. . . not at least until you’ve read Susan Faludi’s fascinating review of radical feminism in the late 1960s and early 70s and one of its stars, Shulamith Firestone.
One of the recurrent themes in modern history is the association between revolution and mental illness–as both a political attack from the right and as a lived reality. Some of the most radical Whigs in the American Revolution–the kind who supported women’s rights, for example!–were accused of suffering from revolutionary spirit as from a mental illness, the “contagion of liberty.” James Otis, Jr., for example, the ardent Whig and brother of Mercy Otis Warren, was one of them.
So too radical feminism had its visionaries who, as Faludi suggests, “helped to create a new society. But [Firestone] couldn’t live in it.” After struggling with mental illness for at least thirty years, Firestone’s body was discovered last summer in her Greenwich Village apartment apparently several days after her death:
Clearly, something terrible had happened to Firestone, but it was not her despair alone that led [Kate] Millett to choose this passage. When she finished reading, she said, “I think we should remember Shulie, because we are in the same place now.” It was hard to say which moment the mourners were there to mark: the passing of Firestone or that of a whole generation of feminists who had been unable to thrive in the world they had done so much to create.
Firestone wasn’t the only radfem to suffer from mental illness; as Faludi’s article says, Millett herself “had a breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital.” They weren’t alone. Faludi writes:
In 1970, in a contribution to Notes from the Second Year, titled “Woman and Her Mind,” Meredith Tax argued that the condition of women constituted a state of “female schizophrenia”—a realm of unreality where a woman either belonged to a man or was “nowhere, disappeared, teetering on the edge of a void with no work to do and no felt identity at all.” By mid-century, Elaine Showalter noted, in “The Female Malady” (1985), scores of literary and journalistic works had defined schizophrenia as a “bitter metaphor” for the “cultural situation” of women. It was this state of affairs that the radical feminists had set out to change, only to find themselves doubly alienated. The first alienation was a by-product of their political vision: radical insight can resemble the mind-set described by the clinical psychologist Louis Sass, in “Madness and Modernism” (1992), when he wrote that the schizophrenic is “acutely aware of the inauthenticities and compromises of normal social existence.” The second alienation was tragic: alienation from one another.
Medical researchers have long puzzled over schizophrenia’s late emergence (it was first diagnosed in 1911, in Switzerland) and its prevalence in the industrial world, where the illness is degenerative and permanent. (In “primitive” societies, when it exists at all, it is typically a passing malady.) In 2005, when Jean-Paul Selten and Elizabeth Cantor-Graae, experts on the epidemiology of schizophrenia, reviewed various risk factors—foremost among them migration, racism, and urban upbringing—they found that the factors all involved chronic isolation and loneliness, a condition that they called “social defeat.” They theorized that “social support protects against the development of schizophrenia.”
The second-wave feminists had hoped to alleviate this isolation through the refuge of sisterhood. “We were like pioneers who’d left the Old Country,” Phyllis Chesler, a feminist psychologist and the author of “Women and Madness” (1972), told me. “And we had nowhere to go back to. We had only each other.” That is, until the movement’s collapse. Last fall, as I interviewed New York’s founding radical feminists, the stories of “social defeat” mounted: painful solitude, poverty, infirmity, mental illness, and even homelessness. In a 1998 essay, “The Feminist Time Forgot,” Kate Millett lamented the lengthening list of her sisters who had “disappeared to struggle alone in makeshift oblivion or vanished into asylums and have yet to return to tell the tale,” or who fell into “despairs that could only end in death.” She noted the suicides of Ellen Frankfort, the author of “Vaginal Politics,” and Elizabeth Fisher, the founder of Aphra, the first feminist literary journal. “We haven’t helped each other much,” Millett concluded. We “haven’t been able to build solidly enough to have created community or safety.”
Go read the whole thing. I’m so glad it’s available to nonsubscribers online, so do take advantage of it. I thought it was really interesting, but I’m certainly not a specialist. I’d love to hear from those of you who are specialists in the history of modern U.S. feminism!
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