The Last Thing a Pro-Liberty Conference Needs is a Feminist Panel: My Unsolicited Advice to Students For Liberty

My heart sank yesterday morning when I received an email from Joshua Eakle, Director of Marketing for Students For Liberty, which hosts LibertyCon, “the largest international pro-liberty gathering in the world,” which will be meeting in Miami this October for the first time since Covid-19.

Eakle reports that many in the liberty movement regard feminism as the enemy of freedom, and that three panelists will be decrying this allegedly “toxic attitude” and making the case that feminism has a proud pro-liberty history. One of these women, Jo Jorgenson, was even the Libertarian Party’s Presidential Candidate in the American election of 2020.

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“Iconic feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor Mill were known supporters of individualism and classical liberalism. That tradition is still alive and well in modern feminist discourse.”

I won’t be able to attend the conference, so perhaps this is none of my business. But it’s deeply frustrating to see outright lies being peddled as “known” truths, and it’s saddening to contemplate the damage that will be done to the liberty movement if feminists are allowed to dictate its terms while (so predictably) accusing non-feminists of being “toxic.”

Let’s start with the factual errors in Mr. Eakle’s email.

Though she may have defined herself as an individualist, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was not a classical liberal. She was a Romantic, a sexual dissident, and an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wollstonecraft’s utopianism led her to rejoice in the French Revolution as the realization of her most fervent ideals. After publishing an angry denunciation of Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France, she travelled to Paris in late 1792 to see for herself how society and human nature were being radically transformed.

Despite her dismay at the mass executions that followed her arrival, with blood literally running in the streets, she remained positive about the Revolution, defending its ideals for English readers in her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, published in 1794. The 1792 essay for which she has become famous, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, though often praised for its alleged defence of equality, is a philosophically incoherent and passionately anti-male tract written to promote the worst possible interpretation of all male actions, including their protection of women, and to exempt women from moral responsibility on account of their claimed powerlessness. Fascinating as a personality, Wollstonecraft cannot possibly be recruited as a libertarian champion.

Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858), now mainly known for her years-long affair with John Stuart Mill, whom she married upon the death of her husband, was a radical feminist whom Charlotte Bronte described, after reading her essay on female enfranchisement, as “a woman who longed for power and had never felt affection” (qtd in Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, p. 272). Far from supporting individual liberty, Taylor Mill was an enthusiastic advocate of socialism, which was extremely popular with intellectuals then and now.

She encouraged Mill to rethink his principled support for free enterprise in favor of state ownership of land, the abolition of inheritance, and far-reaching redistribution of wealth (see Reeves, pp. 221-230). With Taylor Mill acting as his advisor, Mill revised the third edition of Principles of Political Economy to include a chapter on the “Futurity of the Labouring Classes” that predicted a transition to a more cooperative, socialistic future. Mill was concerned about the implications of socialism for personal freedom, but Taylor Mill was not.

Feminism as a collectivist movement has from its beginnings had close ties to socialism and Communism. Many of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century, including Simone De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Kate Millett, declared their Marxist ideological commitments. It’s true that self-identified feminists such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia have defended liberty, but their unorthodox ideas, and those of other individualist feminists, are not and have never been anywhere near the feminist mainstream.

One of the primary strategies of feminism is the use of (ever-expanding) state power and international governing agencies such as the United Nations to restrict liberty in the name of forced equality, including through massively burdensome regulations on private businesses and public corporations. To further women’s so-called liberation, feminism seeks ever-more punitive limitations on private conduct and speech, and has successfully eroded the fundamentals of a free society, specifically equality before the law and the presumption of innocence. In the past thirty years, feminism has consistently reinterpreted speech as hate, claiming that free expression constitutes a threat to women.

Because it is based on resentment caused by the conviction that the history of humanity has been a history of men oppressing women, feminism almost inevitably produces in its adherents a victim mentality, a belief that one has been wronged, a nursing of memories of harm, and an outraged certainty that most men are misogynists or benefit from misogyny. Feminism makes it extremely difficult for its supporters to feel empathy for men or to care about their freedoms, which are often reinterpreted as privileges.

Because feminism promotes the belief that the achievement of political and legal equality is not enough to counter centuries of myths and prejudices about women (as Beauvoir argued in The Second Sex), feminism almost always includes demands for special pro-female measures and anti-male initiatives to aid women’s alleged advancement, as well as a hyper-vigilance about micro-aggressions, the niggling remnants of woman-hatred. Feminists tend to define as “toxic” any disagreement with feminism, making free debate difficult.

Angry and paranoid, self-righteous and aggrieved, feminists make dangerous colleagues who are all too ready to misinterpret harmless jokes or gestures, comments or omissions as sexist put-downs. If Students For Liberty is willing to make feminism part of its platform, it will inevitably find itself embroiled in controversies about its failure to promote women adequately, its lack of diversity or female leadership, and its alleged “chilly climate.” It will be told that it has reneged on its duty to uphold women’s freedom. It will be told that certain types of arguments and advocacy in the organization make women feel unsafe. Complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct will proliferate, especially against men who fail to apologize for their alleged privilege.

I hope conference participants will vigorously contest the panel’s claim that feminism is a movement for liberty. Their defense of feminism will undoubtedly be as hollow as their descriptions of Wollstonecraft and Taylor Mill. If Students For Liberty can’t be non-feminist, it will soon cease to be pro-liberty.

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