Individualist Feminism: A Voice for Gender Sanity

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feminism, or ifeminism, is currently a subcategory within the broader
feminist movement. This was not always the case. As an organized
and self-conscious movement, American feminism arose during the
1830s from the radical anti-slavery movement known as abolitionism,
which claimed that every human being – black or white – was a self-owner.
That is, every individual had a moral jurisdiction over his own
person. When the abolitionist applied this principle to themselves,
American feminism was born and its ideological foundation was the
rights of the individual. It demanded full equality with men under
just law: no privilege, no oppression.

define ifeminism it is necessary to explore the two traditions that
give the term meaning: individualism and feminism.


individualism and the advocacy of natural law are not synonymous,
the latter has been a dominant theme within ifeminism. Natural law
is an attempt to delineate the duties that are universal to every
human being. As a logical corollary, it also outlines the rights
possessed by everyone – that is, those things that every human being
can rightfully demand of others. Rights and duties are mirror images.
For example, the right of a woman to her own body implies the duty
of all others not to aggress against her.

approach to analyzing "natural law" is to examine each
word in the term.

word "law" is not used in a legal sense. It is not a synonym
for legislation. Rather, "law" refers to a principle or
governing rule, much as one might speak of the law of gravity. The
meaning of the word "natural" is more complicated and
has occasioned great debate. Broadly interpreted, there are two
definitions – a theological and a secular one. The philosopher Henry
B. Veatch explains this distinction:

the one sense [the theological one], natural laws are to be understood
as scarcely u2018natural' at all, in as much as they represent no more
than certain absolute prescriptions and prohibitions, which, so
far from being rationally discoverable by human reason in nature,
are simply decreed by God. In the other sense [the secular one],
natural laws are thought of as being none other than such rules
of intelligent conduct and behavior as any knowledgeable person
ought to be able to see."

the theological version of natural law considers "right"
and "wrong" to be types of fact: it claims that certain
actions are objectively right or wrong.

less rigid interpretation of natural law – the one favored by individualist
feminism – argues that human values should be grounded in or based
upon fact. This approach is an attempt to answer the question, "given
what we know about reality and human nature, is it possible to reason
out universal principles of behavior that maximize human well being?"
Thus, the concepts of right and wrong – or rights and duties – are discovered
by reasoning from facts.

rights and duties are not categories of fact, they are far more
than mere conventions upon which human beings have agreed. Human
values derive directly from reality and human nature. Thus, some
actions can be said to be naturally right or naturally wrong.

modern times, the term "natural rights" is used more often
than "natural law." "Natural rights" usually
refers to the u2018right' principles of interaction that maximize the
human well being in society. Here again, the "rights in society"
are ascertained through observation and reasoning.

draws an analogy to other "arts, skills, and crafts."
He asks:

does the skilled surgeon, for instance, make his incision in one
way rather than another? Don't we say that it is because he knows
how to do his job? There is presumably some reason – a real reason
– for his doing it that way rather than another. In this sense,
we should scarcely say that the rules of good surgical practice
are mere agreed-upon conventions with no natural basis at all."
Why not view the arts and skills of living and society in the same
light? Surely, it would be odd if they were the only human skills
that were arbitrary."

continues, "If the goal is human well-being, then which behaviour
is naturally right or wrong is evaluated on the basis of whether
it contributes or detracts from the prospect of achieving it. Therefore,
a natural right involves behaviours that one u2018ought' or u2018should'
adopt in order to achieve well-being. This is the sense in which
u2018values' or ethics accompany the doctrine of natural law."
This is where "ought" enters the equation.

in order to make any useful statement on human nature, such "oughts"
must be universalizable. That is, they must apply to all human beings.
Yet human nature is incredibly diverse. Thus, it is not possible
to state what people ought to do in any but the broadest of terms.
For example, it is not possible to say that a particular woman (or
man) "ought" to take a very specific action to secure
their well being because the specifics are a matter of circumstance.
It is always possible, however, to make one statement that applies
to every competent adult in each situation: she or he ought to make
her or his own choices.

every ought has a corresponding duty. Thus, if a woman says she
ought to be able to choose, then she must extend the same "ought"
to every other human being. Otherwise, she is claiming a privilege
rather than a right. This ought has been called the "non-initiation
of force" principle. Everyone has a jurisdiction over her or
his own body that no one can rightfully infringe.

a broad and simplistic statement, this is the form of individualism
that underlies ifeminism: all human beings have an equal claim to

Defined by Reference to Feminism

may seem to be contradiction in terms. After all, if every human
being has an equal claim to self-ownership, why separate out one
class of people and deal with their rights separately? Why speak
of women's rights rather than individual rights?

arises when women receive different treatment under the law because
they are women. It arises when women are either oppressed or privileged
based upon their sex. It is analogous to the black rights movement
that emerged, not because blacks have different rights than whites,
but because they have the same rights and these rights had been

19th century America, for example, most married women
did not have a legal claim to their own wages. Instead, the money
belonged to their husbands. Thus, because the law artificially created
married women as a separate category of "wage-earner,"
it became necessary for women to address the inequity. They insisted
that their individual rights receive equal treatment with those
men – indeed, that the law make no reference at all to sex.

form of equality differs from that advocated by mainstream or radical

a general statement, the mainstream of feminism in America has demanded
the equal representation of women in culture and politics, as much
as equal treatment under the law. Equality has often been defined
in terms of proportionality – as equality of outcomes. Moreover, the
mainstream does not express a consistent theory of justice – that
is, it does not answer "what is just law?" – beyond reference
to equality. This lack of definition is epitomized by the fact that,
at various times, the mainstream has advocated voting for women
candidates simply because they were women, with no regard to their
position on issues. Lacking a hard ideological core, mainstream
organizations such as NOW, have been vulnerable to charges of inconsistency.
For example, many feminists championed Anita Hill's claims of sexual
harassment and vilified those of Paula Jones. This is a natural
consequence of having no well-defined theory of what constitutes

same cannot be said of radical feminism which has a strong ideological
core. Justice is defined largely in terms of a socio-economic equality
that must be achieved by according legal privileges to women. Because
women have been and inevitably will be oppressed by patriarchy (white
male culture), they must be empowered through such measures as laws
against verbal sexual harassment. Throughout the 1970s and u201880s,
radical feminist theory filtered through the mainstream movement,
defining the most popular conception of what is meant by the word
"feminist" today.

v. Radical Feminism

true ideological contest within the movement is between ifeminism
and radical feminism. These two schools define the extremes of what
constitutes justice and equality for women. In order to appreciate
the depth of this schism, let us consider in some detail merely
one concept – albeit a key one – upon which the two schools disagree.
Consider the concept of "class."

class is nothing more than an arbitrarily 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-using and
non-drug using people. 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 salient to the definer.

radical feminists, gender is the salient factor that defines classes
into male and female. Many fields of endeavor use biology as a dividing
line. For example, medicine often separates the sexes in order to
apply different medical treatment and techniques. For example, women
are examined for breast cancer and men for prostate problems. But
medicine does not claim that the basic interests of men and women
as human beings conflict or even diverge. The sexes share a basic
biology that requires the same approach of nutrition, exercise and
common sense lifestyle choices. In short, although the biology of
the sexes differ, they share the basic goal of good health which
can be roughly defined and pursued in the same manner.

contrast, radical feminism advocates a theory of basic class conflict
based on gender. It claims that men not only share a biological
identity but also a political and social one. The political interests
of men are in necessary conflict with those of women. The collective
political interests of men are referred to as "patriarchy."
Patriarchy is the systematic and structural oppression of women
in politics and culture, which is supported by capitalism.

concept of class conflict is widely associated with Karl Marx, who
popularized it as a tool to predict the political and social behavior
of individuals. Once the class affiliation of an individual was
known, the behavior became predictable. To Marx, the salient 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 that describes a class in terms of its relationship to
an institution.

feminism has adapted this theory. The prominent advocate Catherine
MacKinnon refers to the analysis as "post-Marxist." By
this, she means that radical feminism embraces many aspects of Marxism
but rejects its insistence that economic status, not gender, is
the salient political factor that determines a class. Thus, radical
feminism incorporates such Marxist/socialist ideas as "surplus
labor" through which one class is said to use the free market
in order to commit economic theft upon another class. An example
of surplus labor in radical feminism would be housework that is
unsalaried. But the element of gender is added. Men wield the free
market and other institutions as a means to control women. The classification
"male" becomes so significant that it predicts and determines
how the individuals within that class will behave. Thus, radical
feminists can level accusations of "rapist" at non-violent
men because they are presumed to be beneficiaries of "the rape
culture" established by patriarchy.

prevent the oppression of women, it is necessary to deconstruct
the institutions through men control women – institutions such as
the free market and the family. The law must act to benefit historically
disadvantaged u2018woman' at the expense of historically oppressive

class analysis makes no sense within the theoretical framework of
ifeminism that declares all human beings to have the same political
interests. Namely, the recognition of self-ownership. This interest
is based on possessing the primary characteristic of "humanity."
No secondary characteristic – e.g. gender, age, ethnicity – can politically
affect the rights and duties of every individual.

individualism has a long tradition of class analysis that does categorize
people according to a salient political factor. That factor is:
does an individual use force to achieve her goals. Does she acquire
"goods" such as wealth or power through merit and productivity?
Or does she use aggression, often in the form of law, to expropriate
wealth and power from others? Expressed in the most basic form,
ifeminism's form of class analysis asks, "are you a member
of the political or productive (economic) class?" Do you use
the political or the economic means to further your interests?

key difference between radical and ifeminist class analysis is that
the latter does not predict the behavior of individuals. Both men
and women can use the political means. An individual can change
her class affiliation at will, abandoning the use of force and adopting
the economic means instead. In short, classes within ifeminist analysis
are fluid. This is not true of radical feminist analysis that is
based on biology.

radical feminism, biology is the factor that fixes an individual
into a class. To ifeminism, the use of force is the salient factor
and an individual can cross class lines at any point. Indeed, the
only way to prevent fluidity is to establish classes by force. That
is, to use laws or other coercive means to cement class advantages
into the fabric of society, thus establishing legally static classes.
To rephrase this, classes become static only when legal barriers
are raised to prevent social, political or economic mobility.

difference in approach to class analysis has many implications.
One of them is that ifeminist class analysis offers no hard and
fast predictive value. Just because an individual has been a member
of the political class in the past says nothing about whether she
will continue to be so in the future. Again, class actions and interests
are predictable only if they are static, only if they are perpetuated
by force – especially the force of law.

fluidity of classes in ifeminist theory has a further implication.
Namely, there is no necessary conflict between the genders. The
fact that men have oppressed women in the past says nothing necessary
about whether they will oppress them in the future. Whether an individual
man is an oppressor or a friend of women depends on whether he uses
the political means, and this is a matter of conscious choice.

concept of "class" is only one of many areas of intellectual
contention between radical and individualist feminism. The two traditions
also define other essential concepts, such as "equality"
and "justice," in different manners. However, my purpose
is simply to render a sense of how deep the ideological division


recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest and scholarship
in ifeminism. Its pro-male, pro-sex and anti-PC stand is providing
gender-sanity in the otherwise shrill world created by "feminism."

8, 2000

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
. See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

McElroy Archives

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