Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?: Roderick Long and Charles Johnson (2005)
I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not ourclaim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feetfrom off our necks and permit us to stand upright on the ground which Goddesigned us to occupy
Sarah Moore Grimk,Letters on the Equality of the Sexes
There is not a feminist alive who could possibly look to the malelegal system for real protection from the systemized sadism of men. Women fightto reform male law, in the areas of rape and battery for instance, becausesomething is better than nothing. In general, we fight to force the law torecognize us as the victims of the crimes committed against us, but the resultsso far have been paltry and pathetic.
Andrea Dworkin,Letters from a War Zone
Lets start with what this essay will do, and what it will not. We are bothconvinced of, and this essay will take more or less for granted, that thepolitical traditions of libertarianism and feminism are both in the maincorrect, insightful, and of the first importance in any struggle to build ajust, free, and compassionate society. We do not intend to try tojustify the import of either tradition on the others terms, norprove the correctness or insightfulness of the non-aggressionprinciple, the libertarian critique of state coercion, the reality andpervasiveness of male violence and discrimination against women, or the feministcritique of patriarchy. Those are important conversations to have, but we wonthave them here; they are better found in the foundational works that havealready been written within the feminist and libertarian traditions. The aimhere is not to set down doctrine or refute heresy; its to get clear on how toreconcile commitments to both libertarianism andfeminismalthough in reconciling them we may remove some of the reasonsthat people have had for resisting libertarian or feminist conclusions.Libertarianism and feminism, when they have encountered each other, have mostoften taken each other for polar opposites. Many 20th centurylibertarians have dismissed or attacked feminismwhen they have addressedit at allas just another wing of Left-wing statism; many feminists havedismissed or attacked libertarianismwhen they have addressed it atallas either Angry White Male reaction or an extreme faction of theideology of the liberal capitalist state. But we hold that both judgments areunjust; many of the problems in combining libertarianism with feminism turn outto be little more than terminological conflicts that arose from shiftingpolitical alliances in the course of the 20th century; and most ifnot all of the substantive disagreements can be negotiated within positionsalready clearly established within the feminist and libertarian traditions. Whatwe hope to do, then, is not to present the case for libertarianism and forfeminism, but rather to clear the ground a bit so that libertarianism andfeminism can recognize the important insights that each has to offer the other,and can work together on terms that allow each to do their work withoutslighting either.
We are not the first to cover this ground. Contemporary libertarian feministssuch as Joan Kennedy Taylor and Wendy McElroy have written extensively on therelationship between libertarianism and feminism, and they have worked withinthe libertarian movement to encourage appeals to feminist concerns andengagement with feminist efforts. But as valuable as the 20th centurylibertarian feminists scholarship has been, we find many elements of thelibertarian feminism they propose to be both limited and limiting;the conceptual framework behind their synthesis all too often marginalizes orignores large and essential parts of the feminist critique of patriarchy, and asa result they all too often keep really existing feminist efforts at armslength, and counsel indifference or sharply criticize activism on key feministissues. In the marriage that they propose, libertarianism and feminism are one,and that one is libertarianism; we, on the other hand, aver that if counselingcannot help libertarianism form a more respectful union, then we could hardlyblame feminists for dumping it.
But we think that there is a better path forward. McElroy and othershave rightly called attention to a tradition of libertarian feminismthat mostly been forgotten by both libertarians and feminists in the20th century: the 19th century radical individualists,including Voltairine de Cleyre, Angela Heywood, Herbert Spencer, and BenjaminTucker, among others. The individualists endorsed both radical anti-statism andalso radical feminism (as well as, inter alia,allying with abolitionism and the labor movement), because they understood bothstatism and patriarchy as components of an interlocking system ofoppression. An examination of the methods and thought of theseindividualistsand of Second Wave feminism in light of the individualisttraditiondoes show what McElroy and Taylor have argued it doesbutin a way very different from what they might have expected, andwearguewith very different implications for the terms on whichlibertarianism and feminism can work together.
The parallels between libertarian and feminist insights are striking.The state is male in the feminist sense, MacKinnon argues, in thatthe law sees and treats women the way men see and treat women(MacKinnon1989, Chapter 8 11). The libertarian completion of this thought is thatthe state sees and treats everybodythough not in equaldegreethe way men see and treat women. The ideal of a womanswilling surrender to a benevolent male protector both feeds and is fed by theideal of the citizenrys willing surrender to a benevolent governmentalprotector. We are not among wild beasts; from whom, then, does woman needprotection? From her protectors, Ezra Heywood remarked (McElroy 1991, p.227); in the same way, libertarians have often described the state as an entitythat protects people primarily from harms caused or exacerbated by the state inthe first place. Just as, under patriarchy, forced sex is not recognized asreal or fully serious rape unless the perpetrator is a stranger ratherthan ones husband or boyfriend, so, under statism, governmental coercionis not recognized as real or fully serious tyranny unless it happensunder a non-democratic government, a dictatorship. The marriagevow, as a rape license, has its parallel in the electoral ballot, as a tyrannylicense. Those who seek to withhold consent from their countrysgovernmental apparatus altogether get asked the same question that batteredwomen get asked: If you dont like it, why dont youleave? the mans rightful jurisdiction over the home, andthe states over the country, being taken for granted. Its alwaysthe woman, not the abusive man, who needs to vacate the home (to gowhere?); its likewise the citizen, not the abusive state, thatneeds to vacate the territory (to go where?).
Despite these parallels, however, many libertarians libertarianfeminists definitely included seems surprisingly unsympathetic to mostof what feminists have to say. (And vice versa, of course, but the vice versa isnot our present topic.) When feminists say that gender and sexuality aresocially constructed, libertarians often dismiss this as metaphysicalsubjectivism or nihilism. But libertarians do not call their own Friedrich Hayeka subjectivist or nihilist when he says that the objects of economicactivity, such as a commodity or an economicgood, nor food or money, cannot bedefined in objective terms [CRS I. 3], and morebroadly that tools, medicine, weapons, words, sentences, communications,and acts of production, and generally all the objects of humanactivity which constantly occur in the social sciences, are not such invirtue of some objective properties possessed by the things, or which theobserver can find out about them [IEO III. 2], but insteadare defined in terms of human attitudes toward them.[IEO II. 9]
Libertarians are often unimpressed by feminist worries about social normsthat disable anything a woman says from counting as declining consent to sexualaccess, but they are indignant at theories of tacit or hypothetical consent thatdisable anything a citizen says from counting as declining consent togovernmental authority. Libertariansoften conclude that gender roles must not be oppressive since many women acceptthem; but they do not analogously treat the fact that most citizens accept thelegitimacy of governmental compulsion as a reason to question its oppressivecharacter; on the contrary, they see their task as one of consciousness-raisingand demystification, or, in the Marxian phrase, plucking the flowers from thechains to expose their character as chains.
When radical feminists say that male supremacy rests in large part on thefact of rapeas when Susan Brownmiller characterizes rape as aconscious process of intimidation by which all men keep allwomen in a state of fear (Against Our Will, p.15)libertarians often dismiss this on the grounds that not all men areliteral rapists and not all women are literally raped. But when their ownLudwig von Mises says that government interference always means eitherviolent action or the threat of such action, that it rests in thelast resort on the employment of armed men, of policemen,gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen, and that itsessential feature is the enforcement of its decrees bybeating, killing, and imprisoning [HA VI.27.2], libertariansapplaud this as a welcome demystification of the state. Libertarians rightlyrecognize that legally enacted violence is the means by which allrulers keep all citizens in a state of fear, even though not allgovernment functionaries personally beat, kill, or imprison anybody, and eventhough not all citizens are beaten, killed, or imprisoned; the same interpretivecharity towards the radical feminist analysis of rape is not too much toask.
Brownmillers and other feminists insights into the pervasiveness ofbattery, incest, and other forms of male violence against women, present both acrisis and an opportunity for libertarians. Libertarianism professes to be acomprehensive theory of human freedom; what is supposed to be distinctive aboutthe libertarian theory of justice is that we concern ourselves with violentcoercion no matter who is practicing iteven if he has agovernment uniform on. But what feminists have forced into the public eye in thelast 30 years is that, in a society where one out of every four women faces rapeor battery by an intimate partner, andwhere women are threatened or attacked by men who profess to love them, becausethe men who attack them believe that being a man means you have the authority tocontrol women, male violence against women is nominally illegal but neverthelesssystematic, motivated by the desire for control, culturally excused, andhideously ordinary. For libertarians, this should sound eerily familiar;confronting the full reality of male violence means nothing less thanrecognizing the existence of a violent political order working alongside, andindependently of, the violent political order of statism. As radical feministCatharine MacKinnon writes, Unlike the ways in which men systematicallyenslave, violate, dehumanize, and exterminate other men, expressing politicalinequalities among men, mens forms of dominance over women have beenaccomplished socially as well as economically, prior to the operation of thelaw, without express state acts, often in intimate contexts, as everydaylife (1989,p. 161). Male supremacy has its own ideologicalrationalizations, its own propaganda, its own expropriation, and its own violentenforcement; although it is often in league with the male-dominated state, maleviolence is older, more invasive, closer to home, and harder to escape than mostforms of statism. This means that libertarians who are serious about ending allforms of political violence need to fight, at least, a two-front war, againstboth statism and male supremacy; an adequate discussion of what this insightmeans for libertarian politics requires much more time than we have here. But itis important to note how the writings of some libertarians on thefamilyespecially those who identify with thepaleolibertarian political and cultural projecthaveamounted to little more than outright denial of male violence. Hans HermannHoppe, for example, goes so far as to indulge in the conservative fantasy thatthe traditional internal layers and ranks of authority in thefamily are actually bulwarks of resistance vis-a-vis the state (Secession, the State,and the Immigration Problem IV). The ranks of authorityin the family, of course, means the pater familias,and whether father-right is, at a given moment in history, mostly in league withor somewhat at odds with state prerogatives, the fact that it is so widelyenforced by the threat or practice of male violence means that trying to enlistit in the struggle against statism is much like enlisting Stalin in order tofight Hitlerno matter who wins, we all lose.
Some of libertarians sharpest jabs at feminism have been directed againstfeminist criticisms of sexual harassment, misogynist pornography, orsadomasochism. Feminists in particular are targeted as the leading crusaders forpolitical correctness, and characterized as killjoys, censors, orman-haters for criticising speech or consensual sex acts in which women aredenigrated or dominated; it is apparently claimed that since theharassment or the portrayal doesnt (directly) involve violence, therearent any grounds for taking political exception to it. But the popularity inlibertarian circles of Ayn Rands novel The Fountainhead (a deeplyproblematic novel from a feminist standpoint, but instructive on the present point) indicates thatlibertarians know better when it comes to, say, conformity and collectivism.Although its political implications are fairly clear, TheFountainhead pays relatively little attention to governmental oppressionper se; its main focus is on social pressures thatencourage conformity and penalize independence. Rand traces how such pressuresoperate through predominantly non-governmental and (in the libertariansense) non-coercive means, in the business world, the media, andsociety generally. Some of the novels characters give in, swiftly orslowly, and sell their souls for social advancement; others resist but end upmarginalized, impoverished, and psychologically debilitated as a result. Onlythe novels hero succeeds, eventually, in achieving worldly successwithout sacrificing his integrity but only after a painful andsuperhuman struggle. It would be hard to imagine libertariansdescribing fans of The Fountainhead as puritans or censors becauseof their objections to the Ellsworth Tooheys of the worldeven thoughTooheys malign influence is mainly exercised through rhetorical and socialmeans rather than by legal force. An uncharitable reading that the situationunfortunately suggests is that libertarians can recognize non-governmentaloppression in principle, but in practice seem unable to grasp any form ofoppression other than the ones that well-educated white men may have experiencedfor themselves.
A more charitable reading of libertarian attitudes might be this: while thecollectivist boycott of independent minds and stifling of creative excellence inThe Fountainhead is not itself enacted through government means,collectivism clearly is associated with the mass psychology thatsupports statism. So is patriarchy, actually, but it is most closely associatedwith a non-governmental form of oppressionthat is, male supremacy andviolence against women. All this makes it seem, at times, thatlibertariansincluding libertarian feministsare suffering from asort of willful conceptual blindness; perhaps because they are afraid to grantthe existence of serious and systematic forms of political oppression that arenot connected solely or mainly with the state. Its as though, if theygranted any political critique of the outcomes of voluntaryassociation, they would thereby be granting that voluntary association as suchis oppressive, and that government regulation is the solution. But such a phobicreaction only makes sense if you first accept (either tacitly or explicitly) thepremise that all politics is exclusively the domain of thegovernment, and as such (given Misess insights into the nature ofgovernment) all political action is essentially violentaction. This is, as it were, a problem that has no name; but we might call itthe authoritarian theory of politics, since it amounts to thepremise that any political question is a question resolved by violence;many 20th century libertarians simply grant the premise and then,because they hold that no question is worth resolving by (initiatory)violence, they call for the death of politics in human affairs.
At least one libertarian theorist, the late Don Lavoie, makes our point whenhe observes that there is
much more to politics than government. Wherever human beingsengage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights andresponsibilities, there is a politics. I mean politics in the sense of thepublic sphere in which discourse over rights and responsibilities is carried on,much in the way Hannah Arendt discusses it. . The force of public opinion,like that of markets, is not best conceived as a concentrated will representingthe public, but as the distributed influence of political discoursesthroughout society. Inside the firm, in business lunches, at street corners,interpersonal discourses are constantly going on in markets. In all those placesthere is a politics going on, a politics that can be more or less democratic. Leaving a service to the forces of supply and demand doesnot remove it from human decision making, since everything will depend onexactly what it is that the suppliers and demanders are trying to achieve. What makes a legal culture, any legal system, work is a sharedsystem of belief in the rules of justice a political culture. Theculture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually beingreappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discoursesthrough which social individuals communicate. Everything depends hereon what is considered an acceptable social behavior, that is, on the constraintsimposed by a particular political culture. To say we should leaveeverything to be decided by markets does not, as [libertarians]suppose, relieve liberalism of the need to deal with the whole realms ofpolitics. And to severely limit or even abolish government does not necessarilyremove the need for democratic processes in nongovernmental institutions.
Its true that a libertarian could (as Karl Hess, for example, does) simplyinsist on a definition of politics in terms of the authoritariantheory, and stick consistently to the stipulation, while also doing work on asystemic critique of forms of oppression that arent (by their definition)enacted through the political means; they would simply have tohold that a full appreciation of oppressive conditions requires a thoroughunderstanding of what the economic means or action in themarket or civil society can include. But given thecurious misunderstandings that many libertarians seem to have of feministcritiques, it seems likely that the issue here isnt merelyterminologicalit may be that the real nature of typical feminist concernsand activism is rendered incomprehensible by sticking to stipulations about theuse of politics and the market when the ordinary useof those terms wont bear them. You could, if you insisted, look at streetharassment as a matter of psychic costs that women face in theirdaily affairs, and the feminist tactic of womens Ogle-Ins on WallStreet as a means of reducing the supply of male leering bydriving up the psychic costs to the producers (usingshame and awareness of what its like to face harassment). In this sense, theOgle-In resembles, in some salient respects, a picket or aboycott. But no-one actually thinks of an Ogle-In as a marketactivity, even if you can make up some attenuated way of analyzing itunder economic categories; it clearly fails to meet a number of conditions (suchas the voluntary exchange of goods or services between actors) that are part ofour routine, pre-analytic use of terms such as market,producer, and economic. Just as clearly, anOgle-In has something importantly in common with legislation,court proceedings, and even market activities such as boycotts or pickets thatappeals to our pre-analytic use of politicaleven thoughneither the Ogle-In nor the market protests are violent, or in anyway connected with the State: they are all trying to address a question ofsocial coordination through conscious action, and they work bycalling on people to make choices with the intent of addressing thesocial issueas opposed to actions in which the intent is somemore narrowly economic form of satisfaction, and any effects on socialcoordination (for good or for ill) are unintended consequences.
Libertarian temptations to the contrary notwithstanding, it makes no sense toregard the state as the root of all social evil, for there is at leastone social evil that cannot be blamed on the state and that is the stateitself. If no social evil can arise or be sustained except by the state, howdoes the state arise, and how is it sustained? As libertarians from LaBotie to Rothbard have rightly insisted, since rulers are generallyoutnumbered by those they rule, the state itself cannot survive exceptthrough popular acceptance which the state lacks the power to compel; hencestate power is always part of an interlocking system of mutually reinforcingsocial practices and structures, not all of which are violations of thenonaggression axiom. There is nothing un-libertarian, then, in recognizing theexistence of economic and/or cultural forms of oppression which, while they maydraw sustenance from the state (and vice versa), are notreducible to state power. One can see statism and patriarchy asmutually reinforcing systems (thus ruling out both the option of fightingstatism while leaving patriarchy intact, and the option of fighting patriarchyby means of statism) without being thereby committed to seeing either as a mereepiphenomenon of the other (thus ruling out the option of fighting patriarchysolely indirectly by fighting statism).
The relationship between libertarianism and feminism has not always been sochilly. 19th-century libertarians a group which includesclassical liberals in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste Say and Herbert Spencer, aswell as individualist anarchists in the tradition of Josiah Warren generally belonged to what Chris Sciabarra has characterized as theradical or dialectical tradition in libertarianism,in which the political institutions and practices that libertarians condemn asoppressive are seen as part of a larger interlocking system of mutuallyreinforcing political, economic, and cultural structures. Libertarian sociologist Charles Dunoyer, for example,observed:
The first mistake, and to my mind the most serious, is notsufficiently seeing difficulties where they are not recognizing themexcept in governments. Since it is indeed there that the greatest obstaclesordinarily make themselves felt, it is assumed that that is where they exist,and that alone is where one endeavors to attack them. One is unwillingto see that nations are the material from which governments are made; that it isfrom their bosom that governments emerge . One wants to see only thegovernment; it is against the government that all the complaints, all thecensures are directed .
From this point of view, narrowly directing ones efforts towardpurely political reform without addressing the broader social context isunlikely to be effective.
Contrary to their reputation, then, 19th-century libertariansrejected atomistic conceptions of human life. Herbert Spencer, for example,insisted that society is an organism, and that the actions of individualsaccordingly cannot be understood except in relation to the social relations inwhich they participate. Just as, he explained, the process of loading agun is meaningless unless the subsequent actions performed with the gun areknown, and a fragment of a sentence, if not unintelligible, iswrongly interpreted in the absence of its remainder, so any part, ifconceived without any reference to the whole, can be comprehendedonly in a distorted manner. But Spencersaw no conflict between his organismic view of society and his politicalindividualism; in fact Spencer saw the undirected, uncoerced, spontaneous orderof organic processes such as growth and nutrition as strengthening the caseagainst, rather than for, the subordination of its individual membersto the commands of a central authority. In the same way, American libertarian Stephen Pearl Andrewscharacterized the libertarian method as trinismal, meaning that ittranscended the false opposition between unismal collectiveaggregation and duismal fragmented diversity. Even the egoist-anarchist BenjaminTucker insisted that society is a concrete organism irreducible toits aggregated individual members.
While the 19th-century libertarians social holism andattention to broader context have been shared by many 20th-centurylibertarians as well, 19th-century libertarians were far more likelythan their 20th-century counterparts to recognize the subordinationof women as a component in the constellation of interlocking structuresmaintaining and maintained by statism. Dunoyer and Spencer, for example, saw patriarchy as theoriginal form of class oppression, the model for and origin of all subsequentforms of class rule. For Dunoyer,primitive patriarchy constituted a system in which a parasitic governmentallite, the men, made their living primarily by taxing, regulating, andconscripting a productive and industrious laboring class, the women. HerbertSpencer concurred:
The slave-class in a primitive society consists of the women; andthe earliest division of labour is that which arises between them and theirmasters. For a long time no other division of labour exists.
Moreover, Spencer saw an intimate connection between the rise of patriarchyand the rise of militarism:
The primary political differentiation originates from the primaryfamily differentiation. Men and women being by the unlikeness of their functionsin life, exposed to unlike influences, begin from the first to assume unlikepositions in the community as they do in the family: very early theyrespectively form the two political classes of rulers and ruled. [In]ordinary cases the men, solely occupied in war and the chase, have unlimitedauthority, while the women, occupied in gathering miscellaneous small food andcarrying burdens, are abject slaves . [whereas in] those few uncivilizedsocieties which are habitually peaceful in which the occupations are not, orwere not, broadly divided into fighting and working, and severally assigned tothe two sexes along with a comparatively small difference between theactivities of the sexes, there goes, or went, small difference of social status. Where the life is permanently peaceful, definite class-divisions do notexist. [T]he domestic relation between the sexes passes into a politicalrelation, such that men and women become, in militant groups, the ruling classand the subject class .
Accordingly, Spencer likewisesaw the replacement of militarized hierarchical societies by moremarket-oriented societies based on commerce andmutual exchange as closely allied with the decline of patriarchy infavor of increasing sexual equality; changing power relationswithin the family and changing power relations within the broadersociety stood in relations of interdependence:
The domestic despotism which polygyny involves, is congruous withthe political despotism proper to predominant militancy; and the diminishingpolitical coercion which naturally follows development of the industrial type,is congruous with the diminishing domestic coercion which naturally follows theaccompanying development of monogamy.
The truth that among peoples otherwise inferior, the position ofwomen is relatively good where their occupations are nearly the same as those ofmen, seems allied to the wider truth that their position becomes good inproportion as warlike activities are replaced by industrial activities .Where all men are warriors and the work is done entirely by women, militancy isthe greatest. [T]he despotism distinguishing a community organized for war,is essentially connected with despotism in the household; while, conversely, thefreedom which characterizes public life in an industrial community, naturallycharacterizes also the accompanying private life. Habitual antagonism with,and destruction of, foes, sears the sympathies; while daily exchange of productsand services among citizens, puts no obstacle to increase of fellow-feeling.
In Spencers view, the mutual reinforcement between statism,militarism, and patriarchy continued to characterize 19th-centurycapitalist society:
To the same extent that the triumph of might over right is seenin a nations political institutions, it is seen in its domestic ones.Despotism in the state is necessarily associated with despotism in the family. [I]n as far as our laws and customs violate the rights of humanity by givingthe richer classes power over the poorer, in so far do they similarly violatethose rights by giving the stronger sex power over the weaker. To the sameextent that the old leaven of tyranny shows itself in the transactions of thesenate, it will creep out in the doings of the household. If injustice swaysmens public acts, it will inevitably sway their private ones also. Themere fact, therefore, that oppression marks the relationships of out-door life,is ample proof that it exists in the relationships of the fireside.
This analysis of the relation between militarism and patriarchy from thefantastically-maligned but seldom-actually-read radical libertarian HerbertSpencer is strikingly similar to that offered by the fantastically-maligned butseldom-actually-read radical feminist Andrea Dworkin:
I mean that there is a relationship between the way that womenare raped and your socialization to rape and the war machine that grinds you upand spits you out: the war machine that you go through just like that woman wentthrough Larry Flynts meat grinder on the cover of Hustler.You damn well better believe that youre involved in this tragedy and thatits your tragedy too. Because youre turned into little soldierboys from the day that you are born and everything that you learn about how toavoid the humanity of women becomes part of the militarism of the country inwhich you live and the world in which you live. It is also part of the economythat you frequently claim to protest.
And the problem is that you think its out there: and its notout there. Its in you. The pimps and the warmongers speak for you. Rapeand war are not so different. And what the pimps and the warmongers do is thatthey make you so proud of being men who can get it up and give it hard. And theytake that acculturated sexuality and they put you in little uniforms and theysend you out to kill and to die. (I Want aTwenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape)
Spencer, for his part, did not confine attention to those forms ofpatriarchal oppression that were literally violent or coercive in the sense ofviolating libertarian rights; he denounced not only the legal provision thata husband may justly take possession of his wifes earnings againsther will or the statute, which permits a man to beat his wife inmoderation and to imprison her in any room in his house, but the entire system of economic andcultural expectations and institutions within which violent forms of oppressionwere embedded. He complained, for example, of a variety of factorsmoreoften cultural than legalthat systematically stunted womens educationand intellectual development, including such facts as that women are notadmissible to the academies and universities in which men get theirtraining, that the kind of life they have to look forward to, doesnot present so great a range of ambitions, that they are rarelyexposed to that most powerful of all stimuli necessity, thatthe education custom dictates for them is one that leaves uncultivatedmany of the higher faculties, and that the prejudice againstblue-stockings, hitherto so prevalent amongst men, has greatly tended to deterwomen from the pursuit of literary honours. In the same way he protested against the obstacles towomens physical health and well-being deriving from patriarchal norms offeminine attractiveness and propriety that promoted in the training of girlsa certain delicacy, a strength not competent to more than a mile ortwos walk, an appetite fastidious and easily satisfied, joined with thattimidity which commonly accompanies feebleness.
The 19th-century libertarians attitude toward (what wascalled) the woman question has much in common with their attitudetoward the (analogously labeled) labor question.19th-century libertarians generally saw the existing capitalist orderas a denial, rather than as an expression, of the free market. For most of thesethinkers, capitalism meant, not economic laissez-faire (which as libertarians they favored), butrather government intervention in the marketplace on behalf of capitalistsat the expense of laborers and consumers, and they condemned it accordinglyas the chief prop of plutocratic class oppression. But rather than simply calling for an end to pro-businesslegislation, they also favored private cooperative action by workers to improvetheir bargaining power vis–vis employers orindeed to transcend the wage system altogether; hence their support for thelabor movement, workers cooperatives, and the like. Similarly, while calling for an end to legislation thatdiscriminated against women, 19th-century libertarians like Spencerdid not confine themselves to that task, but also, as weve seen,addressed the economic and cultural barriers to gender equality,private barriers which they saw as operating in coordination withthe governmental barriers.
Such problems as domestic violence and crimes of jealousy, for example,derive, Stephen Pearl Andrews taught, primarily from the inculcation ofpatriarchal values, which encourage a man to suppose that the womanbelongs, not to herself, but to him. Although the best immediatesolution to this problem may be to knock the man on the head, or tocommit him to Sing-Sing, the superior longterm solution isa public sentiment, based on the recognition of the Sovereignty of theIndividual. The ultimate cure for domestic violence thus lies incultural rather than in legal reform: Let the idea be completelyrepudiated from the mans mind that that woman, or any woman, could, bypossibility, belong to him, or was to be true to him, or owed him anything,farther than as she might choose to bestow herself. (Andrews 1889, p. 70)But Andrews solution was not solely cultural but also economic, stressingthe need for women to achieve financial independence. Andrews criticized thesystem by which the husband and father earns all the money, and doles itout in charitable pittances to wife and daughters, who are kept as helplessdependents, in ignorance of business and the responsibilities of life,and liable at any time to be thrown upon their own resources, with noresources to be thrown upon. (p. 42) One key to womens economicindependence would be to have children reared in Unitary Nurseries(p. 41), i.e., day care (funded ofcourse by voluntarily pooled resources rather than by the State, which Andrewssought to abolish). Andrews looked forward to a future in which with suchprovision for the care of children, Women find it as easy to earn anindependent living as Men, and thus freed by these changes fromthe care of the nursery and the household, Woman is enabled, even while amother, to select whatever calling or profession suits her tastes.
So the individualists libertarianism was not cashed out in ignoringnon-governmental forms of oppression, but in their refusal to endorse governmentintervention as a long-term means of combating them. At first glance,contemporary liberals might find all this puzzling: So the 19th centurylibertarians recognized these problems, but they didnt want to doanything effective about them? But effective politicalaction only means government force if you buy into theauthoritarian theory of politics; and there are good reasonsbothhistorical and theoreticalfor contemporary feminists to reject it.Feminists such as Kate Millett and Catharine MacKinnon have directly criticized conceptions of politics that areexclusively tied to the the exercise of State power, and throughout the late1960s and 1970s, radical feminists continually fought against the patronizingresponse to their program by male Leftists who could not recognize womenspersonal circumstances as a political issue, or theactions and institutions suggested by Womens Liberation as a politicalprogram, precisely because they were outside of the realm of male public debateand government action. And as historians of second-wave feminism such as SusanBrownmiller have shown, many ofradical feminisms most striking achievements were brought about through effortsthat were both clearly political in nature but alsoindependent of State political processessuch asconsciousness-raising groups, ogle-ins and WITCHhexes against street harassment and sexist businesses, and the creation of autonomouswomen-run institutions such as cooperative day-care centers, womens healthcollectives, and the first battered womens shelters and rape crisis centers.
Nineteenth century libertarians would hardly have beensurprised that these efforts have been as effective as they have without thesupport of government coercion; in fact, they might very well argue that it isprecisely because they have avoided the quagmire of the bureaucraticState that they have been so effective. If libertarian social and economic theory is correct, thennon-libertarians typically overestimate the efficacy of governmental solutions,and underestimate the efficacy of non-governmental solutions. The19th-century libertarian feminists opposed state action not onlybecause of their moral objections to state coercion but also because theyunderstood the state what Ezra Heywood called the booted, spurredand whiskered thing called government (in McElroy 1991, p. 226) as itself a patriarchal institution, whose very existence helped toreinforce patriarchy (or what Angela Heywood called he-ism) in theprivate sector; using the state to fight male supremacy would thus be likeattempting to douse a fire with kerosene. As Voltairine de Cleyre put it:
Today you go to arepresentative of that power which has robbed you of the earth, of the right offree contract of the means of exchange, taxes you for everything you eat or wear(the meanest form of robbery), you go to him for redress from a thief!It is about as logical as the Christian lady whose husband had beenremoved by Divine Providence, and who thereupon prayed to saidProvidence to comfort the widow and the fatherless. In freedom wewould not institute a wholesale robber to protect us from petty larceny. (Economic Tendency of Freethought 35)
The 19th-century libertarians would thus not have been surprisedto learn that, in our day, anti-pornography law written with feministintentions has been applied by male police and male judges to censor feministpublications, or that sex discrimination law has, in the hands of malelegislators and judges, been used to reverse 19th century feministgains in custody and divorce law.Hand the he-ist state a club, and you can be sure the club will be used in ahe-ist manner.
While adverse power relations in the private sector whether betweenlabor and capital or between men and women were seen as drawing much oftheir strength from the support given to them by corresponding power relationsin the political sector, these thinkers did not conclude that it would besufficient to direct all their energies against the sins of government in thehope that the private forms of oppression would fall as soon as political formsdid. On the contrary, if private oppression drew strength from politicaloppression, the converse was true as well; 19th-centurylibertarians saw themselves as facing an interlocking system of privateand public oppression, and thus recognized that political liberation could notbe achieved except via a thoroughgoing transformation of society as a whole.While such libertarians would have been gratified by the extent to which overtgovernmental discrimination against women has been diminished in present-dayWestern societies, they would not have been willing to treat that sortof discrimination as the sole index of gender-based oppression in society.
Moses Harman, for example, maintained not only that the family waspatriarchal because it was regulated by the patriarchal state, but also that thestate was patriarchal because it was founded on the patriarchal family: Irecognize that the government of the United States is exclusive, jealous,partialistic, narrowly selfish, despotic, invasive, paternalistic, monopolistic,and cruel logically and legitimately so because the unit and basis ofthat government is the family whose chief corner stone is institutionalmarriage. (In McElroy 199, p. 104) Harman saw the non-governmentalsources of patriarchy as analogous to the non-governmental sources of chattelslavery (another social evil against which libertarians were especially activein fighting):
The crystals that hardened and solidified chattel slavery were partly religious; partly economic or industrial, and partlysocietary . And so likewise it is with the enslavement ofwoman. The control of sex, of reproduction, is claimed by the priestand clergy man as pre-eminently their own province. Marriage is also aneconomic institution. Women have an industrial value, a financial value.Orthodox marriage makes man ruler of the house, while the wife is an upper servant without wages. The husband holds thecommon purse and spends the common earnings, as he sees fit. Marriageis a societary institution pre-eminently so. [A woman] must notonly be strictly virtuous, but clearly above suspicion, elsesocial damnation is her life sentence. (In McElroy 1991, pp.113-4)
Hence the fight against patriarchy would likewise require challenging notonly governmental but also religious, economico-industrial, and societaryobstacles (such as the social sanctions against divorce, birth control, andcareers for women, coordinate with the legal sanctions).
While the non-governmental obstacles drew strength from the governmentalones, Victor Yarros stressed that they also had an independent force of theirown. In addition to their burden of economic servitude, whichYarros optimistically opined would not outlive the State and legality fora single day, for it has no other root to depend upon for continuedexistence, women are also subjected to the misery of being theproperty, tool, and plaything of man, and have neither power to protest againstthe use, nor remedies against abuse, of their persons by their malemasters and this form of subjugation, he thought, couldnot be abolished overnight simply by abolishing the state, since it wassanctioned by custom, prejudice, tradition, and prevailing notions ofmorality and purity; its abolition must thus await further economic andintellectual progress.
Among the private power relations sanctioned by custom, prejudice, andtradition, Yarros included those so-called privileges and specialhomage accorded by the bourgeois world to women, which the Marxist writerE. Belfort Bax had denounced as tyranny exercised by women overmen. Anticipating contemporary feminist critiques ofchivalry, Yarros responded:
Not denying that such tyranny exists, I assert thatMr. Bax entirely misunderstands its real nature. Mans condescension hemistakes for submission; marks of womans degradation and slavery hisobliquity of vision transforms into properties of sovereignty. Tchernychewskytakes the correct view upon this matter when he makes Vera Pavlovna say;Men should not kiss womens hands, since that ought to be offensiveto women, for it means that men do not consider them as human beings likethemselves, but believe that they can in no way lower their dignity before awoman, so inferior to them is she, and that no marks of affected respect for hercan lessen their superiority. What to Mr. Bax appears to be servility onthe part of men is really but insult added to injury.
And Voltairine de Cleyres list of libertarian feminist grievancesincludes legal and cultural factors equally:
Let Woman ask herself, Why am I the slave of Man? Why ismy brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equallywith his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my laborin the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take mychildren from me? Will them away while yet unborn? (Sex Slavery 11)
19th-century libertarians, especially in the English-speakingworld (French libertarians tended to be more socially conservative), were deeplyskeptical of the institution of marriage. Marriage is unjust towoman, Moses Harman declared, depriving her of her right ofownership and control of her person, of her children, her name, her time and herlabor. I oppose marriage because marriage legalized rape. (InMcElroy **, pp100-102) A woman takes the last name first of her father, then ofher husband, just as, traditionally, a slave has taken the last name of hismaster, changing names every time he changed owners. (** p. 112)Some, like Harman and Spencer, thought the solution lay in reconstitutingmarriage as a purely private relation, neither sanctioned nor regulated by theState, and thus involving no legal privileges for the husband. Others wentfarther and rejected marriage in any form, public or private, as a legacy ofpatriarchy; de Cleyre, for example, maintained that the permanentrelation of a man and a woman, sexual and economical, whereby the present homeand family life is maintained, is a dependent relationshipand detrimental to the growth of individual character, regardlessof whether it is blessed by a priest, permitted by a magistrate,contracted publicly or privately, or not contracted at all. (TheyWho Marry Do Ill **) Victor Yarros and Anselme Bellegarrigue neverthelessadvised women to exploit existing gender conventions in order to get themselvessupported by a man; Benjamin Tucker and Sarah Holmes, by contrast, insisted thatevery individual, whether man or woman, shall be self-supporting,and have an independent home of his or her own.
19th-century libertarian feminists are not easily classifiable interms of the contemporary division between (or the stereotypes of)liberal feminists and radical feminists. Wevealready seen that they recognized no conflict between the liberalvalue of individualism and the radical claim that the self issocially constituted. They were also liberal in taking individualsrather than groups as their primary unit of analysis butradical in their contextualizing methodology; they would haveagreed with MacKinnons remark that thoughts and ideas areconstituent participants in conditions more than mere reflections[ la Marxism] but less than unilineral causes [ la liberalism]of life settings. (MacKinnon 1989, p. 46) They were liberalin their stress on negative freedom and their respect for the actual choicespeople make, but they were also radical in their recognition thatoutward acquiescence may not express genuine consent since, inAndrews words, wives have the same motives that slaves have forprofessing contentment, and smile deceitfully while the heart swellsindignantly. (Andrews ***) Unlike some radical feminists (such as MaryDaly), they did not treat patriarchy as the root cause of all otherforms of oppression; for them patriarchy was simply one component (though thechronologically first component) of a larger oppressive system, and to theextent that they recognized one of this systems components as causallyprimary, they were more likely to assign that role to the state. Butlike radical and unlike liberal feminists, they did not treat sexism as aseparable aberration in a basically equitable socio-economic order; they arguedthat male supremacy was a fundamental principle of a social order thatrequired radical changes in society and culture, as well as law and personalattitudes. Thus they would gladly endorse MacKinnons statement thatpowerlessness is a problem but redistribution of power as currentlydefined is not its ultimate solution (MacKinnon 1989, p. 46).19th century libertarian feminists vigorously debated the degree towhich participation in electoral politics was a legitimate means and end forwomens liberation; they also offeredradical critiques of the traditional family, and were willing to issue the kindsof shocking and extreme condemnations for which todays radical feministsare often criticized as when Andrews and de Cleyre described thewhole existing marital system as the house of bondage andthe slaughter-house of the female sex (Andrews 1889, **), a prison whose corridors radiate over all the earth, and with so many cells,that none may count them (de Cleyre, Sex Slavery **), orwhen Bellegarrigue demystified romantic love by noting that [t]he personwhom one loves passes into the state of property and has no right; the more oneloves her, the more one annihilates her; being itself is denied her, for shedoes not act from her own action, nor, moreover, does she think from her ownthought; she does and thinks what is done and thought for her and despiteher, and finally concluded that Love is Hate. As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison(also a libertarian and a feminist) remarked, in another context, in defense ofwhat some considered his extremist rhetoric: I have need to be all onfire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt. (**)19th-century libertarian feminism was simultaneously liberal andradical, perhaps because libertarianism precisely is liberalismradicalized.
Since the 19th century, libertarianism and feminism have largelyparted ways perhaps, in part, because libertarians allowed the advanceof state socialism in the early 20th century to drive them into analliance with conservatives, an alliance from which libertarians could not hopeto emerge unmarked. (Few libertarians today even remember that their19th-century predecessors often called their positionvoluntary socialism socialism to contrast it, not with the free market, butwith actually existing capitalism, and voluntary to contrast itboth with state socialism and with anti-market versions of anarchistsocialism.)
Since this parting of ways, feminists have developed increasinglysophisticated analyses and demystifications of patriarchy, but theirunderstanding of statism has grown correspondingly blurred; libertarians havedeveloped increasingly sophisticated analyses and demystifications of statism,but their understanding of patriarchy has grown correspondingly blurred. A19th-century libertarian feminist, if resurrected today, might thushave much to learn from todays libertarians about how statism works, andfrom todays feminists about how patriarchy works; but she or he woulddoubtless also see present-day feminists as, all too often, extraordinarilyinsensitive to the pervasive and inherently destructive effects of statehegemony per se, and present-day libertarians as, alltoo often, extraordinarily insensitive to the pervasive and inherentlydestructive effects of male hegemony per se. Acontemporary marriage, or remarriage, of feminism with libertarianism thus seemsa consummation devoutly to be wished but not if it is now to bea patriarchal marriage, one in which the feminism is subordinated to orabsorbed into or muffled by the libertarianism, a marriage in which one partyretains, while the other renounces, its radical edge. Our concern about thenature of libertarian feminism in its contemporary form is precisely that ittends to represent this sort of unequal union.
Libertarian feminist Joan Kennedy Taylor has written extensively on the needfor a more libertarian feminism and a more feminist libertarianism. While herwork has been admirable in highlighting the importance of synthesizinglibertarian insights with feminist insights, and in her willingness to callfellow libertarians to task when it is needed, we worry that her attempt at asynthesis often recapitulates antifeminist themes, and hobbles her feministprogram in the process.
Many of the most frustrating elements of Taylors attempt at libertarianfeminism are connected with what you might call her dialectical strategy:throughout Taylors work she attempts to position herself, and her libertarianfeminism, mainly by means of oppositionby her insistent efforts toally it with mainstream, liberal feminism and thus to distance it from extreme, radicalfeminism. The positioning strategywhich we might call Radical Menacepoliticscomes uncomfortably close to classical anti-feministdivide-and-conquer politics, in which the feminist world is divided into thereasonable (that is, unthreatening) feminists and the feminists who arehysterical or man-hating (so, presumably, not worthy of rational response).In antifeminist hands the strategy comes uncomfortably close to abarely-intellectualized repetition of old antifeminist standbys such as thehairy-legged man-hater or the hysterical lesbian. Unfortunately, feministsaiming in good faith at the success of the movement have also responded toradical-baiting by falling into the trap of defining themselves primarily byopposition to the extreme positions of other feminists. In both cases, the specter of That Kind ofFeminist is invoked to give feminists the Hobsons Choice between beingmarginalized and ignored, or being bullied into dulling the feminist edge oftheir politics wherever it is threatening enough to offend the mainstream.
While Taylors work shows a great deal more understanding of, and sympathywith, classical feminist concerns than antifeminist radical-baiters, hertreatment of issues pioneered by radical feministssuch as sexual harassment inthe workplacedo seem to combine the authoritarian theory of politics withRadical Menace rhetoric in ways that leave it limited and frustrating. Her bookon sexual harassment, oxymoronicallysubtitled A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, much of what womenexperience as harassment in the workplace is simply a misunderstanding betweenthe male and female subcultures, a misperception by women of such practicesamong men in traditionally all-male environments as hazing newcomers or tellingsexist jokes. For Taylor, male behavior that may seem directed at women in ahostile way may just be treating them as women often say they wish to be treated like men. (p. 7) Because women are the ones who are seeking to enter maleworkplaces that are permeated by male culture, Taylor concludes that it shouldbe the woman, and not the man, whose behavior is modified. (p. 200)
But why, then, doesnt it equally follow that libertarians living in apredominantly statist culture should stop complaining about governmentalcoercion and instead adapt themselves to the statusquo? After all, statists dont just tax and regulate libertarians;they tax and regulate each other. This is how statists have, for centuries,behaved toward one another in traditionally all-statist environments, and, onemight argue, theyre just innocently treating libertarians the same way.If Taylor and other libertarians are nevertheless unwilling take such statistbehavior for granted, why should women follow her advice to take the analogousmale behavior for granted? As Elizabeth Brake writes:
But why is part of mens culture to tell dirty andanti-female jokes, as Taylor claims? She writes that women should shrugoff such joking . Would the workplace situation that Taylor describesseem as harmless if she wrote, Whites tell dirty and anti-black jokesamong themselves? Would she still counsel that the targets of such jokesshould toughen up, rather than advocating a behavioral change on the part of thejokers? It is staggering that Taylor forgets to ask why thesejokes target women. And why does the hazing or teasing of women take a sexualform? I take it that men do not grope each other as part of their hazingrituals.
To this we may add: and why are these still traditionally all-maleor mostly-male environments, long after most purely legislativebarriers to workplace equality have fallen? Is the behavior Taylor describesmerely an effect, and not also in part a sustaining cause, of such workplaceinequality?
Taylor has much to say about the harmful effects of power relations in thepolitical sphere, but she seems oddly blind to harmful power relations in theprivate sphere; and much of her advice strikes us as counselingwomen to adapt themselves docilely to existing patriarchal power structures solong as those structures are not literally coercive in the strict libertariansense. This sort of advice draws its entire force from the authoritarian theoryof politicsin assuming that state violence is the only politicallyeffective means for combating patriarchy. Taylor effectively renounces combatingpatriarchy; in so doing she not only undermines feminism, but also reinforcesthe very idea that drives some contemporary feminists towards a statistprogram.
We have similar concerns about many of the writings of Wendy McElroy, anotherof todays foremost libertarian feminists. We greatly admire much that shehas to say, including her radical analyses of state power; and her historicalresearch uncovering the neglected radical individualist tradition of the19th century is invaluable. But, as with Taylor, we find hertreatment of present-day feminism problematic. Perhaps even more so than Taylor,McElroys efforts at forging a libertarian feminism are limited by her tendencytowards Radical Menace politicsa tendency which seems to haveintensified over the course of her career. In some of her earlier writingsMcElroy treats libertarian feminism and socialist feminism as two branches ofradical feminism, and contrasts both with mainstreamfeminism. Thus in a 1982 article she writes:
Throughout most of its history, American mainstream feminismconsidered equality to mean equal treatment under existing laws and equalrepresentation within existing institutions. The focus was not to change thestatus quo in a basic sense, but rather to be included within it. The moreradical feminists protested that the existing laws and institutions were thesource of injustice and, thus, could not be reformed. These feminists sawsomething fundamentally wrong with society beyond discrimination against women,and their concepts of equality reflected this. To the individualist, equalitywas a political term referring to the protection of individual rights; that is,protection of the moral jurisdiction every human being has over his or her ownbody. To socialist-feminists, it was a socioeconomic term. Women could be equalonly after private property and the family relationships it encouraged wereeliminated. (McElroy 1991, p. 3)
On this understanding,mainstream feminists seek equality in the weak sense ofinclusion in whatever the existing power structure is. If there aremale rulers, there should be female rulers; if there are male slaves,there should be female slaves. Radical feminists seeka more radical form of equality socioeconomic for thesocialist form of radicalism, and political for the libertarian orindividualist form of radicalism. By political equality McElroy doesnot mean equal access to the franchise; indeed, as a voluntaryistanarchist she regards voting as a fundamentally immoral andcounterproductive form of political activity. Rather, she means theabsence of any and all political subordination of one person toanother, where political is understood explicitlyin terms of the authoritarian theory of politics:
Society is divided into two classes: those who use the politicalmeans, which is force, to acquire wealth or power and those who use the economicmeans, which requires voluntary interaction. The former is the ruling classwhich lives off the labor and wealth of the latter. (McElroy 1991, p.23)
For McElroy, then, the sort of gender inequality that feminism needs toaddress is simply a specific instance of the broader kind of inequality thatlibertarianism per se addresses thesubordination of some people to others by means of political force:
The libertarian theory of justice applies to all human beingsregardless of secondary characteristics such as sex and color. To theextent that laws infringe upon self-ownership, they are unjust. To the extentthat such violation is based upon sex, there is room for a libertarian feministmovement. (p. 22)
Notice how restrictive this recommendation is. The basis for a libertarianfeminist movement is the existence of laws that (a) infringeupon self-ownership, and (b) do so based upon sex.Libertarian feminism is thus conceived as narrowly political in scope, andpolitics is conceived of exclusively in terms of the authoritarian theory. Buton what grounds? Why is there no room in McElroys classification for aversion of feminism that seeks to combat both legal and socioeconomicinequality, say? And why wouldnt the concerns of this feminism have a perfectlygood claim to the adjective political? McElroys answer isthat [a]lthough most women have experienced the uncomfortable and oftenpainful discrimination that is a part of our culture, this is not a politicalmatter. Peaceful discrimination is not a violation of rights. (p. 23)Hence such discrimination is not a subject that libertarianism as apolitical philosophy addresses except to state that all remedies for it must bepeaceful. (p. 23)
Now it is certainly true that no libertarian feminist can consistentlyadvocate the use of political force to combat forms of discrimination that dontinvolve the use of violence. But how should we classify a feminist who seeks toalter not only political institutions but also pervasive private forms ofdiscrimination but combats the latter through non-violent means only?What sort of feminist would she be? Suppose, moreover, that libertarian socialtheory tells us, as it arguably does, that governmental injustice is likely toreflect and draw sustenance from the prevailing economic and culturalconditions. Wont it follow that libertarianism does havesomething to say, qua libertarian politicaltheory, about those conditions?
McElroy is certainly not blind to the existence of pervasive butnon-governmental discrimination against women; she writes that ourculture heavily influences sex-based behavior and even so intimatea matter as how we view ourselves as individuals.
Many of the societal cues aimed at women carry messages that, iftaken to heart, naturally produce feelings of intellectual insecurity andinadequacy. The list is long. Women should not compete with men. Women becomeirrational when menstruating. Women do not argue fairly. Women not men must balance career and family. A wife should relocate to accommodateher husbands job transfer. A clean house is the womansresponsibility: a good living is the mans. A wife who earnsmore than her husband is looking for trouble. Women are bad at math. Girls takehome economics while boys take car repair. If a man sexually strays, itsbecause his wife is no longer savvy enough to keep him satisfied. Women gossip;men discuss. Whenever they stand up for themselves, women risk beinglabeled everything from cute to a bitch. Almost every woman I know feels some degree of intellectual inadequacy.
So isnt this sort of thing a problem that feminists need to combat?McElroys answer is puzzling here. She writes: Althoughdiscrimination may always occur on an individual level, it is only through thepolitical means that such discrimination can be institutionalized and maintainedby force. (p. 23) This statement can be read as saying that sexualdiscrimination becomes a systematic problem, rather than an occasionalnuisance, only as a result of state action. Yet she does not, strictly speaking,say that only through state action can discrimination be institutionalized(though the phrase on an individual level certainly invites thatinterpretation). What she says is that only through the political meanscan discrimination be institutionalized by force. Since, on theauthoritarian theory that McElroy employs, the political meansjust is force, the statement is a tautology. But it leaves unansweredthe questions: (a) can discrimination be institutionalized and maintained bymeans other than force? and (b) can discrimination be institutionalized andmaintained by force but not by the state? Systematic non-governmental maleviolence would be an instance of institutionalizing patriarchy through meansthat are political, in McElroys sense, but not governmental; variousnon-violent forms of social pressure would be a means of institutionalizingpatriarchy through non-political means. McElroy is right to say that, forlibertarians, discrimination that does not violate rights cannot be apolitical issue (in her sense of political); but itdoes not follow that feminism must be no more than a response to thelegal discrimination women have suffered from the state.
In her more recent writings, McElroy seems to have grown more committed andmore wide-reaching in her use of Radical Menace politics. Rather thancategorizing libertarian feminism as a tendency within radical feminism (albeitone in opposition to what is usually called radical feminism), shenow typically treats radical feminists per se as theenemy, adopting Christina Hoff Sommers terminology of genderfeminism for her analytical purposes. But while Sommers opposesequity feminism to gender feminism, and has beenunderstood as aligning the latter with radical feminism, McElroy now clearlylumps liberal and radical feminists together as gender feminists,and opposes libertarian feminism (individualist feminism, ifeminism) to thisaggregation. At least she seems to treat liberal feminism as a form of genderfeminism when she writes:
While libertarians focus on legal restrictions, liberals (thosefractious, left-of-center feminists) are apt to focus additionally onrestrictive social and cultural norms), which an individual woman is deemedhelpless to combat. If the left-of-center feminists (sometimes calledgender feminists) are correct in their view that cultural biases against womenare stronger than the formal rights extended equally to both sexes, then justicefor women depends on collective, not individual action, and on a regulatedmarketplace. (McElroy 2002, pp. ix-x.)
Apart from the non sequitur in this last, noticethat liberal feminism, left-of-center feminism, andgender feminism are all apparently being treated as equivalent. Onthe other hand, in her book Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attackon Women (a frustrating mix oflegitimate and illegitimate criticisms of non-libertarian feminism), McElroydistinguishes the two. Gender feminism views women as separate andantagonistic classes and holds that men oppress womenthrough the twin evils of the patriarchal state and the free-marketsystem. The goal is not equality but gender (class)justice for women. Liberal feminism is instead defined as anideology in transition from a watered-down version of individualistfeminism to a watered-down version of gender feminism. (McElroy 1996, p. ix) Sopresumably gender feminism here becomes roughly equivalent toradical feminism. But McElroys definitions seem to leave noroom for any version of feminism that agrees that women are oppressed by men notonly through the state but through non-political means, but is also pro-market.Yet why isnt McElroy herself precisely that sort of feminist?
The implicit suggestion is that to regard something as a legitimate object offeminist concern is ipso facto to regard it as anappropriate object of legislation. On this view, those feminists who see lots ofissues as meriting feminist attention will naturally favour lots of legislation,while those feminists who prefer minimal legislation will be led to suppose thatrelatively few issues merit feminist attention. But without the conceptualconfusions that all too often accompany the authoritarian theory of politics,its hard to see any reason for accepting the shared premise. CertainlyMcElroys 19th-century libertarian feminist predecessors didnot accept it.
It may seem odd to hold up 19th-century libertarian feminism as amodel against which to criticize McElroy. For no one has done more than McElroyto popularize and defend 19th-century libertarian feminism,particularly in its American version. McElroys career has been a steadystream of books and articles documenting, and urging a return to, the ideas ofthe 19th-century libertarian feminists. Yet we know and it islargely owing to McElroys own efforts that we know that if thereare any gender feminists lurking out there, the 19thcentury individualists, while libertarian, would certainly be found among theirranks.
As weve seen, McElroy contrasts the libertarian version of classanalysis, that assigns individuals to classes based on their access to politicalpower, with both the Marxist version (based on access to the means ofproduction) and the radical feminist (based, as she thinks, on biology).
Classes within ifeminist analysis are fluid. This is not true ofradical feminist analysis that is based on biology. To radical feminism, biologyis the factor that fixes an individual into a class. To ifeminism, the use offorce is the salient factor and an individual can cross class lines at anypoint.
There is a double confusion here. First, radical feminist analysis isnot based on biology. On the contrary, a central theme ofradical feminism has been precisely that gender differences are sociallyconstructed, and that women are constituted as a politically relevant class bysocial institutions, practices, and imputed meanings, not by pre-socialbiological facts beyond anyones control. MacKinnon, for example, notesthat while those actions on the part of women that serve the function ofmaintaining and constantly reaffirming the structure of male supremacy attheir expense are not freely willed, they areactions nonetheless, and once it is seen that these relationsrequire daily acquiescence, acting on different principles seems notquite so impossible (MacKinnon 1989, pp. 101-2). Second, libertarian analysis traditionally understands theruling class not just as those who make use of the political means(i.e., force) is a muggerthereby a member of the ruling class? but as those who control thestate, the hegemonic and institutionalized organization of thepolitical means. The membership of that ruling class may not bestrictly fixed at birth, but one cannot exactly move into it at will either.Hence McElroys description simultaneously overstates the rigidity ofclass as radical feminists see it and understates the rigidity of class aslibertarians see it.
In her hostility to the so-called gender feminist version ofclass analysis, McElroy is momentarily led into a rejection of class analysisper se, forgetting that she herself accepts a versionof class analysis: Self-ownership is the foundation ofindividualism, she writes; it is the death knell of classanalysis. This is because self-ownership reduces all social struggle to thelevel of individual rights, where every woman claims autonomy and choice, not asthe member of an oppressed subclass, but as a full and free member of the humanrace. (p. 147) As McElroy remembers perfectly well in other contexts,there is nothing incongruous in upholding a doctrine of individual autonomy andat the same time pointing to the existing class structure of society to helpexplain why that autonomy is being systematically undermined. PerhapsMcElroys attachment to the authoritarian theory of politics makes hersuspect that a state solution must be in the offing as soon as a politicalconcept like class is introduced.
This hypothesis gains support from McElroys discussion of the problemof domestic violence. McElroy distinguishes between liberalfeminist and gender feminist responses to the problem.According to McElroy, liberal feminists favour a sociocultural approachthat examines the reasons why aggression against women is tolerated by oursociety, as well as a psychological approach that examines theemotional reasons why men are abusive and why women accept it. Genderfeminists, by contrast, are said to take an entirely politicalview in favouring a class analysis approach, by which men are saidto beat women to retain their place in the patriarchal power structure[Sexual Correctness, p. 110]. But this false dichotomy is puzzling;surely those who favour the political approach are not offering itas an alternative to psychological andsociocultural approaches. Does McElroy assume that anypolitical problem must have a governmental solution?
McElroys discussion of prostitution [Sexual Correctness,chs. 9-10] is likewise frustrating. On the one hand, she makes a good case forthe claims that (a) many feminists have been condescendingly dismissive of thevoices of prostitutes themselves, and (b) legal restrictions on prostitution domore harm than benefit for the women they are allegedly designed to help. ButMcElroy neglects the degree to which critiques of prostitution by radicalfeminists such as Diana Russell and Andrea Dworkin (who prostituted herself tosurvive early in her adulthood) have drawn on the (negative) testimony of womenin prostitution; she often seems unwilling to acceptin spite of what issaid by the very women in prostitution that she citesthat the choices women can make might beconstrained by pervasive economic, sexual, and cultural realities in a waythats worth challenging, even if the outcomes are ultimatelychosen. When McElroy urges that feminist discussions ofprostitution need to take seriously what women in prostitution say about it, sheis making a point that every feminist ought to keep firmly in mind; but her zealto defend the choices of prostitutes, McElroy comes close to claiming thatany critical attention to the authenticity of someone elses choices,or to the cultural or material circumstances that constrain, them is tantamountto treating that person as a child or a mentally incompetentperson (p. 124)a claim that no-one in the world ought to believe,and one that no-one earnestly does.
Catharine MacKinnons discussion of consent in male supremacyoffers a useful counterpoint to McElroys limited discussion ofchoicealbeit from a source that is sure to provoke McElroy and many otherlibertarians. MacKinnons work suggests that consent whether tointercourse specifically or traditional sex roles generally is in largepart a structural fiction to legitimize the real coercion built into thenormal social definitions of heterosexual intercourse, and concludes thatto the extent that this is so, it makes no sense to define rape asdifferent in kind. Liberal andlibertarian feminists have often complained against radical feminists that suchassimilation of social and institutional influence to literal compulsion slightswomen by underestimating their capacity for autonomous choice even under adversecircumstances; from this standpoint, the radical feminist tendency to view allintercourse through rape-colored spectacles is open to some of the sameobjections as the patriarchal tendency to view all intercourse throughconsent-colored spectacles.
But MacKinnon and other radical feminists are best interpreted, not asclaiming a literal equivalence between rape and ordinary intercourse, but onlyas claiming that the two are a good deal less different than they seem objecting not so much to the distinction as to the exaggeration of thedifferences extent and significance. Even this more moderate claim,however, strikes many liberal and libertarian feminists as trivializingrape. This is a fair complaint; but the charge of trivialization is alsoa two-edged sword. If understating the difference between two evils trivializesthe worse one, overstating the differences trivializes the less bad one. (Andeven calling the understating kind of trivializationtrivialization may understandably strike some feminists as aninstance of, or at least an invitation to, the overstating kind oftrivialization.)
Now the distinction between literal compulsion and other forms of externalpressure is absolutely central to libertarianism, and so a libertarian feminist,to be a libertarian, must arguably resist the literal effacing of thesedifferences. But it does not follow that libertarian feminists need to deny thebroader radical feminist points that (a) patriarchal power structures, even whennot coercive in the strict libertarian sense, are relevantly and disturbinglylike literal coercion in certain ways, or that (b) the influence ofsuch patriarchal power structures partly rests on and partly bolsters literallyviolent expressions of male dominance. Libertarians have never had any problemsaying these things about statist ideology; such ideology, libertariansoften complain, is socially pervasive and difficult to resist, it both serves tolegitimate state coercion and receives patronage from state coercion, and itfunctions to render the states exploitative nature invisible and itscritics inaudible. In saying these things, libertarians do not efface thedistinction between coercion and ideological advocacy; hence no libertarianfavors the compulsory suppression of statist ideology.
Why not follow the 19th-century libertarians, who neither deniedthe existence and importance of private discrimination, nor assimilated it tolegal compulsion? There is nothing inconsistent or un-libertarian in holdingthat womens choices under patriarchal social structures can besufficiently voluntary, in the libertarian sense, to be entitledto immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the same time beingsufficiently involuntary, in a broader sense, to be recognized asmorally problematic and as a legitimate target of social activism. Inferringbroad voluntariness from strict voluntariness, as many libertarians seem temptedto do, is no obvious improvement over inferring strict involuntariness frombroad involuntariness, as many feminists seem tempted to do; and libertariansare ill-placed to accuse feminists of blurring distinctions if they themselvesare blurring the same distinctions, albeit in the opposite direction.
If we dispense with the limitations imposed by Radical Menace rhetoric andthe authoritarian theory of politics, then what sort of a synthesis betweenfeminism and libertarianism might be possible? We do not intend, here, to try toset out a completed picture; we only hope to help with providing the frame. Butwhile it can certainly draw from the insights of 20th centurylibertarian feminists, it will likely be something very different from what aJoan Kennedy Taylor or a Wendy McElroy seems to expect. Taylor, for example,envisions libertarian feminism as a synthesis of libertarian insights with thespirit and concerns of mainstream liberal feminism; but if what we have arguedis correct, then its not at all clear that mainstream liberal feminism is themost natural place for libertarians to look. Liberal feminists have madeinvaluable contributions to the struggle for womens equalitywe dontintend to engage in a reverse Radical Menace rhetoric here. But nevertheless,the 19th century libertarian feminists, and the 21stcentury libertarian feminists that learn from their example, may find themselvesfar closer to Second Wave radical feminism than to liberalism. As wehave argued, radical feminist history and theory offer a welcomechallenge to the authoritarian theory of politics; radical feminists are alsofar more suspicious of the state as an institution, and as a means to sexequality in particular, than liberal feminists. While liberal feminists havebought into to bureaucratic state action through mechanisms such as the EEOCand the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Catharine MacKinnon has criticized theway in which feminist campaigns for sex equality [have] been caughtbetween giving more power to the state in each attempt to claim it for women andleaving unchecked power in the society to men (MacKinnon 1989, Chapter 8 10),and R. Amy Elman argues in Sexual Subordination and StateIntervention that feminist activism against rape and battery has met withconsiderably more success in the United States than in progressiveSweden because of the (relative) decentralization of politicalauthority in the U.S. These are remarks that would not be out of place in theworks of radical libertarians such as Tom Bell or Murray Rothbard; there is goodreason to think that an explicitly libertarian feminism will have much to sayto, and much to learn from, the radical feminist tradition.
Its true that in spite of their suspicions of the state as a tool of classprivilege, radical feminists are sometimes willing to grant the State powersthat liberal feminists would withholdfor example, to penalizepornographers for the misogynist content of their works. To libertarians thismay seem paradoxical: shouldnt distrusting an institution make oneless willing to augment its powers, rather than more? But this apparentdisconnect is less paradoxical than it seems; if state neutrality is a myth, ifthe state is by nature a tool in the struggle between sexes or classes or both,then it can seem as though the only sensible response is to employ it as justthat, rather than trusting to its faade of juridical impartiality. Tolibertarians, of course, this strategy is as self-defeating as donning the ringof Sauron; but it is certainly understandable. Moreover, if radical feministsare suspicious of the state, they are equally suspicious of society, especiallymarket society, and so are disinclined to view as entitled to immunity fromstate interference. The underlying assumption of judicialneutrality, MacKinnon writes, is that a status quo exists which ispreferable to judicial intervention. (MacKinnon1989, Chapter 8 23) HenceMacKinnons ambivalence about special legal protections for women; suchprotections treat women as marginal and second-class members of theworkforce (Chapter8 20), but since market society does that already, such lawsmay offer women some concrete benefits. Here of course libertarians have reasonto be less suspicious of market society, since on their theoretical andhistorical understanding, most of the evils conventionally attributed to marketsociety are actually the product of state intervention itself. Here, however, itwould be a mistake for libertarians to assume that any persisting social evil,once shown not to be an inherent product of market society per se, must then be either a pure artefact ofstate intervention, or else not importantly bad after all.
Libertarian feminism, then, should seek to shift the radical feministconsensus away from state action as much as possible; but the shift shouldnot be the shift away from radicalism that libertarian feminists suchas McElroy and Taylor have envisioned. In an important sense, putting thelibertarian in libertarian feminism will not beimporting anything new into radical feminism at all; if anything, it ismore a matter of urging feminists to radicalize the insights into malepower and state power that they have already developed, and to expandthe state-free politics that they have already put into practice. Similarly, aradical libertarianism aligned with a radical feminism may confront manyconcerns that are new to 20th century libertarians; but inconfronting them they will only be returning to their 19th centuryroots, and radicalizing the individualist critique of systemicpolitical violence and its cultural preconditions to encompass those forms facedby female individuals as well as male.
Libertarianism and feminism are, then, two traditionsand, at theirbest, two radical traditionswith much in common, and much tooffer one another. We applaud the efforts of those who have sought to bring themback together; but too often, in our judgment, such efforts have proceeded onthe assumption that the libertarian tradition has everything to teach thefeminist tradition and nothing to learn from it. Feminists have no reason toembrace a union on such unequal terms. Happily, they need not. If libertarianfeminists have resisted some of the central insights of the feminist tradition,it is in large part because they have feared that acknowledging those insightswould mean abandoning some of the central insights of the libertarian tradition.But what the example of the 19th century libertarian feminists shouldshow usand should help to illuminate (to both libertarians and feminists)in the history of Second Wave feminismis that the libertarian critique ofstate power and the feminist critique of patriarchy are complementary, notcontradictory. The desire to bring together libertarianism and feminism neednot, and should not, involve calling on either movement to surrender itsidentity for the sake of decorum. This marriage can be saved: as itshould be, a marriage of self-confident, strong-willed, compassionateequals.
Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved …