Dialectical Feminism: The Unknown Ideal

Robert Campbell invites us to consider feminists as falling into two groups. (It’s not clear whether the division is meant to be exhaustive.) One group, the “individualist feminists” or “libertarian feminists,” hold that “equality of rights is getting close to being consistently recognized in countries like the United States,” and that “further feminist efforts, in this part of the world, should be narrowly targeted at those remaining areas where the legal and political systems privilege men over women.” The other group, which he calls “collectivist feminists” (his target is roughly equivalent to “radical feminism,” broadly understood), maintain that “men are the oppressor class; women are the victim class; and women are consequently entitled to take over the oppressor role, at least for the next few thousand years.” (This last is a sarcastic caricature on his part, but presumably it could be rewritten, less tendentiously, as something like: “men are largely an oppressor class; women are largely a victim class; and women are consequently entitled to employ the power of the state to enact legislation specially favouring women’s interests.”)

What bothers me about this way of slicing up the political terrain is not that it is inaccurate; on the contrary, I think it is depressingly accurate in its characterisation both of libertarian feminists and of radical feminists. Rather, what concerns me is the implicit suggestion that to regard something as a legitimate object of feminist concern is ipso facto to regard it as an appropriate object of legislation. On this view, radical feminists see lots of issues as meriting feminist attention, so naturally they favour lots of legislation; libertarian feminists prefer minimal legislation, and so they must think that relatively few issues merit feminist attention. Now this is descriptively all too true; most radical feminists do spend a great deal of time working to increase the power of the state, and most libertarian feminists do spend a great deal of time telling radical feminists to “get over it.” But as I see it, both sides are making the same mistake: they both think of feminist concerns and legislative activity as going together.

One reason I keep pointing to the individualist anarchists of the 19th century (henceforth “the anarchists” for short) as the proper model for feminism is that they did not make this mistake. They were both libertarian feminists and radical feminists.

What is radical feminism? I pick, more or less at random, two characterisations from the web. Here’s one from Wikipedia:

Radical feminism views women’s oppression as a fundamental element in human society and seeks to challenge that standard by broadly rejecting standard gender roles.

Many radical feminists believe that society forces an oppressive patriarchy on women (some masculists claim that patriarchy oppresses men also) and seek to abolish this patriarchal influence. Because of this, some observers believe that radical feminism [should] focus on the gender oppression of patriarchy as the first and foremost fundamental oppression that women face. However, critiques of the above view have resulted in a different perspective on radical feminism held by some which acknowledges the simultaneity or intersectionality of different types of oppression which may include, but are not limited to the following: gender, race, class, sexualist, ability, whilst still affirming the recognition of patriarchy.

And this one is from [the now defunct] “Students dot Washington dot Education”:

Main Tenets of Radical Feminism

1. Women are oppressed by patriarchy.

2. Patriarchy is a hierarchical system of domination and subordination of women by men. It consists in, and is maintained by, one or more of the following:

  • Compulsory motherhood and constraints on reproductive freedom
  • Compulsory heterosexuality
  • The social construction of femininity and female sexuality as that which is “dominated”
  • Violence towards women
  • Institutions which encourage the domination of women by men, such as the church, and traditional models of the family

3. To end the oppression of women, we must abolish patriarchy. This will potentially involve:

  • Challenging and rejecting traditional gender roles and the ways in which women are represented/constructed in language, media, as well as in women’s personal lives.
  • Fighting patriarchal constructions of women’s sexuality by banning pornography, and rejecting traditional heterosexual relationships.
  • Achieving reproductive freedom
  • Separation from patriarchal society?

Two related facts ought to strike us in these characterisations:

First: apart from the silliness about banning pornography (which in any case was described merely as something the abolition of patriarchy might potentially involve), nothing about the radical feminist program as here laid out is inconsistent with libertarianism; various problems are identified as evils to be combated, but nothing is said about the means, statist or otherwise. Plausibly, it is concern with the goal of eliminating patriarchy, not adoption of any particular means to this goal, that makes someone count as a radical feminist.

Second: the radical feminist program here outlined is not terribly different from that of the anarchists; while the anarchists opposed governmental discrimination against women, they certainly did not think that the obstacles facing women were limitedto this. On the contrary, they saw the oppression of women as a vast and pervasive social problem of which state action was only one component. (For documentation, see Wendy McElroy’s excellent anthology Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century, as well as – if you can find a copy – the elusive first edition of her earlier anthology Freedom, Feminism, and the State. And as Chris Sciabarra reminds us, there is a long and illustrious libertarian tradition of regarding political and cultural forces as interlocking but distinct aspects of oppressive social systems.)

Of course today’s radical feminists do in fact, for the most part, seek to employ state coercion as a means to their ends; and in this they differ from the anarchists, who taught that while coercive evils might legitimately be met with violent resistance, noncoercive evils must be combated with nonviolent means such as boycotts, moral suasion, etc. But I can’t see that state coercion is essential to the radical feminist program; for the most part, radical feminists seek statist means to their ends because, like nearly everyone else in our society, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking of statist solutions as the only effective means of social change.

As for radical feminism’s ends, not only are they not intrinsically un-libertarian, but they also strike me as largely legitimate. I see the problems of which radical feminists complain as genuine ones. That is not to deny that radical feminists often describe those problems in exaggerated and hysterical terms (e.g., the claim that all heterosexual intercourse is rape). But that’s hardly a failing unique to them. Don’t many Objectivists, particularly those of the Peikoffian stripe, often identify genuine problems while likewise describing them in exaggerated and hysterical terms? To attack radical feminist concerns merely because they are often advanced in an extremist fashion is to ignore (and incidentally alienate) all those radical feminists who advance the same concerns in a more reasonable fashion.

I also don’t think their concerns are inherently “collectivist,” though I certainly agree that they are often defended in collectivist terms. Often, not always. This is a remarkably diverse group we’re talking about, and should not be simplistically identified with its loudest and most politically connected representatives.

In their willingness to use state power, today’s radical feminists, most of them, admittedly fall short of their anarchist predecessors. But today’s libertarian feminists likewise tend, in all too many cases, to fall short of their anarchist predecessors to the extent that they treat only state action as a legitimate target of feminist criticism. Much libertarian feminist literature (such as Joan Kennedy Taylor’s What To Do When You Don’t Want To Call the Cops) strikes me as advising women to adapt themselves docilely to existing patriarchal power structures so long as those structures are noncoercive. This sort of advice only reinforces the idea that drives radical feminists toward statism – namely, the assumption that state violence is the only effective means for combating patriarchy. In my judgment, it is perfectly appropriate for libertarian feminists to recognise the existence of pervasive non-governmental obstacles to women’s well-being, and to seek non-governmental solutions to those problems; there are no grounds for libertarian feminists’ concerns to be “narrowly targeted at those remaining areas where the legal and political systems privilege men over women.”

Analogy: Ayn Rand called for a movement to promote Romantic art. Should that movement’s concerns be “narrowly targeted at those remaining areas where the legal and political systems privilege” non-Romantic over Romantic art? Of course not; Rand was concerned to combat social and cultural forces, not just legal and political ones. So what’s un-libertarian about feminists doing the same?

As I’ve written elsewhere:

It may be objected that postmodernists complain not only about legal, governmental barriers to such participation, but private, economic-cultural barriers as well. This is true; according to postmodernism, harmful power relations permeate not only the governmental sphere but the private sphere as well. But isn’t this true? Don’t Objectivists, too, regard cultural forces as formidable obstacles to personal achievement, even when they are not codified in law? Weren’t most of Howard Roark’s battles in The Fountainhead fought against private power? Don’t many of Rand’s stories — IdealThink TwiceThe Little Street — dramatise the soul-destroying effects of non-governmental cultural forces? Didn’t The Objectivist give Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique a positive review?

Of course postmodernists regard the free market as the cause of such problems, and increased government control as the cure. On this point Objectivists must part company with them. But just as Objectivists can agree with religious conservatives in condemning relativism, without regarding government programs inculcating morality as the proper response to the problem, so Objectivists can agree with academic leftists in condemning various forms of non-governmental oppression, without signing on to the Left’s political agenda.

Robert Campbell is correct in noting a tendency for radical feminists to believe a) that there are pervasive non-governmental forces oppressing women, and b) that these forces must be fought by state violence. He is also correct in noting a tendency for libertarian feminists to believe c) that there are no, or few, such forces, and d) that women should not resort to state violence to promote their interests. My point, however, is that while (a) is essential to radical feminism, (b) is not, and likewise thatwhile (d) is essential to libertarian feminism, (c) is not. (Opposition to state power is definitive of libertarianism, while resort to state power, as we’ve seen, is accidental to rather than definitive of radical feminism.) Hence the form of feminism I favour, like that favoured by the 19th-century individualist anarchists, is both libertarian and radical, embracing (a) and (d) while rejecting (b) and (c).

The “sensitivity toward feminist concerns” that I’ve been recommending is thus a sensitivity toward (a). I favour such sensitivity, first, because I think there are serious social and cultural obstacles to women’s well-being in contemporary society, obstacles that are reinforced by, but no means reducible to or solely dependent on, the political system; and second, because as a strategic matter it’s suicidally imprudent to encourage non-libertarians to believe that their goals can indeed be achieved only through state violence.

I haven’t responded specifically to Campbell’s comments on Naomi Wolf because I think our different interpretations of her story depend less on the precise nuances of Wolf’s prose and more on the interpretive frameworks we’re bringing to the text. My purpose in this post has been primarily to explain my interpretive framework, and thus to explain why, given that framework, I am bound to find Campbell’s division of the contemporary feminist scene into virtuous individualists and villainous collectivists unhelpful. At the risk of sounding like Chris Sciabarra yet again: I see the conflict instead as a false dualism in need of being dialectically transcended.

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