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  Wendy McElroy

Where Feminist Theory Has Gone Wrong
January 9, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

Contemporary feminism in the United States has forgotten its roots and has taken a disastrous turn away from the true interest of women: namely, absolute equality under just law, without privileges or sanctions based on gender. The vision of such an equality is to be found in the rich tradition of individualist feminism which flourished in the 19th century and is emerging once more.

Individualist feminism -- or ifeminism -- is generally based on natural law theory and on the derivative belief that all human beings are sovereign, or self-owners. That is, every human being has a jurisdiction over his or her own body which no other human being can rightfully violate. Individualist feminism demands equal respect for the natural rights of all individuals. In short, the law should neither grant privileges nor impose restrictions that are based on secondary characteristic such as race, gender, or religion. The law should treat everyone equally on the basis of their primary characteristic: their humanity.

Throughout most of American history, the government has denied equality to women by relegating them to second-class status under the law. For example, entry into various professions was restricted, married women routinely lost the right to their own property including wages, and women were denied access to knowledge about their own bodies (birth control information).

Because the legal oppression of women was based on gender, it became necessary for women to organize along gender lines to demand the rights being denied to them as a sex. These organizing efforts evolved into a feminist movement, which found expression within various pre-existing traditions, including individualism. Individualist feminism advocated equal treatment of all human beings under natural law. As a movement, it demanded that the law be blind to the secondary characteristic of sex, and treat women according to their primary characteristic of being human, on the same level as men.

In the last few decades, the greatest threat to genuine equality between the sexes has not come from legal restrictions imposed upon women but from legal privileges granted to women based upon gender: examples of these legal privileges include affirmative action or sexual harassment laws. For any class of people to seek or to accept legal privileges is unjust, because the privileges must come at the expense of another class. Granting privileges to women not only damages men, it also damages women who depend upon the paternalistic protection of the government rather than upon their own efforts.

Thus, the ultimate goal of individualist feminism is a society that reflects equal respect for the natural rights of all individuals, male or female. The greatest enemy is government, which has historically legislated privileges or restrictions based on gender. Indeed, without the vehicle of government and law, men could not have oppressed women historically except on an individual basis.

What is Feminism?

Consider the statement: Women are, and should be treated as, the equals of men.

For many, the foregoing sentiment constitutes the core of feminist theory and policy. From here, agreement tends to disintegrate quickly. There is substantial disagreement within feminism over the proper meaning of the term "equality." Does it mean equality under existing laws? Or, equality under laws that express more justice than the existing ones? Does it mean an economic equality that requires the government to rearrange economic relationships to ensure a system of distributive justice? Or is it captured by cultural equality -- a society in which women are, by law, the accorded the same social status and respect that men enjoy, and not 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 became the League of Women Voters after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment -- was not one of revolution: it was a cry for reform. These women wanted to be included in the existing political 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 disagreed. They argued that the existing laws and institutions -- in short, the political system itself -- was the source of injustice toward women. The system was inherently corrupt and, as such, could not be reformed. The political structure needed to be entirely replaced before women's rights could be secured.

In simplistic terms, the two voices of this more revolutionary feminism were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws heavily, and individualist feminism, which is sometimes called libertarian feminism. These two traditions establish the extreme ideological boundaries of feminism. In many ways, the traditions are ideological mirror images of each other.

Ideological Differences

One of the key ideological differences between socialist and individualist feminism resides in the concept of "class." A class is nothing more than an arbitrarily grouping of people who share a common characteristic, and the characteristic chosen depends entirely upon the purposes of the person defining the class. 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 characteristic, such as income, hair color, age, nationality, or sexual habits. Again, it depends entirely on the purpose of the definer.

To radical feminists today, gender is the characteristic that defines a class. Society and the political structure are broken down into two basic classes of people -- men and women. Men share not only a similar biology, but also political interests which are maintained through the institution of patriarchy: that is, it is maintained through white male culture and male economics, or capitalism. The interests of men are necessarily in conflict with the interests of women. The pioneering gender theorist Adrienne Rich defined patriarchy in her book "Of Woman Born":

"... the power of the fathers: a familial -- social, ideological, political system in which men -- by force, direct pressure or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor ... in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male."

Viewed through this political lens, maleness ceases to be biological trait and becomes a cultural or ideological one. Men not only share a biological identity, they also share specific political interests that are based upon their male identity. The foremost interest of men is to keep women, as a class, under their control. Thus, the concept of gender as a class becomes a causative factor in society: it predicts and determines how men will behave toward women. To free women, it is necessary to destroy maleness itself. In "Toward a Feminist Theory of the State," Catharine MacKinnon insists, "Male is a social and political concept, not a biological attribute."

To individualist feminism, class has no necessary connection to gender. 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:

  1. the criminal or political class that uses force, including legislation, to acquire wealth and power; and,
  2. the economic class that acquires wealth and power through voluntary exchange.

The political class is at war with the economic class, upon which it preys. But each class can and does contain both men and women, and individuals change their class affiliations at will.

To restate this point -- individualist feminists define class in terms of an individual's relationship to the institution of State power (or other use of force). An individual is either one of the rulers or one of the ruled. Both classes contain both men and women who can cross class lines by altering their behavior.

This last point is key. In the radical feminist view, one's class affiliation is static because it is based on gender: a person is born into a class and stays there. In the individualist feminist view, class is fluid because it is based on a relationship to force: men and women can and do change their class affiliation constantly and by choice. Thus, for individualist feminists, there is no necessary conflict between men and women. 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 within it. 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."

Predictably, the two traditions also define "equality" in differing ways. To socialist feminists, equality is a socioeconomic term. Women can be the equals of men only after patriarchy -- a combination of capitalism, white male culture and the family structure -- is eliminated. By contrast, to individualist feminists equality refers to equal treatment under laws that protect natural rights. When such laws are applied impartially to both men and women, equality has been achieved. Individualist feminism makes no reference to women being economically or socially equal, only to equal treatment under just laws.

The differing approach to equality involves another profound ideological difference: it is contained in the question, "what constitutes justice?" Since radical feminism advocates socio-economic equality, its approach to justice is ends-oriented. That is, it defines justice in terms of a specific social condition. Radical feminism provides a detailed blueprint of what social and economic arrangements constitute a just society. A just society is one without white male culture or capitalism, in which women are the political, legal, economic and cultural equals of men. In other words, justice is an end-state. Justice is the point at which society embodies certain explicit economic, political and cultural arrangements. When women arrive at this end-state, they can say "we are there, this is just."

By contrast, individualist feminism insists only upon equal treatment for women under laws that protect the freely chosen actions of individuals. As it is impossible to predict the economic or cultural choices people will make, it is not possible to define justice as a particular end-state. Thus, the individualist feminist concept of justice is means-oriented: that is, justice refers to a method of social functioning, not to a specific social end-state. Whatever results from the voluntary interactions of everyone involved is by definition politically just, because justice refers to the process by which an end-state is achieved. Another question immediately arises: what if one does not personally approve of a social arrangement, even though it is voluntary?

For example, what if a privately funded medical college refuses to admit women? The solution for radical feminists is clear: they can use the force of law to institute their version of justice. Within the context of radical feminist ideology, using the force of law makes sense. After all, the ideal of socio-economic justice can be established through legislation. A specific economic arrangement can be imposed upon society, albeit at a huge cost to personal freedom. But the individualist feminist ideal of a voluntary society cannot be created by force. Choice cannot be nurtured at the point of a gun. Indeed, the only role force plays in a voluntary society is defensive: force can be used to defend the peaceful choices of individuals, including the right to discriminate.

When confronted with voluntary situations that are immoral -- assuming here that discrimination is immoral -- individualist feminists cannot find recourse through the law. If they wish to change the situation, they must fall back on the persuasive strategies that have been used successfully by reform movements for centuries, e.g. education, protest, picketing, boycott, non-cooperation, moral suasion.

In short, radical and individualist feminists disagree on the proper role of law in society. Radical feminists advocate using the force of law to impose a standard of proper behavior on voluntary exchanges. That is, to impose a politically/sexually correct form of virtue. Individualist feminists believe that the only proper function of law is to protect the voluntary nature of the exchange -- that is, to prevent violence. Virtue must be left to the conscience of the consenting individuals involved. Self-ownership extends not only to person and property but to conscience as well.

To restate the above article in three sentences: contemporary feminism has gone wrong because it has rejected the principle of self-ownership -- "a woman's body, a woman's right." It has turned from a demand for equality with men under just law to a demand for governmentally enforced privilege. It has divided the genders by denying the shared humanity that happily connects woman with man.

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