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Wednesday Dialectic of Sex

But the reaction of the common man, woman, and child—”That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!”—is closest to the truth (The Dialectic of Sex, 1).

I approve, of course, of Firestone’s call for the abolition of childhood. Her refusal to justify naturalized hierarchies is probably more intransigent, and more necessary, in this case even than in her anakysis of women’s oppression. But, as with her discussion of the biological roots of sexed oppression, there’s a frustrating gap in her account between the biological generalities and the historical specifics. Firestone of course recognizes that the particular forms taken by oppression are not fixed; but what remains unclear to me is where these particular forms of opression come from. If the biological is supposed to be determining, but the form taken by the biological is itself determined by something else, isn’t it the “something else” that is really determining (behind the curtain, pulling the strings, as it were)?

This problem is particularly apparent in the discussion of the oppression of children because, in Firestone’s account, the oppression of children seems to have only really got going relatively recently, some time in modernity. But surely the difference in strength between children and adults predated this; so what caused this continuum of capability to become interpreted as a difference between two kinds of people, children and adults? Firestone does suggest an intriguing reason for the rise of the ideology of childhood, although she doesn’t follow it up (and, indeed, it’s not obviously compatible with her overall analysis of children as an oppressed class).

The childmen and childwomen of medieval iconography are miniature adults, reflecting a wholly different social reality: children then were tiny adults, carriers of whatever class and name they had been born to, destined to rise into a clearly outlined social position (86).

The rise of the ideology of childhood, then, was also the rise of a group of people who were not (yet) carriers of a class and name, who were “innocent,” in the sense of unformed by a past or by connections with others. And when you start thinking of children like that, they start to seem a lot like the bourgeois subject.