- Category: Press
National Women's Liberation wants to acknowledge and remember the immense contributions of Shulamith Firestone, a founder of the radical women's liberation branch of the Second Wave of feminism, who died this past August at the age of 67. Firestone was a courageous organizer, strategist, and theoretician. In 1967 she organized the first radical women’s liberation group in the U.S. in Chicago and the next one in New York City. In 1969, she was a co-founder of Redstockings, and then New York Radical Feminists. She was the founding editor of the women’s liberation journal Notes, whose first issue, Notes from the First Year, is distributed by the Redstockings Archives for Action.
I became active in the feminist movement in the early 2000s and Firestone's Notes from the First Year was one of the first primary sources that I read from the Second Wave. The papers compiled in the journal were sharp, honest, and packed a fierce punch. Her paper, The Women's Rights Movement in the U.S.: A New View looked back at the first wave of feminism and explained why it was radical and why that radical history was covered up. It was the first time I had heard that the feminists of that era had fought for more than the vote. Just by unearthing its name, The Women's Rights Movement, rather than calling it The Suffrage Movement taught me it was about more than the vote. And her paper gave me the first glimpse into the breadth and persistence of that movement. Firestone wrote:
“Women's rights (liberation, if you prefer) has dynamite revolutionary potential, ... the Nineteenth Century [Women's Rights Movement] was indeed a radical movement from the start, it was tied up with the most radical of movements and ideas of its day, and even to the bitter end in 1920, there was a strong radical strain which has been purposely ignored and buried.” She explained why capitalists, racists, the government, and the Church were against the Women's Rights Movement of that era.
Realizing that history had been buried made me question what other history I was missing. What other rich stories of our activist past I could learn from. And what else I had been lied to about. It ignited my interest in activist history, which over the last ten years has taught me a great deal and made me a stronger, better feminist fighter.
In the same paper she discussed some of the mistakes of the first movement. She explained how one strain of the movement aligned the Women's Rights Movement with the temperance issue because people argued temperance was where women were at. She explained how this alliance later made the Women's Rights Movement unpopular and set them back almost 50 years. She made the point that instead of reaching people “where they are at” when they are in the wrong place, we should be concerned with educating them at all times to the real issues involved, “If there ARE real issues, people will catch on soon enough.” This, too, has been a principle I've used in my organizing since reading it.
Firestone suffered from severe shell-shock after leading radical feminism's first charge, and her health continued to deteriorate. But she marshaled through strength to contribute to Redstockings actions that seemed crucial to her—for instance, commemorating movement beacons like Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, and Judith Benninger Brown, founder of Gainesville (Florida) Women's Liberation. She also contributed historic materials to the Redstockings Archives for Action. All of which, National Women's Liberation continues to benefit from today.
As a group that aims to build upon the work of radical feminists that have come before, National Women's Liberation knows we are a great deal farther along in our fight for liberation because of the work of Shulamith Firestone. And for that, we thank her.
You can order and read Notes from the First Year and other journals and papers Shulamith Firestone wrote at www.redstockings.org.
- By Erin Mahoney