Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand



The Randian-Feminism Mailing List is a forum for Objectivist and Randian Feminists -- people who share a common interest in Feminist philosophy, issues and perspectives, and in Ayn Rand's ideas and philosophy.  Thomas Gramstad created the list on January 14, 1998. 

May 3, 1999  (Thomas Gramstad)

Was Ayn Rand a Feminist?  -  Nathaniel Branden

Ayn Rand and the Concept of Feminism: A Reclamation  -  Joan Kennedy Taylor 

     Chris Sciabarra introduced the discussion of Nathaniel Branden's and Joan Kennedy Taylor's essay (Date: Mon 3 May
1999 06:15:20), both included in Part Three of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:  Toward a Randian Feminism?:
The first essay, by Nathaniel Branden, "Was Ayn Rand a Feminist?" considers the issue from the
vantage point of Branden's personal association with Rand.  I would like to invite Nathaniel to say
a few words about this essay.
Moreover, I'd like us to consider at least one major point from this essay: Branden's discussion of
the line from Atlas Shrugged that "the most feminine of all aspects [was] the look of being
chained..."  Is this a metaphor, as Branden says, or is it to be taken more literally as an expression
of Rand's view of women?  Keep in mind too that we will have the occasion to compare Branden's
analysis of this line to that of Karen Michalson's, when we discuss Karen's essay in a few weeks.
The second essay, by Joan Kennedy Taylor, "Ayn Rand and the Concept of Feminism:  A
Reclamation," considers the validity of the very concept of feminism.  I'd like to invite Joan to say
a few words about this essay (and she is currently out of town... so she will contribute to this
discussion in the latter part of the week).
I'd also like us to consider the respective arguments offered by Joan -- and David Kelley -- on the
validity of the concept.  After all, if the concept is invalid, as some Objectivists claim, the whole
premise of this volume is brought into question.
This last issue is of immense interest to me:  When Mimi and I invited Michael Berliner and
Leonard Peikoff to contribute an essay to our volume, as we explain in our introduction, neither of
them would even consider contributing unless the book were renamed:  "Objectivism vs.
Feminism."  In a recent interview in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, Berliner said
that our volume would make Rand "turn over in her grave."  Kelley's view is not that of Berliner's,
but Kelley does represent, at least in some respects, the traditional Objectivist approach to the
concept of feminism, and it is extremely important to engage on these grounds alone.
In light of Branden's and Taylor's contributions, then, we must ultimately decide not only if
Objectivism is compatible with Feminism, but whether any kind of synthesis--a "Randian
Feminism"--is possible.  And if it is not possible, then the very purpose of this list is brought into
question.  In other words, folks, we are really starting to get to the bottom line here: a question of
Looking forward to the discussion.
     Nathaniel Branden commented (Date: 03-May-1999 13:10:12):
In its original meaning, "feminism" meant the doctrine that men and woman are morally,
intellectually, and spiritually equal and should enjoy full equality of rights before the law--such as
the right to vote or to own property in one's own name.  Whether she liked the term "feminism" or
not--and she didn't--surely it is clear that Ayn Rand was a feminist by this definition.
As to the subsequent corruptions of the idea of feminism, discussed in my essay, that is another
story entirely.  Many people are put off by the line about femininity and "being chained," in regard
to Dagny at the Rearden wedding anniversary party.  I know, to my certain knowledge, that this
idea, as a metaphor, was a "turn on" to Ayn Rand and, as was her want, she universalized this
preference so that it became something all (true) women would feel.  I suggest that we be generous
and see this scene as an expression of Ayn Rand the artist--and Ayn Rand the woman--not Ayn
Rand the philosopher. 
It has been suggested by some that AR was a masochist, or had inclinations in that direction.  The
truth is AR had almost no understanding of what masochism really meant, and her own notion was
highly glamorized and abstract--which is what permitted her to say somewhere that all women are
masochists.  In real life, AR was as far from being a masochist as anyone could imagine, I assure
you.  But the idea--as pure fantasy--had a certain appeal for her, and that unsurprisingly crept into
her fiction.  Again, I suggest we put this down to personal idiosyncracy and not official philosophy.
Regarding the rape scene, we need to remember, first of all, that Rand has described that famous
scene as "rape by engraved invitation," and made clear that she regarded literal rape as despicable. 
Second, we need to remember that The Fountainhead was written nearly 60 years ago, when
there was not the general "rape consciousness" we have today.  We need to hold the historical
context.  I doubt that she would write such a scene were she alive today.
I think it is highly unfortunate that certain Objecivists are so opposed to the very term "feminism"
that they cannot see the value of looking at Rand's work through the lens of various feminist
perspectives.  Even though there is plenty in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand that I cannot
agree with, I nonetheless see the book as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of AR's
work--and of AR the person.  And as to some of AR's excesses, I hope I will not be misunderstood
if I say that not only do we need good will in assessing their significance but we also need a sense
of humor.  (I know that humor is anathema to some Objectivists, but there you are, what can I
Have a good time, everyone.
     Bryan Register commented (Date: Thu, 6 May 1999 23:06:03):
I found elements of Dr. Branden's paper very illuminating with regard to Rand's view of sex.
Specifically, the conversation reproduced on p. 228 really helps to make sense of Rand's attitudes.
Let me discuss some features of this.
Rand says, "I see man as superior to woman... man is bigger, stronger, faster - better able to cope
with nature." Branden responds, "You mean at a purely physical level?" Rand replies, "The
physical is not unimportant."
Rand is saying here that men's superiority to women is a matter of their physical strength, as
distinct from something like superior intelligence or creativity. I think that this goes along with the
Aristotelian points I made in a post a couple of weeks ago. For Aristotle, man is superior to woman
because he fully expresses the human form; he is capable of abstract reasoning in a way that
woman is not. But additionally, Aristotle has vestiges of the mind-body dichotomy. The mind, for
Aristotle, is the only feature of the soul (life-principle) which does not have a bodily organ. 
Moreover, the great truths which purely abstract studies like metaphysics, mathematics, astronomy
and so forth discover are typically not applicable to matters of practical living. The mind's highest
functions are no longer biological, they are divine. (It's because women don't perform these
functions that they are inferior.)
Of course, Rand knew better. Seeing the concrete efficacy (in the Industrial Revolution) of the
scientific endeavour, and holding to a kind of quasi-Hegelian view of the importance of philosophy
in history, Rand maintained that the mind was at the center of human life. Mind is a biological
function, teleologically necessary for human survival and flourishing.
But Rand seems to have maintained the Aristotelian view that man is superior, with the twist that
what he is better at is 'coping with nature', rather than better at coping with the divine. Moreover,
seeing that women (e.g. herself) are by no means the intellectual inferior of men, she reversed the
Aristotelian duality and determined that woman is inferior not because of mental inferiority but
because of physical inferiority.
We would like to believe that Rand is simply reifying her own sexual psychology, and she probably
was. However, she almost certainly at least believed that she had philosophical backing, because
when Branden (tepidly) agreed with her pronouncements but said that "I wouldn't try to defend my
position philosophically", Rand "said brightly" that "I would." Unfortunately, we don't possess her
defense (unless it's in the part of the *Journals* that I haven't gotten to or I missed it somehow).
But, knowing as we do that Rand was heavily influenced by Aristotle and that her view in this case
is very close to his, it seems to me that the first hypothesis should be that Rand's view is a
transmutation of Aristotle's own.
But, to continue, Branden calls our attention to a passage from Atlas, also interesting in this
light. Here it is, with a little context:
She felt him trembling and she thought that this was the kind of cry she had wanted to tear from
him - this surrender through the shreds of his tortured resistance. Yet she knew, at the same time,
that the triumph was his, that her laughter was a tribute to him, that her defiance was to make his
victory the greater - he was holding her body against his, as if stressing his wish to let her know
that she was now only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire - and his victory, she knew, was her
wish to let him reduce her to that. (HB 251)
I think that this passage is difficult because it intertwines Rand's sexual views with the development
of Rearden's character through the novel. 
Rearden's 'tortured resistance' has to do, I think, with his breaking free of his exploitative marriage
and his realization that he does not owe his wife anything, just as much as it may have to do with
his masculinity as such. But let's attend closely.
Dagny has forced Rearden to this position. Moreover, since Dagny is not an altruist, we can
assume that she didn't do it just to get him to see the problems with his marriage. Thus while
'tortured resistance' has a second meaning involving Rearden's seeing his way past altruism and
unfair obligations, it also certainly has a more obvious meaning: Dagny has brought Rearden to the
point where he just can't help himself, Lillian or no Lillian. Okay, so score one point for Dagny
imposing her will on Rearden, for making him 'surrender'.
But then Rearden is in control (from a moment before): "...she felt his arms around her, she felt
her legs pulled forward against him and her chest bent back under the pressure of his, his mouth
on hers." Moreover, "the triumph was his", "her defiance was submission", and "her violent
strength was only to make his victory the greater". Score one for Rearden, conventional manly
man, definitely sexually dominant.
Things get more closely intertwined when Dagny thinks that "...his victory... was her wish to let
him reduce her to that [being a tool]". So now we have Dagny's autonomous wish to have sex with
Rearden qualifying as *his* victory, just as Rearden's desire to have sex with Dagny was *his*
surrender and thus *her* victory. Each side seems to be winning exactly as much, in perfect
And this makes sense: "Whatever I am, she thought... that is what I offer you for the pleasure of
your body, *that* is that I want you to use in your service - and that you want it to serve you is the
greatest reward I can have." This is the language of *trade*. Dagny is offering herself (more in a
moment) to Rearden for a price: "the pleasure of your body". And the great thing about it is that
he considers it a good trade: "that you want it... is the greatest reward I can have." Dagny is
offering up her body in a capitalistic exchange here, which Rearden is entering into voluntarily. It's
a good trade. It's also the best instance I can think of of Rand characters making love instead of
atomistically 'celebrating the benevolent universe premise': "...there was no distinction between his
being and her own, as there was no division between spirit and body." (HB 252)
So far the scene is a mutual trade to mutual advantage, but the trade is deeply interpersonal and
spiritual. But there is another step and a comparison to make. When Dagny is thinking of what she
is offering Rearden, she thinks "Whatever I am... whatever pride of person I may hold, the pride of
my courage, of my work, of my mind and my freedom..." is what she is offering. Now let's do a
comparison with Lillian. Lillian doesn't yield up much by way of trade. With regard to sex:
She had never objected; she had never refused him anything; she submitted whenever he wished.
She submitted in the manner of complying with the rule that it was, at times, her duty to become
an inanimate object turned over to her husband's use. (HB 159)
Interestingly like the sex with Dagny inasmuch as both of them think of themselves as for-Rearden,
Dagny thinking of herself as a 'tool'. But the difference is that Lillian just lies there, offering no
But what difference does it make? Rearden still gets his sex, does he not?
Here's the difference, I think. Sex, for men, consists of conquest, of the employment of their
superior strength. For Rand, moments of celebration like sex seem to be outside the teleological
order, they are functions for their own sake. So this exercise of force and will, for a man, is an
end-in-itself, a celebratory and pleasurable act. But as it is done for its own sake and as it is
primarily an expression of energy and dominating power, if there's nothing to dominate, the
function is not actually performed. On the other hand, Dagny resists. What she is giving up is
precisely her *pride*, and it is that pride which differentiates her from Lillian and thus causes the
differential sexual responses. Dagny enters into a trade with Rearden by resisting him, allowing
him to exercise his masculine sex-function, and it's a trade she can enter into because she has
pride. Lillian, who lacks any accomplishment and thus any sense of herself as an accomplisher,
can't (and won't) enter into such a trade. 
On the other hand, sex, for women, consists of laying down strength, of having another determine
one's actions. While one must enter into the exchange willingly, once there, one must submit. This
is what Rand refers to as "...the pleasure of surrendering"; for men, the sexual function is one of
dominance, for women, the sexual function is one of submission. She lays down her own strength
because that's what is most celebratory for her. (One might also point out that, since the man's
strength is greater, laying down her own strength will also yield her the greater response.)
This immediately raises an issue of integrity which I think may be laying underneath Rand's sex
scenes. If in sex, the man determines what will happen and the woman has no choice in the matter,
and she knows this, she will naturally have certain concerns about with whom to have sex. On the
one hand, this might lead to certain fears of abuse, but Rand's women don't seem to view this as
something undesirable. On the other hand, it might lead to fears of inadequacy. If the man
determines the sex act, and the man can't create the proper response, then the woman doesn't get
what she wants, what she's trading for. How does she make sure she's got the right guy? She fights
him, making him defeat her in some kind of combat. Note that only the first sex scene between
any two people in Rand's stories in violent; after that, things seem to calm down a bit. So the idea
might be that the man who can conquer her is the man who can yield in her the best response.
This is nicely harmonious. Men celebrate by defeating, women by being defeated, but women
must select men who will yield the right response by fighting them, and that fighting is exactly
what men need so that they can defeat the women in the most efficacious way! And the whole
thing is built around men's superior physical strength, and thus is biologically grounded.
But it's grounded in another way as well. Branden also claims that Rand's women want "...the one
man strong enough to 'conquer' them - strong enough, let it be emphasized, not in muscles or
wealth but in intellect, self-esteem, and character." (p. 225) Now, given that men are stronger than
women, what kind of differential might there be between men such that some of them could
conquer a specific woman, while others could not? Differences in intellect, self-esteem, and
character, Branden suggests. How might this matter?
Well, recall Rand's rejection of the mind-body dichotomy. Physically, all men are pretty much the
same; stronger than all women. But mentally and in terms of integration between the mind and
body, they are not. The one with the strongest self-esteem will be the one who most desires the
most difficult conquest (because his sense of himself, in combination with his natural sexual
function, demands the strongest resistance), and the one with the highest integrity will be the one
whose physical performance will match his spiritual desires. So men can be selected according, not
to how physically strong they are, but according to how much they are willing and eager to *use*
that strength.
This is confirmed elsewhere. When Rearden's past history is being described after his and Lillian's
anniversary party, there is a passage about his sexual history:
He had not known many women. ...there were times when he felt a sudden access of desire, so
violent that it could not be given in to a casual encounter. He had surrendered to it, on a few rare
occasions through the years, with women he had thought he liked. He had been left feeling an
angry emptiness - because he has sought an act of triumph, though he had not known of what
nature, but the response he received was only a woman's acceptance of a casual pleasure, and he
knew too clearly that what he had won had no meaning.... 
It was the difficuly of the conquest that made him want Lillian. She seemed to be a woman who
expected and deserved a pedestal; this made him want to drag her down to his bed. To drag her
down, were the words in his mind; they have him a dark pleasure, the sense of a victory worth
winning. (HB 158-159)
This very clearly shows Rearden's sexual psychology and what he wants out of a sexual encounter;
we can assume that, in a benevolent universe, women would want the complement.
Regardless of the truth of Rand's analysis, I think that this may be the best account of what Rand
thought and why.
Let me also call your attention to the passage about Lillian seeing Dagny, which I think has a
context which nobody has noticed. The passage is:
The black dress seemed excessively revealing - because it was astonishing to discover that the lines
of her shoulder were fragile and beautiful, and that the diamond band on the wrist of her naked
arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: that of being chained. (HB 136)
I think that this passage is literal, not a metaphor and not Lillian's warped misperception. This
passage makes no sense without attending to the *chain* that Rearden makes of Rearden Metal
and gives to Lillian, who is then compelled to trade it to Dagny for that diamond bracelet. Recall
that Rearden had made the chain for his wife - indeed, for "the abstraction known as 'his wife'",
for the feminine principle as such, inasmuch as it was connected (chained) to him. Moreover,
when Rearden leaves the room after giving it to her, she holds it up and says to Rearden's mother
and brother that it was appropriate that it be a chain, because "It's the chain by which he holds us
all in bondage." But in point of fact it's the chain by which he holds them aloft, still in the world,
and the chain by which *they* hold *him* in bondage. It is made of an expression of his
productive energy, to be given (ostensibly in love) to his wife
But then consider how Dagny feels once she has it on: "She clasped the metal bracelet on her
wrist. She liked the feel of its weight against her skin. 
Inexplicably, she felt a touch of feminine vanity, the kind she had never experienced before: the
desire to be seen wearing this particular ornament." (HB 156) Now, we know from reversing
Lillian's understanding of the bracelet that it does have to do with bondage, but that it is bondage
of generosity and strength. We also know that Lillian believes that looking chained is the most
feminine of all aspects, *but* that she didn't like this chain which is a chain of bondage. But
Dagny does; in fact, it makes her feel uniquely feminine. Unless Dagny has a warped
misperception or is thinking in metaphors, this chain makes her look feminine. But, since it stems
from Rearden's productive energy and love (and he puts it on her rather lovingly), this one is a
chain she likes. Femininity *is* bondage to a man's strength for Rand, and this incident of the
chain shows it rather dramatically, along with tying sex into the larger theme of dominance and
That's rather a lot, isn't it? It's okay, I sat in on my last class session as an undergraduate this
     Thomas Gramstad (Date: Thu, 6 May 1999 16:33:18) commented as well:
Even though I appreciate the connections that Nathaniel Branden draws to individualist feminism,
and heartily agree with his conclusion that Rand was an individualist feminist, I found a lot to
disagree with in his essay.  Or rather a few things, repeated in several different contexts.
On page 224-5 he discusses the story of Brunhilde and Siegfried: "...a warrior-woman able to
defeat any man in combat, who swore she would give herself only to the man who could prevail
against her--which Siegfried, overcoming every obstacle, alone was able to do."  But Siegfried was
unable to defeat Brunhilde.  He only cheated her into believing that he had defeated her, even
though he hadn't.  Hardly an ethical role model.  But more fundamentally, what is supposed to be
wrong with a gender reversal, i.e., Brunhilde overcoming Siegfried, Brunhilde being the one who
"takes", and Siegfried the one who is "giving himself"?  (I discuss this very example and topic at
some length in my own article, pp.352-3.)
On page 226, Branden claims that "All the basic premises of 'radical' feminism entail collectivism
and statism", that it "sees man and capitalism as the enemy", and "reason, logic and science as a
male conspiracy to oppress women".  This seems to be more of a private equation of radical
feminism with everything he doesn't like, than an actual description of radical feminism.  While it
is true that the term "radical" has historical associations with left-wing policies (an association not
unique to feminism), this is more of a historical accident than a causal or philosophically necessary
As I understand the term "radical feminism" it refers to feminist ideas, perspectives and
methodology that seeks to identify, articulate and overcome tacit cultural assumptions that limit
women and men -- gender roles and stereotypes and their effects on the personal, cultural and
political levels.  There is no necessary connection between these concerns and left-wing policies. 
But I find that many libertarians, classical liberals, and Objectivists are primarily interested in and
focused on formal liberty, and structural and political obstacles to liberty.  What about real, lived
liberty, and social, informal, and tacit (i.e., cultural) obstacles to liberty?  I find that the latter
impact more on my day to day life and liberty than the former.  Or, as I wrote recently when we
discussed Wendy McElroy's essay:
Formal legal equality of rights is fine, and I obviously support that.  But formal equality means
little if the culture is misogynistic and the major institutions and organizations practice sexism.  I
have come to realize that many libertarians have what I consider to be a very limited
understanding of society.  They only care about the explicit, conscious level of a society:  laws,
constitutions, texts, economic transactions and contracts.  The tacit aspects of the society, the
'subconscious' aspects of the culture, the unwritten assumptions, customs, social codes, and the
control and punishment mechanisms directed at dissenters, seems to receive no attention or
interest from many libertarians.

The fact is that bad laws are sleeping in a good culture, while good laws are sleeping in a bad
culture.  So getting good laws is only and barely a starting point, not an end point, and in fact it
may even be the wrong place to start, since the most important issue is to change a bad culture
into a good one.  Getting good laws will not necessarily help, because they will become sleeping
laws in a bad culture.

So by equality I mean equality under the law, but also philosophical and cultural equality of men
and women.  The latter cannot be achieved by legislation.
So, by neglecting the cultural, the tacit, the social, etc. in their analyses of society, libertarians,
classical liberals and Objectivists have left this field up to grabs for any left-wing collectivist that
comes along, hence the historical association between left-wing and "radical."  Also, many libs,
classlibs, and O'ists seem to be callous, cavalier or just plain ignorant about the many harmful
effects of gender roles and stereotypes, and that doesn't help to break the association between
radical feminism and left-wing collectivism either.  I hope that Chris' forthcoming book, Total
Freedom, can change this picture, create a balance in libertarian/classical liberal thinking, and get
libertarians, classical liberals and Objectivists out on the playing field in discussions of the cultural,
social and tacit aspects or conditions of liberty.
So radical feminism must mean a feminism that goes to the root, the radix, as several feminists
(also quoted in Da Book) have pointed out, and at the root we find the individual.  Personally, I
consider "radical feminism" a redundancy -- any feminism worthy of its name is radical.
And of course there are many MALE radical feminists as well, see for example these:
Feminism and Men: Reconstructing Gender Relations by Steven P. Schacht (Editor), Doris W.
Ewing (Editor)   
Men Doing Feminism (Thinking Gender) by Tom Digby (Editor) 
The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G. Johnson, and of course my favorite, John Stoltenberg.
On page 228, Branden writes, quoting Rand:
   "In spiritual or intellectual matters the sexes are equal.  But man is bigger, stronger, faster--better
able to cope with nature."
How did something that is at best a statistical tendency suddenly become a normative prescription? 
And how does that way of thinking fit in with Rand's and Objectivism's emphasis on the individual,
the unique, the exception?  My answer: it doesn't.
Rand's and any Rand hero's work ethic and standards of creativity were hardly based on statistical
averages.  Why should one's sexual ethic and preferences be? 
Further quoting Rand:
   "Don't you understand that a truly strong woman WANTS to see man as stronger?  Certainly
HER man."  ... "For the pleasure of surrendering."
How did the pleasure of surrendering become gendered?  Why is it supposed to be a forbidden
territory for men?  
"And beyond that, the pleasure of being helpless at times, of laying down the
burden of strength.  In a way, that also is sexual."
I certainly agree.  But this is a human need, present sometimes in anyone who is strong.  It has
nothing to do with gender.  On page 228, Branden writes: "We know ... that millions of women
are turned on by fantasies of being 'ravished' or 'overcome' by a dominant male figure.... It is
psychologically naive to pathologize all such fantasies, as many modern feminists so stridently do. 
The fantasy is transcultural.  It would be absurd to insist that it tells us nothing about the female
We also know that millions of women are turned on by fantasies of equality and mutual sharing
with a male partner and lover.  It is psychologically naive to pathologize all such fantasies, as many
social conservatives and patriarchs so stridently do.  The fantasy is transcultural.  It would be
absurd to insist that it tells us nothing about the female psyche.
We also know that many women are turned on by fantasies of ravishing or overcoming their lover. 
It is psychologically naive to pathologize all such fantasies, as many social conservatives and
patriarchs so stridently do.  The fantasy is transcultural. It would be absurd to insist that it tells us
nothing about the female psyche.  
Generally I find that Rand's and Branden's gendered claims about sexuality in Branden's essay
work equally well, and often better, if one reverses gender in their claims.  For example (p. 229):
"No strong man can experience himself fully--in the romantic sense--with a woman he perceives as
weaker than himself.  No strong woman can experience herself fully--in the romantic sense--with a
man she perceives as low in independence, personal authority, and self-assertiveness."
     Joan Kennedy Taylor discusses her contribution to the volume (Date: Fri, 7 May 1999
I think that Thomas has put his finger on a very important point about the need for contemporary
feminism when he says that libertarians and Objectivists often pay attention to formal equality of
rights but not to what he calls "the tacit aspects of the society."  I intended, in my essay, not only to
defend as a concept the championing of the formal political goals that the feminist movement has
historically been concerned with (as a subset of liberalism from its Enlightenment roots), but its
constant calling of attention to society's sex-role assumptions and its call for women to help and
support each other.  The fact that people are known as feminists helps in the spread of information
about alternative points of view that is crucial to life in a free society.
Let me give a sad example.  In the early days of NBI, a young woman in that circle died from an
illegal abortion.  The feminist movement and feminist organizations did not yet officially exist.
I had made it my business for several years, because I cared about the plight of women, to keep
informed about where one could get safe abortions; I had helped five or six women in such a
search, and at the time my friend died, I knew the very clinic and doctor in Puerto Rico that could
have treated her safely.  But I was not active in a political movement to change the law, so this
interest of mine was not widely known.  If it had been, she might have asked me for
information--and would probably be alive today.
Today, we have the legal right to obtain abortions.  But at a time when some members of the
religious right are hunting down abortionists as if they were deer, in some states, abortionists are an
endangered species.  Women again need help that is not just legal help in this area.
People tend to overlook the social dimensions of feminism.  Of course we expect all people of
good will to be "feminist" enough to be against laws that unjustly discriminate.  But many
libertarians and Objectivists are not feminist enough to notice such laws when they exist, let alone
to notice general assumptions about how those who have been legally disadvantaged in the past
should now be treated.  Private decisions, such as the closing of professions to women, or of
institutions of higher education, have sometimes been as devastating as laws to women's lives. 
Harry Browne promoted his campaign for president in terms of the better life Americans had in
1950 -- something few women would agree with, considering that many professional women today
would not have been able to train for their jobs -- women weren't admitted to Harvard Business
School, for instance, until 1967.  (That's a private decision, as Harry Browne's manager countered,
when I pointed out that such a speech wouldn't draw more women into the LP)
When I said in my essay that feminism is not just the political calling for equal liberty for women
but for social change as well, and "for women to communicate with and to support each other in
their pursuit of social justice," I meant that as a necessary part of feminism.  In my view, a
feminist, male or female, needs to have some sympathy with some common dilemma facing
women, whether it is the inability to obtain an abortion, or being treated as a gender stereotype
(not good at math; not a good candidate for promotion because she will want to have children), or
being ridiculed by family and friends because her ambition outstrips their views, The problem is
that it is hard to notice adverse social expectations and pressure to fulfill uncongenial roles without
seeming to be a weakling of some sort -- Howard Roark would not have minded what anyone else
thought.  So there is little sympathy sometimes in "rugged individualist" circles for those who may
need help, advice, and information.  But wouldn't it have been a value if Cherryl Taggart could
have been saved?
Which brings me to Barry Vacker's questions -- Could a feminist have been Dominique?  Could a
feminist be Ayn Rand?  I would say the answers are no and yes.  Dominique could have supported
feminist political goals in the abstract, but she didn't like women enough to be a true feminist.  I
don't think she thought that women (including herself) had much of value to contribute.
Ayn Rand, on the other hand is a possibility.  If she had had a different experience with feminists,
if she had met the artistic feminists in the 1910 organization Heterodoxy in her youth, I think her
initial positive response to The Feminine Mystique and her view of the importance of the right to
abortion might have flowered into a very interesting, quirky feminism that could have changed the
face of the feminist movement.
     Joan Kennedy Taylor adds (Sat, 8 May 1999 03:34:08):
I was rather startled by Bryan Register's post, as I had thought that my article was devoted to
discussing a valid concept of feminism.  To me, the widest legitimate definition is that feminism is
the view that women have been subjected to systemic legal and social injustice throughout history;
that some of this injustice persists even today, even in the U.S.; and that something should be done
about it.  Contemporary feminists differ sharply as to tactics, and this is where most of the analytic
and political differences between them are lodged.  Communitarian feminists, who believe that
individuals derive their identity from the social group to which they belong may question the
absolute nature of individual rights. New Deal feminists may put more faith in government
solutions than would libertarians or classical liberals.  But my experience has been that most
contemporary feminists have a deep allegiance to individualism and to finding ways to secure the
individual's rights and happiness, and I have found much more acceptance of libertarian ideas
among the feminists to whom I have expounded them than I have found acceptance from
libertarian groups to whom I have expounded feminist ideas.
This is why I qualify my feminism by saying that I am an Individualist feminist, just as many
libertarians say they are not liberals but classical liberals.  But I think it makes sense to keep the
bridges to what is good about the liberal tradition, so that one can call upon our common heritage
in the Enlightenment and the American constitutional tradition of individual rights.
There are 'feminisms' to use Thomas's term, which are totally collectivist, or devoted to constructing
a woman culture based on hostility toward men, or based on a view of the law that demands it be
used to oppose what they see as masculine dominance by censorship and reconstructing society.
Interestingly, these views are called "right-wing feminism" by my liberal feminist friends.
Does this make my position clearer, Bryan?  And would you like me to clarify further?
     Chris Matthew Sciabarra discusses further the concept of feminism (Date: 12-May-1999
I'm going to take a crack at this dialogue... because I think this is an important topic. 
Bryan Register wrote:
> Thanks to Joan for her response; sorry I've taken so long
> getting back, but I wanted to re-read the essay in the book to
> make sure I hadn't missed anything.
Joan Kennedy Taylor wrote:
>> I was rather startled by Bryan Register's post, as I had
>> thought that my article was devoted to discussing a valid
>> concept of feminism.
Bryan Register responds:
> Of course it was. My point was that it was not successful in
> producing such a concept. I said that it failed to do the
> epistemic work necessary; my point was that we have not had a
> set of phenomena arrayed before us and been shown what essential
> features they have in common and/or what cut-off between them
> and other phenomena justify us in conceptually setting them
> apart.
Joan wrote:
>> To me, the widest legitimate definition is that feminism is the
>> view that women have been subjected to systemic legal and
>> social injustice throughout history; that some of this
>> injustice persists even today, even in the U.S.; and that
>> something should be done about it.
Bryan responds:
> I think that this last part is what tends to dejustify the
> concept. That 'something' should be done doesn't tell me
> much. Let me try an example. If Rand is as Sciabarra presents
> her, then she believes that the status quo political-economic
> system introduces distortions into the production and
> distribution system, leading to widespread misery and
> injustice. But of course every socialist in the world believes
> that! But because socialists and Randian capitalists have such
> differing ideas of what is to be done, we don't categorize them
> together. Likewise, there is no obvious justification for
> categorizing together, say, anti-porn and pro-porn feminists.
Chris Sciabarra writes:
I think there are different continuums (continua?) through which one can make comparisions.  For
instance, I have regularly upset the apple cart by categorizing Ayn Rand as a "dialectical" thinker. 
Such a categorization allows us to group Rand with people like Hegel and Marx, but also Aristotle
and Menger.  Not without qualification, of course.
By designating Rand as such, I mean that she is a thinker who engages in contextual analysis of the
dynamic relations within various structured totalities.  To put some flesh on this skeleton, I look at
Rand's dialectical sensibility in terms of her literary approach, her philosophical approach, and her
approach to social theory.  
In her literary method, she views her own novels as structured totalities, "organic wholes" -- in
which all the elements "fit," such that each becomes an extension of the other, and each gains
meaning thru the whole that all the elements comprise.  And, as Stephen Cox observes, the whole,
the theme, has a reciprocal effect on the parts: In THE FOUNTAINHEAD, for instance, the
theme of "romantic individualism" . . . "is like DNA; it's present in every cell, and it controls every
cell" (19) And Rand's dialectic extends to her whole literary method: like Dostoyevsky, she sees
each character as the embodiment of certain ideas, which, in the action of the novel, move toward
thematic resolution. 
In her philosophy, Rand sees a hierarchical, logical structure for sure, in which each branch is
related to the more basic branch it embodies.  But, for Rand, each branch is also an extension of
the other; her assumptions in epistemology and ethics reciprocally presuppose one another, as do
her assumptions in epistemology and aesthetics, and so forth.  For Rand, one can never drop the
full context, the context of the whole that her philosophy constitutes, in the examination of any
philosophical problem, be it free will or the nature of morality.  Moreover, Rand's whole
epistemological approach entails a contextualist emphasis. 
And, as Bryan remarks, the social theory is significantly dialectical as well, for Rand refuses to
abstract any social problem from the wider system within which it is manifested.  In AYN RAND:
THE RUSSIAN RADICAL, I reconstruct Rand's social theory as one that views the phenomenon
of power relations thru three levels of generality: the third level (L3) is structural, that is, it views
power relations in terms of politics and economics; the second level (L2) is cultural, that is, it views
power relations in terms of language, ideology, education, and the arts; the first level (L1) is
personal, that is, it views power relations in terms of their preconditions and effects on the
individual's psycho-epistemology and ethics.  I document this social theory by showing how Rand
examines "racism" thru the trilevel analysis.  Racism is not simply a structural problem (or a
political and economic problem).  It is also a cultural problem that relates to elements of language,
ideology, and aesthetics, and it is a personal one that relates to ethics (racism is an immoral "crude"
collectivism that treats individuals as extensions solely of a group) and psycho-epistemology
(racism is a symptom of the "anti-conceptual" tribalist mentality).
I would argue that one could view sexism in the very same terms. It has preconditions and effects
that are not only structural, but cultural and personal as well.  As such, feminism, viewed
historically, is an ideology, which emerged from the classical liberal movement, that sought to
apply the notion of individualism to women as well.  For centuries, women were viewed as less
than human.  Feminism sought to correct this wrong.  But, as Joan explains in her essay, feminism
was not a purely political doctrine.  It did not operate solely as, what I would call, a "Level 3"
ideology.  While it applied the criterion of individual rights to women (the structural or
political-economic level of analysis, as I have identified it), it also sought the liberation of women
from deadening cultural traditions, and from deadening personal (psycho-epistemological and
ethical) habits of awareness that fed into women's own self-enslavement.  (One can see a similar
dynamic at work in the "civil rights" movement of African Americans; Mimi Gladstein points this
out in her essay in our volume, when she discusses the work of Ellison, Murray, and Wright.)
Joan Kennedy Taylor writes:
>> Contemporary feminists differ sharply as to tactics, and this
>> is where most of the analytic and political differences between
>> them are lodged.  Communitarian feminists, who believe that
>> individuals derive their identity from the social group to
>> which they belong may question the absolute nature of
>> individual rights New Deal feminists may put more faith in
>> government solutions than would libertarians or classical
>> liberals.
Bryan Register writes:
> I don't think that the first sentence of this passage fits the
> rest. People disagree on 'tactics' when they have agreed on
> final goals. For instance, the women's suffragists agreed that
> women should have suffrage. But they had different notions as to
> how best to achieve it; through the judicial branch, by having
> the Constitution interpreted the way they (correctly) thought it
> should be? By amending state constitutions? By amending the
> national Constitution? But far left and libertarian feminists
> don't share end goals.  What they differ on is not tactics, but
> essential issues of what the world ought to be like. Thus it is
> not obvious that they should be categorized together.
Chris Sciabarra writes:
With regard to the vast diversity within feminism, I would like to suggest that feminism was not
simply the product of one woman--the way "Objectivism" was.  No one set out the principles of
feminism when feminism emerged and said: all things must adhere to these essential principles. 
Like liberalism itself--and this is Joan's point--feminism was corrupted over time.  In fact, this is
even Ayn Rand's point: that many contemporary feminists rode "on the historical prestige of
women who fought for individual rights against government power," and "struggle[d] to get special
privileges by means of government power."  This is why Joan suggests that libertarian or
individualist feminists should reclaim feminism, for the same reasons that libertarians should
reclaim "liberalism" from those who have corrupted *its* meaning.   Joan:
>> This is why I qualify my feminism by saying that I am an 
>> Individualist feminist, just as many libertarians say they are
>> not liberals but classical liberals.
> I don't think that the surface grammar is telling is the whole
> story.  'Classical liberal' is not a modification of 'liberal',
> it is a separate term which does not share much meaning with
> 'liberal' at all (in much the way that 'not socialism' is not a
> kind or subset of 'socialism'). The question for your
> modification 'individualist feminist' is: What is 'feminism'
> such that you have modified it? You are an individualist
> something; an individualist what? An individualist who is
> concerned specifically with issues pertinent to women and their
> historical position; but is that group sufficiently singular to require a concept? 
Bryan adds: "That's just a distinction among scholarly interests; rather like separating me from my professor 
who is an Aristotle scholar because we like to read different kinds of books."
Chris responds:
If feminism is viewed as an ideology with structural, cultural, and personal components, an
individualist feminist is simply one who adheres to the fundamental principles of individual rights,
autonomy, and self-direction, and who applies these principles to the historic battle of women for
equality with men, equality that is structural, cultural, and personal.  And let's not forget that this
battle is not simply Western; as Nathaniel Branden points out in his essay, the battle has cultural
specificity, but it is also cross-cultural, since many non-Western cultures TODAY treat women
as inferior, and have evolved various structural, cultural, and personal practices that maintain their
status as inferior.  (Notice that I have not brought into the equation the issue of biology here:
"equality" in the current context does not require that one view men and women as exactly the
same.  Surely there are differences between the sexes; holding the full context requires that one
grasp all the facts within that context.  Perhaps some of the differences between the various
schools within feminism relate fundamentally to differing biological and anthropological
assumptions, rather than, say, political ones?) 
>> Does this make my position clearer, Bryan?  And would you like
>> me to clarify further?
> It does somewhat, but as you can see I'm not yet satisfied. I
> think the best way for you to answer my concerns is to answer
> Kelley's claim that goes into footnote 4 of your paper. I rather
> wish you hadn't let him get in the last word; it means that you
> haven't responded to what seems to me the key claim of someone
> who doesn't think that 'feminism' is a valid concept.  By the
> way, I should point out that I have always considered myself a
> feminist.
Chris Sciabarra responds:
Kelley's point in note 4 is that he mistrusts qualifications... if you have to keep qualifying a
concept, says Kelley, it gets to the point where you lose your handle on what ingredient is doing
the actual epistemological work: is it individualism? or is it feminism?  I would say, in keeping with
my dialectical dexterity: both, depending on the context.  One can be an individualist feminist
within the context of contemporary feminism, just as one might be a feminist individualist within
the context of classical liberalism.  (And I think Sharon Presley's essay, which we discuss this
week, is important in this regard: where does individualism fit in feminism?  and vice versa...)  As
long as feminism exists as an historical and ideological movement, qualifications are important. 
For the same reasons that, in some contexts, one must now qualify what one means by
Objectivism: if you say you are an Objectivist to a reporter (and I know what this feels like), you
will most likely be asked: "So, are you a 'Randroid'?"  To which you answer: Objectivism is not a
monolith.  There are "orthodox" Objectivists, and "neo-" or "revisionist" Objectivists...  and
then, there's me: an UNorthodox Objectivist. 
     Sciabarra adds (Date: 17-May-1999 13:13:32):  
Bryan asks:
"I want to reiterate my question: can we, at *this* point in history, disregard the changes of the
past 30-40 years, and chop many influential feminists out of feminism? It seems to me that,
if the concept 'feminism' includes its history, and that history includes radical contradictions, then
the concept is now empty.  (Unlike the concept 'liberal', which never changed but simply came
to be associated with a different word; 'libertarian'.) On the other hand, we might say that, likewise,
the concept 'feminism' never changed its meaning, but the word 'feminism' came to be associated
with not only the designates of the concept 'feminism' but also with the designates of the
descriptive phrase 'traitors to feminism' or something similar."
Chris Sciabarra responds:
Ayn Rand reclaimed the concept "selfishness" in a way that almost completely inverts its original
meaning which is "concern ONLY with one's interests."  Her concept of "selfishness" is so
different from any conventional understanding of that word that some have argued, at times
persuasively, that she has created a neologism.  The same might be said for her concept of
"capitalism" and for her concept of "government."  Such concepts are so ESSENTIALLY
different from what has existed historically--and she understood this implicitly--that she had to title
a book:  Capitalism:  the UNKNOWN ideal.  (I have often said that her concept of government
should be similarly called:  government:  the unknown ideal.) 
The point here is this:  Unless you want to create your own language--and Ayn Rand clearly did
not--you sometimes have to use words that are available to you.  And if in the process you engage
in a vast "deconstruction" of their conventional meaning so as to completely undermine their
conventional ties, so be it.
Bryan continues:
"Allen and Chris propose different means of forming the concept 'feminism'. Allen seems to
suggest that we retain the current use of the word 'feminism', and that we just integrate the concept
around a negation, leading me to ask whether negations warrants concepts. Chris, on the other
hand, seems to suggest that we dump the current use of the word in preference for the original,
legitimate concept 'feminism'.  Indeed, on this last proposal, the definition of 'feminism' might
be:  Objectivism applied to issues of relevance to women as such."
Today's feminism is not a monolith, as Mimi and I insist in the Introduction to our work.  That Da
Book has been published, that it is now causing controversy, and creating constructive
engagement, may be the first step on the road to a time when Bryan's definition might be

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