Pro-Choice beyond Abortion: The Case for Libertarian Feminism
Pro-choice” didn’t enter the popular political lexicon until 1974, after the Roe v. Wade ruling with which most Americans associate the term. And while feminists have proudly adopted it, “Pro-Choice” more accurately describes the libertarian philosophy than any other. The mantra of “my body, my choice,” should not be limited to abortion, or to reproductive rights generally, but instead extended to every aspect of personal and economic life. Where our choices do not do harm to others, we must be free to choose for ourselves. Feminism, in the model of individual autonomy from social control, is a libertarian principle.
“Violence Recognizes Only the Male”
The State’s distinguishing characteristic is its presumption of control over individuals’ choices, and its use of force to execute that control (Rothbard, FEE). Like statism, patriarchy recognizes violence as the principal tool of power, and tramples the rights of those assumed to lack power. Leading libertarian thinker Ludwig von Mises wrote, “The principle of violence recognizes only the male. He alone possesses power, hence he alone has rights. Woman is merely a sexual object. No woman is without a lord, be it father or guardian, husband or employer.” Under patriarchy, individual liberty belongs exclusively to men, who in turn may rule over women as the state rules over the individual.
State power has historically been used with particular ferocity to police women, whose individualism and freedom are portrayed as a threat to the family, and to the stability of society. Women who sought individuality were met with gendered propaganda portraying them as harpies or as whores. It is still fewer than 100 years since the 19th Amendment granted women a voice in their own governance (extending to half the population the promises of equal protection and representation) and just over a century since all states recognized a woman as an economic individual, capable of owning property, inheriting, and entering contracts without the consent of her husband or father.
The State Against Women
While suffrage and economic autonomy have been won, at great cost, the struggle is far from over. The modern megastate presumes to dictate who should have access to our bodies and why (for example, by denying access to medical interventions, or implicit and explicit exceptions to rape laws and their enforcement). Via family law, tax breaks, and welfare programs, the State sanctions particular family structures and penalizes others, perpetuating women’s subordinate roles. Heteronormative marriage is still seen as the default and “best” framework in which to raise children, and is heavily incentivized under the guise of “strong families,” despite a complete lack of evidence that other family structures, including female-headed households, disadvantage children. The state’s perverse understanding of sexual consent, preference for heterosexuality and sexual monogamy, and irrational emphasis on female chastity, stem from the state’s desire to control inheritance and to prevent non-marital children from relying on public assistance. The conflation of the sexual with the reproductive served a social purpose in the absence of birth control and paternity testing, but must be re-evaluated if women – and men, too – are to be liberated from outdated assumptions about their roles and relationships.
Despite the surge in millennials identifying as libertarians, the gender ratios are largely unchanged: male libertarians still outnumber female libertarians two-to-one, according to research by Cato-affiliated pollster Emily Ekins. The relative unpopularity of libertarianism among women is surprising, given the historically significant role of statist interference in issues specific to women and women’s bodies. This is not a failure of philosophy, but instead a failure of education, a poverty of public intellectuals in our movement who can articulate our message to those who gain most from it.
Libertarian feminism is a form of individualism, not elevating women to a special or protected status in the manner of modern identity politics, but an acknowledgement of women’s full personhood, with recognition of the compounded burdens on her freedom imposed by the rule of the state over the individual AND men’s’ presumed authority over women. Elizabeth Nolan Brown imagines libertarian feminism as “a third way between patriarchy-preserving social conservatism and the intolerant, illiberal feminists sometimes referred to as ‘social justice warriors.’”
Patriarchy and statism are deeply intertwined in their ravenous desire for social control, and support one another in their denial of women’s individual autonomy. The effect of both has been to limit choices – of occupation, of social roles, of family structure, of reproductive options – for men and women alike. Libertarians and feminists are naturally allied in their struggle against illegitimate authority, and for the autonomy of the individual. We are fundamentally and quintessentially “pro-choice,” whatever the individual’s choice may be.