Interview with Wendy McElroy on feminism in America

This is a recent interview conducted by a Italian free-market periodical.

1) You are one of the leading dissident voices in the gender debate. Could you please explain your vision of individualist feminism, what are its main tenets and how it differs from mainstream feminism?

The main tenet of individualist feminism is that women and men deserve equal treatment under just law. A just legal system is one that seeks to protect the person and property of individuals equally, and it is applied to all individuals.

Mainstream feminism advocates social and economic egalitarianism, which necessarily violates the property rights of individuals. For example, affirmative action and non-discrimination policies dictate who should be hired by private companies, who risk sanctions such as lawsuits if they do not comply. Mainstream feminists applaud this use of governmental force to violate the property rights of individuals — including business owners — in order to distribute money and power within society from men to women.

2) Is the free-market enough to allow a full emancipation of women, or should the government intervene in order to reduce the gender gap and change things more rapidly?

The answer depends on what you mean by “full mancipation”; frankly, I think every individual has to decide its personal meaning for themselves. But if you mean “complete fairness” or “social justice,” then ‘no’, the free market will not provide that in and by itself. Other peaceful forces may well be necessary, such as moral suasion applied to those who are unfair, offensive, denigrating, etc.; this is largely what happened in the American civil rights movement before it was co-opted by government. What I do contend about the free market is that it delivers emancipation better than any other competing system, such as state interference. Indeed, any governmental interference aimed at providing social justice actually provides the opposite. That is to say, it violates individual rights which must be the basis of all justice.

3) In spite of the undeniable distance from mainstream feminism, libertarian feminists chose to contend the label “feminism” rather than picking a different name. Do you believe that this strategy is effective? Is there a risk this choice can reduce the appeal of your ideas among that silent majority who associates feminism and leftist statism, while hardly gaining ground among tradition self-identifying feminists?

Yes, there is not merely a risk but an inevitability that some people will automatically reject individualist feminism because of the word “feminist.” I have experienced this frequently.

Nevertheless, I persist in the label for a few reasons. First, I want the roots of American feminism to be recognized and acknowledged; those roots were profoundly individualist and grounded in the early 19th century abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement. Happily, this is happening. Individualist feminism was unheard of in academia when I started to write but it is now generally recognized. I hope I have contributed to this evolution. Second, I like being part of a tradition that dates back to the classical liberalism of Mary Wollstonecraft. Third, I’m stubborn. Rand used to say she used words like “selfish” in a positive way because she was not willing to surrender them to ideological opponents. I do not compare myself to Rand in any other manner but I do think I am every bit as stubborn as that woman.

4) Beginning in the early ’90s a number of books were published challenging the gender mainstream in America. Besides you, other authors were Christina Hoff Sommers, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Daphne Patai, Cathy Young and with a different outlook Warren Farrell. Could you assess the current state of the gender debate in the US and in Canada? Is gender feminism still gaining ground in politics and in academia or do you see evidences that opinions and concerns of equity feminists begin to be taken into account?

Gender feminism has lost the debate. Various and irresistible backlashes against it are in motion and the PC straight jacket will be cast off. The backlash forces include equity and individualist feminism, the men’s and the father’s movements, libertarianism and conservatism… The imminent death of gender feminism may not be apparent because the ideology managed to institutionalize itself, especially within academia and within the political structure.

Consider academia. Every university has a women’s department; almost every one has PC policies such as campus codes that preclude sexual jokes and comments; professors are suspended or fired for expressing the wrong views of gender in class…the list of institutionalized ideology rolls on and on. One problem with institutionalizing an ideology or idea is that it lives on almost through inertia far, far longer than it could survive a free market process of open debate and analysis. Once a gender feminism professor gets tenure, for example, that position is occupied by her ideology for the next 20+ years. It doesn’t matter that her ideas have been discounted by the general public or the political tide has turned. She has tenure. And remember almost every professor within women’s departments, political science, etc. who has received tenure in the past 2 decades or so needed to toe a PC line. Thus the struggle goes on even though the battle has been won.

5) Regardless of the color of the governments, politics in Italy is mutuating more and more from the concept of gender quotas and affirmative actions. How do you judge these policies, in the light of their long-standing implementation in North America?

The policies have had a devastating effect in North America. Or, rather, there are several devastating effects. Whenever you mandate the advancement of a class of people because of a characteristic like gender or race, you are saying the merit of individuals is secondary; it is not the best or most deserving person who gets a promotion but a woman. It is difficult to measure the impact of systematically devaluing merit within society but I have seen what it does on an individual level. A male friend was passed over for a well deserved promotion at a university because they needed to have a woman on staff. He now tells his son that merit doesn’t matter, striving for excellence is a fool’s game. Multiple my friend by hundreds and hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of people. The refusal to acknowledge merit is not merely unjust, it lowers the entire quality of a society. By how much? Again, it is difficult to impossible to measure.

Also impossible to measure is the depth of anger and resentment such policies have created between men and women. At least on the periphery, I am active in the men’s movement. As a woman, the first thing I encounter is a blast of rage so strong that it can feel like hatred. They do not hate me for the person I am but because I am a woman and women are the privileged class that now oppress men, and do so with an air of righteousness.

Quotas and affirmative action also reduce the profitability and productivity of a society. No longer are the most innovative, skilled people allowed to produce to the extent of their capacity. They are precluded from doing so by gender quotas that shut them out in favor of less innovative, skilled people who happen to have the politically correct genitalia.

Moreover, it sends the clear, unmistakeable message that social problems are to be solved by government means; that is, by governmental force. Every law has a gun behind it. If the companies do not comply, then they will have their property confiscated in the form of fines and, if they refuse to pay up, they may face imprisonment. This is what quotas and affirmative action tell us: use force to solve problems. When it becomes common wisdom that we should use force and celebrate its use as some sort of moral victory, then the ruination of peaceful society is upon us.

I could go on and on… Gender preference for women in family courts have led to the devastation of divorced families because the fathers are routinely denied equal custody and, then, denied visitation by vengeful mothers or ones seeking some advantage, like increased money. I could go on and on. An essential element of returning society to gender sanity and civility is to eliminate all laws and policies that favor either women or men. The vast majority of such laws eliminated will be ones that favor women.

6) A recurrent debate in Italy is about the proper portrait of women in a traditionalist country. Recently the issue was revived following the sex scandals that have hit Silvio Berlusconi and following the broadcasting of some tv programs accused of perpetuating the view of women as sex objects. This has led to an intellectual wave against those women, like models and showgirls, who are accused of complicity in the objectification of women. Isn’t modern feminism just following the steps of old fashion conservatism in its conceit of defining the “good” role model for women and of making “bad girls” feel guilty?

Insightful comment. The condemnation of woman who ‘use’ their sexuality from the right is phrased differently, of course: sometimes in Biblical terms, sometimes out of concern for the family, often from the sheer desire to impose conservative morality. The condemnation from the left is phrase in PC moral terms, out of a concern for the body images transmitted to young girls and, often, from the sheer desire to impose a leftist view of womanhood upon the world. It is intriguing that both extremes of the political spectrum have targeted the same types of women for censure. Why is it worse to use a beautiful body to advantage than to use a beautiful mind? These targeted women deserve a collective apology.

True feminists applaud any peaceful choice an adult woman wishes to make with her body, from housewife to CEO, from showgirl to civil rights attorney. “My body, my choice” is the proper slogan of any feminist who really respects the choices and autonomy of every adult woman. Unfortunately, for mainstream feminism, when there is a clash between a woman’s choice and their ideological views, ideology wins out. How is this fundamentally different than the patriarchy they claim to oppose? They claim to oppose patriarchy because it quashes women’s choices, prevents women’s liberation. But how are gender feminists acting differently?

7) In the last few years a number of right-wing female politicians made an impact at a national level, notably Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, while some women in the Conservative movement openly confronted American feminism from the Right (eg.Venker/Schlafly). Do you tend to consider this trend as a positive assertion of women’s choice and initiative or do you fear that women on the Right may want to relegate women again into a restrictive gender role?

My answer about fearing the upsurge of conservative women is “yes” and “no.” I will address the “no” answer first. I do not fear any peaceful choice that women make in the context of freedom. I do not fear that some women will chose to become obedient housewives as long as there are no legal or political barriers to other women choosing to become physicists. The culture may change and become less welcoming to ambitious women, like me, but this is a matter to be addressed by non-violent tactics such as education and social agitation. I do not fear engaging in such social ‘debate’ and, so, I do not fear the conservative perspective. Women and justice will win because, in freedom, the evolution has historically been toward more rights, more justice.

Regarding the “yes” answer: I fear the introduction of legislation to limit or reverse some of the hard won freedoms for which women have fought for over the last few decades. For example, the anti-abortion zeal is so strong in the American far-right that there is serious discussion of restricting or prohibiting birth control methods such as the morning-after pill. With some success, there are state-level campaigns to introduce “personhood” bills that imbue the fetus with a slate of full individual rights. These are dangerous measures and the atmosphere created by such campaigns has already led to some women being criminal prosecuted for taking insufficient care of their fetuses. If the fetus is a person, can the pregnant woman become a criminal for taking a drink or a drug that necessarily impacts the fetus? The precedents are being set and, in some cases, being used. This is dangerous, dangerous territory.

So, again, “yes” and “no.”