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On Shulamith Firestone from "The Power of History" in Feminist Revolution

         Denying the idea of leadership meant not recognizing the existence of sources of things, not recognizing theory and not recognizing history. It led to timelessness and mindlessness.

           Behind this was the failure to understand the true, radical meaning of the word leadership. The simplest most down-to-earth definition of leadership is actually chronological: in terms of history, she who goes first; in terms of hard work, she who paves the way; in terms of getting to one’s destination, she who guides. Often leadership was simply not recognized for what it was—because it was coming from a woman or because it was so unfamiliar, so radical, so “simple.”

           Leadership in this sense was actually happening from the beginning of the movement, whether or not people understood this to be leadership. The movement was launched by women who saw that women were oppressed—and not all women saw this. It was launched by women who wanted to try to do something for the situation of women as a whole, who decided they could not free themselves by themselves; and not all women understood this. In this very simple, radical sense leadership existed and because it was real, it was valuable and necessary—even precious.

           … We had to learn the importance of recognizing our reality, and the importance of our history. And we had to learn the importance of recognizing the reality of both in building our organization instead of suppressing both in the name of keeping up appearances of one kind or another. Only if we based our struggle on reality—not appearances—could we really free ourselves.

            … It is amazing that as much of the true picture of the history of the beginning of the movement was able to get out as has, in the face of all these obstacles, as well of the widespread ignorance of and failure really to understand its importance.  That it did is due virtually single-handedly to the leadership of Shulamith Firestone—who, in the face of all kinds of attack (not to mention lack of support) from inside as well as outside the movement, proceeded to dare to embarrass herself by taking the history of the movement, taking herself and the others who began it, absolutely seriously.

            I know I liked the simplicity and accuracy of the title Firestone, as editor, chose for our group’s journal Notes From The First Year.  But I remember also thinking it was “cute,” a little premature, even presumptuous to put ourselves in a historical context so soon.  I jumped into a “left” version of the pro-woman line saying something like to call ourselves “first” was in a way to put down all the feminists who went before us, and all the individual struggles of women which never stopped going on.  Firestone, in fact, was the only one in the group to write an extensive article about the earlier feminists in the 19th century, pointing out that they were predecessors we could be proud of, and far more radical than had been acknowledged, in this very same journal she was calling “First Year.”  What is more, “First Year” referred simply to the record of our group, which was accurate and descriptive, and even somewhat limited in its description.  As the first theoretical journal of radical women, later to call themselves radical feminists, it really did reflect the first year of visible stirrings of the independent radical women’s liberation movement.

            But somehow I missed these things in my criticism, though not in the feeling of excitement Firestone’s directness generated in me.  Later, in Notes From The Second Year, Firestone’s efforts at documenting the movement work of contributors stirred more of these contradictory feelings.  Even though I felt my “consciousness-raised” by the appraisal and acknowledgement, I also felt embarrassed by it.  I found myself wondering whether it hadn’t probably just been chance that brought us all together in that group, at that time, to produce that work in a climate that allowed it to spread rapidly, and “receive the credit” for being the first, and besides, I knew that getting acknowledged publicly in this way was going to cause some trouble for me in Redstockings as it was then functioning.

            If I was afraid of trouble from the outside and further isolation inside the movement for being acknowledged, you can imagine the flack Firestone faced for being the one to do all the acknowledging.  Outsiders—reporters and non-movement writers—had done it before, usually with terrible inaccuracies.  This had caused some internal frictions and jealousies—as well as some feelings of social pride in “the group.”  But this was nothing compared to what would hit an insider who tried to record the history of the movement.  For someone inside the movement to do it (and to do it far more accurately) was actually a change in the nature—the depth, breadth, seriousness and daring—of the organizational format of the movement up to that point.  For instance, despite all the essays on the movement’s leaderlessness in Notes, those editor’s introductions to the articles actually pointed out and documented leadership—to the women already involved in the movement and to those thinking of becoming involved.

            Virtually every detail of what Firestone did in establishing and documenting the history of the beginning of the women’s liberation movement had political significance and salvaged some radical political power for women—not to mention simple truth and historic reality—in the attempted takeover by the Liberal Establishment, in both theory and concrete reality that would follow.

* Starting a theoretical journal for the movement—the first one—putting movement theory and experience in print on the public record.

* Calling the journal Notes From The First Year and thereby asserting immediate consciousness of present history, daring to take herself seriously and the present generation seriously.

* Writing in the first journal a historical essay on the 19th century Women’s Rights Movement, affirming the women who had gone before us, and revealing the women who had gone before us, and revealing that they were far more radical than the history books—those that mention them at all—let on.

* Identifying the group in the title of the journal as New York Radical Women and establishing for the public scrutiny as well as the historical record that we considered ourselves radicals, with all the breadth and depth of scope that word committed us to.  This is also evident in any number of the articles in the journal, which discuss the relationship of women’s to the black liberation movement and to socialist revolutions.  The later change to the term radical feminist did not represent a narrowing of the scope, but an affirmation of feminism in the face of the pseudo-left disparagement of it.

* In Notes From the Second Year, identifying as accurately as possible—and publicly, for the people, too—the contributions of the women whose work and writings had been at the center of the opening round of the women’s liberation movement.

* Writing the Organizing Principles of New York Radical Feminists and including reading and action on feminist history as a requirement for joining the group.  This requirement was one of the first to be revised out of existence in the liberal takeover of the organization, when the founders were forced to resign and the Organizing Principles eliminated.

* In dedicating her book The Dialectic of Sex to Simone de Beauvoir, Firestone displayed again her sense of history and derivation and established in one of the few places on the public record that the feminism of the radical women who put the women’s liberation movement on the map and into the world vocabulary derived from the radical Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex, not the liberal Betty Friedan—with all the political implications this involves.  In fact, Simone de Beauvoir is the mother of Betty Friedan, which is only dimly acknowledged in Friedan’s book.  Although so many of the radical activists in the beginning of the movement had confessed to each other the enormous impact The Second Sex had had on our lives, we were tending to see this as more important personally than politically.  We knew, of course, that personally we derived from Beauvoir, not Friedan.  But too few of us had enough of a sense of history, particularly our own history, to see the political importance of making our tradition clear.

  -- Kathie Sarachild, “The Power of History,” Redstockings's Feminist Revolution (Redstockings, New Paltz, NY, 1975; Random House, 1978)



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