SUNNI MARAVILLOSA, LAISSEZ-FAIRE CITY NEWS 3, no. 5 (1 FEBRUARY 1999)
[ALSO PUBLISHED IN SPINTECH MAGAZINE 2, NO. 3 (12 FEBRUARY 1999); REPUBLISHED HERE IN ITS ENTIRETY]
A Review of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand"For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero worshipthe desire to look up to man." Ayn Rand, About a Woman President
Ayn Rand and feminism? As anyone who's done a fair amount of reading of Rand's works knows or could reasonably predict, Rand certainly would not have described herself as a feminist. In her essay "The Age of Envy", Rand describes "Women's Lib" as "the caricature to end all caricatures", and proceeds in her usual strident tone, denouncing the feminism of the 1970s as a pressure group without a justifiable cause. Despite her scorn toward the feminist movement, her individualist stance earned her the admiration of many feminists, who see parallels between Rand's philosophy and feminism. The aforementioned diatribe, along with certain recurring themes in her novels, have also earned Rand the derision of many feminists. As is typical with Rand, she polarizes as little else can.
Despite Rand's insistence that Objectivism was presented in toto in her novels and essays and needed no interpretation or additions, many have sought to bring her ideas to new audiences, and to increase our understanding of her ideas through analysis and reinterpretation of her canon. Gladstein and Sciabarra undertake this task regarding the feminism issue in their new edited book, entitled Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. Gladstein is a professor of English who also teaches women's studies courses; her 1978 article on Ayn Rand and feminism began the discussion of Rand's relation to feminism. Gladstein also wrote The Ayn Rand Companion, and is currently working on a second edition of it. Sciabarra is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University. He has authored numerous works on Rand and her philosophy, including Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. His concluding book in this trilogy, Total Freedom, is scheduled to be published next year.
Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand is one volume of a series called Re-Reading the Canon, which offers feminist interpretations of selected philosophers in each of its volumes. This fact, along with the impressive credentials of the contributors to the Rand volume, might give one reason to think that the essays are all dry, academic analyses of Rand minutiae, and of no interest to a general audience. That isn't the case. Gladstein and Sciabarra do an excellent job of orienting the reader to the topic in their introduction, as well as covering the field with their contributors. These include close members of Rand's "Inner Circle" such as Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden, and those who seemingly find little of value in Rand's works, such as Susan Brownmiller and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Many of the nineteen essays are new material written specifically for this volume, so even those who have read all they can find on Rand will find new ideas to consider. As is inevitable with an edited volume, there is some overlap between essays, and quite a bit of unevenness in writing style. However, considered as a whole, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand is a more satisfying package than most books of this sort. This sense of completeness is even more remarkable given the disparate opinions the contributors have of Rand and her contribution to feminism.
Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand is organized into three sections. Part one, called "Looking Back", contains several groundbreaking essays from the late 1970s on Rand and feminism. All of the reprinted essays are in this section. The first selection is Barbara Branden's essay, developed from her book The Passion of Ayn Rand. "Ayn Rand: The Reluctant Feminist" offers a nice introduction for those unfamiliar with Rand. It also contains an essay so short it seems barely worth including if not for the reputation of its author. "Looking Back" is the shortest of the three parts, and the weakest, perhaps due to a lack of material to consider for inclusion. Still, from it one gets a clear sense of the scope of the ideasand feelingsinvolved in the dialogue.
The second section, "Feminist Rereadings of Rand's Fiction", presents literary interpretations of varying aspects of her novels, from specific scenes or characters to entire novels. Although the undertaking can be pedantic, only one of these five essays takes such a scholarly tone that it might be intimidating to nonacademics. Barry Vacker's essay is a thought-provoking melange of ideas, relating Rand's fondness for skyscrapers to Naomi Wolf's views of supermodels as examples of beauty, and linking them in an analysis of Third Wave society. Karen Michalson offers a compelling analysis of Dagny Taggart as female epic hero. The variety offered in this section will give anyone interested in Rand several ideas to ponder, and much to discuss with others.
Part three is titled "Toward a Randian Feminism?" and offers a number of views on whether Randand her canoncan be considered feminist. The section leads with Nathaniel Branden's "Was Ayn Rand a Feminist?" and contains the most solid essays of the volume. Among these are Sharon Presley's analysis of individualism from a feminist psychologist's perspective, and philosopher Diana Mertz Brickell's examination of the concepts of sex and gender in the context of egoism. Somewhat unfortunately, the volume concludes on a lighter note, with Melissa Jane Hardie's essay on Rand's fiction as camp. While the piece is a valuable contribution to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, either of the other pieces would have been a more satisfying conclusion, in the sense of offering closure to the book.
Somewhat predictablyand this is probably the way most readers would want itmany of the contributors touch on some of Rand's most well-known writings with respect to romantic relationships and feminist issues. The "rape" scene in The Fountainhead receives the most scrutiny, not surprisingly. It receives the predicted denouncements by some, but also the thoughtful consideration that Wendy McElroy brings to bear. As many point out, McElroy included, Rand commented that if the activity is indeed rape, it's "rape by engraved invitation", but McElroy goes farther to point out that "conquest and surrender" is a very common fantasy among women. Also given deserved scrutiny is Rand's essay "About a Woman President", including an entire essay on the subject by Susan Love Brown. In her presentation Brown delves into the contradiction of Rand's claim that a rational woman would not want to be president, and her creation of strong female characters in her novels. Brown's explanation includes a consideration of the cultures that influenced Rand and her work, as well as the conflicts in Rand's own life, which naturally show up in her writings.
Several contributors make valuable distinctions between Rand the novelist, Rand the philosopher, and Rand the individual, something which both her adherents and detractors all too frequently fail to consider. These subtle differences allow one to re-interpret some of Rand's passages. For example, many feminists object to the scene in which Dagny Taggart's appearance at the Reardens' anniversary party is described from Lillian Rearden's perspective: " the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained." Several anti-Rand contributors point to this as one of many examples of Rand's unhealthy view of femininity; yet the excerpt is consistent with Lillian's view of femininity, as Michalson insightfully points out. Such subtleties do not explain away all of Rand's apparent contradictions, of course, nor should they be expected to. They do remind one of the ever-present possibility of over-analysis that the Randian canon does seem vulnerable to, particularly given the body of fiction and nonfiction from which to draw upon.
Would Rand approve of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand? Of course not; as previously stated, Rand denounced feminism, as well as the need for Objectivism to be questioned, expanded, and reinterpreted. Was Rand a feminist? Depending upon one's definition of feminism and one's reading of the Randian canon, she could be. After all, feminism as first conceived was about women asserting their individuality; Rand would certainly endorse that. Rand was bitter about not being taken seriously by the philosophers of her day, and it's more than a little ironic that Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Randaddressing an issue she believed was a false concernwill bring the kind of attention she desired to her ideas.