A Conservative Writer’s “Freedom Feminism” Agenda is Short on Both Freedom and Feminism


Can Christina Hoff Sommers Save Feminism?

Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, by Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI Press, 127 pages, $3.95.

 writes:  Some libertarians look askance at feminism, seeing it only as a leftist push to use the state to benefit women. Many conservatives see it something as far worse. But Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute wants to change all that. In Freedom Feminism, Sommers sets out to provide a manifesto for moderate and conservative women (and, some say, for libertarians) because they “must be at the helm” if they are to raise broad support for the kind of feminism that she thinks is worthwhile. Sommers asserts that her “freedom feminism” is a synthesis of 19th century “radical egalitarianism” and a conservative “maternal school,” and that the results avoid the problems of leftist feminism.

This raises two questions for libertarians: Is feminism salvageable? And if so, is Sommers’ new blend the right mix?

In addressing the first question, it is useful to recognize that leftists didn’t invent feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading influence on First Wave feminism, was an individualist. So were such 19th-century American feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who believed that “nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded—a place earned by personal merit.” In addition to working for the vote, 19th-century feminists struggled to undo unjust and unfair laws that made women the property of their husbands. They sought equal rights, not governmental privilege.

The American individualist anarchists of the 19th century were on the cutting edge of this movement. Ezra and Angela Heywood braved prison to bring birth control information to the public through their journal The Word. Angela Heywood was one of the very few feminists in the 19th century to call for legalized abortion. Moses Harman, publisher of the anarchist/feminist publication Lucifer the Lightbearer, may have been the first person in the 19th century to publicly attack marital rape in print. His daughter Lillian refused to change her name when she married Edwin Walker in a non-state wedding. Many of the themes that concerned these anarchist feminists are still being discussed by libertarian feminists today.

In spite of skepticism in some quarters of the libertarian movement, modern libertarian feminism is thriving. Buoyed by that 19th-century heritage, such writers as Joan Kennedy TaylorCharles W. Johnson, Roderick LongLynn Kinsky, and I have argued that libertarianism offers a less paternalistic and thus less patriarchal approach to solving the issues that concern women today. The left-wing feminist theoretician 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 in a general way. But they see a problem. If feminists want to reject “all forms of oppression as a whole,” then from a libertarian perspective, coercive government is inconsistent with that goal. Instead, we argue that feminism should dispense with government favoritism and privilege, focusing instead on mutual aid and private alternatives.

But does Sommers have something worthwhile to contribute to the mix? Is a synthesis based on 19th-century “radical egalitarianism” and a conservative “maternal school” workable? Maybe to conservatives, but not to libertarians.

For one thing, 19th-century individualist feminists were not “radical egalitarians,” as Sommers claims. Nor did they believe that “men and women are essentially identical,” as one of her tables claims. Not one of these feminists ever said that…

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