Blogs > Liberty and Power > Response to Wendy McElroy

Jan 13, 2005 6:26 pm

Response to Wendy McElroy

I've posted the following in in the comments section but I want to put it here too:


I'm dismayed and mortified to see that our piece is being interpreted as a personal attack and/or accusation of homophobia against Wendy McElroy and Joan Kennedy Taylor, two thinkers for whom Charles and I both have enormous respect. Our criticism of some of their ideas was certainly not intended as a personal attack on either. "Lavender Menace rhetoric" was never intended by us as a code word for homophobia.

The phrase is explictly introduced in our paper to pick out the rhetorical strategy of "[dividing] the feminist world ... into the 'reasonable' (that is, unthreatening) feminists and the feminists who are 'hysterical' or 'man-hating' (so, presumably, not worthy of rational response)." This strategy we chose to call, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the "Lavender Menace" approach. We also said explicitly that McElroy and Taylor show "considerably more understanding of, and sympathy with, classical feminist concerns than the anti-feminists who employ this strategy" -- in other words, we were not atempting to lump them in with anti-feminists or lesbian-baiters, but merely pointing to ways in which we thought their approach made unfortunate concessions to that enemy.

I had been looking forward to seeing Wendy's comments on our piece, and while I expected disagreement, it never occurred to me that she would take it as a personal attack. The culture of personal attack on the internet is one of my chief betes noires, and I would never willingly contribute to it. (In my defense I'll note that of the others who've posted here agreeing or disagreeing, no one else raised such an interpretation either.) Wendy, please believe me that no such attack was intended; I'll make sure the paper is emended or footnoted to forestall any further such interpretation.


See also Charles' comments here.

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Robert L. Campbell - 1/20/2005

To follow up on Aeon's second point, I asked whether Andrea Dworkin's "24 Hour Truce" speech was addressed to the tribal elders of Waziristan because there is absolutely no doubt that the women of Waziristan are living in a patriarchy right now.

The important question is whether women in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe are living in a patriarchy in 2005.

If patriarchy is dead or moribund in any significant area of the world, the stated rationale for radical feminism simply vanishes.

Robert Campbell

Aeon J. Skoble - 1/20/2005

Charles, two things-
"It's also even more clear when the categories--such as Christina Hoff Sommers' "equity feminism" and "gender feminism"--are completely alien to the feminist tradition.)"
I disagree that these categories are "completely alien" to the feminist tradition. Although Sommers may well have coined these labels, she's referring to the same divergent conceptions of feminism that other feminists, notably Jaggar, make to distinguish a Wollstonecraft/Anthony type feminism from their own.

"Feminists may have conflicts with other feminists, but feminism is primarily defined by opposition to patriarchy."
Sure, but what this means depends on how one defines "patriarchy." Wollstonecraft (and Plato) really did live in a patriarchy. It's less clear that Catherine MacKinnon does.

Charles Johnson - 1/19/2005


This is an issue that we touched on in earlier drafts but which got short shrift in later versions. So let me try to spell it out a bit more here. There's nothing essentially wrong with trying to piece out which members of a group you find reasonable and which you do not, and making this a part of what you say. The worry with Radical Menace rhetoric here isn't that it's sectarian--sectarian debate is, if anything, how movements define themselves and their programme, and I, for one, happen to think that there's a strong empirical case to be made that the most productive years of the feminist movement (as well as the abolitionist movement, incidentally) were those in which sectarian wrangling was the <em>most</em> pronounced.

Our worries about Radical Menace rhetoric come from different considerations. For example...

1. There is the degree to which it usually depends on problematic notions like "mainstream" and "extremist." The problem here is that "mainstream" and "extremist" aren't terms with any legitimate normative content, but they are typically treated as if they are. As folks like William Lloyd Garrison and Ayn Rand were fond of pointing out, if something is extremely wrong with the organization of society then an extreme response is morally in order, whether or not the "mainstream" of thought likes it. The worry here is that the frequent tendency of Radical Menace rhetoric to depend on charges of, e.g., "extremism" serves to subvert a feminist program whenever it happens to run up against "mainstream" opinion. (You might object: but look, mainstream opinion is closer to the truth than a radical feminist program on a number of issues. Okay, but that's a disagreement with the empirical arguments that male supremacy exists more than it is to the analytical category of Radical Menace rhetorc. And I think that Ayn Rand was right to point out that the use of "extremism" as a term of criticism is philosophically objectionable even if the people so described do happen to be wrong.)

2. There is also the way in which such rhetoric typically attempts to polarize the feminist movement on terms imposed from the outside, rather than in terms of any particular tendency within feminism itself. Feminists have always recognized the distinction between liberal feminists and radical feminists, for example, but the terms on which this distinction is made are very different from the way that Radical Menace rhetoric typically construes it--not surprisingly, since the rhetoric is more or less invariably concerned with the baiting tactics of antifeminists. Because the terms being used to draw the line are so often alien to the distinctions drawn and traditions of thought developed within the feminist movement, they usually distort the positions of the group of feminists being critiqued and lump together feminists whose thought is really distinctly at odds. The issue here isn't sectarian disagreement, but rather sectarianism in which the "sects" are divided up by alien criteria in ways that blur essential differences. (This is also why this tendency tends to invite the use of antifeminist caricatures, even by well-meaning feminists. It's also even more clear when the categories--such as Christina Hoff Sommers' "equity feminism" and "gender feminism"--are completely alien to the feminist tradition.)

3. There's a general worry about rhetorical strategies that define a feminist political position mostly by opposition to other forms of feminism. Feminists may have conflicts with other feminists, but feminism is primarily defined by opposition to patriarchy. Minarchist libertarians think that individualist anarchists are mistaken, and may think that anarchists hold a position which will ultimately alienate people from libertarianism. Fine; it's worth arguing about these things. But if a minarchist were investing substantial time and organizing effort to distance him/herself and his/her project from individualist anarchism--rather than from, say, statism--people might very well wonder whether pitching that much effort into the fight with people who are closer to your position than your critics, but have in some way or another gone further than you think they ought, is going to end up limiting your politics.

I'm sure there is still plenty to disagree about here, but I hope that I may have at least helped a bit in articulating where the disagreements may lie.

Roderick T. Long - 1/14/2005

Jeanine Ring - 1/14/2005

My greetings,
to everyone-

(and let me say, having been more than once greatly inspired by your work in my own Life, it remains an honor to meet you now, Mme. McElroy.)

* * *

I have for my own personal reasons kept askance from this debate until now, but I do feel that I should voice my opinion here, as I think there is truth in the words of all parties, and I tear to see those truths become wars among those here who I, each, greatly respect. Thus let me state my piece:

I) It is my impression, from the context and the general tone of Msr. Long's and Msr. Johnson's essay, as well as the record of Roderick Long's previous work, that the authors mean to greatly respect Mme. McElroy's accomplishments and that their criticisms were *intended* in good faith. I don't think that they believe or meant to convey homophobia on McElroy's part, and I do not think the term 'Lavender Menace' was even slightly made to evoke such a connotation,

I do also agree that the divisive rhetoric they call 'Lavender Menace' approach is frequently used by conservatives to sterotype radical feminists and is prevalent within the libertarian and individualist feminist movements, and that this is a bad thing. I don't myself recall MacElroy ever making use of such rhetoric, though in fairness it has been years since I've read her work and wouldn't remember this sort of detail).

II) However, I did more- much more- than twitch when I read the 'Lavender Menace' piece in Long's and Johnson's essay, and I do agree that this was an incredibly bad choice of words, does come across as insensitive to McElroy, does heavily suggest despite its intent a veiled accusation of homophobia, and given that anyone who reads this essay *without* very close reading or familiarity with Long's personal record *is* likely to regard it his and Msr. Johnson's opinion that McElroy *has* engaged in lesbian-baiting, I at least would feel much better if they carefully clarified the relevant sections. And in case there is any doubt I do *not* think there is a shred of evidence that Mme. McElroy is in any sense anti-gay or anti-lesbian; I speak as a bisexual trangender woman myself.

That said, let me *please* personally plead to Mme. McElroy and Msr. Long that I myself have both learned immensely and been inspired by both of your work, and that both my theories and life have been strongly shaped by worldviews; and I ask: ... can we not have peace? At this place in time, when the Left and libertarianism are both just beginning to turn their better faces towards one another, when a radical *and* individualist feminism *is* possible, and where a synthesis of the cry for the spirit of individuality in both feminism's revolt against patriarchy's altruism of gender and desire, and the libertarian revolt against statisms coercion and reression by arms, has finally been envisioned... can I plead that this terrible snarl of unwise and foolish words be set aside for what is *possible*?

Let me say a personal note to each of you.

Mme McElroy-

You were one of the first voices, after Ayn Rand, within the libertarian world to strike a personal chord within my own life: as a transgender woman, a sexual radical, and especially as a sex worker I am deeply grateful for the work you have done. I do not think that I would ever have had the courage to realize my own long-denied dreams and fantasies and take the plunge into this radical Life if it had not been for your writing which was my first positive glimpse of prostitution whivh Ir found- and my own stage persona, miss Shiris Woodhull, takes her name from 19th century feminist radical Victoria Woodhull whom I read of in your work. I am utterly fascinated by the 19th century radical tradition in feminism you have uncovered, which forms a crucial part of what I regard as my own history. And let me say as a member of SWOP, the heiress to COYOTE, that the work you and libertarianism have done for sex workers has *not* been forgotten. I've read many sex workers list your own writing among their inspirations, and as a dedicated vocational prostitute- I mean these words in their precise and original historical sense- let me personally say: my own and my Life's gratitude and blessings to you for the sanctuary you have given myself and my sisters.

Msr. Long-

Except possibly for Chris Sciabarra, your own work has done more than anyone else's to show me the possibility of a sustained cultural critique intertwined with an unhesitant libertarian politics. And you have much informed my own 'cultural libertarian' position and given me an immense sense of focus and confidence in integrating previously warring and disparate thoughts and loves. And I would say on a note of personal resonance that I am just grateful for your *style* - your democratic-aristocratic, tolerant and cosmopolitan yet unsparingly radical sense of life has been a continual inspiration. As one who admires the lost rhetorical arts of courtesanship, your Austro-Athenianism is actually very, very close to my own sense of history and worldview. Your liberal classicism (you remind my of Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss) is one of two conversational traditions to remember the more liberated aspects of the ancient Greco-Roman and Renaissance-Enlightenment world; I belong to the other, and I do not think that it is too late for a reconciliation of two strands of culture and cilization that look to the fire of Lady Libery's light.

To both: there are few enough radical libertarians in the world, and few enough concerned with feminism, and I cannot believe it that few words spoken in ill-concieved haste must alienate kindred spirits. Can I plead, personally, as one indebted to you both, for Msr. Long to apologize and for the suggestion of 'Lavender Mence' to be rephrased beyong any tinge of injustice, but for both of you to leave aside this pain and discuss *ideas*. For I, for one, would dearly like to hear Mme. McElroy's's thoughts on Msr. Long's piece, and I plead for an engagement of rational intellegence, of a free intellect, rather than words of bitterness. You both have too excellent minds to waste of such small disputes.

And who stands to gain but patriarchy and the state?

my regards,

Jeanine Ring

"It ought to be second nature...
I mean, the places where we live!
Let's talk about this sensibly...
We're not insensitive!
I know that progress has no patience...
but something's got to give...

I know you're different and you know I'm the same;
...we're far too busy to be taking the blame.
I've got some changes, but you don't have the time.
We can't go on thinking it's a victimless crime.

No one is blameless.
But we're all without shame.
We fight the fire...
...while we're feeding the flame

(I thought we might get closer...)"

[Rush, Second Nature]

"All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare"


Jeanine Ring - 1/14/2005

"But look, what's so objectionable about dividing _any_ group into its reasonable and unreasonable factions? ... there are reasonable ones, incl. IMO liberal/libertarian ones, and unreasonable ones, incl. the socialist ones, the men-should-be-subservient-to-goddess-archetype-women ones, and the class-analysis, pro-censorship, Antioch college speech codes ones."

Because what this precisely does is package-deals a moderate, weak kind of feminism with a just and rational approach, and a strong critique of patriarchy with being nasty and unjust.

It's just like: "what's wrong with dividing libertarians into the reasonable ones- the ones like M. Friedman and Hayek who just sensibly criticize too much government, and those anarchistic, anti-tax, state-hating, Rand-worshipping, God-hating, gun-toting, selfish, militia-movement white guy capitalists holed up in bunkers in Montana."

The point is that the latter conflates a radical libertarian stance itself with a mongrel collection of real libertarian positions (which contradict each other), arguable flaws in the movement, and straight out smears to scare awat anyone from a nasty radical libertarian stance and to align with the more 'reasonable' branch of libertarians who are reasonable precisely because they keep their critiques of government to a less than systematic level and aren't too strident in opposing the current system. The possibility of a just, rational, intelligent, hate-free radical libertarian (or anarchist or Randian) stance has been linguistically erased.

And actually, with feminists, I don't see any pattern whatsoever to indicate that the more moderate feminists are less hateful: some moderates, such as Betty Friedan and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have played rather nasty hate games, while some very radical feminists, such as Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone, and very principledly against hate. (And yes: some 'radical feminists'- a label as I distrust because it encompasses many essentially different groups, are hateful, others are not)

Libertarians often get tired of a political spectrum that gives them no choices but liberal and conservative: I feel the same way between a social spectrum that gives me complacent liberal or libertarian feminism and intolerant, essentialist PC feminism.

What about those feminists who are anti-censorship, anti-essentialist, anti-speech code, pro-sex, pro-prostitution, gender equalitarians (an incidentally members of the Libertarian Party)?...

...but who are also critique patriarchal structures of marraige, sexuality, religion, history, employment,gender roles, etc., as forming an interlocking system or metapolitical order oppression, and whose politics is just as commited to overthrowing the *social* repression of the individual spirit in patriarchy as overthrowing the *legal* oppression of the individual spirit in statism, and who sees these both as radical goals of equal importance in the struggle to unlift the hanging sky of oppression over the human spirit?

Why can we not be "unreasonably" socially radical feminists and yet "reasonably" commited to universal individual rights. I put these terms in quotes because I don't think the terms "reasonable" and "unreasonable" convey anything of importance except an (ultimately patriarchal-Christian) psychological metaphor of a sensible realm of safely ordered nature and light and the possibility of falling or straying or turning away from it towards misty realms of outer darkness. I distrust all rhetoric of "reasonableness" and prefer those who follow their experience of radical colour and passion- in desire and intellect, in philosophy or in inspiration- to the outermost realms of human experience and leave behind deference to worlds safe and mundane, in the end coming to see the world from a *radically* different perspective.

my regards,

Jeanine Ring

P.S. Another way to put it is, last week I went to store and rented "Traffic"; this week I rented "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood". There's no reason an axiological pluralist cannot respect both principles.

Kirsten Tynan - 1/14/2005

"Lavender Menace rhetoric" isn't a code word for homophobia- rather, as you point out in your own footnote, that is explicity and overtly what it indicates. What you wrote requires no interpretation to come to the conclusion that your words accuse WM and JKT of being anti-gay. Rather, it is the position you wish to convey for which interpretation is necessary. That your words do not say what you actually meant is good to know, but what you have written is not remedied by insisting either that a lot of people understood what you actually meant to say or that readers who take you at your word rather than reading your mind are somehow in error.

I ask that you remove the "Lavender Menace" label from the piece altogether and replace it with words that actually reflect what you mean- divide-and-conquer strategies rather than anti-gay or homophobic attitudes or actions. Don't just bury a comment in the footnotes saying that you are using the label in some way other than what it is commonly believed to indicate. There is certainly no need to invoke the specter of homophobia or anti-gay attitudes to make the point you say you wish to make, so why invoke it at all?

Aeon J. Skoble - 1/14/2005

Roderick, you write "The phrase is explictly introduced in our paper to pick out the rhetorical strategy of "[dividing] the feminist world ... into the 'reasonable' (that is, unthreatening) feminists and the feminists who are 'hysterical' or 'man-hating' (so, presumably, not worthy of rational response).""
But look, what's so objectionable about dividing _any_ group into its reasonable and unreasonable factions? Take anarchists for example: there's reasonable ones, like you, and unreasonable ones, like Leon Czoglosz (sp?). Take Muslims: the reaonable ones live peaceful lives, and the unreasonable ones blow up buildings and abuse their women. So too with feminsist - there are reasonable ones, incl. IMO liberal/libertarian ones, and unreasonable ones, incl. the socialist ones, the men-should-be-subservient-to-goddess-archetype-women ones, and the class-analysis, pro-censorship, Antioch college speech codes ones.

Wendy McElroy - 1/14/2005

I should have said "a feminist", not "feminists." I do not mean to exaggerate.

Wendy McElroy - 1/14/2005

You state that no one else at the APA "interpreted" the phrase "Lavendar Menace" according to its established meaning: that is, "aggressive homophobia." Perhaps you were speaking to libertarians who are not well versed in feminism. I have already heard from feminists who are convinced you have accused me of homophobia and that I am guilty of it.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 1/13/2005

Likewise, though I was very unfamiliar with any deeply embedded negative connotations the phrase may have.

Steven Horwitz - 1/13/2005

Let me just add that I read the whole paper and the notion that the "Lavender menace" idea was a code for homophobia, and that it was intended as a personal attack on Wendy and Joan, NEVER entered my mind. I was as shocked as the authors to see Wendy's response.