As influential radical feminist thinkers of the twentieth century, both Shulamith Firestone and Angela Davis underscore in their writings the importance of reproductive technologies in the emancipation of women as contingent to the universal emancipation of the oppressed. In their respective works “The Dialectic of Sex” and “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” it is clear that for Firestone and Davis alike, foregrounding gendered struggles and experiences specific to women is a crucial requisite for dismantling the ubiquitously overarching power structures that dictate the lived realities of the oppressed. Especially as they wrote with the social context of the twentieth century’s scientific developments leading to the proliferation of reproductive and contraceptive technologies, both theorists recognize the fight for reproductive justice as a fundamental fight for the emancipation of women and, by extension, all oppressed classes.
Putting Firestone and Davis’ arguments in dialogue with one another, however, reveals a fundamental divergence in their opinions concerning the implementation of reproductive technologies in society as a pragmatic practice. While Firestone’s view of the role of reproductive technologies is largely optimistic, Davis’ work raises concerns about the state’s weaponization of reproductive technologies to exercise racist and classist biopower. How are we meant to rationalize this divergence in radical feminist thinking, and how might reproductive technologies be responsibly utilized and oriented in society towards the overall emancipation of all women?
Upon closer examination of their works, it would appear that the divergence in their thinking is a product of Firestone and Davis having embarked on two distinctly different projects with different conceptions of what encompasses the central “revolutionary subject.” For Firestone, the hierarchical “sexual class system” that was arbitrarily upheld throughout history is the most deeply-rooted and prevalent form of oppression that, in the event of its abolition, would result in the emancipation of all other oppression — such as class-based oppression — in its wake. While the main claims of this argument do indeed hold true in Davis’ work as well, the category of “woman” in and of itself is not sufficient to encompass the broad range of specific marginalizations faced by racialized women and women in poverty at the hand of the state, specifically in relation to the abuse of reproductive technologies. As such, it can be surmised that Davis’ work intentionally accounts for the diverse experiences of women regardless of race and class, where Firestone’s work falls into somewhat of a false universalization in failing to consider the ways in which reproductive technologies can be appropriated by the state to specifically harm women of colour and women living in poverty.
Two different projects
Firestone holds a great deal of faith in the development of reproductive technologies as a proponent for social change on the broader scale, arguing that innate biological sexual differences between men and women on the binary view of gender are rendered inconsequential by recent scientific developments. As she writes in “The Dialectic of Sex:”
“Thus the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to transcend Nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class systems on grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.”
For Firestone, reproductive technologies function as an essential toolkit that can be utilized toward the equalization of the arbitrarily constructed hierarchy of the “sex class system” and the natural differences that have been used to justify the construction of this hierarchy. Though she concedes briefly that “the new technology, especially fertility control, may be used against them to reinforce the entrenched system of exploitation,” Firestone remains quite adamant that the use of birth control and other reproductive technologies is a means to seize the means of reproduction by returning bodily autonomy to women and control over human fertility. Firestone’s analysis is grounded in the theoretical potential for reproductive technologies to bring about the abolition of ‘natural’ sexual distinctions and the hierarchical system of dominance that mandates its existence, rather than the material, immediate consequences of the technologies on specific demographics of women.
Though Angela Davis also holds reproductive rights and reproductive technologies such as contraceptive methods and safe options for abortion to be crucial for the future of feminist progress, writing that, “Birth control — individual choice, safe contraceptive methods, as well as abortions when necessary — is a fundamental prerequisite for the emancipation of women” (Davis 202), her analysis is materially grounded in recognizing the historical truth that such reproductive technologies have often been coopted for eugenic and classist biopolitical control in order to limit the proliferation of “lower classes” and maintain the numbers of the white population within society. Since the early days of the birth control movement, these nefarious abuses of reproductive technologies in the form of compulsory sterilization have come with the implicit assumption and pressure that poor women, including Black women and immigrant women, had a “moral obligation to restrict the size of their families” (Davis 210). Thousands were arbitrarily deemed “unfit” for reproduction and forced to undergo highly invasive procedures of sterilization in a racist, biopolitical form of mass birth control.
Clearly, the emergence of reproductive technologies is a point of contention for Davis and Firestone regarding their position and potential in the radical feminist movement working toward the liberation and emancipation of all oppressed people, starting with the emancipation of women. Firestone appears overtly optimistic, and at the core of this lies her belief that the “sex class system” is the most prevalent and most deeply-rooted system of oppression in society that would, in the event of a total upset, allow for the liberation of all oppressed classes in its wake. Davis’ analysis, in accounting for the comprehensive racialized experience of Black women and the socioeconomic divergence in lived realities from white women, lies in opposition with Firestone’s claim that the category of “woman” is the most ubiquitously marginalized group in modern Western society, and integrates the elimination of sterilization abuse in her advocacy for reproductive justice. As such, the diverging opinions surrounding reproductive technologies in the respective analytical frameworks of Firestone and Davis stem from a fundamental divergence in opinion concerning the definition of the category of “woman” as an all-encompassing revolutionary agent whose liberation will bring about the emancipation of all oppressed classes in a feminist revolution.
Two different positionalities
This divergence is largely explicated by Firestone’s belief that the subjugation of women in the “sex class system” is the most prevalent and deeply-rooted form of oppression, while Davis accounts for the comprehensive racialized experience of Black women and the socioeconomic divergence in lived realities with their white counterparts. The incongruence emerges from the fact that while both Davis and Firestone are arguing for the emancipation of women as a basis for eliminating the structurally intersecting systems of oppression, the broad scope of Firestone’s work mistakenly over-generalizes and assigns a false universality to the categorical experience of “women,” which largely accounts for the experience of white women in America without critically considering at length the societal implications of their whiteness. The racist appropriations of the birth control movement are facilitated in part by their complicity and failure to recognize the breadth of experiences across a diverse range of racial and sexual identities.
The 10-year time difference in between the compositions of their respective pieces may explain the relatively optimistic view of Firestone’s argument as opposed to Davis, so as to account for the potential of new evidence having revealed itself to be harmful for more vulnerable, lower-class racialized women. However, this claim is dispelled when considering that Davis’ analysis includes evidence of the eugenic, racist and classist politics of birth rights movements that stem from the early twentieth century, decades before the publication of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex.”
It is thus arguably the respective positionality of Firestone and Davis as thinkers, but also the fundamental divergence in their respective lived realities as a white woman and a Black woman residing in twentieth-century United States. Though Firestone argues for the elimination of the sexual class altogether, she argues largely with the assumption that the elimination of the sexual class, which she considers to be the oldest socially constructed system of oppression, all other subsequently constructed systems — mainly the socioecoconomic class hierarchy — are bound to fall as well, without accounting for the intersecting nature of racist, misogynistic, and classist structures of society that all function in interaction with one another to produce the lived realities of Black women described by Davis. While Firestone is not incorrect in outlining the comprehensive, ubiquitous class system constructed on the basis of biological sex as the deeply historically-rooted structure of oppression that it is, this project of defining the feminist revolutionary subject on the basis of the all-encompassing category of “woman” is not sufficiently grounded in the diverse lived realities of all women, regardless of race, sexuality, and social class.
Where Firestone’s theoretical framework orients itself toward the hopeful emancipatory nature of reproductive technologies in the future, Davis uses material, historical evidence of systemic subjugation to ground her analysis. She criticizes the white radical feminist tradition and the abortion rights campaign for its “failure to conduct a historical self-evaluation” and to account for the comprehensive marginalizations that shape the realities of Black women (Davis 203). In doing so, Davis’ work explains the trajectory of the reproductive justice movement in America as one that has lost its progressive potential with the passage of time, and the failure to centre women cast to the margins not just by the sex class system but intersecting factors of race, sexuality, and economic ability as the primary reason why this initially radical movement was in the end coopted for the purposes of racist and classist biopower.
The elimination of the false universality implicit to Firestone’s theoretical framework and expanding it to account for the realities of all women to truly encompass all women is necessarily a prerequisite for the emancipation of all women. Davis’ analysis points out the racist and eugenicist origins of the birth control movement since early on in its inception and its subsequent alienation from anti-racism and from the radical labour movement; in recognizing the sterilization abuse that Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour have suffered in America alone not just from systemic neglect but as a direct result of eugenicist violence, it then follows as the necessary next step towards the total emancipation of women that the feminist movement expand its horizons to integrate the lived realities of racialized women in a comprehensive, intersectional manner. In doing so, a complete redefinition of the category of “woman” is necessary. Though Firestone’s work hints at this abolition of sex-based discriminatory structures, the scope of her analysis was not sufficiently grounded in material analyses of concrete living conditions to account for its feasibility as a revolutionary project.
Davis’ account of birth control puts the elimination of compulsory practices of sterilization abuse at the forefront of fights for emancipatory reproductive justice. Without comprehensive elimination of the conditions of oppression that subjugate women not simply on the basis of gender but on the basis of race, social class, sexuality, and a wide range of other factors similar to what Davis describes, the revolutionary project of emancipating women can only be one that selectively liberates white women while necessarily casting women affected by a broader range of intersectionalities to the margins. The idea of abolishing the structures that germinate circumstances of oppression such as Firestone’s conception of the “sex class system” as a requisite project in order to facilitate the emancipation of all people oppressed and marginalized by their socioeconomic disposition under capitalism is not incorrect in essence — rather, it is merely a dangerous false universality that overlooks the current material conditions under which many marginalized women already live. Much like how the emancipation of all oppressed people must centre and foreground the emancipation of women, true reproductive justice cannot be achieved without an end to sterilization abuse to complement birth control measures.
Davis, Angela Y. “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights.” Women, Race & Class. New York: Random House, 1981. 202–21. Print.
Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Morrow, 1970. Print.