Paradise on Earth: Shulamith Firestone and the Legacy of Reproductive Technologies

Last week, feminist visionary Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, died at the age of 67. As Sarah Franklin discussed in her essay “Transbiology: A Feminist Cultural Account of Being After IVF”:

Firestone is of course famous, or infamous, for her advocacy of new reproductive technologies as a means of freeing women from the tyranny of biology by liberating them from pregnancy. For this prediction, her 1970 publication The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution has long drawn regret and vitriol from critics accusing its author of all manner of folly—from technological determinism and biological essentialism to sheer naïveté.

Shulamith Firestone
Franklin’s article, arising out of the 2009 Scholar & Feminist Conference The Politics of Reproduction: New Technologies of Life, explores Firestone’s “utopian faith in technological progress” and reviews the swirling controversies within feminism around the appropriate role of technology in reproduction. These concerns remain very much present in contemporary discourse—The Scholar & Feminist Online issue “Critical Conceptions,” in which Franklin’s essay appears, further explores the complicated landscape of reproductive technology, and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts’ 2012 Helen Pond McIntyre lecture on “Race, Gender, and the New Biocitizen,” will also take up the ways in which technological advances in reproductive medicine can further inequality.

Yet in the midst of much anxiety about the dystopic potential of reproductive technology, Firestone’s ideas continue to inspire. As Sarah Franklin puts it:

Revolutionary manifestos rely on hyperbole and foreshortening, as well as cheek and verve, and Firestone’s 245-page instruction manual for the overthrow of sexual difference, racial discrimination, class inequality, environmental degradation, marriage, aging, disease, monogamy, boredom, religion, culture, neurosis, depression and the nation state was clearly ambitious. The ending paragraph of the book, which is among its least convincing, promises no less than “paradise on earth.” Still, in the 21-year-old Firestone’s own words it was only “a very rough plan” intended to “make the general direction of a feminist revolution more vivid.”

It is this ability to develop a picture of what liberation might look like that remains powerful, despite its faults. As Kathleen Grier argues at the Washington Monthly:

Like all the best radical thinkers and visionaries, Firestone is valuable for busting ancient paradigms, burning through centuries-old intellectual debris, and opening one’s heart, mind, and imagination to new ways of thinking and new ways of being.

This desire “to make the general direction of a feminist revolution more vivid” is at the root of BCRW’s own plans for The Scholar & Feminist 2013: Utopia. So as we remember Shulamith Firestone, we ask you – what do you think reproduction would look like in a feminist utopia? What role should technology play? Ultimately—what are your dreams for “paradise on earth?”

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