FOCUS: Reproductive (In)justice – Revisiting Shulamith Firestone in the Era of Trump

FOCUS: Reproductive (In)justice – Revisiting Shulamith Firestone in the Era of Trump

Victoria Margree

‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit’, proclaims the placard born by an older woman in a now widely-known photograph from a recent women’s march. It is fifty years since the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but in their testifying to the continued ubiquity of gendered inequalities across all areas of life, there is something distinctly ‘second wave’ about today’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and the campaigns against the gender pay gap. This resurgent feminist politics might cause us to reflect upon that earlier movement. What does it mean that women and men are now having to fight many of the same battles anew? Which of the rights and freedoms it achieved are today again under threat? And are there arguments, concepts and energies from 1970s feminism that might be usefully reshaped by a feminist radical politics today?

These questions were raised acutely for me recently while writing a book on radical feminist author, Shulamith Firestone, whose infamous manifesto The Dialectic of Sex came out in 1970. Firestone’s book met with controversy upon its release and subsequently became what fellow WLM activist Ann Snitow has called one of the ‘demon text[s]’ of second wave feminism (Merck, 13), for its denunciation of pregnancy and childbirth as ‘barbaric’, and its advocacy of the development of artificial wombs. Having taught Firestone’s text to undergraduates for over ten years, I have been intrigued and inspired by the reactions to it of this younger generation, and welcomed the chance to argue for a wider engagement with it when I learned that Zero books wanted to include Firestone in their Neglected Or Misunderstood series. There, and here, I am arguing for a critical return to Firestone’s work on the basis that it foregrounds issues of reproductive autonomy in a manner that has sadly become more rather than less relevant today, as we witness a renewed assault upon women’s access to sexual healthcare, contraception and abortion.

In a draft from spring 2016 I had written ‘Donald Trump (whom I can only pray will not by the time this book is read be President Trump) has declared that women who have abortions should be punished.’ Apparently, the gods were not listening, or indeed really are on the side of the American religious right. Trump came to power that November on the back of a campaign that had courted pro-lifers. He had promised to nominate pro-life judges to the Supreme Court; to defund US and international providers of sexual healthcare and abortion; to sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would enforce a ban on abortion after 20 weeks; to make into permanent law the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funding to provide abortions; and to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature healthcare plan, which among other things guarantees access to contraception. The wake of his election victory saw women urging each other on social media to obtain long-term forms of contraception such as IUDs, for fear that access to birth control would soon be withdrawn.

It would be a mistake, however, to identify Trump as a cause, rather than as a symptom. Much more significant than Trump alone are the forces with which he has allied himself, which in the US and elsewhere are seeking a reversal of the gains won for women’s reproductive freedom since the 1970s. In Europe, the rise of right-wing populism threatens women’s reproductive rights and health, as evidenced in the recent attempts in Poland to introduce a total abortion ban, defeated only when tens of thousands of women took to the streets in protest. The implications of such a ban can be witnessed in Nicaragua, where a total prohibition was introduced in 2008. Here, women and their physicians face jail for terminations, even in instances of rape, incest and threat to the woman’s life. A recent Amnesty International report describes the reality of child victims of rape being forced to give birth, and doctors and nurses refusing pregnant women life-saving medical care for cancer or cardiac arrest, for fear of facing criminal charges in the event of a miscarriage. It is a situation, as one Amnesty visitor to Nicaragua put it, of ‘sheer horror’.

That the horrors of forced pregnancy, forced childbirth and involuntary parenthood are the inevitable consequences of women not having access to reliable contraception and abortion, was first articulated by the feminists of the second wave. Since it seems that we do still need to protest this shit, it might therefore be valuable to return to a thinker who made reproduction central to her analysis of both the causes of women’s oppression and the way out of this.

Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex
Firestone’s manifesto was written during 1969 in the fervour of the early period of the WLM. Firestone had recently relocated from Chicago to New York, where she had become an outspoken activist who had co-founded a number of radical feminist groups. The Dialectic articulated several ideas that were to become central tenets of radical feminism, including the claim that male domination was the character of all known societies throughout history. Firestone’s analysis of the reason for the transhistorical character of patriarchy was, however, unique. Where other feminists were identifying the cause of women’s oppression in laws, the economy, or culture, Firestone argued that the central problem in fact lay in biology: specifically, in the sexual division of labour that was set up by men and women’s different reproductive biologies.

Her argument was that throughout most of human history, women had been at the ‘continual mercy of their biology’: without reliable contraception or abortion, they were unable to control their role in reproduction (Firestone, 9). The post-pubescent female could expect to spend perhaps 30 years of her life in a cycle of being pregnant, giving birth, and nursing small children. This, together with the protracted period of helplessness of human infants, meant a severe curtailment of women’s capacity to take part in other areas of social life, and in particular in productive labour. Women therefore were made dependent upon men for the provision of food, housing, and other resources. Firestone claimed that men came to enjoy this power imbalance, and sought both to reinforce it and to extend it in the form of domination over other men through the formation of groupings based upon economic status, caste or “race”. Firestone therefore argued, contra Marx and Engels, that the first division of humanity into unequal groupings did not come through economic class, but through what she called ‘sex class’, and that this sprang directly from the biological circumstances of human reproduction.

In an important sense then, for Firestone the oppression of women was natural, since rooted in a reproductive biology that, for millennia, it had not been within the power of human beings to change. But this was not a cause for despair. The crucial point for her was that technology had now developed to a point where it was possible for human beings to control their reproductive biologies. In 1969 the contraceptive pill had been available in the US since the early 1960s, although it had initially been illegal in several states, and was still available to unmarried women only in some states. Termination of pregnancy was illegal in all but a handful of states, and these had decriminalized it only in relation to certain exceptions: of conception through rape or incest, or where a pregnancy would threaten disability or death to the mother. In consequence, illegal, unsafe, “back-street” abortions were rife, and were disproportionately sought by women on low incomes who could not afford in-patient hospital stays and were less likely to have personal connections with doctors. NARAL: Pro-Choice America estimate that as many as 5000 women died through botched back-street procedures each year.

In an equally important sense then, for Firestone the problem was not one of nature at all – or at least it no longer was. The technology existed to give women control over their reproductive functions, but access to this was being withheld through political choices made predominantly by men. Analogising Marx, Firestone argued that just as the proletariat must seize the means of production, women must seize the means of reproduction, which meant gaining direct control over the development of reproductive technologies. While the Dialectic is sometimes criticised for offering a naïve celebration of technology, it is better understood, I think, as presenting a feminist critique of science that rejects the view of science and technology as neutral, objective, fields; seeing them instead as being deeply implicated in the gendered norms of wider culture. For example, Firestone claimed that the technological know-how to create the female contraceptive pill had existed long before the pill became a reality, its progress having been impeded by a moral framework that established the purpose of sex as reproduction and not pleasure – and certainly not women’s pleasure. She held that while a scientific establishment that excluded women would be likely to work against their interests, one in which women took central roles had the capacity to be emancipatory. In was in this spirit that she looked forward to the development of test-tube fertilisation, sex selection, and the development of artificial placentas, which she saw as making possible a program of controlled reproduction, in which the replenishment of the species could be achieved without sacrificing the freedoms and ambitions of individual women, and without reproducing a damaging power imbalance between the sexes. Her speculation that such technologies could even involve the complete removal from women’s bodies of the gestation of new life would be the claim for which the Dialectic was to become both famous and infamous.

Revisiting the Dialectic of Sex
The Dialectic sold well upon publication and was widely discussed in mainstream journalism and TV, where it was both ‘lauded and excoriated’ (Faludi). Yet despite its reputation as one of the founding texts of radical feminism, it was controversial even within this movement. One reason for this is its deeply negative treatment of female biology. Firestone does not only make the argument about a reproductive division of labour that I outline above, she also, following in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir, characterises pregnancy and labour as brutalising trials which nature has forced women to endure for the sake of perpetuating the species.

The Dialectic’s avowal that ‘pregnancy is barbaric’ and its description of childbirth as being ‘like shitting a pumpkin’ (180, 181) were never destined to find favour within a movement that sought increasingly to affirm women’s differences from men and to identify female biology as ‘the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution’ (Alpert). Deemed equally problematic was Firestone’s identification of technological control over nature as the solution. Most radical feminists saw technology as a patriarchal endeavour, and Firestone’s championship of this, together with her proposal that pregnancy and childbirth could themselves be eliminated, were read by some as symptomatic of an unconscious alignment with patriarchal values.

What might be the value then in returning to a text that is hardly going to seem less problematic today? In my book I have argued that some of the criticisms outlined above do have some purchase. And indeed, the evolution of feminist thought since the 1970s has revealed still further flaws. The Dialectic of Sex fails, for example, to problematise its understanding of sex. Sexual difference functions in the book as a binary between people who have wombs and people who do not. The notion that a woman may be someone who is born with ‘male’ reproductive organs never appears. Nor does the book offer much by way of an intersectional analysis. While it does attempt an analysis of how racism and sexism operate together, this has been rightly taken to task: for example, by Hortense Spillers, who criticises Firestone for restricting her consideration of non-white women to just a single chapter and allowing “woman” elsewhere in the book to function as ‘a universal and unmodified noun [which] does not mean them.’ Firestone’s reductive framework in which ‘racism is sexism extended’ (97) wholly obscures the role of American slavery and its legacies and the racialised character of 20th century capitalism, and implicitly posits sexism as the more urgent oppression to be addressed.

Is it possible though that despite these major failings the book offers certain analytic coordinates which might be repurposed today? I think it is. And while Firestone’s own discussion may have failed adequately to address the experiences of women who were not white and middle class, this does not need to be the fate of any analysis that makes reproductive autonomy its focus. While Firestone was hardly alone among second wave feminists in arguing for freely available contraception and abortion, she is perhaps the thinker who makes this most central. More important than her much ridiculed (although now vindicated?) proposal for the development of artificial wombs, is I think, her foregrounding of the risks to health and wellbeing that women (or cis-women) face in being the members of the species in whose bodies new human life is created, and her implacable insistence that women themselves must have control over the technologies that allow their reproductive functions to be regulated. To see just how far we are from this, we need only look at the photograph of President Trump, in his first day in office, flanked by seven other rich white men, signing the executive order that prevents overseas NGOs seeking US funding from even talking about abortion to women around the world.

Abortion, Feticide and the American Right
In March 2016, while frontrunner for the Republican candidacy, Trump responded to an MSNBC interviewer’s questioning on what sanction he would introduce if re-criminalising abortion, that ‘The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment for the woman.’ This was a slip, but a revealing slip, since while the public argument of the pro-life lobby is that it should be the doctors who perform illegal abortions and not the women who undergo them who should face criminal charges, the reality is that increasingly American women are facing surveillance and punishment for miscarriages and stillbirths that are deemed to be “suspicious”.

In one of the most high-profile of these cases, in 2015, Purvi Patel, an Indian American woman, was sentenced by an Indiana court for feticide and child neglect. Patel had given birth in 2013 to a foetus that she claims was stillborn, and left its remains in a dumpster before heading to hospital. Prosecutors accused her of having induced an illegal abortion, and drew upon the state’s feticide law to charge her for killing her unborn foetus, while also, paradoxically, charging her with child neglect, alleging on the basis of a widely discredited “lung float” test that the baby had in fact been born alive. Feticide laws supposedly protect pregnant women and their unborn children from the violence of third parties, such as abusive partners, but are increasingly being used to prosecute women themselves.

The penalties applied in such cases are severe. Patel’s prosecutors had sought a prison sentence of 40 years; she in fact received 30, with 10 years suspended, although this was overturned by an appeal court which nonetheless resentenced her for 18 months for felony neglect. In another case, in 2012, Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant to the US, faced imprisonment for 45 years to life for the attempted feticide and the murder of her foetus, following a failed attempt at suicide by poison after her lover had abandoned her. The murder charge was dropped after Shuai pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminal recklessness, but she had still served one year in jail.

Neither of these cases exist in isolation, but are part of a creeping criminalisation of pregnancy in the US. Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) characterises this as a practice of ‘making pregnant women – from the time an egg is fertilized – subject to state surveillance, control and extreme punishment’ (Valenti). Further instances include an Iowa woman who was arrested for attempted feticide after falling downstairs and presenting at hospital to check that her unborn baby was unhurt; and a Louisiana woman who was imprisoned for a year on second degree murder charges until it was revealed that she had suffered a miscarriage. The NAPW say that they have documented hundreds of cases in which women have faced criminal charges for “suspicious miscarriages,” for drug use or for trying to induce their own terminations.

It is a criminalisation of pregnancy that must be understood in relation to the economic inequalities that structure America. Although the Roe vs. Wade judgement provided a legal right to abortion in 1973, in reality access to abortion has always depended upon a woman’s material resources. Where self-induced terminations do occur, these must be placed within this context. With the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding for abortion through Medicaid, it is up to states to fund it or not: many do not. Further obstacles include the difficulties of accessing often scarcely distributed abortion providers. In Indiana, where both Patel and Shuai were prosecuted, there are just 12 abortion providers in the state, and women must go through a process of two separate visits, counselling, and a waiting period before they can obtain a termination. For a woman on low-wages who cannot drive or afford a taxi, who has inflexible paid employment or caring responsibilities at home, the hurdles this puts in the way may well be insurmountable. This, of course, is the intention. With Republicans further dismantling already limited sexual and reproductive health-care provision, women in Trump’s America are caught in a vicious pincer-movement between diminishing abortion provision and the criminalisation of self-induced terminations. The “illegal abortions” that the anti-abortion lobby seeks to punish so severely are to a significant extent the entirely foreseeable consequences of their own policies.

This is also part of a pattern of racialised injustice in relation to the provision of reproductive healthcare. It is probably no accident that the women at the centre of these two most notorious abuses of the feticide laws are women of colour. As Yamani Hernandez, Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, notes, it is disproportionately women of colour who ‘are bearing the brunt of unscientific laws and misplaced moral outrage against abortion, which is blurring into the territory of miscarriage, putting any pregnant person at risk of prosecution and incarceration’ (Redden). Racial inequalities structure the misuse of feticide laws, as they do other aspects of sexual and maternal health. Shockingly, maternal mortality rates are actually rising in the US, and African American women are dying at four times the rate of white women, across all income levels. The reasons for this are thought to include the impact upon maternal and foetal health of the stresses of enduring racism, and a reluctance on the part of many women of colour to initiate prenatal care. Since prenatal care is frequently the point at which state surveillance of women operates, the racialised criminalisation of pregnancy looks set to claim still further lives.

And as Trump’s signing of the ‘Global Gag Rule’ shows, the policies of the American pro-life right have global reach. Healthcare organisations around the world now face the dilemma of either agreeing to a gag on providing abortion services or information, or forfeiting the funding upon which they rely. Either way, the effects will be measured not only in a massive diminution of women’s reproductive and sexual freedoms, but also in their deaths.

Firestone’s book from nearly 50 years ago is threaded through with anger at a culture that treats pregnant women as the mere carriers of something more important than themselves. We need to reclaim that anger today, and understand it as an anger at the unequal distribution of vital resources in respect to reproduction. While Firestone’s characterization of pregnancy as in all cases barbaric may miss its mark, there should be little doubt as to the barbaric character of forcing women to endure unwanted pregnancies through lack of access to contraception or abortion, or of the continuation of shocking rates of women dying through pregnancy or childbirth – estimated at 30,300 worldwide in 2015 – when most of these deaths would be preventable given more adequate healthcare.

Firestone’s radical feminist manifesto was also a call for a socialist redistribution of resources. While I have focused here on the distribution of access to contraception and abortion, this is an argument that applies equally to the resources that are needed to support both women and men in the raising of children – an argument that would have implications, for example, for the provision of maternity and paternity leave, and of socially-funded childcare. Firestone’s work may have flaws as great as its insights, but it has the immense value of situating women’s role in reproduction at the center of the fight for gender justice and equality, and for this reason alone rewards rereading today.

Alpert, Jane (1947) Mother Right: A New Feminist Theory. Pittsburgh: Know, Inc, pp.7–9. Here.
Faludi, Susan (2013) ‘Death of a revolutionary,’ The New Yorker, 15 April 2013. Here.
Spillers, Hortense (2003) Black, White and in Color. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Firestone, Shulamith (2015) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. London and Brooklyn: Verso.
Glenza, Jessica, (2015) ‘Purvi Patel case,’ The Guardian, 2 April 2015. Here.
Paltrow, Lynn M., and Jeanne Flavin (2014) ‘Pregnant, and No Civil Rights’, The New York Times, 7 November 2014. Here.
Pilkington, Ed (2012) ‘Indiana prosecuting Chinese woman,’ The Guardian, 30 May 2012. Here.
Redden, Molly (2016) ‘Purvi Patel has 20-year sentence reduced,’ The Guardian, 22 July 2016. Here.
Snitow, Ann, quoted by Mandy Merck (2010) in ‘Shulamith Firestone and Sexual Difference,’ in Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford, eds, Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Valenti, Jessica (2015) ‘It isn’t justice for Purvi Patel,’ The Guardian, 2 April 2015. Here.


Victoria Margree is Principal Lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Brighton. Her book Neglected Or Misunderstood: The Radical Feminism of Shulamith Firestone (Winchester and Washington: Zero) is published in June 2018.

Image: Author’s own photo.