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Monday, December 10, 2012

Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History

Ladies for Liberty is a book on a mission. In it, author and economist John Blundell seeks to combat “the myth that women want, and benefit from, big government” and, instead, pays homage to the “millions of American women” who recognize the “serious costs” associated with an intrusive State. Blundell does so by presenting twenty-two exquisitely drawn portraits of American women who fought for their autonomy against any cultural or political forces that dared try and take it. (An excerpt describing the work of the abolitionist Grimké sisters was published in the June 2012 Freeman.)

Beginning with the American Revolution, Blundell moves quickly through to our current time with a well-balanced assortment of writers, businesswomen, philanthropists, and political activists. Many are neither libertarian nor classical liberal figures, but all expanded freedom in various ways: combatting slavery, securing the vote, fighting against oppressive government, and demanding the right to be an entrepreneur. For example, Madam C. J. Walker rose from being the first free-born child of ex-slaves to become a businesswoman and philanthropist whom a Louisiana newspaper labeled the “World's Richest Negress.” Blundell writes, “When she became a millionaire shortly before World War I, she was the first woman ever to reach such a milestone on her own initiative and without inheritance or the use of force, according to The Guinness Book of Records.” 

What makes the book so readable is Blundell's deftness at making the personalities come alive, complete with intellectual and historical context. Part of the vividness of the vignettes comes from Blundell's evident respect for ideas; his book Waging the War of Ideas (2007) presents concepts as living things that ebb and flow through the people who create history. Part of it comes from his respect for and understanding of women, which is clear in the nuanced portrayals; his book Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady (2008) is widely viewed as the definitive biography of the former prime minister. Ladies for Liberty brings both together in an engaging, informative read.

Each portrait reads like a short story. The openings are compelling. The chapter on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, opens with her brother's death and her father's grief-stricken utterance, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” Stanton assured him, “I will try to be all my brother was.” In short, Blundell introduces us to Stanton through a character-defining moment in her life. 

Blundell’s closes nicely wrap up the significance of each woman's life. The chapter on Sojourner Truth ends, “Sojourner was a giant, physically, mentally and as an orator. She worked as hard for the freedom of her people as was humanly possible to do. She had an astonishing purpose and an unshakeable core belief in liberty. That slavery ended is in part thanks to Sojourner Truth.”

In between, the women's stories are woven into a broad backdrop of historical and intellectual influences. Precisely enough background is presented to inform the portrait without interrupting it. Delightful and obscure details do make the reader pause, however. Regarding Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Blundell notes, “It came out on March 20, 1852, as a book of more than 500 pages and would be the best-selling novel of its time. Overall, only The Bible sold more copies in the nineteenth century.”  

It is in his selection of women that Blundell and I somewhat part company. Blundell himself states one of my reservations when he writes, “Critics argue that Abigail Adams was simply the great woman behind a great man or that . . . her achievements were the result of an accident of birth and/or marriage and therefore she does not deserve a place in the same pantheon as those women who fought alone for liberty.” I do not dismiss Adams, but I think other women have a better claim on being one of Blundell's Ladies. In the final analysis, however, I may be saying simply that I would have written a different book, which can be said of almost every book.  

Ladies for Liberty is a splendid introduction to the contributions of American women to freedom. It is also a benevolent and charming read that reflects Blundell's candid admission that the portraits are “unabashed and uncritical (mostly).” His Ladies deserve nothing less.

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In order of presentation, the book features Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher.


  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.