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Oct 29, 2014

Why Are There So Few Libertarian Women (Redux)?

Presley argues one cannot explain the dearth of libertarian women without reference to the sexism and hostility libertarian women encounter.

The question of why there are not more equal numbers of men and women in the libertarian movement is not new. The late Joan Kennedy Taylor wrote about it in 1999. Since then, both formally and informally, others have asked the same question. A recent attempt to answer this question was by Pamela Stubbart in her essay “Why Aren’t More Women Libertarians?” Unlike Taylor, Stubbart thinks that male hostility toward women is not the problem. She, in fact, writes that the problem of libertarian men being “unfriendly” toward women “seems largely exaggerated (especially due to availability bias).” However, what Stubbart has observed is not typical.  Both in my position as Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists (ALF) and in just general activism, I have been hearing stories of women ignored, hit on, or otherwise ill-treated for many years.

I will argue that Stubbart doesn’t understand the truth about the hostility women experience in libertarian circles, that this hostility cannot be explained away as hostility to socialism, and that one of Stubbart’s proposed alternative causes for the libertarian gender gap, evolutionary psychology, doesn’t hold water.

In the piece linked above, Taylor wrote:

In 1993 in an article that I wrote for the ALF News called “Is There a Bias Against Women’s Issues,” I quoted two such responses that occurred when I spoke to the Eris Society in Colorado, after a number of men in the audience had heatedly challenged my attempts to present as important women’s concerns with reproductive issues and with the way the courts sometimes treated violence against them. One woman said, “I am disappointed and yet not surprised at the hostility I am hearing from the men in the audience, when, if I read you correctly, all you are saying is that you are asking to have the same right, choice, and respect afforded to you that any individual should deserve.”

She was interrupted by people asking indignantly, “What hostility?” And a non-libertarian woman guest asked, “Given the level of support that libertarians give to women’s issues, why should any feminist be a libertarian?”

Some libertarians might say, “But that was 1993; things have changed.” Yes, they have—a little—but not as much as Stubbart claims. In an essay for an in-progress libertarian feminist anthology, Gina Luttrell also writes on the issue of why there are so few libertarian women. In her first draft she catalogued a litany of problems she observed and heard about from other young libertarian women. She wrote:

But when one begins to ask women libertarians that same question [“Why so few women?”]—or, perhaps even better, women who have left libertarianism—tales begin to emerge that paint a disheartening picture for any woman wanting to enter liberty: being constantly interrupted, talked down to, being told that she cannot understand economics, being gawked at whenever she enters a room or speaks, being criticized more heavily than her male peers; and almost every woman libertarian knows another supposed fellow freedom fighter who has told her that the country would be better off if women couldn’t vote. When that woman libertarian speaks out about these injustices, she is then often ridiculed instead of engaged with, threatened instead of respected, told that she is sensitive or emotional instead of listened to.

Since I have heard these same kinds of stories many times before, including the one about why women shouldn’t vote, I was not surprised by Gina’s comments. Many of the comments are, of course, not unique to libertarianism but they do illustrate that libertarianism—the movement supposedly dedicated to individualism—is at least just as sexist as other ideologies if not more, in spite of what Stubbart alleges. The ones unique to the libertarian movement—that women shouldn’t vote, women can’t understand economics, and (I might add from experience) the lack of women speakers—only add more insult to injury.

Another closely related and unique issue is the attitude toward feminism, even libertarian feminism, in the libertarian movement. It generally takes the form of asserting that one cannot be a libertarian and a feminist. Many of us, including Taylor (who was formerly the National Coordinator of ALF) and Tonie Nathan (the first libertarian vice-presidential candidate in 1972, the first woman to receive an electoral vote, and the founder of ALF in 1973), beg to differ. All of us who call ourselves libertarian feminists have heard this negative attitude many times. But it is based on a misunderstanding of feminism and on ignorance of what feminism actually stands for, as well as how libertarian feminists differ from the mainstream. I seriously doubt that those who make that claim have ever read a word of feminist philosophy. It is highly likely that what most of them know is only based on what they read in the media.

Not a month goes by that some libertarian man (and sometimes woman) doesn’t challenge ALF on our Facebook page. Some are so rude that we have to delete their comments and even block some of them. Nor are hostile comments unique to ALF. Elizabeth Tate recently wrote an essay titled “What Feminism Isn’t” on the Students for Liberty blog. Quoting some of the hostile comments from men on that post: “Unfortunately, feminism as it’s ACTUALLY PRACTICED bears little resemblance to the ideology you describe…And why would a man support an ideology that is directly responsible for curtailing and attacking so many men’s freedom?” “I feel sorrow with all the fibers of my body, the amount of pain that the hatred which I have received from feminists for just being a libertarian cause is nothing comparable to the pain that reading such a nonsense on a SFL blog causes.” This is merely scratching the surface of the hostile comments I’ve heard. Many are too obscene to quote here.

I could go on for pages but here are just a few more comments from self-styled libertarians I have collected from various comment threads around the internet: “Feminism is about men-hate just as Anarchy is about the non-aggression principle.” Another one, allegedly paraphrasing Rand: “Is there something worse than the women of the women’s lib movement? Yes, the men who support it.” Or this gem: “It is amusing how a person’s belief system can completely skew their view of reality. Feminists are so trapped in their victimhood thinking that they see potential male oppressors everywhere and blame everything that is wrong with their lives on ‘sexism’ and ‘patriarchy’. If you look for it, you will find it, even if it’s not there. Because you *want* to find it. Because it *feeds* your victimhood mentality. And you’ll run away from any evidence to the contrary and surround yourself with little wussy boys who will validate you because your need to be a victim is so strong.” And yet Stubbart says our complaints are exaggerated? I don’t think so.

The critics need to actually read what we write. They somehow seem to think that all feminists, including libertarian ones, are socialists. But on the ALF website, there is nothing “socialist” whatsoever (nor is there anything about hating men). In fact, we offer a critique of socialist and liberal feminism.  Feminist philosopher bell hooks defines feminism as a movement to end patriarchy, all forms of patriarchal oppression, and all forms of oppression as a whole. Libertarian feminists would agree with that agenda. But we see a problem. If feminists want to reject “all forms of oppression as a whole,” then from a libertarian feminist perspective, advocating ending patriarchy and oppression by using coercive government is inconsistent with that goal. We see coercive government as just another form of patriarchy. Whether a government of mostly men, as we have now, or even a government of women and men equally divided does not change the nature of such government. It is inherently coercive. As a discussion paper of the Association of Libertarian Feminists stated in 1975:

[T]urning to the government just changes the sort of oppression women face, not the fact. Instead of being overburdened as mothers or wives, we become overburdened as taxpayers since child-care workers, doctors, etc., have to be paid by someone unless they are to be enslaved also! Turning to the government to solve our problems just replaces oppression by patriarchs we know—father, husband, boss—with oppression by patriarchs we don’t know—the hordes of legislators and bureaucrats who are increasingly prying into every nook and cranny of our lives!

Libertarians fail to see how women—or men—can be free of domination when they are dominated by a coercive government. If one of the goals of feminism is to achieve a society in which women are free to make their own decisions about their lives independent of the coercive domination of men, we fail to see how a government currently dominated by men is an improvement, let alone feminist. Furthermore even if a government like we have today was dominated by women, it would still be coercive and therefore oppressive. Why would any libertarian object to this perspective? But attack and object to us they do.

However Stubbart does point to some important issues. Yes, it will be hard for many women to see that government is their enemy more than their friend, just as it is hard for many men to see that. The women are not unique in being blind to the harm that governments do. But that isn’t the major reason why there are so few women libertarians. Instead, as Luttrell, Taylor, and I have argued, the lack of libertarian women is due to the fact that the libertarian movement as a whole is not welcoming to nor concerned with so-called women’s issues and is sometimes even hostile to women. Part of the fault is a libertarian movement that has mostly ignored women’s issues for all the 50 years that I have been a libertarian activist. Only recently with the addition of Elizabeth Nolan Brown to Reason has there been anything beginning to approach substantial coverage of women’s issues in that magazine. But it’s almost nowhere else except the ALF Facebook page and several other libertarian feminist blogs. Furthermore, as Luttrell points out, it is still the case that women are only token speakers at libertarian conferences and the few of us who do speak are the only ones talking about the issues that are concerns to half of the human race. It is not for lack of women speakers either. I could rattle off a dozen names without even trying, and yes, including economists. Why can’t the conference organizers find them? This lack of representation means that many important issues are not being discussed. So why should women want to be libertarians when their concerns do not seem to be important to libertarians?

In contradistinction, Stubbart argues that the reason there are so few libertarian women is genetic: “Also, on the sociological side, we should take seriously the reasonably well-substantiated empirical claim of evolutionary psychology that men have evolved to bear traits that go to further extremes than women.” In other words: risk-taking. But history suggests that women are risk-takers, too. The American women pioneers who went West and the women resistance fighters in World War II are only two of many examples. More importantly, why is becoming a libertarian risky? Stubbart doesn’t really explain that.  Because it is a marginal philosophy that some might disapprove of?  Many women have been drawn to marginal philosophies, starting with early feminism, freethought, abolitionism, and even anarchism. In fact, I’m writing a book about them.

Stubbart seems to think that this alleged risk-aversion is genetic. But if she wants to argue that it is genetic, evolutionary psychology is a weak foundation to use. For starters, the claims of evolutionary psychology are not in fact “well-substantiated.”  Those eager to embrace evolutionary psychology might want to be aware that contrary to the claims of its popularizers like Steven Pinker, it is highly controversial within academia. He would have us believe that it is now “the” accepted academic doctrine, both in general and in regard to gender. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its critics include biologist John Dupre in his book Against Maladaptationism: or What’s Wrong with Evolutionary Psychology; neuroscientist Steven Rose, co-editor of Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology; British intellectual Kenan Malik (whose background is neurobiology and the history of science), and philosopher David Buller in his book Adapting Minds, just to name a few of many. In my own field of psychology, it is highly controversial and many textbooks barely treat it at all. In fact the preponderance of social science evidence and neuroscience suggests that human behavior is plastic and malleable. Whatever we have been born with (and most research suggests it is very little in regard to gender), recent research on neuroplasticity strongly suggests that the environment can change the brain in significant ways. Thus, continuing to believe in gender stereotypes of the blatant type promoted by evolutionary psychology runs contrary to modern neuroscience, let alone gender research in psychology. Evolutionary psychology has nothing to do with why there are so few libertarian women.

The problem of lack of women in the libertarian movement is real. If the activists want libertarianism to appeal to the other half of the human race, they need to pay attention to what they are doing and not doing. Instead of treating women like second-class citizens or idiots or being hostile to a concept many libertarians know little about, they need to learn about libertarian feminism with an open mind. They need to have articles and speakers about many issues that few libertarians except libertarian feminists care about, for example: children’s rights; current mutual aid, not merely historical; marriage; modern restrictions on contraceptives;  abortion from a woman’s perspective; sexual violence; oppression of women in prison; transgender rights; oppression of women in the Middle East and Africa. Who is talking about these issues except libertarian feminists? To ignore issues that concern women will continue to let others label libertarianism as an ideology for men only. But as a woman, I don’t think this is true. I think libertarianism is for everybody.