My workload this past month has been much heavier than anticipated, but it could be serendipitous. I had hoped to get to the blog sooner but as it happens it now almost coincides with the first anniversary of Shulamith Firestone's death, a woman who had a profound effect on me and many of my contemporaries, when we were young and wild, way back in the 1970s.
Shulamith Firestone died in a lower Manhattan apartment on 28 August 2012. I had read the obituaries that told of her sad end, learning that she had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the late 1980s and had lived alone in what can only be described as extreme poverty. A tragic fizzling out of a woman who had been a shining light of my feminism.
In one of Firestone's more extensive tributes, Susan Faludi describes the women who attended her memorial and outlines their fates. The gathering comprised veterans of radical feminism’s second wave, among them Kate Millett of Sexual Politics, and Kathie Sarachild, said to have coined ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’, the era’s resounding catchcry. These are women who galvanised a generation. But Faludi reports that few of them, whether present at the ceremony or not, have ended up very well, if what we mean by well is happily ensconced in family, fortune and undiminished fame. Many have endured loneliness and penury; many, like Firestone, have suffered mental illness; there have even been suicides.
Firestone’s death isn’t believed to have been a suicide but a terminal crisis of her illness. The genesis of any mental disorder is hard to pin down, but Faludi’s suggestion that so many of our generation of feminists have been so afflicted, to greater or lesser degree, raises a few hypotheses, at least where radicalism is concerned. In those days we used a phrase, often apologetically or censoriously, to concede that it was faulty logic, even dangerous to ‘extrapolate from the particular’. But the essence of feminism is that we went ahead and did it anyway. The personal is political.
Don’t ask me to give you chapter and verse of The Dialectic of Sex, the book Firestone published at 25, an age when today so many women of her class and ability are busy accumulating credentials with a view to establishing a career for themselves. I’m not going to review the book, or calculate its overall influence. All I can do is try to convey its impact on me when it reached us in Australia. At the time I was a thirty-three year old single mother of four who had recently left my marriage. I was living in an inner-city Canberra house that I bought for the grand sum of $16,750 and a mortgage obtained with my antiquated Fiat as security. (Believe it or not, we could do that then.) I had a part-time job teaching writing at what is now the University of Canberra, would soon join the public service, eventually as head of the prime minister’s women’s unit. I could have made a career of it but I didn’t. I had too much fire left in me, too much Firestone it seems.
So what did she have to say to me? She was one of the women who nailed the cause of women’s oppression as the system of patriarchal capitalism under which we lived. She drew on the Marxist concept of dialectics, the dominant form of left analysis then, but taking off from there her thinking was breathtakingly idiosyncratic and original. Her biographers can explain the distaste she had for parturition (the oldest daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family, she described giving birth as like ‘shitting a pumpkin’), but what I seized upon was her insistence that raising children was a social responsibility rather than one for individual parents, mothers especially. I reasoned further that if a woman had endured nine months of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, why couldn’t others put in for the rest of it? A little like Hillary Clinton’s dictum that it takes a village to raise a child but a thousand times feistier, and, yes, revolutionary. When it all boiled down to practicalities, though, it wasn’t a prescription as such, but an idea that cast a strong light on society’s shirking of responsibility for children, which made for the lack of child care and support for parents generally. But even to entertain such a thought was radical enough at the time, and arguably more so today.
To stand against convention as we did can mean sacrifice, loneliness and, more than occasionally, poverty. To experience any one of these things can lead to mental instability, the totality of them can undermine you completely, and this is what happened to many women of my generation, too many when I think of it. Yet though I can’t speak for others, I would make the same choices again, in spite of the heartaches and hardships.
As I write, I’m listening to Radio National’s Background Briefing on the threat of homelessness for older women. Having experienced the tsunami of social change that freed us from the immediate oppression of the patriarchy, too many of us are left without the supports that will see us through retirement. For personal reasons I was forced to sell that house I bought in 1972 and there’s no way on earth I could afford to buy one today. We were courageous but could not have foreseen that the very critiques of patriarchal capitalism we fashioned would be dismantled so quickly. The patriarchy of the wider society has had its ongoing impact and this combined with the entrenchment of a market economy has offered little defense against poverty. Neither young people nor old ones like me can meet this challenge individually - we have to deal with it as a society.
I haven’t kept a diary since the early 1980s. I felt then that writing in a diary was taking up time and the energy I needed for fiction. The diary I began in 2007, when I took a detour into painting, was primarily a visual one, but gradually the words crept in. Now it’s more words than pictures, and the pictures are mainly sketches, executed quickly, to expand on the subjects I’m writing about. When doing sketches of people I aim for a reasonable likeness but if I fail I don’t do much to change them. I’m coming to see that the resistance to exactitude comes not from the subject but from me.
The photograph I’ve used for my sketch of Firestone is the only one available on the net, and its difference from my portrayal is significant. The photograph has her staring through the tent of her amazing hair straight at the camera. It’s a defiant look she gives us. But today, in my portrayal of her, she is reflective, and those eyes, looking into a space that the viewer cannot enter, contain their measure of sadness. Perhaps it’s our future she’s looking at, but who of us knows precisely what the future will bring? Where we live is in the present, and it takes particularly brave women to take a stand against it, to argue for a different vision. Even if it might make us poor, and sometimes send us mad.