Blogs > Liberty and Power > Radical Feminism: Some Thoughts on Long’s Defense

Mar 29, 2004 3:05 pm

Radical Feminism: Some Thoughts on Long’s Defense

Roderick Long claims that feminism can’t be productively divided into individualist and collectivist categories. At least, not in the way that I was proposing do it. For that, Roderick says, requires an illegitimate commitment: to the proposition that either something is a proper item of feminist concern and “therefore” an object of legislation, or not a proper item of feminist concern and “therefore” not an object of legislation.

Well, I agree with Roderick’s basic point, and I’ll assume that libertarians would generally agree with it. Unless we’re talking about those few libertarians (Walter Block comes to mind) who insist that the only bad or wrong things anyone could ever do are violations of other people’s rights. And neither Roderick nor I has ever belonged to that camp.

But Roderick wants to go a good deal farther: “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.”

If we want to know whether radical feminist ends are legitimate—and whether we can endorse such ends without embracing illiberal means--we need to know precisely what those ends are. Roderick assures us that all members of this “remarkably diverse group” of radical feminists share the same basic concerns. “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.”

OK, I’ll accept that characterization. But now we’d better make sure we understand the notion of patriarchy, which looms up like another hulking great slab.

Is every man, regardless of his job or position in society, a participant and co-conspirator in patriarchy? Does a man, in the USA in 2004, have more power than a woman, simply because he is a man? For instance, does a male student have power over a female professor, while a female student has no power over a male professor? Does a garbage man have power over a female corporate CEO? Radical feminists claiming that patriarchy is alive and well, when what is in operation today doesn’t look like a universal system of domination by all men over all women.

It looks to most of us as though Oprah Winfrey wields a lot more clout than some guy who fixes Volkswagens for a living. Are Oprah’s far greater wealth, greater status, greater social influence for real? Or does the prevalence of patriarchy render them illusory? If Oprah worries about losing weight, or about finding a boyfriend, does that prove that patriarchy has her by the throat? For instance, is a patriarchal “fashion-beauty complex” preventing her from living a fulfilled life?

The very notion of patriarchy appears to set men over against women, one collective against the other, in a bitter competition for power and dominance. If we don’t fret over nuances, we can say that something akin to the radical feminist’s notion of patriarchy (fixed social roles for men and women, presumptive submission by women to men) was pretty much the thing worldwide, from way back in the history of our species to around 1800.

But this is 2004, and we’re carrying on this discussion in the United States of America—not in Kazakhstan, or Rwanda, or Paraguay, or Sa’udi Arabia. Has patriarchy retreated during the past 2 centuries? Or has it simply changed its spots, turned subtle, so that anyone who thinks it has lost its force has fallen prey to false consciousness?

Let’s look at the key manifestations of patriarchy, according to one of the online sources that Roderick quoted:

Compulsory motherhood and constraints on women’s reproductive freedom: Since the introduction of birth-control pills in the 1960s, it’s become difficult to push compulsory motherhood on most women in the Western world. In the United States and Western Europe, opposition to contraception is a lost cause, even among Catholics. And birth rates are way down. In the United States, abortions have been widely available since Roe v. Wade. Unlike the contraception issue, the abortion issue still requires considerable vigilance. But, with occasional exceptions among radical feminists who insist that abortion and contraception (and fertility drugs and surrogate motherhood…) are all diabolical inventions of male medical doctors, the opposition to abortion stems overwhelmingly from the Religious Right. I presume, however, that one can question the need for radical feminism without opposing reproductive freedom, or falling into lockstep with the Religious Right.

Compulsory heterosexuality: This is not strictly a feminist issue; in fact, traditional systems of compulsory heterosexuality have aimed more of their fire and brimstone at gay men. In any event, while compulsory heterosexuality is far from gone (as I am reminded on a regular basis, living in the Bible Belt), there is no doubt that it is receding. From a historical perspective, it’s pretty remarkable that gay marriage is now a live political issue, that sympathetic public officials are carrying out gay marriage ceremonies in defiance of state laws, and that one state (Massachusetts) is now readying for legal gay marriages. Views on gay marriage seem to be following a generational trend: younger people are far more inclined to accept it than older people. All of which suggests that in another generation or so, the Great Equivocator’s dodging and Bush Jr.’s wowsing will be recognized as desperate stratagems to hold off the inevitable. (How “queer theorists” and others who glory in permanent outlaw status for homosexuality are going to adjust remains to be seen.)

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that some radical feminists have actually talked as though women who are sexually attracted to men have (to put it in blunt language) been improperly trained. With corrective training, or so it is believed, perhaps these misguided women can be redirected to the spiritually superior state of being attracted to women. Claims of spiritual superiority aside, this is a nutty project, because whatever the biological predispositions for Lesbianism might be, the majority of women don’t seem to have them. Sure, aspects of sexuality are socially constructed, but there are also biological constraints on what developmental paths are open to each individual. A regime of compulsory homosexuality for women would bring new forms of misery on large numbers of people.

Violence toward women: Rape is still going on, as is physical abuse by husbands and boyfriends. The optimum rate for these, as for any genuine crimes, would be zero; we can certainly hope for substantial reductions in the rate at which they are perpetrated. But in this part of the world rape and wife-beating and child abuse have taken a huge hit in terms of social acceptability; as best we can tell, they are much less widely excused, and much more widely reported, than they were just a couple of generations ago.

At some point, though, we might be tempted to ask why violence against women is qualitatively worse than violence against men, of which there is still plenty.. Sociological studies indicate that women also initiate domestic violence against their partners, but there is very little sympathy for male victims of domestic violence. In many jurisdictions, police officers are expected to arrest the man when they get a domestic violence call, regardless of the available evidence about who did what. Should these apparent inequities be of concern to radical feminists?

Institutions which encourage the domination of women by men: The key exhibits here are churches and traditional families.

I doubt anyone is dependent on radical feminists for the information that conservative and fundamentalist forms of religion are going to keep being flashpoints for a long time. Since the Bible and the Qur’an both reflect severely patriarchal worldviews, so long as anyone invests them with special authority, some people will continue to maintain that God demands the subordination of women. Even so, Christians have gotten accustomed, over the centuries, to the lending of money at interest, to the abandonment of religious persecution, to divorce, and to many other institutions and practices that were once beyond the pale, and so there is hope for continued liberalization regarding the status of women.

The same goes for traditional families—although one wonders, in this case, to what extent radical feminists are opposed to traditional families (man as boss and breadwinner, woman as household worker and child-rearer) rather than to families in general.

We could actually put pornography in this basket as well. For those radical feminists who want to ban pornography usually claim that it incites men to dominate women (some go on to claim that pornography incites men to engage in violence against women). Roderick has written off the push to ban pornography as “silly,” but without explaining why. If pornography violates radical feminists’ norms for acceptable sexual expression and encourages bad old patriarchal attitudes, shouldn’t it therefore be done away with? Yet how is one going to keep this particular genie in the bottle, without employing sharply illiberal means?

I suspect that the matters that don’t rate a bullet in the radical feminist outline are just as important as those that do. For instance, the rights to vote or run for political office are not mentioned, because in the developed world women stopped being barred from these things three or four generations ago (I know anarchists don’t put much stock in these two, but for most radical feminists they ought to count). Educational opportunity is not mentioned. Maybe that’s because 57% of college undergrads in the United States are now female. Entry into business and the professions isn’t mentioned—there are two many female doctors and lawyers, and the number of female managers and corporate executives continues to grow.

More generally, when Long harks back to the days when classical liberals and individualist anarchists were thought to be on the left, I sometimes wonder whether he is adequately registering the social changes that have taken place since then. The restrictions imposed on women in 1880, by either law or custom, vastly outweighed any that women in the Western world have to overcome today. Back then, sending information about contraception through the US mail got you a couple of years on the rock pile; it doesn’t any more.

At root, doesn’t the very notion of patriarchy require setting men over against women in a collective rivalry for power and dominance? Are radical feminists aiming to transcend and replace such power struggles? Or would they prefer to change laws and social expectations that have conferred power and privilege on men over to laws and social expectations that will confer power and privilege on women? It is hard not to interpret a lot of radical feminist rhetoric as tilting toward the latter, because it seems to presume that men as a class are antisocial, bent on dominance, and morally inferior to women.

And no one needs to read a volume of Mary Daly or Andrea Dworkin’s apocalyptic prose to get a nasty dose of Woman Good, Man Bad. The misandrist message often reaches us in more mundane forms. A year or two ago, I heard a couple with whom I’m slightly acquainted consoling their teenage daughter, who had just broken up with her boyfriend. Her mother and father admonished her that nearly all men are horrible, and if she is extraordinarily lucky, she might find an extraordinary man who isn’t. As relationship advice, I frankly think this is rotten: imagine parents telling their teenage son, after his girlfriend has dumped him, that women are nearly all vicious creatures. (For an insightful take on radical feminist misandry and what it has come to, see Wendy McElroy’s editorial on Killing the Good Samaritan.) But on the wider scene, how can you expect to bring about progress by heaping scorn and abuse on half the human race, even if you aren’t angling to impose special punishments or second-class citizenship on them?

Final note: I find it odd that Roderick has not yet cited any individual radical feminist author, writing since 1970, with whom he professes to agree. The online sources that he’s quoted are brief manifestoes that fail to provide an analysis of patriarchy from a psychological, sociological, political, or philosophical standpoint. His mention of Betty Friedan doesn’t count, as The Feminine Mystique was not a radical feminist document in the sense that we’ve been discussing. It was published in 1963, when most women were expected to forgo career ambitions to become wives and mothers, and it posed a powerful challenge to such ways of thinking. But it was not presented as an instrument for overthrowing patriarchy, and Friedan would later part company, publicly, with radical feminists over what she saw as their militantly anti-male attitudes.

If there are radical feminists who are getting things right--analyzing psychological and social and political processes with insight; promoting the overthrow of patriarchal power relations in ways that will promote human flourishing; stepping around collectivist and statist traps--presumably some of them have written things that Roderick could invite the rest of us to read. Or does Roderick think that radical feminism is so direly and fundamentally in need of reconstruction that the job could be done properly, from a libertarian point of view, but no one has actually done it?

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Robert L. Campbell - 4/1/2004

Having read Pateman's introduction to a volume she edited, and the initial chapters of her 1988 book The Sexual Contract, I see that she believes that patriarchy has mutated at least twice in the past 400 years, but is just as pervasive as it ever was.

I don't see how libertarians, even those who wave black flags and are nostalgic for past alignments with the Left, could get any aid or comfort out of her formulations. She insists that employment contracts are an offer the worker can't refuse, marriage contracts are an offer the woman can't refuse, and every version of the classical liberal social contract is rigged to confer a "sex-right" on men that subordinates women. For Pateman, Capitalism is Patriarchy Version 3.0. And she insists on putting "individual" in scare-quotes whenever she uses the word, because in political theory under patriarchy individuals are always men--or have been disembodied and rendered asexual.

I shall soldier on...

Robert L. Campbell - 3/30/2004

Sorry, that should have been a quick *trip* to

Robert L. Campbell - 3/30/2004


It's a pretty safe bet that any bad attitude that men might have about women, or that women might harbor toward men, was around in some form before 1970. Before the Victorian era, for that matter...

Of course today's radical feminists didn't invent the notion that men are beastly. Neither have they been in any hurry to get rid of it; on the contrary, some have intensified it to levels that the average Victorian would have found shocking.

The couple whose negative view of men I referred to aren't fundamentalists or conservative Baptists; they attend the only religious institution in my area where Left-wing political opinions predominate. I have not had a conversation with either of them about radical feminism, but I am confident they would not sympathize with critics of feminism more generally.


PS. Naomi Wolf denies any explicit belief in the Victorian view of men and women. In her 1993 book, she declared that Bill Clinton was such a Mensch in his treatment of Gennifer Flowers, she wished other women had such a great boyfriend. Meanwhile, she has written about being more than slightly "manipulative and sexually amoral" toward men, at points in her own life. But where do you suppose her tale of encroachment at the hand of Harold Bloom gets its charge?

Robert L. Campbell - 3/30/2004

A quick to suggests Carole Pateman, whose writings I don't know.

What would you recommend for starters?

Charles Johnson - 3/30/2004

This is a post that deserves some careful and detailed comments. It won't get them here; it's too late at night for that at the moment. Until then, however, a brief point:

"And no one needs to read a volume of Mary Daly or Andrea Dworkin?s apocalyptic prose to get a nasty dose of Woman Good, Man Bad. The misandrist message often reaches us in more mundane forms. A year or two ago, I heard a couple with whom I?m slightly acquainted consoling their teenage daughter, who had just broken up with her boyfriend. Her mother and father admonished her that nearly all men are horrible, and if she is extraordinarily lucky, she might find an extraordinary man who isn't."

But surely __that__ is not something that can fairly be laid at the feet of feminism. The idea that men are naturally beastly (not to mention manipulative and sexually amoral), and that women are pure and innocent, is a paradigmatic __Victorian__ idea about the relation between the sexes. If our culture is wallowing in misandrist attitudes, then they certainly have roots that go back further than the formation of New York Radical Women.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/29/2004

What's your take on Pateman?

Robert L. Campbell - 3/29/2004


I'm not trying to refute the (continued) existence of prejudice, discrimation, hatred of the out-group, or any of those nasty phenomena.

What I am questioning is the kind of treatment of "power relations" that divides human beings into designated Oppressor and Victim classes, and concludes that any of the Os invariably exercises power and domination over all of the Vs.

You couldn't make entire sense of what used to be called a "society of status" in those terms; the most rigid of them has enough complexity and context-dependency going on it to preclude that. As for the kind of society the participants in this blog are living in today... Yet there is no shortage of identity-politicians of various stripes, lining up their Os and the Vs.

Their numbers include many radical feminists (at least by Roderick's characterization), who, inspecting the arrangement of the Os and the Vs, would insist that Oprah Winfrey can't escape being another pawn of the "fashion-beauty complex." For instance, Sandra Lee Bartky would say so--I borrowed that phrase from one of her essays.

"So much of this depends on whose writings one turns to as an example of feminism. I am not even going to try to sort that out." I entirely agree--that's why I'm asking Roderick to give us some authors whose writings we can turn to.

I can think of authors who call themselves feminists and decry injustices and criticize social trends and practices, without lining up their Os and Vs. But judging from the way the discussion has gone so far, I wonder whether any of them who declines to play the O and V game can escape being dismissed as a Right-wing culture warrior.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/29/2004

So much of this depends on whose writings one turns to as an example of feminism. I am not even going to try to sort that out.

But I do have one complaint.

Opray Winfrey often comes up as the example of woman (or black woman) of power used to refute the continued existence of discrimination.

That example works as long as one igores the roles of fame and money (and therefore class) in our society and the fact that class distinctions often don't align with gender or race distinctions.

Some feminists have ignored that complexity.
That is unfortunate.

So did you.