All Commentary
Monday, September 1, 1997

Mises’s Legacy for Feminists

The name of the eminent Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises does not commonly arise in feminist circles, which tend to view the free market as an institution through which men as a class oppress women as a class. If the subject of Mises ever did arise, the political incorrectness of his observations on female nature would be likely to create more, not less, coldness. For example, in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, he wrote, “It may be that a woman is able to choose between renouncing either the most profound womanly joy, the joy of motherhood, or the more masculine development of her personality in action and endeavor. It may be that she has no such choice.”[1]

From these fighting words, Mises moved into political commentary about the feminist movement itself. He argued that if feminism merely sought the economic and legal freedoms that permit women to become self-determining, then feminism was no more than a “branch of the great liberal movement, which advocates peaceful and free evolution.” On the other hand, if feminism sought to alter the “institutions of social life under the impression that it will thus be able to remove the natural barriers,” then feminism “is a spiritual child of Socialism.”[2] After all, one of socialism’s characteristics is its attempt to reform nature and natural laws by reforming social institutions. One illustration of that is the attempt to reform supply and demand through a planned economy.

In some respects, the liberal feminism that arose during the early 1960s—called “second wave feminism”—resembled what Mises described as a branch of classical liberalism. Although the movement embraced a profound bias against capitalism, much of the thrust of liberal feminists was aimed at removing the legal barriers and inequities confronting women. The call for legal equality reached its peak in March 1978 when 100,000 demonstrators marched on Washington, D.C., to express their determined support for the ultimately doomed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Sixties feminists tended to view men as recalcitrant partners who needed to be reminded of their social responsibilities: from recognizing women’s ability in the workplace to sharing the task of parenting at home. But, by current standards, the hostility expressed toward men in the 1960s was muted. In the spirit of acknowledging the presence of male members, the National Organization of Women even changed its name to the National Organization for Women.

Gender Feminism

Meanwhile, in the background, another brand of feminism was hammering out a distinct ideology that Mises would have considered to be wholly “a spiritual child of Socialism.” In her book Who Stole Feminism? Christina Hoff Sommers referred to that ideology as “gender feminism” because, on the basis of gender, it considers men and women to be separate and necessarily antagonistic classes. Gender feminists conclude that all the ills afflicting women—from date rape to the wage gap—flow from the male system of total dominance, called patriarchy, which is expressed partly through capitalism. The pioneering gender theorist Adrienne Rich defined patriarchy in her book Of Woman Born as “the power of the fathers,” that is, the “social, ideological, political system” through which men control women “by force, direct pressure or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labour.”[3]

Regarding the emotional impact of patriarchy, Andrea Dworkin wrote in Our Blood, “Under patriarchy, every woman is a victim, past, present, and future. Under patriarchy, every woman’s daughter is a victim, past, present, and future. Under patriarchy, every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman.”[4] Men were no longer merely recalcitrant partners. Gender feminists redefined the opposite sex into a distinct political class whose interests were inherently antagonistic to women. In the theory that followed, Dworkin pronounced all men to be rapists. Kate Millett called for the end of the family unit. Catharine MacKinnon declared marriage, rape, and prostitution to be indistinguishable from each other.

Viewed through the political lens of gender feminism, maleness ceased to be a biological trait and became a cultural or ideological one. In Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, MacKinnon insisted, “Male is a social and political concept, not a biological attribute.”[5] In Our Blood, Dworkin agreed, “In order to stop . . . systematic abuses against us, we must destroy these very definitions of masculinity and femininity, of men and women.”[6] Maleness could not be reformed. It needed to be eliminated.

With the death of the ERA and the consequent disillusionment of liberal feminists, the ideology of gender feminism came to the forefront and began to exert a defining influence on many issues. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to state that much of current mainstream feminism is based upon gender feminism’s version of class analysis. It is on this point of theory that Mises provides penetrating insights on modern feminism.

Class Analysis and Caste Analysis

A class is nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of entities that share common characteristics as determined from a certain epistemological point of view. In short, what constitutes a class is defined by the purposes of the definer. For example, a researcher studying drug addiction may break society into classes of drug users and nonusers. Perhaps he will further establish subclasses within drug users based on the particular substance used, the frequency of use, or some other factor salient to the researcher’s purposes. Classes can be defined by almost any factor considered salient to the definer, such as income level, hair color, age, nationality, sexual habits, and so on.

But, for gender feminists, class analysis is more than a mere epistemological tool. It is converted into an ideological tool. That is, members of the class “male” do not merely share an identity based on certain physical characteristics, they also share specific political and social interests based on that identity. The foremost interest is to keep women, as a class, under their control. Thus, the concept of gender as a class becomes so significant that it is a causative factor: it predicts and determines how the members of the class will behave.

Class analysis is widely associated with Karl Marx, who popularized it as a political approach to predicting interests and behavior. For Marx, the salient political feature defining a person’s class was his relationship to the means of production: was he a capitalist or a worker? This is a form of relational class analysis, which describes a class by its relationship to an institution, in this case the capitalist system.

But the concept of class has a deep history within individualist thought, which predates Marxism. In America, for example, the Jeffersonian John Taylor of Caroline argued that his contemporaries who were involved in banking schemes constituted a “paper aristocracy”—a special class within society that benefited at the expense of others. Franz Oppenheimer’s key distinction between those who use the political means to achieve their goals and those who use the economic means was disseminated through Albert Jay Nock, and it still forms the current conception of class analysis within individualist thought. The class is described in terms of its relationship to the institution of state power: Namely, is any given individual one of the rulers or one of the ruled? Does he use the political means or become its victim?

Twentieth-century American society poses a problem for Marxist analysis, which believes in fixed class interests—the inherent hostility between workers and capitalists. American society is almost defined by the fluidity of its class structure and interests. People frequently reclassify themselves from worker to capitalist, from lower to upper class. Past cultures, such as pre-revolutionary France, drew clear legal lines between the classes and recognized different rights for each of them. Even in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America—sometimes touted as a “classless society”—categories of people were denied such legal privileges as voting. As the law became universally applied, class barriers fell.

The fluidity of modern American society poses no theoretical problem for Mises’s concept of class. To Mises, class was a matter of shared identity, not of shared interests. Thus, the “working class” may share certain objective economic realities, but this does not determine or predict the subjective values and interests of its members. Indeed, in a free market with legal equality, he expected to see a constant shift in the class structure. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, after defining the “three progressive classes” of society as “those saving, those investing the capital goods, and those elaborating new methods for the employment of capital goods,” Mises explained: “Everybody is free to join the ranks of the three progressive classes of a capitalist society. These classes are not closed castes. Membership in them is not a privilege conferred on the individual by a higher authority or inherited from one’s ancestors. These classes are not clubs, and the ins have no power to keep out any newcomer.”[7]

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.”[8] In essence, castes are legislated classes that create a static society.

In The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth, Mises defined a status society as one “constituted not of citizens with equal rights, but divided into ranks vested with different duties and prerogatives.”[9] It was under a caste system, not a class one, that necessary conflicts arose between legal categories of people who were accorded different privileges and disabilities. Thus, the phrase “class warfare” is a mistaken one: it should be “caste warfare.”

Moreover, so-called “class warfare” contains further confusion. For example, the phrase usually assumes that there is an identity of interests among the members of the separate classes. Yet as Mises explained, a common identity does not necessarily mean common interests since individual members of a class will tend to give their own individual interests priority. Ironically, this may well lead to competition among “class” members, rather than commonality. Mises wrote: “Precisely because ‘class comrades’ are all in the same ‘social situation,’ there is no identity of interests among them, but rather competition. The worker, for example, who is employed under better-than-average conditions has an interest in excluding competitors who could reduce his income to the average level. . . . What has been done by the labor parties in this regard in every country during the last few years is well known.”[10] Mises raised fundamental questions regarding the concepts of “class interest” and “class warfare.” Do shared interests even exist apart from the sum of the individual self-interests of each member? If objective shared interests do exist, do they take priority over the subjective value judgments of each member? If they do not have priority, what value do “class interests” have in allowing us to predict the behavior of a group? Let us consider these questions with specific application to gender feminist ideology.

Class Conflict Within Gender Feminism

According to this ideology, gender is the politically salient factor that defines a class—what Mises would call a caste—in terms of its relationship to the institution of patriarchy. Men share not only an identity but also political and social interests, which are in necessary conflict with the identity and interests of women. The identity of the class may be based on physical characteristics, but the interests of the class are ideological. Consider the paragraph on rape that closes Susan Brownmiller’s introduction to Against Our Will: “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire. . . . It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”[11]

Here a shared identity based on a shared manhood leads all men to a shared interest in using rape to intimidate all women. Mises would argue that the only valid step in the foregoing ladder of logic is that men, as a class, share a common anatomy. He would staunchly dispute that all members of the male class would evaluate that characteristic identically or use it in a collective, rather than an individualistic, manner. Indeed, the fact that men compete for women would undoubtedly lead to many sexual approaches, including protection and familial affection. Mises questioned the very basis of class-conflict theory, which rests upon the assumption that what benefits one class must injure another. As he pointed out, “the scientific significance of a concept arises out of its function in the theories to which it belongs; outside the context of these theories it is no more than an intellectual plaything.”[12]

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.

Gender feminism is based on different theory: 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.

An Individualist Feminist with Doubts About Class Theory

The form of feminism that draws most heavily upon classical liberalism is undoubtedly individualist feminism, which traces its roots as an organized force to the abolitionist movement in America. As such a feminist, I question the value of the concept of class itself within the intellectual framework of individualism. One reason is the substantive tension that seems to exist between the concept of class and other theories within classical liberal thought.

Consider subjective value theory as painted by Austrian economists, who argue that it is not possible—even on an individual level—to predict how anyone will value a certain object or opportunity, or what anyone will perceive to be in his own self-interest. Only in retrospect, by examining how the individual acted on his choices, can you judge what that person’s perceived interests were. That is what is meant by the phrase “demonstrated preference.” Even then, having analyzed a person’s former demonstrated preferences, it is not possible to predict how he will perceive his interests in the future.

Subjective value theory seems to argue against there being a predetermined interest of any sort, especially of the sort so divorced from subjective individual evaluation as that of an objective class interest. In short, two people who share identical class characteristics, for example, retiring factory workers at Ford, may have extremely different perceptions of self-interest and, so, manifest entirely different behavior.

This reservation about class theory hearkens back to a question raised by Mises’s commentary: Does it even make sense to talk about class interests existing apart from the self-interest of the individual members of that class? Does it even make sense—on anything other than an epistemological or cognitive level—to deal with a class as though it were an empirical entity apart from its members?

Yet, despite such reservations, the concept of class obviously has value in approaching ideas and understanding certain aspects of social interaction. The “working class,” for example, does describe a particular economic situation and distinguish it from others. The question becomes: does identifying the members of a class provide any information about the interests of that class as a whole?

In at least one sense, it clearly could. Marxist and gender-feminist theory claim that because you belong to a certain class you share certain interests that predict future behavior. But it is possible to argue the inverse. That is, because a group has demonstrated similar preferences or behavior, they belong to the same class. But a class membership that depends entirely on past behavior may well have little predictive value for the future.

For example, consider the ruling class, which uses the political means. According to their demonstrated preferences, they may seem to share an interest in, for example, protecting domestic industry through tariffs. Moreover, they may also share loose ties to state institutions that protect and enforce those interests, just as strangers who use the economic means share ties to the institution of the free market. In that sense, the class interests of the ruling class may be said to be institutionalized.

Yet with an apparently strong structure of class interest, we cannot predict the future preferences that individual members of the ruling class will demonstrate. History is replete with people who act against their predicted class interests. Human beings routinely act out of conscience, obedience, religious conviction, passion, whim, drunkenness—the list of the causative factors that can determine behavior seems endless.

Perhaps the most valuable function of class analysis within the framework of individualist thought is as a methodological tool to understand history rather than to predict the future. For example, a researcher might observe that a particular person was both an antebellum slave owner and a voting member of society. His class—or, in this case, caste—affiliation might provide insight into his voting pattern. Yet, even here, a cause-and-effect relationship cannot be drawn between his caste affiliation and his behavior since other factors, such as a sincere religious conviction, might have been causative.

In short, the individualist tradition, within which individualist feminism is lodged, seems to allow limited scope for the concept of class analysis. The scope is so limited, in fact, that the concept of class may be stripped of its predictive and causative value. For some, this may mean losing a powerful tool of analysis. On the bright side, however, this means there is no necessary conflict between the sexes. The fact that men share certain physical characteristics says nothing about their individually perceived self-interests, or about how they will act in the future. Even if it could be demonstrated that men and women—as classes—have tended to clash historically, this says nothing about whether we must remain enemies in the future.


  1. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), p. 100.
  2. Ibid., p. 101.
  3. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1977), p. 57.
  4. Andrea Dworkin, Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 20.
  5. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1987), p. 114.
  6. Dworkin, p. 48.
  7. Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1956), p. 40.
  8. Mises, Socialism, p. 332.
  9. Ludwig von Mises, The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth: An Exposition of the Ideas of Classical Liberalism (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1962), p. 158.
  10. Ibid., p. 164.
  11. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), p. 5. Emphasis in the original.
  12. Mises, Socialism, p. 329.

  • 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.