Updates ALF

by Joan Kennedy Taylor


A while ago, I received an e-mail from Al Swain, the Treasurer of the Libertarian Party of Shasta County, CA, asking me why there aren't more women in the libertarian movement, calling the fact that men outnumber women by four or five to one "the single most serious obstacle to electing anyone, anywhere, ever."

I've been thinking about this question ever since I received it. The answer certainly isn't that women aren't generally interested in politics or voting, as it is well-known that not only do they vote in important numbers but, in the two major parties, they have long been overwhelmingly responsible for keeping party business going. "Is there something wrong with our principles, our message, or our messengers?" asks my correspondent.

There is nothing wrong with our principles. In fact, it is our principles that have attracted the estimated 16.7 to 20 percent of the movement's membership that is female. But, as another ALF member who is concerned about this issue, Richard O. Hammer, president of the Free Nation Foundation, wrote in a 1996 article, much as he and others try to attract women to libertarianism, "the few women who participate probably would have participated anyhow." My observations tell me that many of these women were first attracted to the movement by something other than actually meeting people in the movement often by the writings of Ayn Rand. Many prominent libertarian feminists like Sharon Presley and Wendy McElroy are also individualist anarchists. My experience is that, overwhelmingly, women libertarians are independent professional women who believe that ideas can change the world, and who, through temperament or accident, came on their own to the limited government or even anarchistic ideal.

These are the women who have come to libertarianism by themselves. They believe in the possibility of progress, in the values of independence and self-responsibility —in what we generally call Enlightenment values. Where else might we find women with such values who might be open to libertarian ideas if our message was pitched to reach them? Within mainstream feminism.

Consider. The individualists among mainstream feminists, by which I mean that part of the liberal feminist movement that considers itself the heirs of the nineteenth-century classical liberal feminists, many of whom began as abolitionists, believe in equal rights, free speech, and reproductive rights. They have opposed protective labor legislation, sodomy laws, and prostitution laws. Many of them oppose drug laws. They believe in the possibility of progress, and in the values of independence and self-responsibility. Because of these values, they already support the libertarian civil liberties agenda pretty much down the line. However, they are usually not supporting the economic rights part of our message, although they may not be actively against it;— they often just don't pay attention to the status quo in that area. They consider themselves to be "on the left," but they are so open to liberty arguments that, as I have often remarked, I have had better luck getting a hearing for libertarian ideas from feminist groups than I have had in getting a hearing for feminist ideas from libertarian groups. That is because their definition of the left is: the group that is suspicious of government. They see the "right" as those who want government censorship, regulation of personal lives, and opposition to freedom and change.

It is our message and our messengers that make it impossible to recruit these women. First, because libertarians generally do not realize the extent to which the contemporary women's movement has been a freedom-loving movement, and therefore have never bothered to appeal directly to its members. And more than that, the extent to which conservatives have influenced libertarians has created a knee-jerk hostility against feminism.

Libertarians pay lip service to the idea that they combine the best ideas of liberals and of conservatives, but, let's face it, most libertarians feel more comfortable with conservatives. They may have begun their political life as conservatives. They focus on economic liberties. They consider "liberal" to be a dirty word, but feel much less disturbance over being called "conservative." The general "feel" of conservatives is compatible on most issues. Even on foreign policy, now that it's a Democrat president brandishing the mailed fist, libertarians can find many conservatives who agree with them. In general, libertarian and conservative men come at politics from the point of view of wanting to keep their material possessions and economic activity from the clutches of the government, and view a less regulated time in the past, say 1950, as a golden age that it would be beneficial to return to. That was a centerpiece of the Harry Browne presidential campaign.

They promoted this golden age idea without any realization that they were excluding a large part of their potential audience by doing so. (Isn't everyone who is important a white male?) In 1950, racial segregation was not only allowed but legally enforced throughout the South. (Talk about harmful regulation!) In 1950, women were still excluded from Fourteenth Amendment protections (meaning that economic laws regulating them as a class were considered constitutional). State laws required married women to get their husband's permission to open a business and limited their hours and conditions of work, domicile laws disenfranchised a married woman whose husband had moved out of state and also forbade her to run for office, common law forms for joint property vested complete control in the husband, women were not expected to serve on juries, and private business behavior followed suit. Banks would not extend credit to married women, many graduate schools would not admit women (Harvard Business School did not do so until 1967). And of course abortion, and in some states even contraception, was outlawed. Socially and legally, the ambitious, nontraditional woman was unfairly restricted. What do you think the reaction of ambitious, nontraditional women who happen to know this history would be to a message today that we should all be nostalgic about that era?

When conservatives speak directly to women, they have little to offer the woman who might be receptive to libertarianism. Primarily they suggest that "liberation" (that is, personal, sexual, and financial independence) has been a mistake that has disrupted society by harming the old-fashioned family, with a woman who devotes herself to caring for husband and children at the center. This has been perhaps the main message of F. Carolyn Graglia's 1997 book, Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, and Danielle Crittenden's 1999 What Our Mother's Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, to say nothing of institutions like the Promise Keepers. There are, of course, conservative women who are not traditionalists, and they usually will state that they have been helped by feminist agitation in the recent past, but they still tend to focus on the factions in feminism that they dislike. Our principles would suggest that we want members for our movement who believe in independence, individual rights, freedom of speech and action, and the possibility of changing both their own lives and society for the better. A conservative message is not going to attract such women.

But too many libertarian men tend to assume that the conservative view of feminism, if not always of women, is correct. Murray Rothbard's title essay in Egalitarian as a Revolt Against Nature saw the women's movement in the 70's purely as a refusal to accept the biological differences between men and women. Robert Shaeffer today holds a similar position, but adds the idea that in today's world, men and women not only have equal rights but women now have more "rights," so there is no excuse, in his opinion, for anyone to adopt the title "individualist feminist." Libertarians have to question many of their views about feminism as myths, if they want more women in the movement. The myth, for instance, that feminism is "socialism." This is pervasive in libertarian and conservative circles, because it seems a shorthand way of reminding the listener that much of 60's and 70's feminism began in left and New Left circles, when women recruits became incensed at the way their male colleagues were treating them. ("The only position for women in SNCC is prone.") That's true: as I said before, the male leftists had taught these women to question tradition in the interests of freedom, and were dismayed to "find that they themselves were being criticized just because they were behaving in traditional male chauvinist ways. But the feminist idea whose time had come then blossomed in spontaneous ways into something very different from socialism.

A lot has been made recently of the fact that a current biography of Betty Friedan points out that before she wrote The Feminine Mystique she was a leftist, even Marxist, labor journalist, and suggests that she toned down her real views because she had to, in the interests of circulation. But to me, this story of her background makes even more poignant and (in the true sense) revolutionary her essay in her 1977 book, It Changed My Life. It discussed an epiphany she had at an International Woman's Year celebration in Mexico City when she realized that Communist and Catholic nations were united in their efforts to deny women equal rights and reproductive freedom. This realization, she wrote, gave her an awareness of being proud to be an American, almost for the first time. Similarly, consciousness raising was a technique borrowed from Maoist groups, but it rapidly became a way in which women encouraged each other to become productive and solve their own problems. And instead of reprinting left-wing tracts, the new women's movement reprinted long out-of-print classical liberal materials by John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollestonecraft and Margaret Fuller.

When I speak to libertarian gatherings I am characteristically greeted by questions that seem to assume that, if I call myself a feminist, I must want to advance the interests of women over those of men in a zero-sum game. And when they do, there is often a woman in the audience who is distressed by this attitude.

In 1993 in an article I wrote for ALF News called "Is There a Libertarian Bias Against Women's Issues?" I quoted two such responses that occurred when I spoke to the Eris Society in Colorado, after a number of men in the audience had heatedly challenged my attempts to present as important women's concerns with reproductive issues and with the way the courts sometimes treated violence against them. One woman said, "I am disappointed and yet not surprised at the hostility I am hearing from the men in the audience, when, if I read you correctly, all you are saying is that you are asking to have the same rights, choice, and respect afforded to you as an individual that any individual should deserve." She was interrupted by people asking indignantly, "What hostility?" And then a non-libertarian woman guest asked, "Given the level of support that libertarians give to women's issues, why should any feminist be a libertarian? As a feminist, I have found libertarians extraordinarily hostile."

In response to that article, I received a very eloquent letter to the editor from Margaret Winters, an ALF member who identified herself as a non-Libertarian feminist married to a Libertarian. She had come up against "many of the attitudes of condescension and incomprehension" that I had illustrated. She went on to say that "It was a pleasure of a somewhat bitter kind to read a description of my very own experiences in conversations over the years." Winters admitted that feminists often have "excessive faith that government can solve rather than create difficulties, but the problems themselves which we face by virtue of our gender are not solely brought about by State interference in private lives."

I think it is a great loss that Margaret Winters, after so much exposure to libertarian thought and conversation, does not consider herself to be a libertarian. What were those libertarians who were talking to her thinking about! She has a concern about what she sees as social ills. Is their message that she must give up those concerns? I wouldn't be recruited by members of a movement that told me that. Instead, shouldn't we, as libertarians, take her attitude as a challenge to start looking ourselves for alternatives to government action, which as she already sees, creates difficulties? Ideals in themselves, even libertarian ideals, don't provide a solution to society's ills; they have to be applied and concretized, ill by ill, one step at a time.

The answer I would give to Al Swain's question is that, to recruit more women, libertarians have to focus on what is good in the goals of feminism, rather than those elements with which they disagree. Perhaps they think that by bashing feminism, they will attract "their kind of woman." On the contrary, by doing this they often alienate even women who are not intimately involved in the feminist movement, because they come across as bashing the legitimate aspirations of women. Women who might be libertarian still won't respond positively to what looks like prejudice.

So what kind of outreach would attract idealistic, freedom-loving feminists, that would embody both libertarian concerns and theirs? Rather than seeing the glass as half empty, we should see when it is half full. We should pay attention to the essentially libertarian work that has been done within feminism. It was feminist analysis that pointed out to the country that the great barrier to Congressional acceptance of the ERA in the early 70's, the prospect of invalidating the web of protective labor legislation with its supposed benefit for women, would in fact free women. It is feminist analysis that has pointed out that prostitution should be decriminalized. In fact, the main value that libertarians have to offer women is the promise of tools for even more such analysis, to help them out of the trap of substituting government dependency for male dependency. We should develop a program that takes feminism seriously—not as a political interest group that wants to get more goodies for its members, but as a group that believes in the Enlightenment view of freedom and equality and limited government. The goal is to build on their libertarian history and to make it even clearer to them than it is already that, as Sharon Presley and Lynn Kinsky's classic discussion paper is titled, "Government is Woman's Enemy."

What kind of program? Support for the opposition within feminism to censorship, pointing out that it harms, not helps, women—as exemplified by Feminists for Free Expression. Support for the protection of abortion providers, and for the rapid legalization of RU-486, the drug treatment that can be administered in any doctor's office or hospital and completed by taking a pill at home, thus giving hope for dismantling the hunting preserves that abortion clinics have become for those who say they believe in "life." Support for effective private action against social problems—I myself have written a book about sexual harassment, to be published in November of 1999, that publicizes research telling us that assertive speaking out against harassment is both more effective and more satisfying than appealing to management or the law and criticizes today's laws and management policies because they actually harm women as well as men.

The message we should send in this area is that feminist goals are worthy, but governmental solutions tend to backfire. What we really want, and what individualist feminists want too, is freedom for all, not special treatment. Some feminists are questioning the Violence Against Women Act as institutionalizing thought crimes, and affirmative action as violating Fourteenth Amendment equal treatment. They should be lionized by libertarians. Politically, we (libertarians and feminists) want the repeal of unjust laws and the prevention of new injustices. Socially, we want to question, not sex roles necessarily, but sex-role stereotypes that treat people in terms of the role you expect them to be biologically determined to fulfill, rather than treating them, in the classical liberal tradition, as individuals.

In the abortion and the ERA fights, women were asking for help in repealing unjust laws that were aimed at them. The Ed Clark presidential campaign on the Libertarian ticket in 1979 and 1980 took full advantage of this, and issued a position paper on "Women's Issues" that pledged libertarian support for these objectives, saying that the LP is truly a "women's rights" party. I don't know of such an effort since. Instead of building on this moment of outreach, too often today's libertarian messengers either completely ignore or are vocal in their scorn of "women's issues," and often appear to be hostile even to the raising of certain concerns that involve women, not just to governmental solutions for them. As I said in "Is There A Libertarian Bias Against Women's Issues?":I don't think that libertarians are perceived this way with respect to any other area of public concern. Why should libertarians be hostile to women's issues? They may very well disagree violently with some feminist solutions to women's issues, but the issues are important, and solutions are being suggested for them. Those suggested solutions won't go away by implying that the problem is invented. You wouldn't do that to someone discussing health care or welfare, for instance.

Women are not totally different from men, but they are not just imitation men, either. We are all human beings, but different groups within humanity have different problems. We don't ignore the political dilemmas brought to our attention by artists, by businessmen, by farmers, or by journalists, just because they may not apply to everyone in the spectrum. Why should those brought by women be ignored?

We haven't hesitated to reach out to other groups who define themselves as on the left. In the early days of the movement, we recruited from the New Left. More recently, we have recruited from the gay rights movement. The fact that most conservatives disagreed with us on these issues did not deter us. I would ask feminism bashers—why aren't you willing to defy conservative thinking about women's issues.

Reprinted from ALF News, No. 70, 1999



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