Shulasmith Firestone, brilliant and passionate tragedy


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For several years in the late 60s and early 70s she was a major figure in the women’s liberation movement. She was in her 20s when her dynamic flame burned out, and she fell into isolation and years of struggle with schizophrenia. A little over a year ago she was found dead in her apartment in the East Village of New York City, apparently having starved to death.

Susan Faludi, one of the most inquiring and compassionate writers I know of, wrote a beautiful and deeply moving piece about her in the New Yorker. I suggest you consider it a must read.

I didn’t know her, but knew of her when I was dating a woman from the New York Radical Feminists. Reading Faludi’s piece brought up tears. Shulahsmith’s story dramatizes two dynamics that cripple radical movements. First, dynamic leadership often gets crucified because it is bold and brilliant. Crucified because such power is experienced by many as a dominating force when it isn't. Sometimes it is dominating, and sometimes it is a mix. In any of these cases, attacking and throwing out such leaders is destructive for eveeryone. Shulahsmith, as far as I can tell, was the victim of this. Driven out of the most promising project of several she had initiated for the empowerment of women, she gave up on the whole thing. Walked out on five or so years of loving, passionate work that impacted many deeply.

For the most part we in our various movements have not addressed the need to learn how to convert challenging problems into opportunities. That we are severely limited in knowing how to negotiate differences in high energy situations is one factor. Not giving that problem the highest priority as something needing to be addressed is another. Instead, we often eat our own.

The second dynamic that Shulasmith may have embodied is the failure of activists to commit to becoming the change they are trying to bring to the world. She seemed to have had a severely abusive relationship with her father. within their family their fights were legendary. And there was also a crushing rejection from a brother. It doesn’t seem that she worked through these traumas. As an adult she had several physically abusive lovers. One can imagine that, aside from her political convictions, building the women’s movement was a major attempt to create the ‘family’ she wanted andeach of us needs. It’s rejection of her, real or misperceived by her, must have been crushing. Her departure was certainly a crushing loss for every democracy movement on the planet.

Jessica Grose has a short response at Slate to Faludi’s piece that includes perceptive comments in contrasting Shulahsmith’s writing success to the current success of Lean In.

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