Feminism is often considered a single homogenous ideology to either endorse or oppose. However, from the beginning, the movement has had two sides.
As libertarian and feminist scholar Wendy McElroy wrote in her 1998 Freeman article “Individualist Feminism: The Lost Tradition,” in the nineteenth century:
“The two basic traditions of feminism that fundamentally questioned the political system were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws, and individualist feminism, which is sometimes called libertarian feminism.”
In another Freeman article published in 1997, McElroy adopted Christina Hoff Summer’s term for contemporary radical feminism: “gender feminism.”
Thus the two sides of the movement could be called individualist feminism and collectivist feminism, with the latter encompassing both “socialist feminism” and its successor, today’s “gender feminism.”
The Meaning of Equality
One of the chief differences between individualist feminism and collectivist feminism is what each tradition means by “equality.” As McElroy wrote:
“The differing ideologies of the two traditions were reflected in divergent approaches to equality. To socialist feminists, ‘equality’ was a socio-economic term. Women could be equal only after private property and the economic relationships it encouraged—that is, capitalism—were eliminated.”
Socialist feminism seeks “equality of outcome” between men and women. It regards any inequality of outcome as necessarily a result of a deeper inequality: a discrepancy in power maintained by private-property capitalism and its allied institutions like the family. This power dynamic became known as “the patriarchy.”
Individualist feminism also recognized power discrepancies, but it did not blame private property for these: quite the opposite. The problem was that the rights—including the private property rights—of women had not been respected and protected enough. As McElroy wrote:
“Individualist feminists approached equality in a more strictly legal manner, appealing to natural-law theory. They wished the individual rights of women to be fully acknowledged under laws that protected the person and private property of men and women identically. A term they favored was “self-ownership,” which referred to the moral jurisdiction every human being has over his or her own body and over the products of his or her own labor.”
Thus, individualist feminism seeks “equality” between men and women in the sense of equal rights and equality under the law. It achieves this by abolishing the special legal disabilities imposed on women and the special legal privileges (especially those over women) granted to men.
That was also the kind of “equality” sought and “oppression” fought by the classical liberal movement when it abolished other special legal disabilities (like those imposed on serfs and slaves) and special legal privileges (like those granted to feudal nobles and slave-holders).
Indeed, individualist feminism can be considered to be simply classical liberalism as applied to the rights of women. As Ludwig von Mises wrote:
“So far as Feminism seeks to adjust the legal position of woman to that of man, so far as it seeks to offer her legal and economic freedom to develop and act in accordance with her inclinations, desires, and economic circumstances — so far it is nothing more than a branch of the great liberal movement, which advocates peaceful and free evolution.”
Castes and Conflict
That classical liberal movement revolutionized the West in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The old order it overthrew was a “caste” system, according to Mises. As McElroy, in her 1997 Freeman essay “Mises's Legacy for Feminists,” explained:
“Mises called static classes that labor under legal disabilities ‘castes.’ Castes are created when legal barriers are raised to cement people into a class and prevent social mobility. In Socialism, he expanded what he meant by castes, or ‘estate-members’: ‘Estates were legal institutions, not economically determined facts. Every man was born into an estate and generally remained in it until he died. . . . One was master or serf, freeman or slave, lord of the land or tied to it, patrician or plebeian, not because one occupied a certain position in economic life, but because one belonged to a certain estate.’ In essence, castes are legislated classes that create a static society.”
Thus the legal disabilities imposed on women turned the sexes into “castes,” and this created a conflict of interests between men and women.
As Mises wrote in his essay “The Clash of Group Interests”:
“Thus there prevails a solidarity of interests among all caste members and a conflict of interests among the various castes. Each privileged caste aims at the attainment of new privileges and at the preservation of the old ones. Each underprivileged caste aims at the abolition of its disqualifications. Within a caste society there is an irreconcilable antagonism between the interests of the various castes.”
The classical liberal revolution abolished most caste distinctions and thus promoted the harmony of interests that emerges naturally in a free society. The individualist feminist abolition of caste distinctions between men and women was a major part of that glorious project.
Class War and Gender Conflict
But socialists, and especially the Marxists, helped derail that project by confusing the meaning of “oppression.” Marxist class war theory saw an insoluble conflict of interests between the “inherently oppressive” capitalist class and the “inherently oppressed” proletariat class, even when those classes were not made into castes by legal privileges and disabilities.
As McElroy explained, classical liberal philosophy, as informed by sound economics, debunks this dogma:
“Mises’s theory of how society functions is based on classical liberal thought, which considers cooperation to occur only when both sides benefit from the exchange. Indeed, the very perception of benefit is what impels each side to act. Even the infamous hostility between workers and capitalists dissolves in a situation of equal individual rights because each group has no ability to coerce cooperation from the other. Only when force is introduced into the exchange do group conflicts necessarily arise.”
Like Marxism, gender feminism sees inherent conflict and oppression, not between castes, but between classes: specifically between men and women. “Gender feminists, McElroy wrote, “redefined the opposite sex into a distinct political class whose interests were inherently antagonistic to women.” Thus modern gender feminism owes more to Marxism and socialist feminism than it does to classical liberalism and individualist feminism, as McElroy elaborated:
“Gender feminism is based on different theory: [Catharine] MacKinnon has referred to the ideology as ‘post-Marxist,’ meaning that it adopts many aspects of Marxism but rejects its insistence that economic status, rather than gender, is the salient political factor determining a class. Thus, gender feminism incorporates such socialist ideas as ‘surplus labor,’ by which human cooperation is viewed as the process of one group taking benefits from another group. To rectify the class inequity it is necessary to do precisely what the free market forswears—to forcibly intervene in order to assure a ‘socially just’ outcome. The law must act to benefit one class at the expense of the perceived self-interest of another class. Specifically, the law must act to benefit women, who have been historically disadvantaged, at the expense of men, who have been the oppressors. In Misesian terms, women cease to be a class with shared identity based on characteristics and become a caste—a group with shared political and social interests that are legally protected. This form of intervention is epitomized by such measures as affirmative action and comparable worth.”
Whereas individualist feminism seeks equal rights by abolishing legal privileges for men and legal disabilities for women, collectivist gender feminism seeks “equality of outcome” (or “equity”) through state intervention, thereby creating new legal privileges for women and new legal disabilities imposed upon men. This has created new castes and new caste conflicts: a state-fomented battle of the sexes. The misogynistic side of today’s “manosophere” is part of that clash.
We can end the gender war if we reject collectivism—both collectivist feminism and collectivist misogyny—and restore the grand but largely forgotten tradition of individualist feminism that did so much to liberate women and civilize men. With women and men, as with all human relations, collectivism and statism foster hate and conflict, while individualism and liberty breed love and harmony.