Liberty for Women:
Freedom and Feminism
in the Twenty-first Century

edited by Wendy McElroy

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Ivan R. Dee; Chicago; 2002

353 pages October 2003

Feminism for individualists

All of us, with the exception of the independently wealthy and the unemployed, take money for the use of our bodies. Professors, factory workers, lawyers, opera singers, prostitutes, doctors, legislators — we all do things with parts of our bodies, for which we receive a wage in return. Some people get good wages and some do not; some have a relatively high degree of control over their working conditions and some have little control; some have many employment options and some have very few. And some are socially stigmatized and some are not.

Martha C. Nussbaum
"Whether from Reason or Prejudice:
Taking Money for Bodily Services"

Liberty for Women is an anthology on some important and even vital issues affecting women from an individualist feminist, or libertarian feminist, perspective. The eighteen essays focus on areas such as reproduction, prostitution, and victimization which traditionally have been categorized as within the realm of women's vulnerabilities or disabilities, and hence fighting-points for women's rights. But the principles are all general; these areas must be seen as particular battlegrounds in the long campaign for liberty which is vital to us all.

Wendy McElroy brings to her editing task both wide scholarship and deep historical perspective, a living awareness of past ideological battlefields which still affect us. (See for instance McElroy on The Free-Soil Movement.) In Liberty for Women her "Introduction: Foundation of Individualist Freedom", she sketches the long American heritage of the struggle for women's rights, including women in the anti-slavery movement. Just that alone is a fascinating topic, unfortunately receded from the public consciousness but developed very pertinently in Aileen Kraditor's Means and Ends in American Abolitionism. Sometimes it seems that nowadays issues of freedom are even more numerous and tangled than before the Civil War. But are the best ideas today more truly represented by liberal-collectivist, class-based radical feminism (so strong in the media and educational institutions), or by libertarian and individualist feminism (ifeminism)?

What is oppression?

McElroy states that "The true intellectual contest within the movement is between ifeminism and radical feminism." She sharply attacks the Marxist / socialist concept of class that powers radical-feminist ideology, the latter claiming that

To prevent the oppression of women, it is necessary to deconstruct the institutions through which men control women — institutions such as the free market and the family. The law must act to benefit historically disadvantaged "woman" at the expense of historically oppressive "man."

She contrasts this with ifeminism:

This class analysis makes no sense within the theoretical framework of ifeminism that declares all human beings have the same interest in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All human beings share the same natural rights just as they share a basic biology.

Nevertheless, individualism has a long tradition of class analysis that does categorize people according to a salient political factor. That factor is: does an individual use force to achieve her goals? Does she acquire "goods" such as wealth or power through merit and productivity? Or does she use aggression, often in the form of law, to expropriate wealth and power from others? [...]

Classes within ifeminist analysis are fluid. This is not true of radical feminist analysis that is based on biology.

To radical feminism, biology is the factor that forces an individual into a class. To ifeminism, the use of force is the salient factor and an individual can cross class lines at any point. [...] classes become static only when legal barriers are raised to prevent social, political, or economic mobility.

It's your talent and your body, if they're free

A better paradigm for class has wide repercussions. Martha Nussbaum contributes an excellent 15-page essay to Liberty for Women, "Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services" (originally in Journal of Legal Studies, 1998). After the lead-in quoted above, Nussbaum goes on to say:

The stigmatization of certain occupations may be well founded, based on convincing well-reasoned arguments. But it may also be based on class prejudice or stereotypes of race or gender. Stigma may also change rapidly, as these background beliefs and prejudices change. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, writes that there are "some very agreeable and beautiful talents" that are admirable so long as no pay is taken for them, "but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of publick prostitution." For this reason, he continues, opera singers, actors, and dancers must be paid an "exorbitant" wage to compensate them for the stigma involved in using their talents "as the means of subsistence."

Nussbaum points out that

What is worth noting about these prejudices is that they do not attach to activities themselves, but, rather, to the use of these activities to make money.

History shows that we often do not detest an activity nearly so much as the taking of money for that activity; that is, letting it be chosen and given and valued in a free market. Nussbaum's historical analysis is of the kind urged in Friedrich Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals: to understand our values we must learn their history, how the foolish mistakes of yesterday evolved into our oh-so-sensible truths of today.

Taking a current-day cross-section, Nussbaum strikingly contrasts sexual prostitution — a chief target of many who wish to limit freedom of choice and the free market — with six other professions. This is an outstanding analysis, encouraging us to a revaluation of what we take as basic, essential truths concerning our bodies and the marketplace.

(For a fictional slant on how such a revaluation might feel to a practitioner, see Jacqueline Carey's historical-fantasy novel, Kushiel's Dart.)

Recent legal restrictions of women's activities

Some of the essays in Liberty for Women discuss pivotal legal decisions. Nadine Strossen's "On Pornography: Lessons from Enforcement" shows how the Canadian decision Butler v. The Queen (1992), although promoted by radical feminists to "protect" women, has had a pernicious effect precisely on the access to knowledge and free communication of the "victims" it was supposed to protect. Anti-obscenity laws have traditionally been used to suppress medical information, birth-control education, and so on. And beyond, of course: even Ambrose Bierce and Oscar Wilde are not hallowed by time from the iron grasp of censorship. Strossen makes good points against "hate speech" suppression, too.

Ellen Frankel Paul's very interesting "Fetal Protection and Freedom of Contract" looks at some surprising ramifications of the Johnson Controls case (1991). Another essay by Paul, "The Case Against Comparable Worth", usefully analyzes this issue, whose roots include the rigid just price idea of medieval economics.

"Breeder Reactionaries: The 'Feminist' War on New Reproductive Technologies" by editor Wendy McElroy discusses another odd contortion in radical feminist theory. Really managing reproduction is an area visible only to science fiction until fairly recently, but I expect the emergent issues to be troublesome well into the future. Here McElroy must defend science and objective knowledge, re-proclaim even individual women's right to manage their reproductive and contraceptive health, against the collectivist authoritarians who claim to know better in the name of feminism.

Blocking self-defense; outlawing midwives

Two good essays speak on empowering individual women against violence: "Women and Violent Crime" by Rita J. Simon; and "Disarming Women: Comparing 'Gun Control' to Self-Defense" by Stevens, Teufel, and Biscan. The latter, for instance, talks about how arguments for "gun control" play on sex-role stereotypes, to keep women relatively helpless. Who could favor keeping women in the class of "victims" — except for self-proclaimed leaders who require a trapped class of women-victims? A better idea is: refuse to be a victim.

Faith Gibson contributes a 23-page essay, "The Official Plan to Eliminate the Midwife 1899-1999". She covers the long, sad, and shameful attack on midwives by the doctors' union — the American Medical Association — as they worked to marginalize and then outlaw their competition. The Bowland decision's (1976) twist on Roe v. Wade (1973) to outlaw midwifery is just one in a long chain of perversions of justice and common sense. Childbirth was redefined from a natural physiological process to be a medical emergency. The statistics quoted here, many from the AMA itself, are shocking: in the comparison of official obstetrics versus midwifery, and in the unnecessarily high American deaths in childbirth, Caesarian sections, and infant mortality versus other developed nations. To extend their legal monopoly of medical services, the doctors' union traded a century and more of worsened childbearing safety and infants' health and infants' lives in America.

I cannot mention all the essays here, but all are interesting. A various and informative anthology, sometimes surprising; and I trust quite useful in the cause of liberty.


© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson

Table of contents and sample chapters
at Wendy McElroy's site:
Liberty for Women


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