Shulamith Firestone argues that that the main cause of gender inequality is the biological fact of childbirth – which puts women at a physical disadvantage to men.
She suggests that we need to develop an artificial womb so that women have the choice to be free from the biological necessity of childbirth.
Her best known work is the Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970.
Firestone argues that the ‘sexual class system’ was the first form of stratification – such systems existed before class based systems and capitalism.
She argues that biological differences between men and women formed the basis for a differentiated division of labour , organised into what she calls the ‘biological family’, which has four key characteristics:
Characteristics of the Biological Family
- Women are disadvantaged by the biology – especially pregnancy and childbirth. When they are weakened and caring for their young children they are dependent on men (husbands, brothers, fathers) for their physical survival.)
- Women’s dependency on men is severe because of the long period of time it takes human infants to mature.
- The interdependence between mother and child, and both of them on men is found in every human society, and this dependency relationship produces unequal relationships.
- The sexual class system forms the basis of all other class systems. Men enjoy their power over women in the biological family and seek to extend this into other realms of social and economic life.
Hence Firestone argues that the sexual class system gives rise to the economic class system (not the other way around as Engels suggested.
Women need control over reproduction for gender equality
Firestone argued that contraception was a step towards greater gender equality, because it gave women more control over when they got pregnant.
However, she argues that for full equality women needed even more control over pregnancy – that we need to develop artificial wombs so that reproduction can take place without women being physically ‘disabled’ for several months compared to men. This would be necessary to break women’s dependency on men.
Firestone didn’t argue that artificial wombs were a ‘one stop shop’ for bringing about gender equality – she argued that we would have to fight economic inequalities, power psychology and other aspects of gender inequality to, in order to achieve genuine sexual equality.
Evaluations of Firestone
The biological fact that women give birth may well go some way to explaining the widespread fact of gender equality, however, even in traditional societies, ther eare wide differences in the level of gender power inequalities, and her theory doesn’t explain these variations.
Moreover, whether we need artificial wombs for gender equality is debatable – huge steps have been made recently towards greater equality without artificial wombs.
The article below is worth a read for some further evaluations:
Artificial wombs aren’t science fiction
This is an interesting video outlining how artificial wombs are being developed for premature babies – it’s not quite what Firestone imagine, but it’s a step towards them maybe…
Some of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn, edition 8!
The Dialectic of Sex (wiki link).