Susan Brownmiller comments on Faludi & Firestone: “You need nerves of steel to stay in for the long haul in a radical political movement.”


Susan Brownmiller left a comment on the previous post that I thought many of you would be interested in seeing.  She is highly critical of the article that Susan Faludi wrote for the New Yorker about Shulamith Firestone‘s contributions to radical feminism in the 1960s and 70s, both in its judgment and its appearance fairly recently after Firestone’s death.  Be sure to read the whole thing in full, but here’s some flava:

For the record, I chose not to speak to Faludi for her New Yorker piece because I said all I cared to say about Shulie Firestone in my movement memoir “In Our Time”(1999), and I thought it was disgraceful that Faludi was going to parse Firestone’s paranoid schizophrenia for a popular audience so soon after her death. One of Shulie’s paranoid delusions in 1970 when she abruptly quit New York Radical Feminists was that my consciousness-raising group and I were plotting a coup against her. For some reason Faludi decided that this particular delusion was actually true. It wasn’t true, although Shulie repeated it many times over the next few years to anyone who’d listen–. . . .

.       .       .       .       .       .

Faludi leaves out all the wonderful things New York Radical Feminists accomplished after Firestone’s departure– most notably our Speak-Out on Rape and our Conference on Rape in 1971, two events that helped forge a new national consciousness on rape and the sexual abuse of children. Yes, there were unstable people in the radical feminist movement, as there have been unstable people in all political movements. Sometimes grandiose ideological visionaries destroy movements– as Weatherman destroyed the New Left– but generally they just self-destruct, as poor Shulie did before “The Dialectic of Sex was published. As for the infighting, that goes with the territory. You need nerves of steel to stay in for the long haul in a radical political movement.

And now for the correction:  One of the reasons I believe Brownmiller left her comment was to correct the record on this blog about a mistake of mine.  I had written in a comment, “Susan Brownmiller, for example, doesn’t really want to talk about a lot of the stuff Faludi wants to explore with her.”  I had the (apparently mistaken) notion in my mind that Brownmiller had been interviewed for the article, but Faludi is actually quite clear that she tried to talk to Brownmiller but “Brownmiller declined to talk to me” about the breakup of the New York Radical Feminists.  Instead, Faludi writes, Brownmiller “referred me to her memoir, In Our Time (1999).”  Faludi also did what any historian would do as well–she read (and quoted from) Brownmiller’s papers at the Schlesinger Library.

So, this post is to correct any mistaken impression I gave that Brownmiller participated in Faludi’s research at all for this article, as well as to highlight some of the memories that Brownmiller shared in her comment.  There’s more than the quoted passages above, so do read the whole thing.


13 thoughts on “Susan Brownmiller comments on Faludi & Firestone: “You need nerves of steel to stay in for the long haul in a radical political movement.”

  1. As a writer who grew up in the feminist movement, I remember being warned against “horizontal hostility”–the tendency to fight against each other because we were there, when the real enemy was outside the room.


  2. It is sort of interesting that Brownmiller upbraids Faludi for “parsing” Firestone’s psychological problems in a public forum and then proceeds to do the exact same thing.


  3. As someone who has been active in radical movements of one kind and another for something approaching twenty years – I got started in high school – I’ve seen many, many splits, “coups”, painful dissolutions, mental break-downs, cases of burn-out and just plain conflicts over real political differences. I’ve had personal experience with several of the above.

    What I’ve learned is that they are all so terribly particular and time-bound that it is desperately hard to write accurately about them for anyone outside the milieu; this is exacerbated by the fact that we tend to give ideology priority in explaining problems. Ideology and real political differences are important, and I am very wary of the tendency to say ‘all differences are the result of feelings, mental illness or larger social forces”, especially when talking about women’s movements, but at the same time, I have learned that it is very hard to write about (and I assume read about) movement conflicts and get any kind of useful understanding, because those conflicts are so complicated and have so much layered into them. It’s hard enough to understand an incident in a movement milieu that you’re actually familiar with; it’s pretty much impossible if you’re outside of activist politics. This is especially true because official American ideology is basically that anyone who gives years of their lives – unpaid! even when it’s not fun or does not benefit them personally! – is ipso facto mad or dishonest…so we’re all always reading against that unconscious bias.

    I add that it is very, very hard to sort out “horizontal hostility” from “real political differences”. My “horizontal hostility” may be your “but you are paying no attention to how working class women in this movement experience it, and that makes it impossible for me to do the work without being in conflict with you”. “Horizontal hostility”, IME, is far more about the intensity of a conflict – “we differ and this is because you are morally monstrous!” – than it is about the existence of the conflict.

    I cringe, actually, whenever I see these big profiles of movement people in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, etc, because inevitably they are profiles written for an audience who has no understanding of the group or the people and who – for the most part – wants to be reassured that feminists, or environmentalists, or labor activists, or anyone who is more than very mildly reformist is just a lunatic who “goes too far”. It’s the selling of stories about my people – even if I would have differed with them, we care about the same kinds of things – to an audience who does not love them, and it is opportunistic and kind of gross.


  4. I was on the outside looking in during the Sixties and Seventies because: “no men allowed.”
    I have read “Against our will”, “Femininity”, “In Our Time”. And she responded to me about a very big question/problem I had with real wisdom and put my mind at ease. Susan Brownmiller would not mis-characterize any part of the Feminist Movement.
    “Frowner’s” comment is very good.
    It is very important to read the whole thing as the author says more than once.


  5. Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left

    Susan Faludi’s biographical study of Shulamith Firestone in the current New Yorker is required reading for anyone interested in the history of the last third of the twentieth century. It restores to her proper place one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of modern feminism. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism, which had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work, and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.

    Faludi gives a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath. Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex and when she died last year, at the age of sixty seven, she was alone, impoverished, forgotten and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic for decades. In recounting this tragic story, Faludi touches on a related topic, the split between women’s liberation and the Left, in which Firestone participated. In my view this is one of the most important, if not fully understood, stories of recent US history.

    As I see it, it is partly thanks to this split that there is no Left in the United States today. We do, of course, have protest movements of all sorts, but no Left in the more emphatic sense of a social and intellectual tendency capable of understanding American capitalism as a whole and critiquing it from an egalitarian point of view. Closely related to the absence of a Left in this sense is the decline of a radical tendency within feminism; just compare Firestone’s Dialectic, which came out of and partook of the New Left, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. While some today think of the New Left as a brief explosive upheaval, which burnt out by 1968, the New Left actually had its roots in a preexisting radical tradition and a small but significant minority shared the goal of creating a permanent radical presence– a Left– in the United States. The defeat of that effort, which played itself out in the 1970s, has been important to the triumph of neo-liberalism, the drastic growth in inequality, the evisceration of public life, and other obviously problematic features of today’s world. For many young people, figures like Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama, are what they know of a Left. For someone like myself, who can still remember what a Left means, this is an incredible loss.

    Faludi shows how truly mad the psychological milieu in which Firestone operated was. Both Firestone and her contemporary, Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, were driven out of the women’s movement by feminists who accused them of being male-identified, “unsisterly” “leaders.” This was known as “trashing,” a term that signified cleaning the ranks. In Faludi’s words, “Like a cancer, the attacks spread from those who had reputations to those who were merely strong; from those who were active to those who merely had ideas; from those who stood out as individuals to those who failed to conform rapidly enough to the twists and turns of the changing line.” One’s first thought might be that this was not just true of the early women’s movement, but of the whole New Left, indeed of the old Left, or even of the Occupy movements today. There is truth in this, but the truth does not obviate our responsibility to understand the irrationalities that characterized all these movements, and the differences amongst them.

    In understanding the persecutory culture to which Firestone was subjected, a few qualifications are important. For one thing, it is necessary to distinguish the mass feminist movement, best represented by Betty Friedan and NOW, and squarely in the liberal tradition, from the far smaller women’s liberation tendency that included Firestone, and that was originally part of the Left. It was only in the latter that “trashing” occurred, and one would like to know why. Secondly, any one who has studied the history of revolutionary movements like women’s liberation knows the profound emotions and antinomian theories stirred up by the possibilities of liberation. Finally, trashing was condemned by advocates of women’s liberation of the time, such as Anselma Dell’Olio, the founder of the New Feminist Theater, who in a 1970 address, “Divisiveness and Self-Destruction in the Women’s Movement,” warned that women’s “rage, masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism under the ‘pro-woman’ banner,” was turning into “frighteningly vicious anti-intellectual fascism of the left.”

    With these qualifications, understanding Firestone’s milieu helps establish the mentality in which advocates of women’s liberation decided to split with the New Left and pursue a stand-alone feminism. In Faludi’s account, which follows canonical texts of the period such as Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open or Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad, women left the Left because of the intransigent sexism of New Left men. Here are Firestone’s own words, published in the Guardian in 1969: “We have more important things to do than to try to get you [i.e., men] to come around. You will come around when you have to, because you need us more than we need you. . . . The message being: Fuck off, left. You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.” In support of this view, Faludi provides many still-horrifying descriptions of Firestone and other women being shouted down at male dominated New Left events.

    But is it really likely that the same women who were so irrational in their relations to figures like Firestone were rational when they thought about the men in the New Left? While there is an obvious experiental truth to the perception of men’s obtuseness, a moment’s reflection will convince the reader that it is an inadequate explanation. At root, the explanation minimizes women’s capacity to build the kind of mixed Left they wanted. It emphasizes women’s strongly negative experiences of working with men but it does not call attention to women’s powerful positive wish to be in an all-woman movement. Whatever failings the men of the New Left had, and no doubt they were many, it is far more reasonable to conclude that women left the Left because they wanted to, than because male sexism drove them out.

    The costs of this split were great. As Barbara Deming, another feminist activist of the time, wrote, the split was a “tragedy.” The consciousness of the great movements of the 1960s was based on a shattering of social identity and a reaching out at the deepest possible level to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself. This was not only characteristic of the civil rights movement, whose original message was universalist and social democratic, but also of the student movements of the period. By contrast, the identity politics that fueled women’s liberation counter-posed the fight against one’s own oppression against what was perceived as the oppression of others. Anyone reading the literature of women’s liberation will find statements like that of Cathy Cade, a lesbian documentary photographer who explained, “in the black movement I had been fighting for someone else’s oppression and now there was a way that I could fight for my own freedom.” Or Mimi Feingold: “women couldn’t burn draft cards and couldn’t go to jail so all they could do was to relate through their men and that seemed to me the most really demeaning kind of thing.” Or the feminist collective that proclaimed, “the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” This is the language not only of women’s liberation but also of neo-liberal economics, born at the same time and as part of the same process.

    Tragic though the split was, and important as it is to rethink it, there was a profound element to it that I want to end by affirming. Historically women had subordinated themselves to others. They had sacrificed to give the socialist movement its ethos, to build the civil rights movement in the South, and to support the draft-age men who refused to fight in Vietnam. Above all they had sacrificed to maintain the family, the institution that Firestone identified as the core of human oppression, not just of women, but of all human beings. To be sure, Firestone was wrong in her attack on what she called “the biological family.” The family is our salvation as well as a source of darkness and inequality. Nonetheless, it was right and good that the reliance of the family on women’s nurturant and “giving” qualities end, and that these qualities be shared by both genders. Women’s liberation was a way of saying that women would not be the sole givers and caretakers anymore, and that recognition will surely be indispensable to any Left that we create in the future.

    Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument


  6. I think this actually points to an interesting/serious problem, which is the consistency, persistence, and force with which the dominant culture rejects the self-testimony of the mentally ill, as though having a diagnosis precludes speaking powerful and uncomfortable truths. Shulamith Firestone is dead. And she was schizophrenic. And so it is extremely easy for Susan Brownmiller to argue, over forty years later, that Firestone’s worry about being undermined was a “paranoid delusion,” that we should accept her truth over Firestone’s–she who cannot correct the record and, even if she were here, would probably not be allowed to. And so we do.


  7. She probably did suffer from paranoid delusions–but which of her fears were paranoia, and which were very real, is an important and fascinating thing to think about. As you note, Brownmiller & others have the advantage of survival and persistence, something that Firestone’s struggle with mental illness didn’t allow her.

    However, I wouldn’t equate Brownmiller & other surviving feminists with the “dominant culture.” I think it’s clear that Firestone was a real challenge to the dominant (patriarchal) culture. I also think it’s clear that Firestone and Brownmiller were once allies, and whatever their subsequent disagreements and fallings-out, they should still be seen as allies in the struggle against the dominant culture.


  8. I mean, I have no doubt she had delusions. What I’m saying is that because of that fact, people with mental illnesses are often discredited wholly.

    I think vis a vis mental illness, there is actually a power differential here, though understandably heightened by the larger problem of women being able to speak freely. Perhaps dominant culture is not the right phrase–but Brownmiller’s claims to “sanity” are ones of power and privilege.


  9. I get you, js–good point. (And, srsly? “Burn in hell?” That’s too bad, and really mean. That doesn’t mean however that their historical alliance and shared goals are irrelevant or cancelled out, however.)


  10. js: you missed the context. It was Faludi, not Firestone, that Brownmiller wanted to send to hell for a good toasting. Susan is new to Twitter, and even though it was a regrettable thing to say, she wasn’t dancing on Shulie’s grave. I also think that — having been in the archives myself — it was well known by all of Firestone’s contemporaries that her illness was dangerously out of control, had taken her fine mind to another place, and that her various charges were a product of paranoia, not a reflection of reality. Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson and others corresponded intensely over the problem for a period of years. I also thought it was an important gap that Faludi did not mention Kate Millett’s role in arguing against forcing treatment on Firestone, which she did, Millett took a very strong stance against medication in relation to her own illness, and the quote in the Faludi piece fails to admit her own culpability in refusing to get Firestone into treatment — or support her once she was.

    While I understand your concern about the discrediting of the mentally ill, I also think there is a disturbing trend towards viewing people who periodically descend into delusions and psychosis as merely inhabiting an alternate reality that we all need to respect. I know about a half dozen people who struggle with bipolar disease, schizophrenia, and mania and — let me tell you — the vast majority of *them* don’t see it this way.

    You know, Susan Brownmiller is easy to pick on because she speaks her mind in unfelicitous ways. Sometimes I wish she wouldn’t, because I care about her, and I hate it when she sets herself up for criticism. But she is honest, to a fault. The reason she gets angry is that other people outright lie, covering up what htey did and did not do in the movement. Faludi — a journalist I admire — did not lie, but her research was shoddy, and she picked a narrative that appealed to her, a narrative that is so partial as to be actually false.


  11. Thanks for your comment, TR. I’ll have to go back to re-read the Faludi piece myself–I must admit that I probably didn’t catch all of the nuances and omissions you caught, partially because of inattention, but also because it’s not my period of expertise.


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