by Wendy McElroy
Women are, and should be treated as, the equals of men. For many, the foregoing sentiment forms the core of feminist theory and policy but, historically, there has been substantial disagreement within the feminist movement over the meaning of the term 'equality'. Does it mean equality under existing laws? Or, equality under laws that are more just than existing ones? Does it mean a socio-economic equality that requires the law to grant privileges to women such as those embodied in affirmative action? Or cultural equality that accords women the same social status that men enjoy rather than merely the same legal status?
Throughout most of the 19th century, the mainstream of American feminism defined 'equality' as equal treatment with men under existing laws, and equal representation within existing institutions. For example, the cry of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association -- which, after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, became the League of Women Voters -- was not one of revolution: they wanted to include women in the existing process through which the State was constituted. As such, the mainstream of 19th century American feminist aimed at reform, not revolution.
The more radical feminists of the day protested that the existing laws and institutions -- in short, the political system itself -- caused the injustice toward women and, as such, it could not be reformed. The system needed to be entirely replaced before women's rights could be secured. In her work Anarchist Women, the contemporary historian Margaret S. Marsh wrote of the more radical feminists, who fell outside the mainstream framework, "They believed that if women truly intended to be equal, their first step must be a declaration of economic, psychological, and sexual independence from men and from male-dominated institutions, beginning with marriage."
In simplistic terms -- and in such a limited timeframe, it is not possible to be anything but simplistic -- the two basic traditions of this more revolutionary feminism were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws heavily, and individualist feminism, which is sometimes called libertarian feminism. An ideology I share.
These two traditions dramatically differed then, and they differ now in how they approach equality. To socialist feminists, 'equality' is a socioeconomic term. Women can be equal with men only after private property and the economic relationships it encouraged -- that is, capitalism and the family structure in which men dominated -- women can be equal only after these are eliminated. Equality was also a cultural goal. The 19th century parallel to the 20th century rebellion against 'white male culture' is to be found in the social purity crusades that characterized the last 1800s. The purity crusades revolved around various issues as pure food, prostitution, and temperance. Feminists -- socialist and individualist -- gravitated toward them.
To individualist-feminists, equality was achieved when the individual rights of women were fully acknowledged under laws that protected the person and property of men and women. It made no reference to women being economically or socially equal, only to equal treatment under just laws. Equality meant that the self-ownership of women was legally respected. Now, 'self-ownership' was the term favored by 19th century individualist feminists. It referred to the the moral jurisdiction that every human being has over his or her own body and over the products of his or her own labor, as embodied in private property. Self-ownership not only embraced private property but also natural rights theory that stressed individual rights rather than class ones.
Individualist feminists were as deeply concerned with social issues -- such as prostitution and temperance -- as socialist feminists but they refused to impose social purity upon individuals. Self-ownership meant that any adult had the right to choose any lifestyle that did not involve aggressing against another human being. It meant, 'a woman's body, a woman's right', even if that woman chose to be a prostitute, or chose to drink gin at 9:00 in the morning. At the heart of the difference between socialists and individualists in this regard was a compet- ing view of the proper role of law in society. The socialist feminists were willing to use law to enforce virtue; individualist feminists believed that the only proper function of law was to protect person and property -- that is, to prevent violence. Virtue must be left to the conscience of the individuals involved.
The individualist attitude did not spring from indifference to social problems, like prostitution. Quite the contrary. For example, the Individualist feminist, Gertrude B. Kelly worked as a medical doctor with women in New Jersey tenement houses who had been forced into prostitution by poverty. As a result, she became a determined labor activist, demanding the elimination of legal barriers that shackled women from competing in the workplace. Her first article in the prominent individualist anarchist periodical Liberty dealt with prostitution and, there, she stated that the inability of women to make an adequate living caused prostitution. She wrote: "We find all sorts of schemes for making men moral and women religious, but no scheme which proposes to give woman the fruits of her labor."
Individualist-feminists cared deeply, but they did not believe in governmental solutions to social problems. They would not use force to impose a code of morality. Thus, when individualist feminists joined social purity campaigns, such as temperance, they advocated voluntary and not legislated abstinence. Needless to say, this was out-of-step with the mainstream and socialist approach to the social purity campaigns which generally attempted to impose 'virtue'-- to impose morally proper behaviour upon society through the force of law Rather like the current feminist campaign against pornography.
Other profound ideological differences exists between the socialist and individualist feminism traditions.
Consider the concept of 'justice', which intimately relates to the concept of equality. Socialist feminism advocates socio-economic equality and its approach to justice is ends-oriented -- it defines justice in terms of a specific social condition. That is, socialist feminism provides a specific blueprint of which social and economic arrangements constitute a just society. A just society is one without white male culture or capitalism. Justice is an end-state, a point at which society embodies explicit economic, political and cultural arrangements. When women arrive at such an end-state, they can say "we are there, this is justice."
By contrast, individualist feminists insist that the freely chosen action of peaceful individuals must be respected. this concept of justice is means-oriented: that is, justice refers to methodology and not to a specific social or economic arrangement. As long as a given social state results from the voluntary interactions of everyone involved, then Whatever arrangements result are just. Justice, therefore, refers not to a specific end-state, such as socioeconomic equality, but to the process by which the end-state is achieved. Whatever is voluntary is 'just', or, at least, it is as close to justice as a non-utopian society can come.
For example, a college that discriminates against women and one that enforces a strict quota policy that favors women could exist side-by-side. As long as both were privately funded and no force was used, the arrangement would be just and the law could not properly interfere.
Discriminating against women might be immoral, as many peaceful actions may be -- lying to friends, adultery, selling drugs -- all these peaceful actions may be immoral. And individualist feminists might well attempt to change the first college's policy. If they did so, however, they would use education, protest, picketing, boycott, moral suasion -- the whole slate of persuasive strategies. What they could use -- at least, not without violating their own principles -- they could not use force in order to restrict the college's peaceful choice to not associate with women. Freedom of association requires the right to discriminate.
Socialist feminists were and are not similarly restricted in using the force of law. They use the State -- even the patriarchal State, that penultimate enemy of women -- to enforce their version of a just society. And this makes sense. After all, the socialist ideal of justice can be established by the force of State. A specific economic arrangement can be imposed upon society, whereas the individualist ideal -- a voluntary society -- cannot be created by force.
Yet another fundamental difference between the two traditions resides in the concept of class. According to socialist feminism, gender is the political characteristic that defines a class. Men share not only similar biologies, but also political interests which are maintained through the institution of patriarchy: that is, through white male culture and male economics...also known as capitalism. The interests of men are necessarily in conflict with the interests of women. In her book Feminism Unmodified, Catherine MacKinnon considers gender as a 'class' to be her primary theme. "The first theme is the analysis that the social relation between the sexes is organized so that men may dominate and women must submit and this relation is sexual -- in fact, is sex. Men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize inequality, especially the inequality of the sexes."
To individualist feminists the political characteristic that determines the class to which an individual belongs is his or her relationship to the use of force in society. There are two basic classes: the criminal or political class which acquires wealth and power through force, including legislation; and, the economic class which acquires wealth and power through voluntary exchange with others. The political class is at war with the economic one. For feminism, the important thing is that each class contains both men and women who, as individuals, can change their class affiliations at will.
This last point has profound implications. Since socialist feminism bases class affiliation on biology, the classes are stable with men and women inevitable enemies. In individualist feminism, the classes are fluid with individual men and women in no necessary conflict with each other. This one factor alone may explain why the individualist tradition and history contains as many prominent male figures as female ones, and why gender attacks on men tend to be rare. When an individualist feminist says "Women are, and should be treated as, the equals of men", there is a recognition of the logical corollary, "Men are, and should be treated as, the equals of women."
Now...I have gone fairly deep into theory here, for a very specific reason. I have written a book with the subtitle "A Woman's Right to Pornography", and I give talks criticizing current sexual harassment laws. I want you to understand that Individualist feminism is not merely a contrarian position on issues like affirmative action. It is a comprehensive, integrated system of beliefs concerning women's relationship to society. It has a deep rich history that significantly impacted the status of women in the 19th century. It embraces a large body of literature -- novels, political tracts, poetry, diaries, speeches -- and it involves a distinctive historical interpretation of events such as the Industrial Revolution, which it views as being overwhelmingly beneficial to women.
The richness of this tradition is not surprising when you realize that the very roots of American feminism were profoundly individualistic.
As an organized force, American feminism is often dated -- and, I believe, correctly so -- from the radical anti-slavery movement, known as Abolitionism, that arose in the early 1830s and coalesced around the libertarian William Lloyd Garrison. Although there were many courageous figures who advanced the status of women prior to this period -- women such as Anne Hutchinson and Francis Wright -- they spoke out as individuals rather than as members of a self-conscious organization dedicated to women's rights.
Abolitionism 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 not only to the slaves, but to
themselves. The historian, Aileen S. Kraditor, wrote in her book Up
From the Pedestal:
"A few women in the abolitionist movement in the 1830s ... found their religiously inspired work for the slave impeded by prejudices against public activity by women. They and many others began to ponder the parallels between women's status and the Negro's status, and to notice that white men usually applied the principles of natural rights and the ideology of individualism only to themselves."
The abolitionist feminist Abbie Kelley was a case in point when she 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."
Unfortunately for American individualism in all its manifestations -- not merely individualist feminists -- the Civil War erupted. If 'War is the health of state', as the 19th century classical liberal Randolph Bourne claimed, then was is also the death of individualism. To the tips of its roots, the tradition is an anti-Statist, and war inevitably involves an increase in State power that never seems to roll back to prewar levels when peace has been declared. The Civil War expanded state powers to include conscription, censorship, suspension of habeas corpus, political imprisonment, legal tender laws, and dramatically increased taxes and tariffs. Individualism waned.
The Civil War also changed the face of feminism. Before the war the movement had been *tending* toward political activity, especially toward the demand for suffrage. While attending the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London, England, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been embittered by the dismissive treatment women had received there from the less- enlightened English male radicals. Garrison had been so outraged that he withdrew from the main floor to sit instead in the curtained off section to which the women had been ostracized.
In concert with the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, Stanton planned
the pivotal 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. At this Convention, a 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 from the other 'old guard' of abolitionist feminists who were deeply opposed to using government to solve problems. The suffrage resolution barely passed by one vote, although every other resolution received unanimous acclaim.
After the Civil War, feminists again cried out for suf- frage. At the behest of the abolitionist men, beside whom they had stood for so many years, feminists put aside their own inter- ests and fought instead for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amend- ments. They hoped for women to be included within the wording of these documents. What happened? The Fourteenth Amendment linked a state's basis for representation in the Congress to its protection of the right of male inhabitants to vote -- at least, the right of males over 21 who were not untaxed Indians. The Fifteenth Amendment declared that the right to vote could not be abridged because of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude": no mention was made of sex.
Women felt betrayed. In the History of Woman Suffrage Susan B. Anthony wrote, "We repudiated man's counsels forever." Perhaps this was the beginning of the emotional backlash against men which some believe characterizes contemporary feminism.
Mainstream feminism now concentrated on suffrage. Individualist feminists, who opposed political solutions, tended to express themselves within a variety of other social causes where they functioned as radical a voice for women rights. The most important cause in which individualist feminists participated was Free Love -- a movement that had no connection whatsoever to licentious behavior. It simply declared that *all* peaceful sexual choices, such as marriage and birth control, were to be left entirely to the adults involved, with no government interference.
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