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 17, 1999   (Thomas Gramstad)

Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Individualism: A Feminist Psychologist's Perspective  -   Sharon Presley

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra introduced Sharon Presley's essay (Date: 10-May-1999 21:53:32):
I see that the discussion has been heating up, and I don't think it will be necessary to postpone any
of it.
But I do see that, this week, we will be switching our focus to Sharon Presley's important essay,
"Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Individualism: A Feminist Psychologist's Perspective."  In this essay,
Sharon does a comparative analysis of Rand's egoism and Gilligan's "ethics of care." 
We should consider the extent to which Rand offers an ethos to feminism that transcends the
one-sidedness of both collectivist "communitarianism" and atomist "individualism."  This is a very
important topic, because it addresses the relationship of feminism and individualism... and it may
succeed in altering conventional conceptions of both.
I would like to invite Sharon to contribute to our discussion with some reflections on her
     Sharon Presley responded (Tue, 11 May 1999 18:10:00): 
Though I agree with many of the criticisms that have been made of Rand in FIOAR, my own area
of expertise (social psychology) led me to a subject where I agree with Rand. Within psychology,
the subject of individualism is actually not overly controversial.  Nonetheless, the subject was
debated extensively between psychologists Alan Waterman (who is a libertarian) and Edward
Sampson. The problem with that debate, as my article indicates, is that they were using two
different definitions of "individualism." But at least they were both using empirical data.
Outside of the field of psychology (which, contrary to popular notions of the "touchie-feelies," is
very empirically oriented), all bets are off. Not only do we find that many mentions of
individualism do not correspond to the historical definitions of individualism that Waterman
reviews, the idea that assertations need to be backed up by empirical data is thrown out the
window, or maybe more correctly, never even considered. Thus "individualism" and "egoism"
have become merely epithets to be tossed around to suit one's ideological convenience. Even
psychology writer Alfie Kohn, who should know better, does this in his otherwise excellent book,
The Brighter Side of Human Nature.
Addressing the influence of Gilligan's theory of gender differences in moral judgment gave me a
chance to discuss another area where ideological convenience has triumphed over empirical
evidence in certain quarters. However, it is important to note that many feminists of various
ideological stripes have also criticized the rush to proclaim women as "morally superior." Both
Carol Tavris and Katha Pollitt, for example, have excellent discussions of this problem in their
respective books (The Mismeasure of Woman and Reasonable Creatures).
The issues I raise may not be controversial within libertarian and objectivist circles but I believe
that clarification of the idea of individualism and being aware of the empirical evidence that
supports it is critical to the furtherance of the ideals that we believe in. It will, I hope, also make a
dent in some feminist hostility against Rand. That, however, remains to be seen!
     Sharon Presley also responds to points made by Thomas Gramstad (Sat, 15 May 1999
Thomas Gramstad quotes this definition of feminism:  
For the purposes of this newsgroup, a working
definition of feminism is as follows:
    1. The belief that women and men are, and have been, treated differently by our society, and
that women have frequently and systematically been unable to participate fully in all social arenas
and institutions. 
    2. A desire to change that situation.
    3. That this gives a "new" point-of-view on society, when eliminating old assumptions about
why things are the way they are, and looking at it from the perspective that women are not inferior
and men are not "the norm."
I like this definition and agree that this is essentially what all feminists have in common. The
particular route that they wish to take to achieve this may differ, but whether they are liberals or
libertarians or socialists is not the defining characteristic that makes them feminists. That is added
on.  I do not think it is either necessary or wise to try to read people out of the feminist movement
over the political path they would use to further the feminist cause.
I am reminded of the century-old conflict between the individualist and the communitarian
anarchists. Some people on both sides wanted to read the other side out of the anarchist
movement. But the defining characteristic of anarchism, is NOT what economic system one
prefers but the belief that all forms of government are necessarily coercive and therefore immoral
and that the moral society is one based on voluntary associations. By that definition (one which
was widely agreed upon by anarchists), both kinds of anarchists were indeed anarchist.
Likewise with feminism. It is defined most properly by its view about women and their roles in and
their relationship to society, NOT by the consequent means to achieve that proper role.  From this
point of view, Carol Gilligan is a feminist. I have no desire to read her out of the movement. She is
not even the main purveyor of this idea that women are "morally superior." She can be faulted for
providing the impetus but I don't think she is the one fanning the flames. But even if she were, I
would not read her out of the movement.
Even Andrea Dworkin, much as I loathe her ideas, is a feminist by the definition above and I don't
have a problem with that. I DO have a problem with people who wish to redefine words so that
only the "good guys" share the label we like. In saying this, I don't wish to imply that people on this
list are trying to do that. I don't believe that. I say this only as a word of caution that we don't get
carried away and let the discussion of "feminism" lead us down a path we don't need to go.
In my essay, I was trying to say that "individualism" is not incompatible with feminism, not that
feminists MUST be philosophical individualists in order to be feminists.
     Sharon Presley adds the following points (Sat, 22 May 1999 05:10:25):
In his discussion of philosophical individualism, Alan Waterman speaks of "eudaimonism." He
refers to it as the "pivotal concept of individualism. It refers to a person's efforts to recognize and
live in accordance with the 'true self.'" He traces it back to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. He
points to psychological presentations of this idea in Rollo May's Love and Will and David
Norton's Personal Destinies.
Waterman then goes on to say "Eudaemonia refers specifically to the feelings accompanying
behavior in the direction of, and consistent with, one's true potentials. These are not easy pleasures
to achieve but require effort." [The Psychology of Individualism, p.16]
The idea of recognizing and living in accord with the true self is one that appears in a variety of
forms in various disciplines. The idea is carried forward in both existentialist and humanistic
psychology in various guises (e.g., Maslow's "self-actualization").  It seems to me that it resonates
both with the Randian concept of living according to one's highest values and to feminist concepts
dealing with self-expression and recognizing the value of individual women. Indeed, the idea of
"living in accord with the true self" is unlikely to get much disagreement (except perhaps some
quibbles from the Marxists and other heavy-duty philosophical anti-individualists).  Unfortunately,
few writers that I have read have pointed out that this concept or its equilivalents in various social
movements (such as feminism) is a product of the tradition of ethical individualism. I'm reminded
of Rand's phrase "blank out."
Waterman then goes on to detail the research that describes people with the psychological
characteristics that are implied by the concepts of ethical individualism (e.g., self-acceptance and
self-esteem, sense of personal identity, self-actualization) [characteristics that would almost
universally be seen as "good things."] are associated with social interdependence and socially
tolerant behavior (e.g., low on dogmatism, low on authoritarianism).
He distinguishes between ethical individualism and instrumental egoists -- "the use of the Kantian
categorical imperative: 'act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a
universal law.' For the instrumental there are no other considerations in the choice of behavior than
personal benefit."
As I have argued in my essay, and as I am sure most of us on the list understand, Rand's
philosophy is NOT one of instrumental egoism as defined above.
I think it is crucial to, wherever we can, challenge the mistaken notion that "individualism" equals
"instrumental egoism." The psychological qualities consistent with ethical individualism, as
Waterman research reviews show, lead to social cooperation rather than atomistic "dog-eat-dog."
The question for us then becomes-what can we do to challenge the mistaken notions?
More on this later...

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