Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist, wrote best-seller, 67

Shulamith Firestone.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Shulamith Firestone, a pioneering feminist who shot to fame at age 25 with her best-selling book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” was found dead in her East Village apartment on Tuesday. She was 67.

Alerted by neighbors, who had smelled a strong odor from her apartment, her superintendent peered in through a window from the fire escape and saw her body on the floor. Her landlord, Bob Perl, said she had probably been dead about a week. He said her one-bedroom unit included rows of books, including Greek classics.

Suffering from mental illness, she had shut herself off from contact with other people. Perl said the cause of death is unclear at this point — police said it wasn’t starvation — and that the coroner’s report should provide an answer.

Perl purchased the building, 213 E. 10th St., in 1993, and figures Firestone lived there, on the fifth floor, for about 30 years.

“She was not well for many years,” Perl said, noting that her family members and “strangers” would pay her rent when she was unable to. “She was a prodigy. But she had been ill for so many years, she lost contact with the outside world.”

Firestone grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Ottawa, Canada. According to Perl, she leaves at least two sisters, one of whom, Tirzah Firestone, is a rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.

Published in 1970, her “The Dialectic of Sex” was a key feminist work that presaged today’s issues surrounding birth and science. The book influenced her feminist contemporaries as well as those who followed behind her.

“No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical, inflammatory, second-wave landmark,” said Naomi Wolf.

According to Amazon.com, “The book synthesizes the work of Freud, Marx, de Beauvoir and Engels to create a cogent argument for feminist revolution. Identifying women as a caste, she declares that they must seize the means of reproduction — for as long as women (and only women) are required to bear and rear children, they will be singled out as inferior.”

According to Wikipedia, “She advocated the use of cybernetics to carry out human reproduction in laboratories as well as the proliferation of contraception, abortion and state support for child-rearing; enabling [women] to escape their biologically determined positions in society. Firestone described pregnancy as ‘barbaric’… . Among the reproductive technologies she predicted were sex selection and in vitro fertilization.”

Firestone wrote in “The Dialectic of Sex”: “…[J]ust as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so…the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction… . The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: … [T]he dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general… . The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”

One of her few friends in her later years was Lourdes Lopez, who met her about 10 years ago through a mutual friend. Lopez, a Lower East Side native, is a human resources administrator at Columbia. She said she enjoyed going to movies and museums with Firestone.

“She was very down to earth,” she said, noting that Firestone painted people who were close to her.

“She was isolated at the end and had changed her locks,” Lopez said. “We tried to get Mobile Crisis in there. She pretty much, because of her illness, cut off people. I was really pretty much the only person she trusted at the end as her illness took over. Between hospital stays, we would hang out for a few months until she went off her medication,” and then the process would repeat, Lopez said.

She said Firestone was paranoid-schizophrenic, as far as she knew, and had been hospitalized many times over the years.

Nevertheless, “She did write two other books and continued to paint,” she said.

Lopez is openly lesbian. As for Firestone, she said, “Honestly, she was never really tied to anyone,” and never spoke of her own sexual orientation.

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55 Responses to Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist, wrote best-seller, 67

  1. Kathy Grinslade

    I am sad to hear of this passing and particularly the isolation she experienced in the later years of her life. She was a person with a wonderful gift. She shared as much as she could. She did good for all women caught in the trappings of our male dominated cultures. RIP. RIP. Shula.

  2. Truly a visionary, she nailed down one (rather extreme) part of the feminist landscape and made some of the implications of patriarchy impossible to ignore. She was part of the modern feminist vanguard; everyone today owes her a debt. So sorry to hear of her decline and death.

  3. sbrooksfranklin

    Her work was extraordinary in its energy and vision, and will remain an inspiration to anyone who wants to understand what revolution truly means. It is tragic not only that her personal life was so difficult, but that her death has been accompanied by so little comment. I hope the internet will be a means by which her work and her legacy live on through technologies, about which she was an eloquent and prescient writer and theorist. She deserves to be recognised not only as a pioneering feminist voice, and creative political philosopher, but as an artist whose later work, for example in her second book Airless Spaces, continued to attempt to find room for new ways of living for both herself and those around her.

  4. Maeve McKavitt

    You are all to be complimented on your judgement and your eloquence in expressing it. Of course, i agree with all you have said. She was precious to this world and apparently forgot that and herself. The world will not, i think, forget her. Perhaps her passionate talent, which no doubt was too precocious, estranged her from many, causing her to impose an isolation she felt, for good reason, had come from without. A self-immolating inner fire, alas. All was so deep within for her, and now so deep for us, without (her).

  5. She changed our lives.

  6. I remember being riveted to the page as I read this book. It changed my of thinking forever.

  7. Her book truly dealt with what we focused on in the sixties – Marxism, and Feminism. It is just such a shame that the rest of her life seemed so difficult for her. I also hope she rests in peace, and as she was raised an Orthodox Jew, Baruch HaShem & Shalom to her.

  8. I wish this obit could have waited until the reporter talked to more people that were close to Shulamith over the long haul. And who were in political solidarity with her. Unlike, say, her landlord.

  9. Shulamit Reinharz

    This is incredibly sad. I am stunned by the news. Shulamith Firestone was such a creative thinker. I just hope that no one discredits her work because of this public announcement of her mental illness. She should be remembered with great respect.

  10. Susan Hawthorne

    The Dialectic of Sex made me a radical feminist. It annoys me that the one shortcoming in her book (on repro tech) is almost the only part that journalists mention. The book is full of fantastic and insightful analyses. To write such a book so young is its own tribute. I value her thoughtful work as foundational.

  11. There are inaccuracies in this article–reporters should attempt to question neighbors and people other than landlords. I was the neighbor who alerted the landlord; there were no neighbors– plural — who did so, There was no strong odor which alerted me; only a rent check that hadn't left the crack in the door since August 1. Despite the lack of odor in the hallway, she had been dead for well longer than a week . I saw the body and she didn't die peacefully in her bed. (I mention this only because the article is graphic, and false). No one, no friend, had been around – I don't know this Lopez woman, nor did I ever meet any of her family. I did talk with her network of feminist friends, two of whom came to the building (I called one) on Tuesday night and paid their respects as the body was taken away. They were, are, good women. Bob Perl I won't comment on. Shulamith was a tormented woman living with severe mental illness, and I lived with her screams and pain for years. Isolation is a terrible thing. I wish her peace.

  12. This is beyond sad. Paranoid schizophrenia is a vicious disease. Finding the right combination of meds can take many years of trial and error, and their side effects can be life-threatening (diabetes and liver disease to mention only two) and/or "merely" embarrassing and uncomfortable (uncontrollable tremors and tics, radical weight gain, incontinence). No wonder very few people can adhere to the regimen, which only mitigates the symptoms of the disease but never cures it, unless they are hospitalized or living in a group home or hostel. It seems to me that it often strikes the most brilliant minds, like Shulamith Firestone. Yehi zikhra barukh. יהי זכרה ברוך

  13. I wish her peace in death, as she gifted us intellectual fire in life.

  14. Having read her book I can only presume it was an early symptom of her tragic illness; her alienation from her body is a sad story. To see biology as tyranny when it is, in itself, a simple fact surely suggested to some that she was at odds with herself? On a broader note, I also find it another sad note that someone who advocated, "a temporary dictatorship," pregnant with implied violence and murder of opponents is being celebrated. Anyone who wishes to establish control of a population through the ideational and actual violence of a dictatorship is flirting with crypto-fascism. Again, perhaps such fantasies of power were a symptom. Regardless, this is a tragic way to die for any human being.

    • A Marxist proletarian dictatorship simply means democratic majority rule. It has nothing to do with murder, totalitarianism, Leninism, etc. Read your Marx.

  15. Fell in and out of Shulamith's life for decades (or maybe thrown out then re-embraced). Always loved her. A wonderful friend. Deep, comapssionate, honest in ways few people can be. She suffered greatly often harrowingly. Even with that, knowing her brought me great joy and affirmation. In addition to The Dialectic of Sex, Airless Spaces is a magnificent book, as are many other things she wrote over the years, most of which haven't been published. She was also a wonderful painter and poet. And could be funny as hell. She helped change consciousness and paid a terrible price for it.

  16. Using Amazon and Wikipedia as sources in a death notice? And her landlord? She deserves better. I realize this is the internet and not an esteemed publication, but put a little effort into it.

  17. What costs, to have a vision so different from the masses, and to have it intertwined with one's madness–to seek out and never find solace–to fly so high and never to be able to return; to fly so high, alone.

  18. Anton Mikofsky

    I knew Shulamith as a friend for a while in the 70s. She was an artist first, before she was a writer. As I remember, she was or had been an artist in the CETA program. She had a wide variety of interests, from Tantra to astrology — she was able to cast horoscopes and did one for me at the time. She had no symptoms of mental illness that I could see, but wanted to preserve her private life and keep it separate from the public arena of books and politics that had opened up to her when her book became a bestseller (not the same as being a recluse, since she did go out to bookstores, etc., at the time, though she may have tended to become reclusive later, according to the obituaries).

  19. Philip Abraham

    Pretty sure that Rabbi Tirzah (With Roots in Heaven) and the family grew up in University City, Missouri– not Canada. Shulamith Firestone, Of dear and blessed memory

  20. Did she suffer from mental illness when she wrote the book also? Was she against women having children? How sad to be against the most beautiful aspect of life.

  21. Anton: You are wrong, and clearly did not know Shulamith well. She was shizophrenic, as she readily admitted in her second book, and as I can attest as the neighbor who's already written the above comment; and she was indeed reclusive for a good thirty years of her life, not just in the "later" period. This gets me so angry, the whitewashing and the good-hearted yet dishonest idealizations…and all the quotes in the newspapers from the family that I never saw in over twenty years–not even during her times of reprieve. I believe that her mental illness was as much a part of her identity as her feminism, and her struggle all the more heroic because of it.

  22. The Dialectic of Sex is a powerful book. It had a major impact on me as a social scientist. It is sad to hear of her illness of so many years. In Canada we all knew her as a Canadian from Ottawa, not someone from Missouri. Marriage and being responsible for raising children is a major barrier to the full development of women and still is. Unfortunately, the hard won rights that women have fought for over the past 40 years are now under vociferous attack from the patriarchy, aided by the religious fundamentalists everywhere.

  23. The article contains inaccuracies, and its focus lacks sensitivity to Shulamith and her influence and to who she was. It shows Mr. Anderson did not take the time to do his homework, nor did he make an attempt to contact, as I suggested individuals besides me that were close to Shulamith such as Lori Hiris and Beth Stryker, both of whom were also a part of Shulamith´s life over the years. In addition, the article included comments irrelevant to her passing and again to who Shulamith truly was. Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson failed to include what I DID say, and what I offrered freely and willingly through my voice of grief, which he could have used here had he been sensitive and concerned with writing a good, respectful and emotive article about Shulamith´s passing. As for the neighbors and others who did not know me or Lori or Beth, we were the ones that knocked on her door individually, called out her name and snuck into the building when someone opened the door to try and get to her in her times of illness, we went to the hospitals and bought her home when she was well, we sat with, ate, attended movies, museums, theatre and vaious activites with Shulamith during the times she was well. To dispell the myths about Shulamith´s later years and reclusiveness over the years, Shulmith was not depressed nor was she tormented when she was between hospitalizations. Shulmatih was reclusive at best, but my memories of her were of a brilliant, visionary woman and a kind and generous friend. I will miss her dearly. Lourdes Lopez

  24. Thanks for all the comments. She did deserve better. I am glad to hear more of her, beyond the usual gloss and superficiality of obits. Her writing, her life, raise so many questions about orthodox religion we are only now truly being able to examine in all its ingloriousness. Whether she was mad or whether, rather, she faced madness of her upbringing with just the right amount of intensity, is itself a question inherently raised by her early work that has never been properly addressed since. She was one of the few people of that era who truly had something unique to say, whether she was in all respects "correct" in all her propositions. So good to hear of her again but sad it had to be this way.

  25. Too many bad CIA, FBI ops lately.

  26. For a "recluse," she knew a lot of people. It doesn't matter to most of us who discovered her body first or who thinks they were her only friends or who says they heard her "screams" when no one else was around.. One of the things that drove her at least half crazy was the number of psychic parasites, pests & snoops who'd attach themselves to her. Maybe some of you meant well but others didn't & she was just famous enough & just influential enough to attract the attention of powerful people who could easily have done her more harm than good. Fair enough then, you can focus on her mental illness, she being a "schizophrenic" & all that goes with it, but the "paranoid" part maybe wasn't all that crazy. Didn't we just find out that one of the Berkeley Black Panthers who allegedly supplied weapons to the others, didn't we just find out after all these years that he was an FBI informant? News like that, after the initial "wtf?" probably wouldn't have surprised Shulamith. She was perceptive, could see patterns & conspiracies where others couldn't & as long as it didn't drag her down too far then the ability to do that is a good thing for artists & writers. Artists have to shut themselves off while they work, most of them anyway, and she did too. So it's not unusual that her friends would leave her alone for extended periods while she studied & worked. Yeah it's not ideal but that's the way it usually has to be. I did it myself for five years or so. I don't think she holds it against anyone for "abandoning" her. And I'm with the guys here like Anton & Robert, those who have some good memories & wish things could have been different for her in the love department or whatever. And I don't know if it's true or not, but she told me once she was grateful to one of her sisters for convincing her, when she did, to get treatment & medication for her mental illness, so maybe her family was a little closer to her than some of you would like to think.

    • Formally from 2nd St

      When I moved to Second Street in 1987, she was one of my downstairs neighbors. I knew that she was a famous feminist and that she suffered from schizophrenia. She often sat on the stairs with her cats, but rushed into her apartment when she heard anyone approaching. My only interaction was one night when she was screaming things about her mother and slamming her door over and over. I yelled down the stair for her to stop so I could sleep and she did.

      For the past 5 years, I have worked as a social worker in a state psychiatric hospital with the most difficult, chronic and treatment refractory patients. I have learned that although my patients have schizophrenia, the very essence of who they are does not change. After meeting family members, we often discover that some of the "symptoms" that were originally attributed to the mental illness was just a family trait. After meeting the father (physician) of a highly sarcastic and critical patient, we realized that he was just like his dad, but a heightened version. I could feel the disappointment dripping from the family that their oldest and very bright son was plagued with mental illness instead of reaching what they had expected. My patient also felt this from his family and just as unforgiving as his father, has cut all contact from his family.

      No one plans or wants mental illness. It is not chosen and yet as a society, we often treat people as if they had chosen to live this way. Medications sometimes helps with symptoms, but often with terrible side-effects. Some of my patients have expressed a desire for an instant fix, such a surgery to remove the mental illness. I have been told that they do not feel like themselves with or without the medication. I can only tell the stories of my interactions with my patients and what I imagine how I would feel.

      I hope that by writing this, people will remember not to judge the people with signs of mental illness that all of us see on a daily basis. There is little funding to support people battling to stay stable. Maintaining relationships with persons with mental illness can be difficult and trying. It sounds like there were friends, family and neighbors who were there when Ms Firestone could tolerate interactions. We may never know the whole story, the family dynamics, the struggle to find a medication that could be tolerated….mental illness, such as schizophrenia can topple a person with the most stable of lives. Please remember to be kind. Most people are just doing the best they can with what they have.

  27. I agree she must have been ill when she wrote this book. Many of it's so-called insights are clearly the product of a diseased mind.Many of these pathologies are no part of social policy causing more neurosis and dysfuction.

  28. Well, listen folks and pay attention as we are witnesses to a debauched,uncompassioned feminist shrill of a woman. Her advocacy of measures that could only mean pain and suffering for others ( read WOMEN AND CHILDREN) is ample evidence of the waste of productive time and energy she expended. She would have better served society as a Mother/Housewife…….

  29. When I moved to Second Street in 1987, she was one of my downstairs neighbors. I knew that she was a famous feminist and that she suffered from schizophrenia. She often sat on the stairs with her cats, but rushed into her apartment when she heard anyone approaching. My only interaction was one night when she was screaming things about her mother and slamming her door over and over. I yelled down the stair for her to stop so I could sleep and she did.

    For the past 5 years, I have worked as a social worker in a state psychiatric hospital with the most difficult, chronic and treatment refractory patients. I have learned that although my patients have schizophrenia, the very essence of who they are does not change. After meeting family members, we often discover that some of the "symptoms" that were originally attributed to the mental illness was just a family trait. After meeting the father (physician) of a highly sarcastic and critical patient, we realized that he was just like his dad, but a heightened version. I could feel the disappointment dripping from the family that their oldest and very bright son was plagued with mental illness instead of reaching what they had expected. My patient also felt this from his family and just as unforgiving as his father, has cut all contact from his family.

    No one plans or wants mental illness. It is not chosen and yet as a society, we often treat people as if they had chosen to live this way. Medications sometimes helps with symptoms, but often with terrible side-effects. Some of my patients have expressed a desire for an instant fix, such a surgery to remove the mental illness. I have been told that they do not feel like themselves with or without the medication. I can only tell the stories of my interactions with my patients and what I imagine how I would feel.

    I hope that by writing this, people will remember not to judge the people with signs of mental illness that all of us see on a daily basis. There is little funding to support people battling to stay stable. Maintaining relationships with persons with mental illness can be difficult and trying. It sounds like there were friends, family and neighbors who were there when Ms Firestone could tolerate interactions. We may never know the whole story, the family dynamics, the struggle to find a medication that could be tolerated….mental illness, such as schizophrenia can topple a person with the most stable of lives. Please remember to be kind. Most people are just doing the best they can with what they have.

  30. Re Lourdes Lopez: another neighbor here. Not tormented when she was between hospitalizations? Er, you never lived below her (or next to her).

    • I was there many times over the years between hospitalizations as were others and while I cannot speak on what occured after I left her apartment each time, I can say this with certaintly. I NEVER saw YOU, whomever you are, come out and speak to me or others who may have knocked on her door to see if she was well, alive or would open. As for her torment, if she was off meds she was obviously ill….What I do see here are the comments of a mean-spirited, I dare say…evil individual. I hope she haunts you!!!

  31. After Dialectic, she produced nothing except one small book about her experiences with mental illness. Yes, Dialectic was pathbreaking, but to say that she had to be reclusive to do her art is simply wrong. I don't buy this romanticization of reclusiveness or mental illness or the great feminist seer too far-seeing for this world. Mental illness pure and simple prevented her from living a life of any sort of productivity or growth. What art did she suffer for? What art did she produce? Why did she give up her art, which was her first passion? Because the patriarchy was against her? Does that mean that other feminist artists who did break down walls were more acceptable than she? In the end, once again, it was mental illness that incapacitated her, and yes, that she willingly surrendered to. I don't pretend to understand the hell that is anti-psychotic medication, and nor do I think schizophrenics should be held fully responsible for the condition many of them sink into. But please, let's stop the idealizations. It was this kind of fawning pressure, I'm sure, that she felt suffocated and crushed by.

  32. One more anti-gay bigot bites the dust. The crazy and vicious ideas in her book suggest that she was mad long before she became certifiably so. II see no reason to forget she and many of her feminist sisters were viciously hostile to gay men. Over a third of a century ago I denounced this bigotry in a talk, "Dangerous Trends in Feminism" (annual conference of the Gay Academic Union, 1976). It's online:

    http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/DTF.HTM

    Here is a paragraph from the 1976 talk:

    "Shulamith Firestone's book, The Dialectic of Sex, contains many nasty
    little digs against male homosexuality. Firestone accepts the Freudian
    Oedipal complex theory on the aetiology of male homosexuality. She also
    holds the extraordinary notion that men cannot be erotic objects, and
    that the female body in intrinsically more aesthetic."

    We gay men did nothing to deserve the attacks on us by such feminists as Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Leslie B. Tanner, Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chessler, and Carol Hanish. I am not aware that any of them ever apologized for their bigotry.

    John Lauritsen, Independent Scholar.
    Author: _The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein_ (2007).
    _A Freethinker's Primer of Male Love_ (1998).
    Co-Author: _The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935)_
    (1974/ Revised Second Edition 1995).

    • I'm a heterosexual male and I can appreciate her view that men cannot be erotic objects, and that the female body is intrinsically more aesthetic. For the life of me, I cannot understand what women see in us (not that I'm complaining).

  33. Her book was hard going for me, but I have seen some of her paintings and they are superb….

  34. Her mental illness explains how she was able to believe in Marxist theories.

  35. Concerned Citizen

    Great. According to most of you scholars and joe the plumber types, Firestone was a vicious bothersome anti-gay bigot commie nut-job, a noisy tenant and cat-lady neighbor who wrote a couple of little books that are full of crazy stuff no one in their right mind would, should attempt to read, study or discuss. Regarding independent scholar Lauritsen's contention above that feminists were anti-gay, I'd like to remind him that gay men are not the most innocent when it comes to harboring a contempt for women and, therefore, human nature being what it is, gay male contempt for women might inform the feminists' complex battlespace geometry, so to speak. Lauritsen's ideas about rape–"Brownmiller portrays rape as an omnipresent danger to women, whereas in fact it is a comparatively rare event"–come about as close to Republican Todd Akin's recent ignorant statements about "legitimate rape" as most of us care to get. I suppose the rape of a woman would be a "comparatively rare event" in Mr. Lauritsen's home, but I prefer not to speculate on such things. So basically even though hundreds of thousands of women have read and been deeply influenced by Firestone's theories, what we're left with here are pretty much a bunch of insulting safe mode comments and opinions.

  36. OK LIbtards, Ms. Firestone was simply ehibiting characteristics of liberalism. Liberalism IS a mental disorder.

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  41. Rachel Cherkovsky

    I met Shulamith in 1976, when she came to work at MIT. She was definitely not crazy and did not exhibit any strange behavior. She was a typist in our program and just wanted a job. The director of our program was all atwitter with her because of her "fame" as a feminist and her book, The Dialectic of Sex. She didn't really want to talk about her book or her feminism. She was just a rather quiet, smiling, nice, smart woman. She was articulate and rather sweet. There was no evidence of any mental illness during the time she worked for us, albeit a rather short time, but she wasn't a man-hater or gay hater or some of the other things noted here.

  42. Having just read the piece in The New Yorker about Firestone today, I then sought out more info and came upon this. I am struck by the sheer awfulness and inhumanity in many of these comments. Let's pretend that "Dialectic of Sex" wasn't one of the key works of second wave feminism and that Firestone was "merely" a reclusive woman who died alone and was dead for nore than a week in her apartment in NYC in August. Shouldn't that fact alone garner some kind of empathy? Why so cold and lacking in basic decancy? That was not the case when I lived in that neighborhood. Tragic–her death and the response. (And for those trashing her work here–one doesn't generally rate an obit in the New York Tiimes without having accomplished something.) Clearly feminism still threatens, 40plus years since Firestone's book.

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  44. Why is this woman celebrated? Why?

    She was self-hating, 100%. Her work reads like a very talented scientist who works to help cancer consume humanity.
    How is this not self-hating? Her mind is obviously brilliant. But she was clearly broken.

    Her eyes see, but her mind is blind.

    This is the best that feminists have to celebrate? A twisted dystopian visionary who hates the vagina? Oy vey.

    She was unhappy being a woman. Probably cuz her father made feel self-hatred. Sad too.

    Sad. So sad. Made more sad by those that would celebrate her "work".

    יהי זכרה ברוך

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