Thoughts on Shulamith Firestone

In her article Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine, Judith Halberstam comments on the role of technology in feminist discourses by citing Shulamith Firestone (page 450). Halberstam brings up how Firestone argued that “feminist revolution must seize control of the means of both production and reproduction: cyberantion and fertility control will relieve women of their historical burden and lead the way to a different and fully politicized female subject position.” Halberstam mentions that “Firestone remained caught in a kind of biologism which grounds gender oppression in the body of the mother.”

It’s interesting to think about how gender dynamics would change if reproduction were outsourced to scientific procedures. While I do think that if this were to happen, women would be liberated in some way, I argue that it won’t bring about this “politicized female subject position” that Firestone suggests. On the one hand, not being tasked with the burden of reproduction frees women up to pursue facets of life denied or hindered because of biology. For example, if women had control of technological productions and reproduction, there wouldn’t be a need to police women’s reproductive organs. Additionally, female bodies wouldn’t feel the pressure attached with reproduction (e.g. pressure from significant others, from family, from society). Finally, if the female body was “mastered,” female bodies won’t have to deal with the effects that come with reproductive organs (e.g. menstruation, hormonal fluctuations, etc).

On the other hand, outsourcing reproduction doesn’t change the biology of female bodies; female bodies will still have vaginas. In the same way, male bodies will still have penises. Even if heteronormativity were to fall away, there would still be a power dynamic between male and female bodies, where male bodies have power over female bodies in that male bodies penetrate and female bodies are penetrated. Indeed, this is the underlying dynamic of rape: it is ultimately about having power over another individual. At the same time, this power dynamic only exists because as a society, we’ve inscribed meaning into sex and and the act of penetrating; our discourse on sex stratifies male bodies as dominant over female bodies. For example, citing the female body as penetrated, as an orifice to be filled, perpetuates male dominance.

While liberating women from birthing will undoubtedly bring benefits, I don’t believe a true “politicized female subject position” can be formed until the power dynamic between male and female bodies is overturned. I believe one way to do so would be to rectify discourses surrounding sexuality and the body. That doesn’t entail spinning words to position female bodies over male bodies (e.g. citing the penis as captured, or the male body as controlled). Discourse surrounding the male and female body (and other bodies on or off that spectrum) have to be leveled, equal, and non-confrontational. Additionally, there needs to be platforms for discourse to occur: while young boys are encouraged to display their sexuality, young girls are pressured to deny theirs or seek anonymous avenues to express themselves.

I do think it is necessary for the task of birthing to be relieved from female bodies. I think that step should precede a challenge on body discourses so that those challenges will prove more successful.