class” division, the first division of labour, is that between the sexes. The allocation of certain kinds of labour to women and other kinds to men applies at all levels of society, and results in universal oppression of women in all patriarchal societies. All men have an interest in perpetuating this female oppression, and numerous social customs and institutions serve to reinforce it: in particular the family.
The nuclear family is worst, but all forms of family serve to reinforce the oppression of women because all forms of family assign roles by sex, and oblige women to do the work of reproduction, which prevents them from advancing their own lives as far as they might otherwise be able to do. And the whole is bound up in the powerplay inevitably seen in families – with father having power over both mother and children, and mother having power over the children – a host of complicated alliances and oppressions springing up between mother and children and, again, among the children. Thus oppresion and “power-over” is what children learn about the world. Because the communist thinkers failed to appreciate this key divison in society, and failed to understand the importance of the family in perpetuating power-over and its consequent oppression, their theories and utopias could never help women to be free. And if women could never be free, class oppression can never successfully be abolished.
Secondly, Freud. Most people know that he wrote a lot about how pretty much everything that is wrong with everyone comes down to sex, specifically to various repressed incestuous sexual longings relating to the individual’s parents. (Freud also invented “penis envy”, from which women apparently suffer, stemming back to the day when as little girls they realised that they were “missing” a penis.) In short, Freud identified that every person suffers from some form of sexual repression, and that this often results in damage to their emotional or mental health. His proposed solution was to heal the person with psychoanalysis designed to make them understand and confront the subconscious issues that trouble them.
Firestone argues that Freud is right to trace emotional problems – particularly what Firestone describes as a psychosexual preoccupation with power relations – to the repression of sexual feelings that a child once experienced towards his or her parents. However, she argues that Freud was wrong to accept that this was an inevitable repression, such that we cannot address the cause but only try to treat the symptoms.
Firestone argues that in fact we can and must address the root cause, which she identifies as the incest taboos that universally arise where children grow up in biological families. If children were not related to their caregivers there would be no specific need to have concerns about the possibility of sexual relations (assuming proper consent) between members of the child’s household, and so there would be no need to be paranoid about and to repress the sexual elements of a child’s total response to its first love – the mother. Moreover, the use of power to dictate what (sexual) feeling is permissible and to repress whatever is not, results in a sexuality that is inextricably bound up in power. This psychosexuality of power is perpetutated and reinforced as each generation plays out the same game, over and over.
Once you’ve got your head around that, the rest of the book is plain sailing apart from one hard chapter about racism. The racism chapter repeats some of the Marxian / Freudian style of analysis in a way that, probably because of cultural disconnect over 35 years later and several thousand miles away, makes it really hard to tell what is real and what is metaphor, and whether any of it is still true today. It is sad that Firestone’s analysis in this chapter is so difficult to follow, because I have the feeling that she was probably saying something worth hearing. Ho-hum. The rest of the book – aside from some peculiar ideas about the “causes” of homosexuality, and a touching faith in the power of science to create a utopian world in which all people are released from any form of compulsory labour (both productive and reproductive) so as to enable society to be truly free and happy – is so good that you can probably forgive this one bad chapter.
Particular highlights in the rest of the book are: a brilliant chapter on the oppression of children – one which has started off a profound process in my head, and will no doubt surface elsewhere on this blog; a scathing analysis of romantic love and the culture of romance, which made me want to hug my little self and shout out YES, I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE; and a seriously interesting assessment of the state and direction of culture, one which is not entirely true today but which does certainly resonate.
But the key point, if you only take away one thing from the book, is this: the institution of the family must go. It is the source and cause of all oppression, including the primary oppression of women which assigns to them all reproductive labour. We must come up with other ways of living.
What does Firestone suggest?
Firestone hopes that an erosion of the family can be achieved by cutting away at the social institutions that support and reinforce it: such as universal belief in the fantasy of romantic love, discrimination against atypical family living arrangements, all backed by state support for “Teh Family” with tax breaks, pension rules and other pro-marriage discrimination. She also suggests alternative living units – households of say 8 or 10 adults with a number of young people who commit to stay together for say 7 to 10 years in order to support the little ones, but who are free to move on thereafter. She believes that with the erosion of the family and the elimination of the incest taboos and sexual repression that are an inevitable result of family life, something new will eventually arise. The psychosexuality of power will give way to a new kind of love, a truly free kind of love, and the possibility of true happiness.
These are powerful ideas. With her uncompromisingly anti-family stance, Firestone is in many ways the antifeminists’ feminist: she attacks every holy cow including the Great Holy Cow, the family that so many social conservatives see as the Bedrock of Society.
Gosh, I do admire her. And her thoughts will stay with me, and influence my life, for a long time. They have started already.