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Liberty for Women
Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-first Century
Edited by Wendy McElroy
IVAN R. DEE
Copyright © 2002 The Independent Institute.
All rights reserved.
The women's movement is in radically different stages in different regions of the world. Many misunderstandings exist, even between British and American feminism, despite their mutual influence and support in the historical campaign for suffrage.
There are, in my analysis, two primary spheres of future action: first, basic civil rights and educational opportunity must be secured for Third World women; second, the education and training of Western women must be better designed to prepare them for leadership positions in business and politics. Women's studies programs, as structured in the United States, have not proved that feminist ideology helps women to understand life or to function in the real world, where men must be dealt with as friends or foes.
As a classroom teacher of nearly thirty years, I am committed to identifying and developing the factual material and practical strategies that the next generation of women will need to exercise power and, one hopes, to head nations. Military history, not feminist theory is required: without an understanding of war, few women will ever be entrusted with topmost positions in government. In the United States, for example, the president also serves as Commander-in-Chief and thus must win the confidence of the armed forces.
In the 1990s American feminism experienced cataclysmic changes. My wing of pro-sex feminism, which was ostracized and silenced through the long period ruled by anti-pornography activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, made a stunning resurgence. As a free speech militant, my thinking is grounded in the 1960s sexual revolution. Most of the positions for which I was pilloried when I came on the scene a decade ago, with the publication of my long-delayed first book, are now scarcely controversial at all, so sweeping has been the victory of libertarian feminism, which is in tune with a younger, sassier generation of feminists.
Popular culture, particularly rock 'n' roll, is no longer the enemyas it was when I was at war with fellow feminists in the late 1960s for my admiration of the "sexist" Rolling Stones. Fashion and beauty are of interest again, instead of being automatically labeled as oppressive tools of patriarchy. Hormones and biological sex differences are slowly returning to the agenda, after a quarter century of rigid social constructionism.
Labyrinthian poststructuralist feminism is increasingly recognized as an ahistorical dead end. The disintegration of the Soviet Union undermined the fashionable Marxism of bourgeois intellectuals such as the propagandist Susan Faludi. Capitalism's central role in the modern emancipation of women is starting to be seen.
American campus feminists, who rode high for twenty years, have been gradually marginalized in this decade: few played much role in the public debates that have raged about sexual harassment in the workplace, a vital issue that swept away the late 1980s victim-obsessed date-rape hysteria. From the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings to the recent bitter quarrel over the president's affair with a young intern, the prominent campus feminists have been irresponsibly silent, demonstrating the inadequacies of conventional feminist theory when grappling with thorny contemporary questions.
The Clinton scandals have also exposed the political biases of women's groups such as the National Organization for Women: the obtrusive collusion of present and past presidents of NOW (plus Gloria Steinem) with the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party has seriously damaged the women's movement, which in my view should be a big tent that gathers in women of every political and religious affiliation. As; a registered Democrat and a member of pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood, I contend that the women's movement should have no ideological litmus test about abortion or any other issue.
Most feminists abroad have little conception of the way American feminism veered toward tyranny after its early successes in the late 1960s. What looks like "anti-feminism" has really been a rebellion here by insurgents like myself who are equity feminists: that is, we believe that only equality of the sexes before the law will guarantee women's advance. We vigorously oppose all special protections of womenas in anti-pornography legislationas inherently infantilizing. This is an old argument within feminism: Susan B. Anthony, for example, promoted the temperance movement (which demanded prohibition of the public sale of alcohol because drunken men impoverished and endangered women), thus endorsing a puritanical intrusion of the state into private life.
Though recent polls show that most American women refuse to describe themselves as feminists and often have a negative view of movement leaders, I am convinced that feminism, for all its internal dissension, is alive and well and will continue to be a major cultural force around the world in the twenty-first century.
What is the relationship between the status of women and the cause of liberty in modern times? The question may appear to be anachronistic. After all, the major battles over the status of women in the United States were fought long ago. They were, as it is sometimes difficult to remember, battles over civil capacity (for example, during the nineteenth century the ability of married women to make contracts in their own right, to give evidence, and to serve on juries) and over political capacity (during the early twentieth century the right of women to vote in political elections and to stand for office).
At the time, the resistance to these simple and self-evident claims was so great that in retrospect it is hard to fathom the political turmoil generated by such modest reforms. The strife was at least as great as the present-day contention over civil rights and affirmative action. Of course the resolution of the major questions at issue by 1920 did not put an end to debates over the role and place of women in society. In this chapter I hope to give some sense of how the debate has progressed, and to indicate why the very arguments that rightly led to the legal reforms affecting the status of women during the nineteenth century militate against the demands for reform from the late-twentieth-century feminist movement. In stating this position, I do not mean to position myself in the vanguard of reaction. On the contrary I believe that the progressive ideals of the nineteenth century remain just as progressive today.
The issues of civil and political capacity concern the ability of individuals to enter into ordinary business and social transactions and to participate in the general political life of the nation. They are the sorts of rights that can be guaranteed to all individuals even if the state does not adhere to any single sound principle of regulation.
The basic point is that the ordinary definition of liberty gives one not only the capacity to move about freely but also the capacity to better oneself through voluntary transactions. The logic of those transactions is that of mutual gain through mutual consent. We can agree that individuals have complex visions of themselves and of what actions or states of affairs serve their self-interest. Still all can improve their lot by surrendering what they value less for what they value more. How could one defend a system that excludes any portion of the population from these advantages? In any particular case someone might be relieved by the exclusion from the economic arena of those perceived as competitors rather than trading partners. But if we consider the entrance of women into the marketplace (or of any other group previously subjected to systematic exclusion), the overall balance of convenience tilts sharply in favor of free entry. New entrants are not merely potential competitors; they are also potential co-workers, suppliers, customers, and consultants. When they assume those roles, the new entrants enhance the vitality of the social system as a whole.
Exclusions in this situation act as an internal barrier against free trade, with consequences no better (and arguably worse) than those arising from the formal exclusion of foreign goods and labor via taxes, tariffs, quantitative restrictions, quotas, and the like. The necessary consequence of the exclusion is that trade gains are blocked by the artificial barrier, leaving the sum of production possibilities reduced with no evident distributional advantages to offset that social loss. Moreover the classical prohibitions on women's contracting and women's suffrage gave rise to suspicion, distrust, and regret that could easily have been eliminated by removing the barriers to entry that frustrated the operation of competitive markets.
One reason why the nineteenth-century case for women's rights was (and is) so strong is that it dovetails neatly into any and all theories that recognize the limits as well as the uses of markets. For example the arguments for and against an anti-trust law that limits horizontal price-fixing or mergers scarcely touch upon this issue. One cannot conceive of a single argument in which the exclusion of women from the marketplace improves the resolution of such questions. Moreover, we can think of good reasons why systematic exclusion from the political process is likely to cause profound dislocations: what gain arises from a system in which all are bound by but only some participate in decision making? A dominant set of solutions leads all libertarians and utilitarians to support the progressive movements of an earlier age.
From Women's Liberation to Feminism
What has brought about today's split between the feminists and the free traders who march under the utilitarian and libertarian banners? The first point of separation pertains to the name of the movement. When the present wave of feminist activity burst on the scene during the 1960s, it was closely tied to the anti-war movement and the racial upheaval in the United States. For a time the movement gave recognition to its libertarian roots in its choice of name: women's liberation. The term hearkened back to the earlier crusades to remove the formal barriers to entry in both economic and political markets. But the name did not stick. It was always a bit too cute and refined for its purpose, and it projected a certain genteel quality inconsistent with the more hard-edged and programmatic tone of the modern movement.
The shift in nomenclature did not take place, in a vacuum, given the parallelism between race and sex in the civil rights movement. The nineteenth-century version of the civil rights movement in race relations followed much the same path as the nineteenth-century women's movement. In order to allow slaves to assume the status of free individuals, one had only to abolish the institution of slavery. In the formative period of the women's movement, during the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionism was not a program to grant freed blacks full civil and political rights. As Andrew Kull writes, "There were a hundred arguments to be made against slavery before anyone would necessarily reach the ideaoccupying, then as now, a relatively remote level of abstractionthat the law ought not to distinguish between persons on the basis of color." One argument advanced in favor of the abolition of slavery was that it did not entail going further to embrace the ideal of the "equal protection of the laws." Rather the point was that whites could rid themselves of the moral stain of slavery and racial domination without having to grant blacks full political and civil equality. Once the blacks were free, they could still be excluded from the vote and from public office. Likewise with respect to the sexes. Objections to the capacity to contract were more easily overcome than uneasiness about giving (as only men could) women the vote, where the implications for the diffusion of political power were far greater.
Excerpted from Liberty for Women by Wendy McElroy. Copyright © 2002 by The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.