I am a feminist; I believe in complete gender equality before the law. Economically speaking, there should be no gender based restrictions on holding a certain occupation. I understand that any assertions concerning an individual’s character, intellect and emotional fortitude that utilize gender as an explanation are redundant. Furthermore; I think that it’s obvious that historically, there have been considerable injustices associated with being a woman. Finally, I think that the way many women (in some situations) are expected to behave in the modern society is degrading, unrealistic and dehumanising.
My assertion, that I am a feminist shouldn’t be at odds with the fact that I am also a libertarian. Unfortunately many would have me believe that it is…
It would appear that there is a considerable atmosphere of hostility between self-identified ‘libertarians’ and ‘feminists’ out there on the internet. For simplicities sake I will refer to this animosity as the libertarian ‘war with feminism’. However, this article will attempt to persuade the reader that the freedom movement’s hostility towards feminism is intellectually misplaced and ultimately damaging to libertarianism. Feminism is the assertion that both men and women should be equal, libertarianism is the belief that the best society is one where everybody is free- there is no obvious contention between these two desires.
A free society is one where gender doesn’t determine status or occupation; similarly a culture that fully appreciates individualism would be a culture that doesn’t demand women to behave ‘like women’ or a man to conduct himself in a ‘masculine’ way. There are of course certain biological realities that are relatively inescapable, but the idea that these purely physiological features should in any way dictate status in a modern society is a deeply repulsive concept.
To start further unpicking the war with feminism, we first need to understand that there is no large homogeneous entity call feminism. The same could be said of libertarianism (or any other ism). The catch-all term ‘feminism’ creates more problems than it solves, it would be more appropriate to use the plural ‘feminisms’. It needs to be stated here that the women’s movement is currently undergoing what could be described as a civil war. The feminist activists that are so often criticised by libertarians are part of what we might refer to as the ‘women only’ camp. But they are indeed only one side of a vicious intellectual exchange and certainly don’t represent all feminist thinking. The war with feminism predictably relies on the false assertion that the fight for gender equality has been won and the need for feminism has disappeared. This statement is of course, ridiculous because it swings the proverbial hammer where the scalpel is required.
Yet, we don’t have to go very far before we find certain tensions between the two ideological frameworks. It is an unmistakeable feature of nations that they have an ‘ideal citizen’; an individual who is that particular nation’s values and idiosyncrasies personified. Of course this ideal national personality doesn’t exist, but their image is an almost essential feature of their country’s national mythology. Yet, for most countries the above citizen is almost exclusively a man. As I understand it contemporary feminist movements have the objective of significantly altering the ‘ideal citizen’. The libertarian argument on the other hand suggests that there is no such thing as truly ‘national’ values, we exist as individuals and subsequently, the concept of an ideal citizen ceases to make sense. This crucial caveat explains the basic contention between these two philosophical constructs.
Ultimately there are important aspects of feminism that are deeply compatible (perhaps even essential) to libertarian outlook. No libertarians I have ever read or met would deny the right of women to be equal with men in the workplace if the nature of the work was identical. Similarly, a law system that enforces gender roles strikes me as just as oppressive. Importantly there is an important message in feminist literature for men; that there should be no duty for a woman to be womanly, and there should be no requirement that a man be manly (what Germaine Greer calls ‘penis envy’). Additionally the microeconomic analysis that was ultimately championed by Mises in some aspects, is analogous to ‘feminiomics’. We all play complex roles in the economy the fact that economists (at the time Human Action was published) were more comfortable discussing national policy rather than how people in all their perplexity play different roles in the market is a pertinent issue for libertarians and feminists alike.
Modern feminism that is often described as having a more authoritarian streak that its predecessor. Yet some innovative ideas have become popular over the past twenty years. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble articulates that popular notions of male and female are redundant, gender is something that we identify with. There are other issues that Butler addresses, but the main idea is deeply compatible with libertarianism because it introduces another dimension of self-identity into individualism. There is also a conflict between gender activists concerning transgender people, the liberal feminist cluster want to include transgender individuals whereas the ‘women only’ camp assert that people like Caitlyn Jenner are not real women and shouldn’t claim to be. These feminists of course have the right to believe that transgender people are not genuine, but the libertarian ethos certainly seems to suggest that the individual is the authority on their own identity- not a group of students’ union radicals.
Clearly we can confidently assume that there is no a priori contention that inseparably divides the feminist movement and libertarian political thought. This brings us to the question, how did we end up in a situation whereby many people assume that they are mutually exclusive? I would suggest that the biggest factor could be summarised as cultural. Both sides are assumed to be on either side of a deep symbolic divide. I use the world culture here cautiously, what I really mean is the way in which libertarian activists and feminists interact with the media and how they use (and abuse) history. Broadly speaking there is an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy when a libertarian defines themselves as right wing. I don’t find the left-right political spectrum particularly useful, and is often actively misleading *.
Decades of being positioned alongside right-wing political parties has nurtured a certain aversion to ‘the left’ in all its manifestations. I have even heard libertarian writers use the strange and elusive term ‘cultural Marxism’ (often a dead give-away that the person doesn’t know what they are talking about) to object to modernistic ideas. Similarly, despite being a diverse panacea of different opinions; feminism often gets lumped as part of the political left. This dividing line that forms that basis for the war with feminism isn’t a natural product of differing philosophical positions in their own right but one made and maintained by political context and expressed through culture.
The idea that there is a cosmic struggle between the two ideologies instead of an interesting and fruitful interaction has been compounded by how feminists and libertarians interact with history. Feminist history (or the history of women) broadly speaking, is usually very good. Pretty much every university in the country provides modules concerning the role of women in history and university libraries are often well stocked with books and journals concerning feminist theory. One critique of the feminist movement it that it lives only in university campuses, art galleries and on the stage- far removed from the lives of ordinary women. This may be true but the consequence has been that feminists despite being radical are heavily invested in mainstream academia. On the opposite cheek is the libertarian movement: being reliably concentrated in economics and virtually non-existent on most academic bookshelves. A significant casualty of this imbalance is the so-called libertarian reading of history: completely lacking in nuances, context and healthy discussion. This is relevant to the discussion about modern feminism because certain libertarian readings of history would have us believe that over the past few centuries; working class protesters, ethnic minorities and feminist activists have been an intrinsically malevolent force directly responsible for the rise of the evil modern nation state. This miserable view abuses historical figures and deploys past events as fodder for arguments over the internet. This is history as Nietzsche envisioned it; only important as a source of intellectual ammunition.
It is something of a running joke that libertarians tend to be men’s rights activists. An often espoused critique of libertarianism is that it is a movement for rich white men **. This link has been compounded by Canadian libertarian Lauren Southern who has made an extremely popular video declaring her distaste for feminism. The accusation (and main focus of the war with feminism) is that feminists are extremely vocal about issues that affect women and silent about issues that impact men. However, libertarians that promote ‘men’s rights’ and ‘women only’ feminists are essentially two sides of the same divisive coin. As I outlined above, at its best feminist thought applies to both men and women who both have an equally important role in smashing sexism.
There is an existentialist strain of thought that exists in certain feminist circles that suggests that a man cannot under any circumstances understand the issues that women face. This view is of course ridiculous and intellectually moribund but to suggest that because of the voices of a deranged few, a whole political movement must be opposed is to give an enormous amount of legitimacy to that small group of anti-men activists. Both the Andrea Dworkin acolytes and men’s rights activists promote a banal form of zero-sum identity politics completely lacking in intellectual merit.
Perhaps the tone of this article has been too rosy and accommodating because I have attempted to put forward the view that the war with feminism is a product of historical context and political positioning; not pure ideology. However it needs to be stated that there are significant areas were feminists and libertarians legitimately disagree. Firstly is the issue of the ‘glass ceiling’, it is extremely regrettable that there are not more women in the top echelons of academia and business but should there be legislative intervention on this issue? The libertarian answer must be an emphatic no whereas the majority of feminist activists might well answer yes. I would assert that that as long as there are no formal barriers to women holding a high position than there is no further need for action. The idea that women have a particular ‘nature’ that boardrooms, offices and laboratories must cater too runs counter to the narrative that men and women are equals (remember Judith Butler?). Furthermore, the composition of the workplace is slowly changing, I would happily argue that feminist (and libertarian) groups are well within their rights to bring attention to a particular company or institution that actively discriminates against women. The same goes for prominent individuals that assume that women aren’t tough enough to cut it in their particular profession.
Secondly there is the issue of patriarchy. This historical importance of patriarchy is of little doubt. However the question remains, how is patriarchy practised today? The main contention between libertarian thought and feminism is that patriarchy is inherent in capitalism. It is no secret that many feminist writers have happily incorporated socialist economics as part of their ideology (intersectionality), this as I have argued above is part of long context of both being considered ‘left wing’ rather than being genuine ideological partners. The assumption is that capitalism encourages a Darwinian approach to social interaction; we are simply brainless husks of flesh that try to satisfy our material desires. This then operates at the expense of women, who are often at the receiving end of predatory male desires. As well as there being no serious capitalist thinker who argues such a view point, the assessment of capitalism as inherently exploitative is wrong one. Of course a society that functions along capitalist lines has the potential to be patriarchal and exploitative, but this is by no means an inevitability. The main similarity between feminism and socialism is that both assume humanity can best be analysed in large blocks; that this enormous group interacts with another equally enormous group in a certain way. This of course ignores the complex realities that form the lives of real people, we are not just cogs in a cosmic ideological machine.
Lastly, another area of contention is the philosophical issue of structure versus agency, or free will versus determinism. Feminist thinkers are often more inclined to be deterministic whereas libertarianism emphasises the importance of human agency. Yet, the finer details of this point would constitute another essay in its own right.
I hope that I may have come close to convincing some of you that the libertarian dialogue with feminism is indeed founded in some real philosophical differences, but does not constitute a war. Libertarianism is a movement, it matters how we are perceived by others. By assuming that our default position is directly opposed to feminism alienates us from some great ideas but more importantly it might deter more women from becoming interested in liberty.
*Arguably, the greatest political achievement of the libertarian activists of the 60s and 70s was claiming the word ‘libertarian’. In academic books and journals the word libertarian is almost exclusively used to mean ‘left-libertarian’. It’s only in more modern studies that libertarian isn’t used in its old socialist sense.
** It might be worth noting here that in my experience most political organisations of all sizes are male dominated.