Women’s oppression comes down to biological differences – so get rid of them. If you can put a man on the moon, you make a mechanical womb and gestate a baby without a woman.

These were the arguments of Shulamith Firestone (19452012), writer, artist and feminist, whose book, The Dialectic of Sex, argued the structure of the biological family was primarily to blame for the oppression of women.

With a radical and uncompromising vision, she advocated for the development of reproductive technologies that would free women from the responsibilities of childrearing, dismantle the hierarchy of family life, and set the foundations for a truly egalitarian society.

The girlhood of a radical thinker

Firestone was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Ottawa, Canada in 1945. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor that came from a lineage of rabbis and scholars, and her father was a travelling salesmen.

Firestone possessed a fierce intelligence and strong will from a young age and regularly came into conflict with the stringent gender norms that her religious father imposed. When she questioned why she had to make her brother’s bed in the morning, her father replied, “because you’re a girl.”

In the late 1960s, Firestone left home to study art in Chicago and then New York, where she joined left wing political movements and came of age intellectually. While she was free from her father’ tyranny, she saw the same sexism that had controlled her life at home across all areas of society. It was a time when women held almost no major elected positions, abortion was illegal, rape a stigma to be borne alone, and home making seen as a woman’s highest calling.

As a response to this, Firestone began studying history and feminist literature, hoping to understand the root cause of women’s oppression, which resulted in the publication of The Dialectic of Sex in 1970.

The Dialectic of Sex

While other feminist writers and philosophers proposed that the cause of women’s oppression was, at root, political and cultural, Firestone made a radical departure, positing that the inequality between men and women stemmed from fundamental biological differences – most notably that women had to carry, give birth to, and nurse babies.

This biological reality, Firestone argued, created an “unequal power distribution” within families. Because women were responsible for a child’s care, they became dependant on men to provide for them while they were unable to leave the home. This in turn gave rise to a hierarchy within the family in which babies were dependant on mothers, mothers on their husbands, and husbands on no one.

Firestone argued that over the course of human history, society itself had come to mirror the structure of the biological family and was the source from which all other inequalities developed.

Women were expected to stay at home and care for children, which held them back from becoming financially independent and achieving political agency.

If the feminist movement was to overcome male domination, it had to reckon with the fundamental biological reality that underpinned it.

“The end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself.”

While questioning the fundamental biological conditions was not conceivable in previous centuries, Firestone said the great advancements that had accrued in science and technology in the 20th century made it possible to imagine a future in which the reproductive role of women was outsourced to “cybernetic machines”. She believed if the same energy and resources were put into developing reproductive technologies as had been put into other projects, like sending a human to the moon, then it could be achieved in decades.

What held this research back, Firestone suggested, was institutional resistance from men in positions of power who did not want to disrupt the existing hierarchy.

“The problem becomes political … when one realises that, though man is increasingly capable of freeing himself from the biological conditions that created his tyranny over women and children, he has little reason to want to give this tyranny up.”

The true feminist cause, then, was to demand reproductive technology that could free women from what had previously been a biological destiny. Firestone believed if this was achieved, and reproduction was no longer the sole responsibility of women and their bodies, the family would undergo a radical restructuring, a flattening of the patriarchal hierarchy, which would then be mirrored in a more egalitarian society itself.

Brilliant and preposterous

The Dialectic of Sex caused a stir from the moment it was published. It was hard for critics to deny Firestone’s prodigious intellect, but they wrote off her ideas as too radical, too utopian, and too ridiculous to warrant serious engagement. Her theory of gender inequality was called “brilliant” and “preposterous” in the same review by one New York Times critic.

The book’s publication caused a greater rift between Firestone and her family, and her staunch line on biological inequality alienated her from some feminist groups. By the 1980s, when the backlash against radical feminism had taken hold of mainstream American culture, Firestone retreated to a small apartment in Manhattan where she spent her days painting in isolation. She was found dead in August 2012 at the age of 67.

In the 50+ years since Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex, we have seen enormous and rapid technological developments in many areas, and yet reproductive technologies like artificial wombs are still seen as an unlikely and unwanted science from a dystopian sci-fi future. Our culture, for the most part, still associates artificial wombs with the 1932 novel Brave New World, in which Aldous Huxley imagined a future where foetuses are grown in “bottles” in vast state incubators. For Huxley, the idea of severing the biological tie between mother and child was the centrepiece of his dystopian vision, the essential metaphor of a society that had become ethically set adrift.

Reading Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex – a brilliant, passionate and uncompromising book – forces us to confront that the way technology progresses is informed by political motivations, and that science is not neutral, but can be used to reinforce and perpetuate unequal distributions of power.