Introduction to Individualist Feminism

Part Two.

by Wendy McElroy

The main Free Love periodical for individualist feminists was the provocatively entitled, Lucifer the Light Bearer (1883- 1907) edited by Moses Harman. In the late 1800s, this periodical was one of the few forums to openly promote birth control as a valid choice for women. Its main ally in doing so was The Word (1872-1893), a libertarian periodical edited by Ezra Heywood.

Harman insisted that woman's self-ownership be fully acknowledged in marriage and other sexual arrangements. Unfortunately, in living his principles, Harman ran counter to the Comstock laws, passed in 1873, which prohibited the mailing of obscene matter but did not define what constituted obscenity. It was defined through enforcement. On February 23, 1887, most of the staff of Lucifer was arrested for having published three letters. One letter had described the plight of a woman whose husband had forced sex upon her even though she was recovering from an operation. It is the earliest analysis I have found of forced sex within marriage being rape, and the earliest call for the law to recognize it as such.

The staff was indicated on 270 counts of obscenity, although only Harman was imprisoned in the end. For decades thereafter, Moses fought the Comstock laws. His last imprisonment coming in 1906 when 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.

Although it is natural to assume that 19th century feminists applauded Harman's courage in standing up for women's rights, this was not the general response. Mainstream feminists often supported statutes that restricted birth control information, considering such material to be obscene. One of the pledges of the women candidates in the Kansas election of 1889, for example, was to shut down Harman's periodical, which issued from their state. In his book The Sex Radicals, the contemporary historian Hal D. Sears observed, "Conventional feminists bowed before the statute." However, the individualist feminists, he continues, "on libertarian principles, broke this law in order to raise the questions of government censorship and individual self- ownership." The earliest voices to call women's freedom in sexual matters were individualist ones.

I purposefully chose a man as my first example of an individualist feminist, even though I could have easily chosen a woman. For example, I could have chosen Lillian Harman, Moses' daughter. When the U.S. Deputy Marshall came to arrest the staff of Lucifer, which included Lillian, the 16 year old was nowhere to be found. That was because she had already been imprisoned for her non-state, non-church marriage a few months. The charge was unlawfully and feloniously living with a man as his wife without being married according to statute.

I chose Moses Harman instead of Lillian to re-enforce an earlier point -- namely, the distinction between how individualist and socialist feminists define class. Unlike socialists feminists, Individualists do not consider biology to be the defining characteristic. They use more of a ruling class theory -- that is, they ask 'what is your relationship to the use of force in society?' Any man or woman who uses force, even with the intention of furthering feminist goals, is an enemy of women's rights. Why?

Remember that the key concept of individualist feminism is 'self-ownership' -- the moral jurisdiction that every human being has over his or her own body and the products of his or her labor (property). The goal of individualist feminism is to have everyone's self-ownership claim respected equally. Women deserve no privileges. Merely the same protection that every human being has a right to expect. Considering this ideological starting point, it is not difficult to understand why individualist feminism does not regard men as the enemy and has historically embraced sympa- thetic men as full and valued feminists.

Indeed, one of the reasons feminist history has ignored many individualist feminists may be due to the fact that some of the most prominent ones are men. To the extent such men have received attention at all, they have been categorized as 'sex radicals', 'anarchists', or assigned some other affiliation than 'feminist'. And this is another reason I chose Moses Harman as my first example. Arguably Moses Harman is the most prominent 19th century male individualist feminist and, because of his immense impact on the sexual rights of women, he has received attention, most prominently in Hal D. Sears excellent book The Sexua Radicals.

And, for anyone who thinks I may be exaggerating Harman's importance, let me give just one example of his prominence in passing. In 1905, on the front page of the New York Times, George Bernard Shaw stated, "...a journal has been confiscated and its editor imprisoned in American for urging the a married women should be protected from domestic molestation when childbearing." Two years later, in 1907, Shaw informed London journalists why he never visited America. He explained, "The reason I do not go to America is that I am afraid of being Mr. moses Harman...If the brigands can...seize a man of Mr. Harman's advanced age, and imprison him for a year under conditions which amount to an indirect attempt to kill him, simply because he shares the opinion expressed in my Man and theSuperman that 'marriage is the most licentious of human instiuttions,' what chance should I have of escaping. No, thank you; no trips to America for me."

Moses Harman was imprisoned for advocating birth control, a woman's rights within marriage, and forced sex within marriage being considered as rape. Yet Harman is not identified as an individual feminist. If he were not male, I believe his status within feminism would surpass that of Margaret Sanger. I believe that is the status he deserves.

What of the women who were individualist feminists?

Some of the women have been miscategorized or, at least, categorized in a misleading manner. The most extensive overview of these women has occurred in Margaret S. Marsh's book Anarchist Women 1870-1920. Although I highly recommend the work, I think Marsh commits a basic error in analysing what she calls the 'anarchist feminists'. Marsh writes:

"Anarchist-feminism, an ideology created and elaborated during the last third of the nineteenth century, developed directly from the cornerstone of anarchist philosophy: the primacy of complete personal liberty over all else. Although the factions within the movement disputed endlessly and vehemently about the proper methods for attaining such freedom, they all agreed on its fundamental importance."

I want to make two points here. First, even if it is true -- and I am not sure it is -- but even if it is true that anarchist feminists agreed on the "primacy of personal liberty", that statement tells us no more than my earlier definition of feminism as men and women being equal. Different traditions of feminism define equality in contraditory manners. The same is true of the concept "personal liberty".......which is actually two concepts, requiring a sense of what is 'personal' (as opposed to political) and what is 'liberty.'

I want to focus on the concept of 'liberty' in order to provide you with a sense of the deep ideological division that is lost by lumping individualist women with socialist ones under the one label of 'anarchist feminists.' 'What is liberty? Each tradition defines violence or aggression -- the opposite of liberty -- in fundamentally different ways. To the individualist feminist, aggression is defined with reference to property titles. To such a feminist, the ultimate reason that it is wrong to use force against a woman is because it violates her self- ownership, it denies her title to her own body.

The same is true of aggression aimed at more conventional property. It is wrong to snatch a woman's money from her because, first, that money is the product of her labor, and second, she has not rendered consent. So, the definition of aggression within individualist femnism rests on two concepts: title and consent. Whose property is it and does the owner agree to what is going on? That is, did she say "yes" or "no."

Not so with socialist feminism, which includes the concept of economic coercion; for example, if a woman explicitly consents to work at an extremely low wage, but does so only because she would starve otherwise, the socialist feminist would argue that consent has not occurred. The economic situation created by capitalism is the equivalent of a gun pointed at the head of the woman.

I don't want to explore any more theory, so I'll end the analysis here. The foregoing was meant only to remind you of the deep ideological schism between how individualists and socialists approach concepts such as justice, equality, consent, and liber- ty. And, when these two traditions are grouped together under one label, the individualists tend to be silenced because their voices are in minority. It is the lot of the minority not to be heard.

Moreover, without an understanding of the ideology of individualist feminism it is easy to pass over the figures in this tradition as being muddled, or hopelessly inconsistent. Let me give you a real life example -- Gertrude B. Kelly, whom I mentioned earlier. And as I describe her positions and beliefs, try to imagine how you would classify Kelly if you encountered her in a feminist textbook or classroom.

As a feminist activist in the last decades of the 19th century, Gertrude Kelly -- as I said -- was a medical doctor whose patients included prostitutes and tenement women. She was Secretary of the Newark Liberal League and a frequent contributor to anarchist periodicals, including the prominent periodical Liberty, whose editor Benjamin Tucker wrote: "Gertrude B. Kelly, her articles in Liberty, has placed herself at a single bound among the finest writers of this or any other coun- try..." As an Irish immigrant who had been involved in the Irish No Rent movement, she brought with her from Ireland a hatred of rent, interest, 'landlordism' -- in the language of her times -- and the other trappings of capitalism, which were considered to be -- again in 19th century terminology -- 'usury'.

In her article on prostitution in Liberty, Kelly had expressed two themes that were common to her analysis of poverty and of women: First, women have been oppressed by the cultural stereotypes that dominated society. Second, charity organizations and 'the rich' were hypocritical in their attitudes and behavior toward the poor. She particularly ridiculed the philanthropic groups so popular in her day in which working "...girls are given lessons in embroidery, art, science, etc., and are incidentally told of the evils of trade-unions, the immorality of strikes, and of the necessity of being 'satisfied with the condition to which it has pleased God to call them.'

So far, the foregoing sounds like the writings of an intelligent, of a politically and emotionally sensitive socialist feminist. But now you stumble across another article by Kelly entitled "State Aid to Science." It is a transcript of a speech that Dr. Kelly delivered to the New York Women's Medical College in which she argued against the College soliciting or accepting any government funds. Basically, the lecture addressed two themes. In Kelly's own words, "first, that progress in science is lessened, and ultimately destroyed, by state interference; and, secondly, that even if, through state aid, progress in science could be promoted, the promotion would be at too great an expense of the best interests of the race."

She claimed it was impossible for government to promote knowledge: "It seems to be generally forgotten by those who favor state aid to science that aid so given is not and cannot be aid to Science, but to particular doctrine or dogmas, and that, where this aid is given, it requires almost a revolution to introduce a new idea." She claimed that an arrangement of government patronage creates "a great many big idle queens at the expense of the workers".

In other words, Kelly argued against what is considered to be a standard 19th and 20th century feminist position -- namely, that government should act to open the doors of professions that were traditionally biased toward men and against women. Such governmental encouragement, of course, usually involved subsidy either in the form of money or legislation.

Now the presence of both articles...How would you evaluate Gertrude Kelly? Into which established category of feminism would you place her? When she does not seem to fit well under any established label, do you question whether the labels are inadequate, or do you consider her heresies to be inconsistencies in her system of belief?

Well, Kelly *was* consistent. She was consistent to 19th century individualist feminist principles. Like most individualist feminists of her day, Kelly viewed capitalism as the major cause of poverty. Yet she rejected any government solution to social problems. And the solution she *did* offer for capitalism sounds bizarre to modern ears. Kelly considered the free market to be the cure. To understand this position, you must appreciate her definition of capitalism. She considered capitalism to be an alliance between business and government in which government guaranteed special privileges to the rich. To break this alliance, it was necessary to break the power of government for, in Kelly's words, "...all the laws have no other object than to perpetrate injustice, to support at any price the monopolists in their plunder."

All government laws were to be fought -- again -- with peaceful means, for, as Kelly wrote, "You cannot shoot down or blow up an economic system, but you can destroy it by ceasing to support it, as soon as you understand where its evils lie."

The specific evils to be destroyed were restricted bargaining, protectionist tariffs and government created monopolies. The solutions were free banking, free trade and open short, the free market.

Without the category of individualist feminism, how would you make sense of such a woman? I don't think you would. I don't think feminism has. And -- as a result -- such women have been virtually written out of feminist history. I asked you to imagine how you would react to Kelly if you encountered her in a feminist textbook...the fact is you won't.

Pick up a standard feminist reference work like the heft three volume biographical dictionary entitled "Notable American Women" issued by Harvard University Press. You won't find Gertrude B. Kelly. Nor will you find Lillian Harman. Nor Angela Heywood -- a moving force behind the periodical The Word, an lifelong labor activist, also a target of the Comstock laws, and the author of the earliest defense I've ever found of abortion on the ground of "a woman's body, a woman's right." Nor will you find Sarah Holmes -- a remarkable women who operated for decades as a one-woman clearing house for introducing European radicalism in American culture. Fluent in several languages, she translated the best of feminist and anarchist thought from France, Germany, and Russia, and published them at her own expense. I could go on and on.

Feminism is impoverished by the absence of these women, by the absence of individualist feminism.. From my perspective, the ideology of contemporary feminism has come to resemble a dogma and dissenting women are being defined out of the movement. Feminists who defend pornography, question affirmative action, or disagree with the definition of sexual harassment as a civil rights violation are viewed as the enemy. Yet women questioning and disagreeing was the very spark that created a feminist movement.

Passionate and respectful debate is part of what attracts the best minds of a generation -- both male and female -- to any cause or movement. Dogma and ad hominem attacks are part of what repels them. The feminist movement needs to embrace and explore every one of its ideological traditions in order to grow and flourish into a new century.

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