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. 

March 1, 1999  (Bryan Register)

Preface - Nancy Tuana

Introduction  -  Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra opened the discussion of the volume (Date:  Sunday, 28 Feb 1999 19:13:40):
I am very happy that we are beginning the first discussion of FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF 
AYN RAND.  I say "first" because I expect that this book will be discussed and debated for many
years to come.  It is fitting that this inaugural conference is taking place on the
"Randian-Feminism" list, and that it will be both structured and moderated, in keeping with the
critical character of discourse.
I'd like to say a few words about the Introduction, on which we are concentrating this week.  Mimi
and I enjoyed working together on the project, and enjoyed creating an introductory essay that
would touch upon the many themes in the book.   One of the most important themes that is
highlighted here is that both Feminism and Objectivism are not monoliths.  There is no "one"
feminism, and - - the protestations of orthodox Objectivists notwithstanding - - there is no "one"
Objectivism.  This does NOT mean that it is impossible to define either according to their essential
characteristics.  But those schooled in Objectivism should know that a concept is not equivalent to
its definition, and that Objectivism is as much a concept as it is a proper name for a philosophical
movement.  As a concept, it is open-ended, and in my view, it is evolving as it comes into active
engagement with the perspectives of other schools of thought.  This is as it should be.  For the
interaction of different contexts creates an unforeseen dynamic: we are suddenly in the position to
relate Objectivism to different frameworks, and these frameworks will bring to light aspects of the
philosophy that were previously hidden from view.
But the same can be said for feminism.  In its engagement with Objectivism, all sorts of interesting
issues are brought forth: the relationship of feminism and classical liberalism; the relationship of
feminism and egoism, individualism, and capitalism; the things that feminism and Objectivism
might have in common; the differences between them - - and the prospects for synthesis.  All very
interesting and controversial applications.
In introducing the discussion, the Gladstein-Sciabarra essay highlights several issues that I wish to
emphasize here - - because they will be essential to our discussions in the ensuing weeks:
1.  The historical dimension: How was Ayn Rand treated in the past by feminist thinkers?  (The
purpose of Part One, "Looking Back")
2.  The methodological dimension: How might Ayn Rand's methodological orientation be a fruitful
resource for feminists who are equally critical of modernist dualities?
3.  The literary dimension: What can Rand's literature teach us about gender roles and sexuality,
heroism and values?  Are these lessons compatible with certain forms of feminism?
4.  The political dimension: What might feminists learn from Rand's libertarian politics?  Is
feminism compatible with individualism and capitalism? 
5.  The aesthetic dimension:   What might Rand's aesthetic theory offer to feminist philosophies?
     These are just some of the dimensions of the discussion.  That our contributors come from
disciplines as diverse as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, English, and political science
portends well for the quality of the engagement.
     Let's have fun! :)
	Sciabarra also related some of his "personal experiences in academia" (Date: 07-Mar-1999 14:34:27):
I have always had major visibility as a libertarian, and, as an undergraduate, as a libertarian
ACTIVIST.   I was a founder of the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, back in
the late 1970's, when we protested against Carter's draft registration drive.  And I edited the
political science journal, which published my pieces on libertarian anarchism and the abolition
of public schools.
I must say that I never experienced any real hostility in academia, on any level of my
undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral education.  I did all three degrees at NYU, a home of
Austrian economics, but my advanced degrees were in politics... so I can't even blame my good
fortune on the fact that I was being graded only by Austrians.  (I majored in economics as an
undergraduate, and continued to attend the weekly Austrian colloquium while doing my
advanced work... but that's another story.) 
The simple fact is that I never walked into a classroom feeling as if I was there to do battle.  I
really appreciate Bryan's remark that we participate in a "marketplace of ideas."  I was in school
to learn and to exchange ideas and to grow through the exchange.  I'm still learning from my
students and my colleagues.
In all my years, I can think of only ONE professor who was a paradigm of intolerance -- he
opened up the class with a nightmare line that seemed as if it should have been out of ATLAS
SHRUGGED:  "There is no such thing as objectivity; this class will be devoted to my opinion...
and if you wish to express your opinion, I will listen... but it will not change mine."  He
actually was a bit nicer than this... but it is the only sign of intolerance I've ever encountered in
There was one other experience that was instructive, but it certainly did not stop me from
receiving honors in history:  I did my senior honors thesis as an undergraduate on the "Pullman
Strike."  I received enormous help from Murray Rothbard at the time, and even based my thesis
on Rothbard's business cycle theory.  When it came time to defend my thesis, one of the
committee members got so pissed off at my use of Rothbardian theory that he told me to
leave history and go into political theory instead.  (I guess one might say that I took him
seriously, since that is what I did... though everything I do in politics entails a discussion of
intellectual history.)
When I told Murray Rothbard about my experience, he laughed.  He told me that the guy who
was angry at me was probably angry at HIM.  Who was it?  Albert Romasco -- chairman of
NYU's history department, whose book on the New Deal Rothbard savagely attacked in print in
STUDIES ON THE LEFT, a journal of revisionist history that was known to attract some
libertarians as well.  Petty personality and ideological conflicts will always be present in
academia, and I can tell some horror stories about how my book on Rand was almost rejected by
one publisher on the basis of such a conflict.  (I actually ended up turning that publisher offer
down... because Penn State gave me an offer I could not refuse... )
In the end, persistence wins out.  I did, after all, graduate with my BA magna cum laude with
honors in history -- even if my work pissed off a few people.  (It is still pissing off some people... 
:)  )  After my BA, I did extensive papers on Rand and Mises, eventually doing my dissertation
on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard.  I was quite vocal about the contributions of Ayn Rand, and even
those who occasionally joked about my Objectivist-libertarian tendencies always listened with
respect.  My mentor was an internationally know Marxist scholar (Bertell Ollman), and without
his encouragement, I would never have done the dissertation that I did.  In fact, in the early days,
there were no Objectivists who were HALF as encouraging as he was in terms of my own wish
to do a book on Ayn Rand (though I will always cherish the encouragement I received from
Douglas Rasmussen, whom I had later met at a conference). 
I am NOT saying that there are no difficulties in academia or that there is no bias against those
who have minority perspectives.  All I'm saying is that things can be made worse if you walk into
an institution of higher learning not really wanting to learn --  but only to engage in a mission to
seek and destroy "evil."  You actually need to learn the perspectives of your interlocutors if you
want to engage their arguments, and possibly influence their viewpoints.  You may even find
that in the engagement, they will have influenced yours.  Those who rant about not wishing to
"sanction" evil -- should not even go to college.  There are plenty of perspectives in college that
will make one sick with nausea, but one does not "sanction" evil by engaging in the
give-and-take of academic discourse.  It is a bedrock of Western intellectual institutions and
history, and it will make those who engage in it that much stronger in the long-run.
     At a later date, Sciabarra raised some additional issues with regard to Rand scholarship
(Date: 06-May-1999 19:02:22), on the subject:  The Philosophy VS. The Philosopher 
Bryan Register writes:  
> 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
Chris Sciabarra responds:
This brings to mind a definite problem in the Randian corpus - - something that would not have
been a problem if it had not been entrenched in the corpus by some of Rand's more orthodox
followers.  Rand saw the need, apparently, to justify her position philosophically on nearly
EVERYTHING -- from her aesthetic tastes to her sexual preferences.  Years later, Peikoff insisted
that, for instance, one could be a good Objectivist and not agree with Rand's position on a Woman
President.  But how many good Objectivists would have opposed Rand on this question--and still
remained a part of her inner circle?  How many good Objectivists would have taken her to task on
her views of Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or even "Charlie's Angels"? 
For all too many years, we saw an intertwining of Rand's philosophy and personal aesthetic to the
point where Objectivists were suspect if they had different artistic or sexual tastes.  Some of this
psychology is still apparent within the orthodox Objectivist "sub-culture" -- thankfully, however,
many are getting beyond it.  What it comes down to is this: What is essential to the philosophy? 
Once we grasp the philosophy in terms of fundamentals, then, it seems to me, the variety of
rational values that an individual can pursue--given a certain context of knowledge and
experience--are almost infinite. 
And yet, because Rand imbues so much of her fiction with the traces of her own aesthetic and
sexual psychology, a "deconstruction" of the texts, of Rand's novels, seems in order.  Part of Da
Book is, indeed, dedicated to just such a "deconstruction" -- and I don't mean this pejoratively.  I
recently received a letter from a critic of Da Book who was aghast that so many of our authors had
"psychologized" Rand's sexual predilections.  But if critical analysts do not examine Rand's sexual
predilections as an extension, perhaps, of her own psychology, then we are left with only one
major alternative: that these sexual predilections are ENDEMIC to the philosophy... surely
something that would be deadening to Objectivism on the face of  it.  Barbara Branden once told
me that it seems an inescapable fact that when people write works of fiction, the sex scenes will
portray something about the sexual psychology of the writer... at least if the sex scenes are to have
any degree of authenticity. 
Nonetheless, I think it was Nietzsche who once said that a philosophy must be forgiven its first
disciples.  In some respects, a philosophy must also be forgiven its founder.  Rand was entitled to
have all of her sexual fantasies put on display in the pages of her novels.  She seemed careful
enough NOT to put these on display in her non-fiction work.  And I think we all need to be careful
not to tie these fantasies inextricably to the philosophy.  They were her fantasies, and they may
have given voice to the fantasies of many other women and men who bought her novels.  (Buckley
quoted a colleague of his who once said that people bought Rand not for the philosophy, but for
the "fornicating bits.")  But they are not internal to Objectivism, no matter what Rand said about
justifying --or rationalizing--her tastes philosophically.
Any thoughts?

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