Individualist Feminism:
A Voice for Gender Sanity

by Wendy McElroy

Individualist feminism, or ifeminism, is currently a subcategory within the broader feminist movement. This was not always the case. As an organized and self-conscious movement, American feminism arose during the 1830s from the radical anti-slavery movement known as abolitionism, which claimed that every human being – black or white – was a self-owner. That is, every individual had a moral jurisdiction over his own person. When the abolitionist applied this principle to themselves, American feminism was born and its ideological foundation was the rights of the individual. It demanded full equality with men under just law: no privilege, no oppression.

To define ifeminism it is necessary to explore the two traditions that give the term meaning: individualism and feminism.

Natural Law

Although individualism and the advocacy of natural law are not synonymous, the latter has been a dominant theme within ifeminism. Natural law is an attempt to delineate the duties that are universal to every human being. As a logical corollary, it also outlines the rights possessed by everyone – that is, those things that every human being can rightfully demand of others. Rights and duties are mirror images. For example, the right of a woman to her own body implies the duty of all others not to aggress against her.

One approach to analyzing "natural law" is to examine each word in the term.

The word "law" is not used in a legal sense. It is not a synonym for legislation. Rather, "law" refers to a principle or governing rule, much as one might speak of the law of gravity. The meaning of the word "natural" is more complicated and has occasioned great debate. Broadly interpreted, there are two definitions – a theological and a secular one. The philosopher Henry B. Veatch explains this distinction:

"In the one sense [the theological one], natural laws are to be understood as scarcely ‘natural’ at all, in as much as they represent no more than certain absolute prescriptions and prohibitions, which, so far from being rationally discoverable by human reason in nature, are simply decreed by God. In the other sense [the secular one], natural laws are thought of as being none other than such rules of intelligent conduct and behavior as any knowledgeable person ought to be able to see."

Restated, the theological version of natural law considers "right" and "wrong" to be types of fact: it claims that certain actions are objectively right or wrong.

A less rigid interpretation of natural law – the one favored by individualist feminism – argues that human values should be grounded in or based upon fact. This approach is an attempt to answer the question, "given what we know about reality and human nature, is it possible to reason out universal principles of behavior that maximize human well being?" Thus, the concepts of right and wrong – or rights and duties – are discovered by reasoning from facts.

Although rights and duties are not categories of fact, they are far more than mere conventions upon which human beings have agreed. Human values derive directly from reality and human nature. Thus, some actions can be said to be naturally right or naturally wrong.

In modern times, the term "natural rights" is used more often than "natural law." "Natural rights" usually refers to the ‘right’ principles of interaction that maximize the human well being in society. Here again, the "rights in society" are ascertained through observation and reasoning.

Veatch draws an analogy to other "arts, skills, and crafts." He asks:

"Why does the skilled surgeon, for instance, make his incision in one way rather than another? Don’t we say that it is because he knows how to do his job? There is presumably some reason - a real reason - for his doing it that way rather than another. In this sense, we should scarcely say that the rules of good surgical practice are mere agreed-upon conventions with no natural basis at all." Why not view the arts and skills of living and society in the same light? Surely, it would be odd if they were the only human skills that were arbitrary."

Veatch continues, "If the goal is human well-being, then which behaviour is naturally right or wrong is evaluated on the basis of whether it contributes or detracts from the prospect of achieving it. Therefore, a natural right involves behaviours that one ‘ought’ or ‘should’ adopt in order to achieve well-being. This is the sense in which ‘values’ or ethics accompany the doctrine of natural law." This is where "ought" enters the equation.

But, in order to make any useful statement on human nature, such "oughts" must be universalizable. That is, they must apply to all human beings. Yet human nature is incredibly diverse. Thus, it is not possible to state what people ought to do in any but the broadest of terms. For example, it is not possible to say that a particular woman (or man) "ought" to take a very specific action to secure their well being because the specifics are a matter of circumstance. It is always possible, however, to make one statement that applies to every competent adult in each situation: she or he ought to make her or his own choices.

But every ought has a corresponding duty. Thus, if a woman says she ought to be able to choose, then she must extend the same "ought" to every other human being. Otherwise, she is claiming a privilege rather than a right. This ought has been called the "non-initiation of force" principle. Everyone has a jurisdiction over her or his own body that no one can rightfully infringe.

As a broad and simplistic statement, this is the form of individualism that underlies ifeminism: all human beings have an equal claim to self-ownership.

Ifeminism Defined by Reference to Feminism

Ifeminism may seem to be contradiction in terms. After all, if every human being has an equal claim to self-ownership, why separate out one class of people and deal with their rights separately? Why speak of women’s rights rather than individual rights?

Ifeminism arises when women receive different treatment under the law because they are women. It arises when women are either oppressed or privileged based upon their sex. It is analogous to the black rights movement that emerged, not because blacks have different rights than whites, but because they have the same rights and these rights had been denied.

In 19th century America, for example, most married women did not have a legal claim to their own wages. Instead, the money belonged to their husbands. Thus, because the law artificially created married women as a separate category of "wage-earner," it became necessary for women to address the inequity. They insisted that their individual rights receive equal treatment with those men – indeed, that the law make no reference at all to sex.

Ifeminism’s form of equality differs from that advocated by mainstream or radical feminism.

As a general statement, the mainstream of feminism in America has demanded the equal representation of women in culture and politics, as much as equal treatment under the law. Equality has often been defined in terms of proportionality – as equality of outcomes. Moreover, the mainstream does not express a consistent theory of justice – that is, it does not answer "what is just law?" – beyond reference to equality. This lack of definition is epitomized by the fact that, at various times, the mainstream has advocated voting for women candidates simply because they were women, with no regard to their position on issues. Lacking a hard ideological core, mainstream organizations such as NOW, have been vulnerable to charges of inconsistency. For example, many feminists championed Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment and vilified those of Paula Jones. This is a natural consequence of having no well-defined theory of what constitutes justice.

The same cannot be said of radical feminism which has a strong ideological core. Justice is defined largely in terms of a socio-economic equality that must be achieved by according legal privileges to women. Because women have been and inevitably will be oppressed by patriarchy (white male culture), they must be empowered through such measures as laws against verbal sexual harassment. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, radical feminist theory filtered through the mainstream movement, defining the most popular conception of what is meant by the word "feminist" today.

Ifeminism v. Radical Feminism

The true ideological contest within the movement is between ifeminism and radical feminism. These two schools define the extremes of what constitutes justice and equality for women. In order to appreciate the depth of this schism, let us consider in some detail merely one concept – albeit a key one – upon which the two schools disagree. Consider the concept of "class."

A class is nothing more than an arbitrarily 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. Perhaps he will further establish subclasses within drug-users based on the particular substance used, the frequency of use, or some other factor salient to the researcher’s purposes. Classes can be defined by almost any factor salient to the definer.

For radical feminists, gender is the salient factor that defines classes into male and female. 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. For example, 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 differ, they share the basic goal of good health which can be roughly defined and pursued in the same manner.

By contrast, radical feminism advocates a theory of basic class conflict based on gender. It claims that men 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 collective political interests of men are referred to as "patriarchy." Patriarchy is the systematic and structural oppression of women in politics and culture, which is supported by capitalism.

The concept of class conflict is widely associated with Karl Marx, who popularized it as a tool to predict the political and social behavior of individuals. Once the class affiliation of an individual was known, the 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. The prominent advocate 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 would be housework that is unsalaried. But the element of gender is added. Men wield the free market and other institutions as a means to control women. 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 presumed to be 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 and the family. The law must act to benefit historically disadvantaged ‘woman’ at the expense of historically oppressive ‘man’.

This class analysis makes no sense within the theoretical framework of ifeminism that declares all human beings to have the same political interests. Namely, the recognition of self-ownership. This interest is based on possessing the primary characteristic of "humanity." No secondary characteristic – e.g. gender, age, ethnicity – can politically affect the rights and duties of every individual.

Nevertheless, individualism has a long tradition of class analysis that does categorize people according to a salient political factor. That factor is: does an individual use force to achieve her goals. Does she acquire "goods" such as wealth or power through merit and productivity? Or does she use aggression, often in the form of law, to expropriate wealth and power from others? Expressed in the most basic form, ifeminism’s form of class analysis asks, "are you a member of the political or productive (economic) class?" Do you use the political or the economic means to further your interests?

Another key difference between radical and ifeminist class analysis is that the latter does not predict the behavior of individuals. Both men and women can use the political means. An individual can change her class affiliation at will, abandoning the use of force and adopting the economic means instead. In short, classes within ifeminist analysis are fluid. This is not true of radical feminist analysis that is based on biology.

To radical feminism, biology is the factor that fixes an individual into a class. To ifeminism, the use of force is the salient factor and an individual can cross class lines at any point. Indeed, the only way to prevent fluidity is to establish classes by force. That is, to use laws or other coercive means to cement class advantages into the fabric of society, thus establishing legally static classes. To rephrase this, classes become static only when legal barriers are raised to prevent social, political or economic mobility.

This difference in approach to class analysis has many implications. One of them is that ifeminist class analysis offers no hard and fast predictive value. Just because an individual has been a member of the political class in the past says nothing about whether she will continue to be so in the future. Again, class actions and interests are predictable only if they are static, only if they are perpetuated by force – especially the force of law.

The fluidity of classes in ifeminist theory 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 necessary about whether they will oppress them in the future. Whether an individual man is an oppressor or a friend of women depends on whether he uses the political means, and this is a matter of conscious choice.

The concept of "class" is only one of many areas of intellectual contention between radical and individualist feminism. The two traditions also define other essential concepts, such as "equality" and "justice," in different manners. However, my purpose is simply to render a sense of how deep the ideological division runs.


In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest and scholarship in ifeminism. Its pro-male, pro-sex and anti-PC stand is providing gender-sanity in the otherwise shrill world created by "feminism."

June 8, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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