I Never Meant to be a Feminist

By Wendy McElroy

A twenty-year old version of myself would laugh at anyone who suggested I would become a feminist. I was a libertarian verging on anarchism, and I thought feminism contradicted one of my core beliefs. Namely, every individual has an equal and identical claim to their own person and property, a claim that I call “individual rights.” No special or different rights could be claimed by anyone on the basis of sex, race, or any other secondary characteristic; individual rights said it all.

The first “feminist” article I published was not intended as such. I defended a woman’s right to abortion in order to explore the questions “at what point do rights arise?” and “can natural rights ever be in conflict?” I poured care and time into the article, which was well received and widely circulated.

The time frame was the early ’80s when it was easy to establish a reputation as the libertarian expert in an area, especially in one so underpopulated as feminism. Because of the article (and the luck of being female), Cato offered me the chance to edit the anthology that became Freedom, Feminism, and the State. I accepted, not because I was a feminist but because I wanted a book – any book – to have my name on its cover.

I began researching the book with the ‘standbys’ of individualist feminism: Wollstonecraft, the Grimke sisters, Paterson, Lane, etc. Their commitment to feminism made perfect sense to me. Well into the 20th century, law and culture relegated women to second-class citizenship, restricting their ability to own property, make a living, and control their own bodies. When the law targeted women for being women, it made sense for them to focus on their sexual identity as the relevant political flash point. In a sense, government created the women’s rights movement by defining and treating women as a separate legal category. Thus, the feminism of Wollstonecraft was a type of specialization in the fight for equal individual rights. Just as a specialization in contract law does not deny the validity of the rule-of-law in general so, too, a specialization in women’s rights does not deny the validity of individual rights. It is merely a specialization.

But was individualist feminism still relevant in the 1980s when laws were either gender blind or favored women? Women were still targeted or unduly impacted by laws on specific issues. A good example was midwifery – a practice the medical establishment has long sought to prohibit or control. A handful of specific issues, however, did not seem to justify the embrace of an integrated theory of feminism that included morality, economics, the law and a broad movement that separated itself from individualism. After all, the government-created issues could be argued as they arose and the argument could be based on individual rights.

The only area in which the rights of women and men seemed to differ naturally – as a by-product of biology rather than of government — was reproductive rights. For example, “a woman’s body, a woman’s right” meant that a man could never properly force a woman to bear a fetus to term; it was a choice the woman faced uniquely and exclusively. But, again, reproduction was only one issue…or a constellation of intimately related issues. I came to reconsider my dismissive attitude because of the extraordinary importance birth plays in people’s lives and in the continuation of humanity. A natural difference in rights on such a fundamental issue might well provide some basis for a system of feminist theory.

And, yet, how do you derive a uniquely feminist economic theory from reproduction which goes beyond telling government exactly what a man would say – that is, “get out of my way”? As important and defining as reproductive rights may be, they did not seem sufficient ground upon which to base an integrated system of thought that a ‘tradition’ demands.

These questions were in my mind as I read through the individualist feminist classics. And, then, an unexpected thing happened. I was far, far more impressed than I had expected; as I read diaries, I ‘fell in friendship’ with women who had died before I was born. I was especially drawn to the abolitionist women who fought against slavery in 19th century America. At some juncture, they turned to the men standing beside them and asked “Are only slaves to be freed, and not us?” The abolitionist pamphlets flashed with raw brilliance.

At that point, I wanted there to be an individualist feminist movement because I wanted to be part of it. It was and is not an argument I expect to persuade others but that was the point at which I persuaded myself. If honoring the tradition was the only reason to adopt the label “individualist feminist,” it would be sufficient.

Over the last two decades, I’ve gained another powerful reason…and a strategic one. To the extent sexual discrimination now runs rampant in various areas of the law, it is discrimination against men. Especially in family courts and in legal matters such as domestic violence, men are guilty until proven innocent. An extreme bias for women has now replaced the earlier extreme bias against them. It is as morally wrong to oppress men as it was to oppress women. From a position of legal privilege, it is important for women to speak out in protest against embedding any sexual inequality into the law. When I speak out not merely as a woman but also as a feminist, my voice is a bit louder and it carries a bit farther.

To recap, I call myself an individualist feminist…
–as a way to acknowledge and continue an amazing tradition
–as a form of specialization or focus on the issues that do target women
–as an acknowledgement of the vital importance of reproductive rights
–as a way to more effectively protest the legal discrimination against men

Nevertheless, I dismiss the politically-correct idea that there is a feminist economics or any other specifically feminist take on fields of knowledge beyond reproduction and other possible medical matters. Women have an absolutely valid claim on exploring their history as a subcategory within various fields of knowledge. But looking at the realities of women’s history does not mean constructing a distinct feminist interpretation of history itself. The bottom line: there is only the truth of what happened and the attempt to present it as accurately as possible.

Like rights, truth belongs to women and to men both equally and in the same manner. As an individualist feminist, I intend to honor the tradition by standing up for equal treatment under just laws that protect person and property whether those ‘goods’ belong to a woman or to man. That’s my kind of feminism.


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