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Jan 28, 2015

Carceral Feminism and the Libertarian Alternative

Some feminists call for unlibertarian laws. Brown argues the best response is not to abandon feminism, but to build a libertarian alternative.

Libertarian feminism is “part of an honorable individualist tradition in America,” as Sharon Presley wrote here recently. But to many in 2015, it seems either an oxymoron or a lost cause. In part, this stems from the path popular feminism has taken through the latter part of the 20th century and on into this one; many now see feminism as an ideology demanding state action (an association that may have been true in recent practice but is far from natural or necessary). And, in part, this stems from a lack of awareness, promotion, or concern around gender issues in the modern libertarian tradition.

Yet as ideologies and movements, libertarianism and feminism have a lot to offer one another. Not every libertarian matter is necessarily a feminist one, of course (and vice versa). Libertarianism can, however, provide a lens through which to view gender issues, and in doing so help counter the monopoly that a more coercive, carceral feminism has come to enjoy.

“Carceral feminism” is a term that’s gaining popularity, and it’s in many ways synonymous with progressive feminism these days. Progressive feminists will identify gender-based concerns, then immediately look to the state for solutions—via strict regulation, at least, or criminalization and jail in many instances. Carceral feminism is the relatively small but incredibly vocal voice within millennial feminism that says due process can be sacrificed if it means catching a few more rapists, hate speech should come with a jail sentence, and images promoting “unrealistic” female body standards should be banned by the government, among other things.

“We’re taking all of our (desired) norms and injecting really awful (state) violence into them, and it’s shocking that we can’t seem to recognize that,” said Aaron Ross Powell, when we discussed libertarianism and women for a “Free Thoughts” podcast in January.

But absent an alternative sort of feminism, people inclined to recognize and want to remedy gendered inequalities and double standards—especially young people—may be drawn to progressive solutions reflexively or out of necessity.

Libertarian feminism seeks to provide an alternative way of viewing these issues, one that emphasizes the negative, unintended consequences of increased government intervention and policing power. It can provide a jumping-off point for considering less coercive, less reactionary, and less rights-infringing solutions; be a third-way between patriarchy-preserving social conservatism and the intolerant, illiberal feminists sometimes referred to as “social justice warriors” these days.

And for libertarians, a feminist perspective can enrich the scope of our battle to lessen government coercion and maximize liberty. Libertarian feminists bring overlooked or under-emphasized issues into the liberty movement, such as reproductive freedom (not just abortion but things like making birth control available over-the-counter, state coercion of pregnant women, surrogacy law, and the emerging legal issues surrounding things like IVF and artificial wombs), state overreach into parenting, the over-regulation of female-heavy occupations, how decriminalizing sex work fits into overall criminal-justice reform efforts, and the growth of women as a percentage of millennial libertarians.

That last part has been highlighted by several young libertarian women recently. “The ratio of men to women in libertarian circles is still uneven,” said Julie Borowski, a libertarian advocate who makes YouTube videos under the name “token libertarian girl,” in a recent PanAm Post interview. But “the number of female libertarians is absolutely growing. As libertarianism becomes more mainstream, the political philosophy is attracting a wide variety of people. I’ve been an active libertarian for about eight years now, and I’m no longer the ‘token libertarian girl’ at libertarian events.”

Whitney Neal, marketing director for the Bill of Rights Institute, told PanAm Post that “a lot of women, by belief and principle, are libertarian,” but they don’t necessarily realize it because libertarianism is still somewhat under the radar and when it does the surface coverage is often incorrect and unflattering. “When (women) are exposed to the very basis of our beliefs in individual liberty and responsibility,” said Neal, “they almost always agree.”

There’s nothing inherent in libertarian thought that makes it unappealing to women. But traditionally, the avenues most likely to lead people to libertarianism were things like economics and law—study areas and professions way more historically heavy in men. Even many current venues likely to espouse libertarian perspectives are, for whatever reason, male-dominated mediums (Reddit, message boards, etc.).  A large part of libertarian’s lack of mass female appeal may be simply a matter of exposure.

As more women are exposed to libertarian ideals—through the generally growing profile of libertarianism; their own increasing numbers in law, econ, and political science; Ron Paul and student activism; or however—the ranks of libertarian-identifying women are swelling. And as more women are assuming active roles in libertarian activism, writing, and scholarship, we’re starting to see more focus on gender issues in libertarian spaces and greater acceptance of these issues as valid libertarian concerns.

This doesn’t please some libertarians. I’ve seen many decry libertarian feminism as a form of “identity politics,” or at least part of the excesses of “thick libertarianism.” But most libertarian feminist concerns fit comfortably within the realm of basic opposition to over-regulation, over-criminalization, over-policing, and an overly coercive and powerful state. Sure, some feminists may claim special privileges for women in the name of feminism. But feminism doesn’t, at its best, prioritize the well-being or legal treatment of any particular sex or gender identity.

Feminism is, essentially, concerned with ensuring that neither biological sex nor gender should be destiny. Releasing everyone from strongly gendered expectations—and the policy they spawn—is a good way to maximize liberty, happiness, and human flourishing.

To me, claiming the feminist label is no different than calling myself a libertarian. They both inform my beliefs, but neither has primacy and neither requires strict allegiance. I don’t “belong” to or consider myself a “member” of either, as people often do with major political parties. They are guiding principles, microscopes, ways of being curious, not dogma nor identities.

Feminism doesn’t require abandoning “traditional” gender roles or presumptions within personal relationships, and certainly not forbidding them. No one should be forced to have an egalitarian marriage, to have sex in any particular way, etc., so long as it is voluntary. Feminism is concerned with enforcing societal norms of equality, not mandating it between adult individuals who consent to cede it; about expanding the realm of choice, not favoring any particular choices. (I’ve had this discussion enough to know that some will now say: “Ha! Feminism is certainly about mandating this.” Stop. I am not trying to describe the most virulent strain of Twitter and commercial blog feminism but to portray what feminist principles naturally lend themselves to and where they can go.)

Seen this way, feminism speaks to the concerns of men and women, of all genders and the spectrum of sexualities. Rejecting strict biological and gender imperatives means rejecting limiting stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, rejecting the idea that people should love or pair off with any particular gender, rejecting the view of women as perpetual victims, sexual stereotypes that box-in both women and men, and—as libertarian feminists—the ways in which the state may serve to reinforce sexist notions and norms (as well as outright set sexist policy).

A so-called “libertarian moment” can only be helped along by expanded appeal among women, and among feminist-minded folks of all genders. Individual rights are at the heart of feminism. It’s time for libertarians to reclaim that.