There are many different branches of feminism. Libertarian feminism is distinguished most importantly by its suspicion of the state.

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Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and co‐​editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. She is editor of Libertarianism and Feminism: Individualist Perspectives on Women, Men, and the Family, an anthology in progress. As a social psychologist, her specialties are gender studies and obedience and resistance to authority. A long‐​time libertarian activist, she is the co‐​founder of Laissez Faire Books. Her articles have appeared in Reason, Liberty, and other libertarian magazines.

No system of government can hope long to survive the cynical disregard of both law and principle which government in America regularly exhibits. Under these circumstances, no legal guarantee of rights is worth the paper it is written on, and the women who rely upon such guarantees to protect them against prejudice and discrimination are leaning on a broken reed.

–Suzanne LaFollette, Concerning Women

Some libertarians are not aware of the differences between libertarian feminism and other kinds of feminism. They even criticize libertarian feminists just for being feminist without any knowledge of what libertarian feminism or even feminism itself stands for. This essay is an attempt to clarify that confusion.

Libertarian feminists believe, as other feminists do, that women and men should have equal liberty. “Feminism has at its heart the demand that women be treated as free human beings,” writes feminist political scientist Drucilla Cornell—a belief with which libertarian feminists completely concur. Our belief in equal liberty, like other libertarians, is based on the idea of individual rights and the equal freedom of all. Like other feminists, we reject gender role stereotypes that limit women’s and men’s psychological autonomy to be what they individually choose to be. Like other feminists, we agree that both women and men have been harmed by these stereotypes. It is our belief in individualism that leads us to reject the notion of gender role stereotypes or any other stereotype that limits individual choice. This includes racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes as well as other stereotypes of people in groups. Bigotry is a violation of the precepts of individualism. On a personal and psychological level as well, we believe in the autonomy of the individual and the right of each individual to make choices about her/​his life as they see fit. As noted in my prior essay here, on this issue, we follow in the philosophical footsteps of the individualist feminists who have come before us.

However there are many ways that libertarian feminism differs in its philosophy from other feminisms. Feminist philosopher Nancy Hirschmann asserts, for example, that both negative freedom and positive freedom are necessary to a feminist society where autonomy can flourish. But from a libertarian feminist point of view, claiming that every individual has a “right” to food and shelter means someone else must provide. If this is done voluntarily by all those involved, there is no problem. But if those persons who provide it do not do so willingly, that means their freedom has been violated. Forcing one person to provide for another is a violation of negative freedom. From a libertarian feminist view, negative freedom is the one most consistent with our theory of rights. Emphasis on “positive freedom” to the neglect of “negative freedom” is in our view, a recipe for tyranny and oppression that hurts more than it helps.

Many feminists, like Hirschmann, argue that without the advantages of positive freedom provided by the state that poor and disadvantaged women cannot achieve autonomy. It is hard to be free, they say, when one’s choices are severally limited due to poverty and lack of education. We don’t disagree with the latter statement. But these feminists cannot conceive of another way besides the state to provide for the necessities that make an independent life possible. We understand their concern. But, there are other, better ways to help people—through, for example, mutual aid societies that provide dignity as well as help, or through many other kinds of private groups and nonprofit organizations.

Libertarian feminists agree with other feminists about the nature and dangers of patriarchy. A patriarchal society is one in which there is a male‐​dominated power structure both in organized society and in individual relationships. Rather than saying that individual men oppress women, most feminists assert that oppression of women comes from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society. That is, the social structure of patriarchal societies implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, define women as secondary to men, and as obligated to defer to men in matters of importance. The standard by which all individuals are judged in a patriarchal society is a masculine one that defines “normal” as that which men do. Women are thus seen as “deviations” from the norm. But this kind of culture, like all cultures, is mostly invisible to those in the culture so most of its members don’t see that there is any problem. They accept this masculine power structure as normal and reasonable; some going so far as to attack the feminist idea of “patriarchy” without really understanding it.

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 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: “…turning 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 to achieve a society in which women are free to make their own decisions about their own 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.

The feminist demand for solutions using the power of a coercive state still utilizes patriarchic oppression as the mechanism by which these solutions will supposedly be achieved. As the already cited ALF discussion paper states: “If our goals are personal autonomy and individual freedom, we can’t achieve these goals by taking away individuals’ rights to choose for themselves. If we pass laws that force our values on others, we are no better than men who have forced their values on us through legislation. We merely substitute our tyranny for the tyranny of men.”54 In this view, feminist Catherine MacKinnon advocating anti‐​pornography laws is no better in principle than the Republicans who advocate anti‐​abortion laws. From a libertarian feminist point of view, calling for governmental solutions to such problems as discrimination in hiring, shortage of day care, and lack of gender pay equity, is not only philosophically inconsistent, it doesn’t even work well. In fact it generally makes things worse as many libertarian essays have shown. As feminist poet and activist Audre Lourde said in a different context, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

In the early part of the 20th century, libertarian feminist writer Suzanne LaFollette warned of the dangers of governmental projects to individuals. “The tendency of modern welfare‐​legislation is to make a complete sacrifice of individual rights not to the rights but to the hypothetical interests of others; and for every individual who happens to benefit by the sacrifice, there is another who suffers by it.” Her words were prophetic, as many libertarian writings would suggest.

Asking for help from government is tricky and dangerous, if not a slippery slope. The vast bureaucracy of the state, with its multitudes of forms and requirements, is expensive, deindividuated, alienating and just downright inefficient. Furthermore the state is fickle. Power changes hands. The idea that it will someday somehow always be in good hands is naive at best and a harmful fantasy at worst. Libertarian feminist Cathy Reisenwitz makes this point when writing about defunding of Planned Parenthood: “Only bans and restrictions are real assaults on women. Calling defunding warfare is crying wolf, delegitimizing arguments against real legislative threats to women’s health and safety. Statists would be well served to remember that a government big enough to pay for your abortion is big enough to try to take it away.” And in fact, there are currently very real dangers that women face from current state laws that have imposed a multitude of new restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom, just as past laws have done.

Power is seductive. Use the power of the state for good, say many feminists. They forget about all the centuries that power was used against women. “I know of no stronger argument for the social philosophy of the anarchist;” wrote LaFollette, “for there is no more striking proof of the incapacity of human beings to be their brothers’ keepers than man’s failure through sheer levity, over thousands of years, to govern woman either for his good or her own.” Many libertarians and anarchists have warned about the seduction of power but few others heed it. “Power is always dangerous,” wrote anarchist conservationist and novelist Edward Abbey. “Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” Yet many feminists assume that with their guidance, all will be well. They assume that they will not be corrupted. History suggests otherwise.

Many feminists would object and say “but what we want to do is different. We are helping women and the oppressed. We are giving voices to those who had not had voices before.” Libertarian feminists do not question the goals of such feminists so much as their methods. Do they, like philosopher John Rawls, want a society that extends rights and full membership to all reasonable people—where “reasonableness” is defined by them? Are only people who agree with them free from coercion? What about those who disagree? What about those who want to help women and the oppressed in a different way than through the power of coercive government? Will they be coerced too? Will coercion be justified because it allows for the “greater good”? Will those who do not believe in liberal, socialist/​communitarian, or Marxist methods be ignored? How then is this any different in method or principle than what patriarchal societies have done? From our libertarian feminist point of view, it looks the same. Force is force, no matter how noble the purpose may claim to be. “Power corrupts” is not just a notion applicable to men. Why should we assume that noble goals will be kept pure when history strongly suggests otherwise?

Thus while we share many goals with other feminisms (and yes, there are many kinds, not just some monolithic thing called “feminism”), libertarian feminists understand the dangers of state power. Those libertarians who attack us have not done their homework. When libertarian feminists say they want liberty for all women and men, they really mean it.