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The Libertarian Roots of Feminism

The fact is feminism is a libertarian movement.

Image Credit: Mary Wollstonecraft

Feminism, originally, is a libertarian movement, or at least it did not propose solutions based on the State: libertarian feminism is part of an individualist tradition, as can be seen in American history.

Many people assume that early feminist activists and advocates were socialists and interventionists, but the reality is quite different. Those women were not asking for funds from all citizens to be used to defend the cause; rather they were asking for equality in the eyes of the law, and they did so by confronting the State.

The first of these, in the mid-18th century, were Mary Wollstonecraft in England and Judith Sargent Murray in the United States. Both focused on educational equality. Both inspired other individualist feminists throughout the US such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell and Matilda Gage. These women fought for egalitarian education, for the right to suffrage, and they were also abolitionists.

The American author David Boaz in an article entitled “The Rights of Women” refers to the fact that “a libertarian must necessarily be a feminist, in the sense of being an advocate for equality before the law.” This is absolutely correct.

For most of our history women were first owned by their fathers and then became the property of their husbands under marriages, most often arranged by the families without the woman’s consent or will.

Historically, women have even been forced to wear chastity belts or to undergo genital mutilations, practices that were used for centuries by different groups, communities, and tribes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (female mutilation remains in practice today in more than 30 African countries, and also in Indonesia, Iraq, India, Pakistan, and Yemen). Let us not forget, either, what the famous “witch hunts” have historically represented, bearing in mind that the last documented execution of a woman accused of witchcraft took place in 1727.

No system has favored women more than capitalism. It has been the capitalist system based on individual freedom that has allowed their incorporation into the workplace.

In the 15th century two clergymen published the Malleus Maleficarum, where it was argued that witches lived among us and most women were described as liars and associated with diabolical figures according to the beliefs of the time. According to that book, any witch who was ”discovered” had to be executed. Malleus Maleficarum became a manual applied in a large part of the European courts. In the two centuries following its publication, French and German witch hunters killed between 60,000 and 100,000 women accused of witchcraft.

In addition to these horrendous persecutions, women throughout history have also had no access to education, to vote, to work outside the home, or to own property. The struggle for women’s suffrage was also, in its early days, a libertarian cause.

New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote in 1893. Most other countries did so throughout the 20th century: the United States in 1920, the United Kingdom in 1923, Spain in 1931, France in 1944, Switzerland in 1971, Saudi Arabia only in 2011 and so on.

The fact is that feminism is a libertarian movement: the feminism of the origins, the feminism that has pursued a historical struggle for the only existing equality, which is equality in the eyes of the law. Feminism is not the destruction of public space, nor is it violence. Indeed, it is a historical fight in search of equality in front of the law and the promotion of merit rather than privileges, quotas, or government interventions.

In addition, no system has favored women more than capitalism. It has been the capitalist system based on individual freedom that has allowed their incorporation into the workplace, that has freed women from the obligation of having to endure anything for fear of being repudiated, and of living in monetary chains to the father and then to the husband.

Feminism is two hundred years old. Since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her manifesto in the 1790s, two hundred years have already gone by. There have been many phases. One can criticize the present phase without necessarily criticizing feminism, as author Camille Paglia says.

As F.A. Hayek once taught us, the struggle for equality and against discrimination based on social origin, nationality, race, creed, sex, and so on, remains one of the most important characteristics of the classical liberal tradition.

Mary Wollstonecraft—daughter of the Enlightenment, wife of William Godwin and mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (the renowned author of Frankenstein)—expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) one of the first feminist treatises, that women “were treated as a kind of subordinate being and not as part of the human species.” In that text, Wollstonecraft demanded that women should be able to receive education, instead of being mere objects for men’s entertainment.

By the following century, in 1848 in New York at the Seneca Falls Convention, activists in favor of abolitionism and women’s liberties such as Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott called for women’s rights to be respected.

In this way, feminism has been a battle to achieve freedoms that for a long time were denied to women and that are still denied in many countries of the world. This is why libertarianism is absolutely compatible with feminism.

As Friedrich Hayek once taught us, the struggle for formal equality and against all discrimination based on social origin, nationality, race, creed, sex, and so on, remains one of the most important characteristics of the classical liberal tradition.


  • Antonella Marty is the Associate Director of the Center for Latin America at the Atlas Network. She is the Director of the Center for American Studies at Fundación Libertad (Argentina) and Senior Fellow at Fundación Internacional para la Libertad (Spain), a think tank led by Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

    She is the host of the podcast Hablemos Libertad on Spotify and the author of numerous books, most recently “The Libertarian Handbook” (2021).