By Carlin Becker
“Today, the ideology of contemporary feminism seems to be evolving into a dogma with which women cannot disagree without being defined out of the movement,” writes Wendy McElroy. “More and more there seems to be only one stand that a card-carrying feminist is allowed to take on issues such as sexual harassment or affirmative action.”
In a country in which it seems women who do not strictly prescribe to liberal ideology are frequently labeled as anti-feminist or anti-women, this essay serves to give my perspective on an underrepresented and misunderstood type of feminism and to show that feminism, like women, can come in many different forms. American women are diverse in thought, and by sharing a version of feminism that is fairly uncommon, I hope to show that there is certainly more than one way to be a feminist.
To me, libertarian feminism, like progressive feminism, is based on the belief that men and women should have equal liberty and is rooted in the idea of individual rights and the equal freedom of all people. Like progressive feminists, we reject gender role stereotypes and believe that men and women have both been harmed by them because they limit individual choice. However, we look to voluntary arrangements rather than to the state (aka government) as a solution to the many problems women face.
Progressive feminists often tend to identify gender-based concerns and immediately turn to the state to solve those issues through increased regulation or new legislation. Libertarian feminists seek equal treatment under existing laws and equal representation within existing political institutions before urging for the creation of new laws. In other words, we’d choose the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision—which found a woman’s right to an abortion free of undue burden to be an already existing right within our already existing governing body of law—over Congress passing new legislation guaranteeing that same right. That does not mean that new laws are never necessary, but we seek to limit their number when possible by reexamining current law.
We are means-oriented rather than ends-oriented, but do have a goal of liberating women so that they are free to make their own choices about their own lives and bodies. In believing that the ends do not always justify the means, we’re skeptical of using government to enforce our vision of a just society because doing so often infringes upon the liberty of others. What good is it to take down the patriarchy if we are to simply replace it with another form of oppression?
As Sharon Presley put it, “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.”
If we are to achieve a society in which women are free from the domination of men, libertarian feminists don’t find using a government currently dominated by men (or even an equally representative government) to be a viable means. Using the power of a coercive state to further our agenda is no different than replacing the tyranny of men with our own version of tyranny, even if we view our system as more virtuous, ethical, fair, etc.
That is not to say that libertarian feminists are incapable of acknowledging that centralized government does serve a purpose and can be used for good when needed (although, I will admit that many libertarians are basically just anarchists). We do not agree with the GOP’s “no one needs a government handout, and everyone should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps in order to succeed” argument against government intervention or government-based solutions. We simply recognize that the same government that provides can just as easily take away, so we are hesitant to give government too much power. Not only does power corrupt, but it also changes hands and will not always be in good hands (for example, see Donald Trump).
Therefore, applying libertarianism to feminism aims to point out the negative, unintended consequences of big government while providing alternative, less forceful solutions to women’s issues when possible, such as nonprofits that help poor and disadvantaged women, free health clinics (many of which are admittedly partially government-funded, but not wholly government-run), and personal care accounts that allow women to accumulate paid leave without giving up flexibility in the workplace. It attempts to drive voluntary change within institutions through persuasive means like education, protesting, and boycotting rather than through broad government mandates.
On the other hand, applying feminism to libertarianism has allowed libertarians to incorporate and advocate for women’s rights while maximizing liberty. In a movement that is still male-heavy, libertarian feminists bring under-emphasized topics to the liberty table, such as reproductive freedom—including abortion access, over-the-counter birth control, and looser surrogacy and IVF restrictions—as well as ending state overreach into parenting, decriminalizing and/or legalizing prostitution, and leaving both sexes free to marry whomever they choose.
Libertarian feminism is similar to progressive feminism in that equality for men and women is at its base, but it’s also about liberation: providing women with the freedom and options to make choices as they see fit without limiting choice for others. It is about freeing women from not just the patriarchy, but all forms of oppression, including a forceful—even if well-intentioned—government because we believe that force is force no matter how noble the cause.
Carlin Becker is a graduate of James Madison University and an Associate Content Editor at Rare.