Individualism: A New View Of Feminism

From a talk presented for the Institute for Humane Studies, at Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia, on June 22, 2001.

by Wendy McElroy

Women are the equals of men and should be treated as such.

For most people, the foregoing statement is the core of what feminism means. But what is equal? How is equality defined?

For example, does it mean equality under existing laws and equal representation in existing institutions? Or does it involve a socio-economic equality -- a redistribution of wealth and power -- that, in turn, requires new laws and an overturning of existing institutions. It could involve cultural equality by which women are accorded the same level of respect as men with sexual harassment laws, for example, enforcing that respect.

The manner in which the word "equality" is defined is a litmus test by which different schools of feminism can be distinguished from each other.

Throughout the 19th century, the mainstream of American feminism defined "equality" as equal treatment with men under existing laws and equal representation within existing institutions. More revolutionary feminists protested that the existing laws and institutions were the source of injustice and, as such, could not be reformed. The system had to be swept away before women's rights could be secured.

In simplistic terms, the two more revolutionary traditions were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws heavily, and individualist feminism, which is sometimes called libertarian feminism. These two traditions differed dramatically in their approaches to equality.

To socialist feminism, equality was a socioeconomic term. Women could be equal only after private property and the economic relationships it encouraged -- that is, capitalism -- were eliminated. Equality was also a cultural goal. The 19th century parallel to the 20th century rebellion against 'white male culture' -- against pornography, for example -- is to be found in the 19th century social purity crusades over such issues as temperance. The social purity campaigns attempted to impose 'virtue'-- that is, to impose a morally proper behavior upon society through the force of law -- in much the same way that modern feminism attempts to impose political correctness.

To individualist feminism, equality was achieved when the individual rights of women were fully acknowledged under laws that identically protected the person and property of men and women. It made no reference to being economically or socially equal, only to equal treatment under the laws that governed society in such a manner as to protect person and property.

In an ideal society, the legal system would make no distinction based upon secondary characteristics, such as sex, but would protect the rights each individual equally. Women would neither be oppressed by nor receive any privileges under the law. This society does not exist. As long as the law distinguishes between the sexes, women need to stand up and demand their full and equal rights. No more, no less. This demand forms the political crux of individualist feminism.

This article focuses on the two revolutionary forms of feminism, which are diametrically opposite to each other ideologically and define the two extremes of feminism: radical feminism and individualist feminism.

Speaking in 20th century terms, how do they define equality? For radical feminism, equality is socio-economic and cultural. That is, the class distinctions between the genders must be eliminated so that men and women can enjoy social, economic, political and sexual parity. To achieve this, it is necessary to sweep away patriarchy, which is a combination of white male culture and capitalism.

For individualist feminism, equality still means equal treatment of men and women under laws that protect person and property. Individualist feminism says nothing about whether the resulting wealth should be spread equally between the sexes. That kind of division could only be achieved through the imposition of law, through State intervention over people's lives and property. This is precisely what individualist feminism opposes -- the use of force in society.

Let me provide an example of why this last statement is as revolutionary. Consider the issue of marriage. Mainstream feminism says, "Reform divorce laws to make them just." Individualist feminism says, "the very existence of marriage/divorce laws is an injustice because the State has no proper authority over what should be a private contract between individuals."

The word "just" has appeared. Briefly, I want to consider how the two forms of feminism approach the concept of justice.

Radical feminism approaches justice as an end state; by which I mean, it provides a specific picture of what constitutes a just society. A just society would be one without patriarchy or capitalism in which the socio-economic and cultural equality of women was fully expressed. In other words, justice is a specific end state in which society embodies specific economic, political and cultural arrangements. It says employers shall pay men and women equally, no one should publish pornography, sexual comments in the workplace must be outlawed.

By contrast, the individualist feminist approach to justice is means-oriented: that is it refers primarily to methodology. The methodology is "anything that is peaceful." The only end-state individualist feminism envisions is the protection of person and property -- that is, the removal of force and fraud from society.

Otherwise stated, justice is not embodied in a specifically defined end-state: whatever society results from the free and peaceful choices of individuals are, politically-speaking, a just society. Aspects of the society may not be moral and individualist feminists may use education, protest, boycott, and moral suasion -- the whole slate of persuasive strategies -- to affect change. What they will not do is use force in the form of government law to restrict peaceful choices.

The conflicting concepts of justice between radical and individualist feminism highlight one of the key differences in their approach to social problems: namely, the willingness of socialist or radical feminists to use the State. This difference is not surprising when you realize that the radical feminist ideal of justice *can* by established by the use of force, by the State. You can, for example, impose a specific economic arrangement on society. You can arrest people for over-charging or for bad hiring practices. But you cannot use force to impose a purely voluntary society: it is a contradiction in terms.

Leaving theory, I want to provide a sense of the unique history of individualist feminism within America.

As an organized force, feminism can be dated from the abolitionist movement that arose in the early 1830s. And the two dominant ideological influences on the feminism that arose were Quakerism and individualism. Many courageous women advanced the status of women prior to that date. For example, in the 17th century, Anne Hutchinson led the first organized attack on the Puritan orthodoxy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But these women spoke out as individuals rather than as part of a self-conscious movement dedicated to women's rights.

Abolitionism was the radical anti-slavery movement that demanded the immediate cessation of slavery on the grounds that every human being was a self-owner: every human being had a moral jurisdiction over his or her own body.

Gradually, abolitionist women began to apply the principle of self-ownership to themselves. The abolitionist feminist Abbie Kelley observed: "We have good cause to be grateful to the slave, for the benefit we have received to ourselves, in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves."

Within abolitionism, women's rights stirred hot debate. Perhaps the strongest advocate of women's rights was the libertarian William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, who insisted that anti-slavery was a battle for human rights, not male rights.

Then, a watershed event occurred: the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London, England. The abolitionist feminism Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London, was embittered by the dismissive treatment women received from the less-enlightened Englishmen. Garrison, who also attended, had been so outraged that he withdrew from the floor to the curtained off section to which the women were relegated.

Later, with the Quaker Lucretia Mott, Stanton planned the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to discuss women's rights. There, women's suffrage resolution was introduced: "Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." The resolution met strong resistance from Mott and other members of the old guard of abolitionist feminists who were deeply opposed to using government to solve social problems. But it passed.

Unfortunately for the American individualist tradition -- in all its manifestations -- the Civil War erupted. If 'War is the health of state', as Randolph Bourne claimed, then it is the death of individualism. There are many reasons for this; one of them being that individualism is, at its roots, an anti-Statist ideology, and war involves an increase in State power that never seems to roll back to its prewar level when peace is declared.

After the war, the key issue for feminism became the Constitution; women wished to be included in the wording of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that aimed at securing freedom for blacks. The Fourteenth Amendment introduced the word "male" into the United States Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment assured that the right to vote could not be abridged because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It made no reference to sex. The abolitionist women felt betrayed. Susan B. Anthony wrote, "We repudiated man's counsels forever." This became a pivotal point at which mainstream feminism became alienated from men.

At this juncture, the feminist movement diversified, with the mainstream focusing its efforts into a drive for woman's suffrage. Other feminists were suspicious of political solutions to social problems.

Individualist feminism found expression within a variety of social movements, especially free love, free thought, and individualist anarchism. There, these feminists functioned as a radical segment, where they represented and pursued the interests of women.

The most important vehicle was the free love movement that sought to separate the State from sexual matters such as marriage, adultery, divorce, and birth control. Free love demanded that such matters be left to the conscience and contracts of those involved. Consider free love, very briefly...

In 1889, a woman who had just risked her life in a self-induced abortion wrote to the libertarian periodical, Lucifer the Light Bearer, pleading:

"I know I am dreadful wicked, but I am sure to be in the condition from which I risked my life to be free, and I cannot stand it...Would you know of any appliance that will prevent conception? If there is anything reliable, you will save my life by telling me of it."

The woman wrote to Lucifer -- published and edited by Moses Harman -- because, in the late 1800s, it was one of the few forums openly promoting birth control. Moses Harman insisted that woman's self-ownership fully acknowledged in all sexual arrangements.

Unfortunately, Harman ran counter to the Comstock Act (1873), which prohibited the mailing of obscene matter but did not define what constituted obscenity. Whatever it was, it specifically included contraceptives and birth control information. A witchhunt ensued.

Against this backdrop, Harman began his "free word" policy by which he refused to edit correspondence to Lucifer that contained explicit language. Harman maintained, "Words are not deeds, and it is not the province of civil law to take preventative measures against remote or possible consequences of words, no matter how violent or incendiary." He openly discussed birth control.

In 1887, the staff of Lucifer was arrested for the publication of three letters and indicted on 270 counts of obscenity. One letter had described the plight of a woman whose husband forced sex upon her even though it tore the stitches from a recent operation. It is a very early analysis of forced sex within marriage constituting rape.

Harman's legal battles against the Comstock laws continued from 1887 through to 1906, his last imprisonment during which he spent a year at hard labor, often breaking rocks for eight hours a day in the Illinois snow. Harman was 75 at the time."

Interestingly, when the authorities came to arrest Harman in 1887, his 16-year old daughter Lillian was not present. She was in jail herself, having been arrested for engaging in a private marriage -- that is, a marriage that consisted of a private contract, without Church or State involvement. At that ceremony, Moses had refused to give his daughter away, stating that she was the owner of her person.

The Harman episode is not a tale of individualist feminism because he championed birth control. A number of traditions did that. Harman was an individualist feminist because of the ideology and methodology he used. He based his arguments on women's self-ownership and extended this principle to all arrangements, sexual and economic. He refused to use the State in personal relationships because he considered it to be the institutionalization of force in society. He actively opposed laws that restricted peaceful behavior.

Moses Harman -- along with Voltairine de Cleyre -- are the most prominent figures from the 19th century. In their own time, such figures as Harman were well recognized by contemporary radicals. Emma Goldman in her autobiography "Living My Life" credited him with being a pioneer who made her birth control work possible. In 1907, when George Bernard Shaw was asked why he did not tour America, he replied if the "brigands" could imprison Moses Harman for expressing basically the same views set forth in his play Man and Superman he did not care to come to America and test his luck. It is a travesty that he is forgotten today.

So with a small taste of history, let's move back to theory.

Arguably, the most important concept in feminism today is "class." There are men, there are women, they are separate classes...or so the theory goes.

The foregoing statement is different than the tradition "war between the sexes." That war refers to the fact that, in the same circumstances, men and women often want different things and, so, come into conflict. For example, on a date men are typically said to want sex whereas women are said to seek a relationship. This is not the conflict to which I am referring. I am talking about a war of the gender.

A class is nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of entities that share common characteristics as determined from a certain epistemological point of view. In short, what constitutes a class is defined by the purposes of the definer. For example, a researcher studying drug addiction may break society into classes of drug using and non-drug using people. Classes can be defined by almost any factor salient to the definer.

For radical feminists, gender is the salient factor. Many fields of endeavor use biology as a dividing line. For example, medicine often separates the sexes in order to apply different medical treatment and techniques. Women are examined for breast cancer and men for prostate problems. But medicine does not claim that the basic interests of men and women as human beings conflict or even diverge. The sexes share a basic biology that requires the same approach of nutrition, exercise and common sense lifestyle choices. In short, although the biology of the sexes differs, they share the same goal of good health, which can be defined and pursued in roughly the same manner.

By contrast, radical feminism advocates a theory of fundamental class conflict based on gender. It claims that males not only share a biological identity but also a political and social one. The political interests of men are in necessary conflict with those of women.

The concept of class conflict is widely associated with Karl Marx, who popularized it as a tool to predict the political interests and social behavior of individuals. Once the class affiliation of an individual was known, his or her behavior became predictable. To Marx, the salient feature defining a person's class was his relationship to the means of production: was he a capitalist or a worker? This is a form of relational class analysis that describes a class in terms of its relationship to an institution.

Radical feminism has adapted this theory. Catherine MacKinnon refers to the analysis as "post-Marxist." By this, she means that radical feminism embraces many aspects of Marxism but rejects its insistence that economic status, not gender, is the salient political factor that determines a class. Thus, radical feminism incorporates such Marxist/socialist ideas as "surplus labor" through which one class is said to use the free market in order to commit economic theft upon another class. (An example of surplus labor in radical feminism is unsalaried housework.) The classification 'male' becomes so significant that it predicts and determines how the individuals within that class will behave. Thus, radical feminists can level accusations of "rapist" at non-violent men because they are beneficiaries of 'the rape culture' established by patriarchy.

To prevent the oppression of women, it is necessary to deconstruct the institutions through men control women -- institutions such as the free market

This class analysis makes no sense within the framework of individualist feminism that declares all human beings to have the same political interests.

Individualism has a long and differing tradition of class analysis. The salient factor by which people are categorized is whether he or she uses force in society. Do they acquire wealth or power through merit and productivity or do they use aggression, often in the form of law, to appropriate wealth and power from others? Expressed in the most basic form, individualist feminism asks, "are you a member of the political or productive class?" This, too, is a form of relational class analysis because it asks, "What is your relationship to the State?"

Individualist feminism class analysis does not predict the behavior of individuals. Both men and women can use the political means. An individual can change his or her class affiliation at will, abandoning the use of force and adopting the economic means instead. In short, classes within individualist feminist analysis are fluid. This is not true of radical feminist analysis that is based on biology. Within radical feminism, classes are static.

This difference has many implications. One is that individualist feminist class analysis offers no predictive value. Just because an individual has been a member of the political class in the past says nothing about whether he or she will continue to be so in the future.

This fluidity has a further implication. Namely, there is no necessary conflict between the genders. The fact that men have oppressed women in the past says nothing about whether they will oppress women in the future. Whether an individual man is an oppressor or a friend depends on whether he uses the political means and this is a matter of his conscious choice. Men are not the enemy.


Radical and individualist feminism constitute the two extremes of the feminist movement. One advocates state-control; the other, self-control. One considers men to be the enemy; the other embraces men as valued partners. But the most important feature of the ideological divide is individualist feminism's insistence on applying the radically personal principle "A woman's body, a woman's right" across the board to all issues.