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Apr 30, 2015

Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor and the Rebirth of American Individualism by Jeff Riggenbach

A review of Jeff Riggenbach’s biography of Joan Kennedy Taylor, an important figure in the modern rebirth of the liberty movement.

I had the good fortune to call Joan Kennedy Taylor my friend. She was a brilliant woman, an insightful writer, a thoughtful feminist, a solid libertarian, and a decent human being of great integrity. I am therefore happy to report that Jeff Riggenbach’s biography more than does her justice. But it does more than just tell her story—though that would be enough. It also tells the story of the renascence of American individualism in a century in which American politicians had no use for such an idea. Riggenbach interweaves events of Joan’s life with commentary about this rebirth and the role she played in making it happen. The result is fascinating.

And what a life she led. Her father, Deems Taylor, music critic and member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, was a voice that most of us heard as a child and didn’t know it—the narrator of Walt Disney’s classic Fantasia. With her first husband Donald Cook, she led a Bohemian life that included Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac—the anti-authority rebel leaders of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The Cook residence was “like an apartment at the bottom of a well—midnight even on a sunny day. The door was never locked. You never knew whom you’d find there.” During this time period Joan worked as an actor while also taking care of her only child, their son Michael, and reading books that influenced her individualist outlook.

In his preface to the book, Charles Murray calls Joan the “den mother of the rebirth of American individualism.” As Riggenbach points out, by the time Joan was in high school in the early 1940s, the exponents of American individualism such as H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Henry Hazlitt, and Isabel Paterson were silent or soon would be. Individualism as a philosophy was at an all-time low.  Yet it was during this time period that humanistic psychologists began to break away from psychoanalysis and behaviorism, both of which made individuals into virtual automations, one to instinct, the other to simple learned responses. The humanistic psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, as well as humanistic therapists like Fritz Perls, saw a more active role for the individual and individual behavior than the two older influences had ever suggested. Amateur psychologist and anarchist writer Paul Goodman, who also distrusted authority, was making literary inroads as well. Joan had already started read Gurdjieff and others whom she saw as having elements of individualism in their writings. So not just because Donald was a psychologist, but also because of her own interests, it was easy for Joan to take the next step and become involved in individualistic psychology.

It was a heady time for psychologists who believed in individualism and humanism. Like Goodman, Joan would establish herself as a self-taught therapist and later co-author, with psychologists Joyce and Lee Shulman, of the 1969 book When to See a Psychologist.

In the 1950s Joan split from Donald and fell in love with David Dawson, with whom she remained married till his untimely death in 1979. During this time period she began working in the world of publishing. As an assistant to the publicity director of Alfred Knopf, she was asked to read a new submission that would change her life—Atlas Shrugged. Joan wrote a letter to Ayn Rand (only the second one Rand received) and was asked to have lunch with her. “They talked for hours,” writes Riggenbach.  From this illustrious beginning came Joan’s first journal Persuasion, an Objectivist-oriented publication that ran from 1964 to 1968.  Now Joan could apply her individualist principles to politics as well as psychology. By all accounts it was a brilliant magazine. But Joan could not side with Rand when the break with Nathaniel Branden came in 1968. Joan’s individualist spirit rebelled at what she saw as the intolerance of Rand and the conformity she demanded.

Joan’s foray into avowedly libertarian political activism came about as a result of the candidacy of the newly formed Libertarian Party and its candidates, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan. When they received an electoral vote in 1972 from Republican elector Roger MacBride, making Nathan the first women and the first Jewish person to receive such a vote, Joan took notice and began to question her allegiance to the Republican Party.  She was to begin writing for Roy Childs’ magazine Libertarian Review in 1977. In telling this tale, Riggenbach weaves into the narrative an important figure, Roy Childs, a brilliant but troubled man, who was an influential part of the libertarian movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. We learn about Charles Koch, who funded Libertarian Review, about Ed Crane and Cato, about Riggenbach’s own role in Libertarian Review, and much more. Honestly, I have never been entirely comfortable with the accuracy of Radicals for Capitalism, the book written to be a history of the movement. Based on my own considerable knowledge of the movement, I trust Riggenbach’s accounts much more. That alone makes this book worth reading.

Joan was to become one of the leading libertarian feminists of the 20th century. Because of its emphasis on gender equality and questioning of gender stereotypes, she saw feminism as a natural extension of her individualist views. She didn’t call herself a feminist right away but as Riggenbach suggests, when someone heckled her about the fact that she retained her own name even though married, she began to become radicalized. Soon she was drawn into consciousness-raising sessions with other feminists. This was one of the early—and very individualistic—forms of feminism, a way for women to discuss and shed the stereotypes that had formed their lives and to finally become their own persons. Later, partly because of my encouragement, she was to become part of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, and in her role as National Coordinator from 1990 to 2004, she was to write many essays on libertarian feminism and its relation to politics, as well as defending it from its detractors in the libertarian movement. Out of this role came two books—Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered in 1992, a brilliant history of that lost tradition, and the Cato-sponsored What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment in 1999. The best encouragement I’ve ever offered; a lot of bang for that buck.

As Riggenbach points out, Joan’s book, Reclaiming the Mainstream, dispelled many myths about both feminists and individualists. She challenged the widely held idea that feminists were all socialists.  “Today in the nineties,” he quotes her as saying: “As has been the case for the last two decades, the majority of women who are self-identified feminists are non-Marxists, nonsocialist, nonradical, heterosexual women.” She then points out that individualism is no contradiction to being members of a group, as critics of individualism (and even some libertarians) so often claim. “When the group being referred to is a free association of people with a common goal uniting to achieve that goal, the group acts as an extension of its individual members and is no contradiction to individualism.” A few of her articles on libertarian and feminist topics can be found at the website of the Association of Libertarian Feminists.

Though Joan Kennedy Taylor is now best known for her libertarian feminism, she was also a staunch defender of free speech and was long associated with Feminists for Free Expression, a group that opposed anti-pornography laws and other infringements on free speech. Though not a lawyer, she wrote sophisticated articles on legal matters, including free speech as well as other topics.

A short review cannot do justice either to Joan’s remarkable career or to the depth and breadth of Jeff Riggenbach’s biography. As so often happens with women activists, she is not as well-known among today’s libertarians as she deserves to be. As an individualist, a feminist, a libertarian, a scholar, and a thinker, she deserves to be appreciated for the lively, thoughtful person she was and for her extraordinary life. As Riggenbach concludes, “For hers is a tale worth telling and worth heeding—not only for itself, but for the light it sheds on the cultural and intellectual changes in America over the last fifty years.” We won’t ever forget you, Joan.


An extended excerpt from Persuaded by Reason is available online here.