Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Open Letter to Anti-Feminist "Libertarians"

Stefan Molyneux’s recent video, a defense of his statement that “feminism is socialism with panties” (from which he takes his title) is not so much an enlightening philosophical speech as an ill-informed rant. The title of the video is intellectually dishonest, dismissing generations of women and men struggling for equality as panty-wearing socialists. The title panders to vulgar misogynists and is insulting to all women, feminists or not, and to anyone else who believes in equality between the sexes. The ideas expressed in this video and other videos of his that discuss feminism in a negative way are not only inaccurate but also dangerous, negatively influencing society’s perception of what feminism really is.

Because Molyneux’s anti-feminist views are unfortunately shared by many libertarian men and some libertarian women, we think it is important to take a stand and point out what is wrong and misguided about these views. Each one of the individuals signing this document has seen libertarian and conservative men attacking feminism without knowing what it means; men who have read nothing more than a few newspapers articles or anti-feminist rants by others and have no idea of feminism’s rich and varied history. Their views, founded on little more than opinion, are merely knee-jerk “politically incorrect” responses that lack critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

Anti-feminist libertarian and conservative comments abound on Facebook and other social media. These include the usual clichés such as “man-hater,” and “feminazis” as well as such claims as, for example, “feminists are so trapped in their victimhood thinking that they see potential male oppressors everywhere and blame everything that is wrong with their lives on ‘sexism’ and ‘patriarchy.’” Men who are supportive of feminist concerns are attacked as “little wussy boys” and “worse” than the feminists themselves. One man even called the Association of Libertarian Feminists an “oxymoron.” These childish and uninformed remarks by anti-feminist men not only show how little they know about feminism, but how little regard they have for women and women’s rights.

Some anti-feminists even call feminism “collectivist” because it is a movement. This is a strange misuse of the term. They confuse “collective action” with “collectivism.” The former simply means individuals working together for a common purpose, as for example, libertarianism or abolitionism. The philosophy of “collectivism” says that group goals are more important than individual goals. But the raison d'etre of feminism is to achieve equal individual rights for every woman; to allow individual women to pursue their lives as they see fit rather than submit to cultural stereotypes.
Feminism is, by common definition, “the belief that women and men are equal and should be equally valued as human beings and have equal rights.” From a libertarian point of view, this stance should not be in the least controversial since libertarians also believe in equal rights for all. Indeed, given this definition of feminism, all libertarians, if they are consistent, should also be feminists. This definition is the essence of feminism to which every stripe of feminist from Marxist to libertarian, from radical to liberal, will agree. What feminists differ upon is how to achieve this goal of equality and equal rights. But the anti-feminist libertarians, knowing little about the wide range of views within feminism, selectively choose those feminist views they find abhorrent and attack those views as if they represented all of feminism. Yet when liberals do the same to libertarians, misrepresenting a few of the most uncompassionate as representative of the whole, these same anti-feminist libertarians howl. This is an inconsistent, hypocritical, and unfair treatment of both of these rich and vibrant intellectual traditions.

Molyneux is only the latest in a long line of these uncritical anti-feminists. We use his videos as a starting point for analysis only because he is currently one of the most visible anti-feminist libertarians. Like other anti-feminists, he fails to actually define feminism before he attacks. He simply implies that the ones he selectively chooses to talk about constitute feminism. Though Molyneux admits it isn’t accurate to say that all feminists are socialists, he still defends his statement that “feminism is socialism with panties” and continues to talk as if all feminists are indeed socialists. This is more than an offensive accusation unsupported by sound reasoning; it represents the kind of sexist thinking feminism tries to combat. By using this sleight-of-hand, he continues to encourage his listeners to systematically categorize all "feminist" concerns as pitiful socialist garbage to be derided and dismissed.

In representing feminism as a primarily socialist-dominated movement, Molyneux ignores feminists of any other political ideology, including a long history of individualist feminists. His definition of socialism is as unclear as his definition of feminism; he uses the term interchangeably with “Marxism” without qualifying exactly what kind of socialists he is accusing feminists of being. What is clear is his belief that socialists of any kind are unappealing and deserving of ridicule.

Molyneux also uses the term “gender” incorrectly. He talks about the “two genders” but “gender” is not interchangeable with “sex.” Social scientists generally define “gender” in terms of psychological factors, i.e., societal views of gender, one’s self-perception, etc.  In fact there is a whole range of non-binary gender perceptions; including “transgender” people  who do not fit into the standard “male” and “female” categories. Even the term “sex,” which refers to anatomical distinctions, is more complex than simply “male” and “female” because some people are “intersex” with physiological elements of both female and male reproductive characteristics.  These people may call themselves “male” or “female” for convenience but many do not feel comfortable doing so.
There is a belief among such anti-feminists that feminism is inherently sexist because it emphasizes women. This is like saying that those who oppose discrimination against people of color are racists. Such anti-feminist thinking then assumes that women must desire preferential treatment. This is a typical claim made by anti-feminist men in articles and posts in social media, couched under the misdirecting plea, “but we’re all individuals.” It is similar to the claim that LGBTQ folks want preferential treatment simply because they want the same marriage rights as anyone else. Yet it is important to note that it is not women who have created the gender rights gap; it is a culture and society that has long seen women as secondary to men. Both culture and the government have been the biggest challenges feminists have faced in seeking equality. Government, reflecting the historical cultural prejudices against women, has enforced laws (opinions backed with guns, as Molyneux muses) against women since the beginning of the United States. Feminists, in working for equality, are therefore not working to support the state but rather desire to change it in order to eliminate the need for feminism. However, if libertarians categorically reject every attempt to challenge the presence of privilege in our culture, we should not be too shocked when feminists believe that the force of law is required to create a more humane and bearable space in which to exist.

Contrary to what the anti-feminists such as Molyneux claim, feminists have in fact played a major role in some of the most significant triumphs for individual liberty against state and private aggression in the last two centuries. In the 19th century, they were in the forefront of major movements for individual freedom, including abolitionism, suffrage for women, individual conscience in regard to religion and sexual activity, and the protection of minority rights. Every woman today who has a college education, owns property, or votes can thank these feminists. In the 20th century, feminists were in the forefront of not only the vote for women and the civil rights movement, but also in the fight against discriminatory laws that kept women from having credit in their own name, police policies that treat victims of rape and domestic abuse as responsible for their own victimization, actions and laws that harm people whose identities, sexual preferences, and orientations do not match the mainstream, and let us not forget reproductive freedom!

The radical feminist activists that Molyneux and other anti-feminists so unthinkingly sneer at have almost always been primarily concerned with challenging and resisting patriarchal laws—abortion laws, rather famously—and with building non-state grassroots institutions (e.g., consciousness raising groups, battered women's shelters, rape crisis centers, underground abortion networks, women's self-help clinics, and an array of critical “awareness”/anti-sexist cultural campaigns and groups), a number of which, especially the medically-focused efforts, were in fact constantly targeted by the regulatory state for criminalization and destruction.

In his “feminists are socialists in panties” video, Molyneux states that feminists are state-serving “creatures” and “Frankensteins,” whose primary agenda is receiving preferential treatment from the government and society, an erroneous and insulting view. He commits the error that Frédéric Bastiat defines as the core error of socialists, by “confusing the distinction between government and society.” He misrepresents the feminist stance as categorically anti-family and requiring state intervention to fulfill. No matter that many feminists have actually long discussed how to apply their feminist views to marriage and family, with the intent to raise children in a non-stereotypical way that affords them the richest opportunities as adults. Their aim is not to raise children through the state as Plato asserted, but typically to raise them healthfully in an individual family with two parents. Only a handful of feminists have actually seriously talked about dismantling the family, primarily during the Second Wave, contrary to what anti-feminists like Molyneux claim.

Molyneux portrays feminists as ruthless women, quick to cut each other down and unwilling to support successful women who deviate from the underlying socialist ideology of feminism. He claims that this is why feminists never discuss Ayn Rand or Margaret Thatcher, who he sees as “neo-conservatives” that are “anti-government” and therefore can be dismissed. In actuality, Rand, is not a neo-conservative; her importance for women has even led to a scholarly book, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, published by a prestigious and well-known university press. In his rant against “ruthless” feminists, Molyneux even implies that because they did not rally to the cause of Bachmann’s candidacy that this is further proof of their cutthroat ideology. He thus implies that women should unconditionally support and praise each other despite differences in political views, even when the women themselves hold anti-feminist positions. The fact that Molyneux himself does nothing of the sort—he frequently attacks Ron Paul, a man, for example—is apparently beside the point. But unbeknownst to Molyneux, many feminists did in fact defend Bachmann, Clinton, and Palin from charges that veered from political disagreement to overt sexist dismissal.

In his video “The Life and Death of Radical Feminism,” Molyneux propounds the belligerently conservative argument that women taking on paid jobs won’t spend enough time with their children and thus will harm their development. This argument is fallacious on several grounds. First, it mysteriously leaves out one parent from the equation—the father. In fact, social science research shows that fathers have considerable impact on their children and that more interaction with their children is desirable. Second, there is a copious social science literature showing that children are not harmed when the mother works outside the home. A more important factor is whether the mother is satisfied with her situation, whether working outside the home or within. Third, it denies individual autonomy to women, chastising them for wanting to have a life or career outside the home and asserting that they should sacrifice their aspirations in order to allegedly achieve anti-authoritarian kids. Once again, this bears no resemblance to actual psychological research findings. The factors that have the most impact on authoritarian or anti-authoritarian views in children are warmth and non-punitive childrearing methods that teach empathy, not whether or not the mother stays at home. To blame moms for everything bad that happens to the children is yet another example of not only sexism but outright misogyny.

Molyneux, like many conservatives, seems to think that the 1950s was a golden age for families. The idea that the 1950s nuclear family was a model for liberated childhood or somehow ushered in the social movements of the 1960s is simply bizarre. Spanking, the abusive disciplinary action that Molyneux abhors, was far more prevalent in the 50s than it is now. In the 1950s, the spanking rate was 99%; the rate has been going down ever since. Isn’t this a curiously contradictory view? Furthermore, in the books and research about the student movements of the 60s, the main correlation between activism and parenting was having a parent who was also a political or social activist, not having a traditional nuclear family.

Anti-feminists have no idea what feminists really want. Feminists are not women who want to be treated as men. Feminists are people who want to be treated as people, people who should not be discriminated against. Feminism isn’t socialism. Feminism is actually more about individualism and the desire to be evaluated based on one’s merit’s and not on one’s sex or gender.

Yes, there are feminists who are socialists. There are also feminists who are anarchists and feminists who are libertarians and feminists who really have no political ideology but know that they deserve to be treated equally to men. There are feminists who wear panties and feminists who wear boxers because not all feminists have an underwear preference and not all feminists are women.

The majority of Molyneux’s arguments against feminism as well as his accusation that “feminism is socialism with panties” are grounded in flawed and misogynistic rhetoric as are the arguments of other anti-feminists. In reality, feminism attracts a diverse group of people just as any other idea or philosophy does. To attempt to diminish the impact of feminism and redefine it as an objectionable philosophy is repugnant. The statement itself is inherently sexist and is the kind of thinking that feminism—true feminism—works to change.

This is a collective rejoinder written and agreed upon by the following signers 1-31-2012.
Ankur Chawla, Amanda Davis, Christine-Marie L. Dixon, Nathan Goodman, Charles H. Johnson, Ross Kenyon, Matt Mortellaro, Nicholas O’Connell, James Peron, CBP, Sharon Presley

Also joining us:
Brad Spangler, Andrei Pemberton, Jeffrey Young, Thomas J. Webb, Kyle Bush, George H. Smith, Thomas L. Knapp, Keith Taylor, John L Robinson, Michael Scandirito, James Tuttle, Neil Ball, TheElMoIsEvil, Megan Arnold, Adam Reed, Tom Ender, Lisa Clanin, Andrew Taranto, Erin Miller, Mike J. Gogulski, Robert Steel, Dan Bier, Nick Ford, Grant Babcock, Jason Lee Byas, Lindsey A. Jacobs, Leah Farrow, Alex Strekal, Benjamin Nichols, Kaitlyn Emerick, Roman Pearah, Rocco Fama, Art Smith, Judy Purrington, Jim Davidson, Jason Bessey, Neha Sinha, Luke Clayborn Hopper, Vincent Patsy, Luca Gattoni-Celli, Natasha Shebeko, Julia Riber Pitt, D. Frank Robinson, Natasha Shebeko, Julia Riber Pitt, D. Frank Robinson, Jad Davis, Moriah N. Costa, Nick Saorsa, Matt Zwolinski, Mariana Evica, Don Pomeroy, Halina Reed, Isa Rizal Bufano, Lucy Betageek Hanouille, Jason Phillips Love, Teresa Warmke, Currer Bell, Jon Anselmo, Alejandro Oquendo, Kevin Carson, Corey Moore, Edgar Aroutiounian

Note: Our support of this open letter comes with only one hesitation—we support the content and the intentions. We merely question whether it should have addressed Mr. Molyneux except in passing. We do not find his arguments or his views particularly compelling, nor do we think he is significant. But the problems associated with his views are significant and a result of the influence of conservatives in corrupting modern libertarianism. Individuals who would like to add their signature to the open letter are encouraged to leave a comment stating their intention and we shall add them. Please add your email address, which will not be made public, so we can verify it with you.


  1. I agree with your criticism of everything that Molyneux says. However, I disagree with the claim that feminism is not collectivist. Let me make it clear that I am a feminist and I don't think there's anything wrong with collectivism (if done willingly).

    1) Consider the case of a sexist professor who gives less than earned grades to female students, but is willing to give them high grades for sexual favors. A feminist stance here would be to get all female students to agree not to sleep with the professor and work until his biased evaluation is resolved. If one student decides to put her own own interests above those of the group, she would go and sleep with him, get extra grades and not worry about the externalities she imposes on all other women (now the professor expects all other women to sleep with him). Her action was individualist and in contradiction with feminism. I wouldn't support punishing her legally (not at all), but feminists would be right in pointing out that she compromised the interests of everyone else by following her own.

    Again it's no different than when libertarians agree to give up some of their freedoms in order to live in a state that protects their negative rights. That is some form of collectivism. Or when countries agree to multilaterally disarm (let's say nuclearly). That is also collectivism that I'm hoping libertarians agree with. There's nothing wrong with collectivism if practiced willingly.

    When you talk about clashes between the interests of the group and interests of an individual, you assume that the individual has one clear interest, whereas anyone has a multitude of clashing interests (short term, long term, physical, emotional, etc.). It can also be argued that the female student satisfied her immediate interest for a good grade by compromising her long term interest of living in a world where she's judged on her performance and not on her gender.

    1. I don't know where to start as this is the most bizarre example I've seen. The proper response is for the school to fire the professor. The very idea of a professor selling grades for sex transcends all politics. The man should be fired and it is not "feminist" to organize a sex boycott of the man. No feminists of any political ideology that I know would suggest that.

    2. I think I didn't make myself clear. Of course he should be fired, and I wasn't calling for a sex boycott, I think you misunderstood me.

      It's not that far fetched of a scenario: I've had a realistic discussion with a friend concerning a professor with such low morals who was politically shielded from being fired. My friend was suggesting that she would sleep with him for higher grades, while I was arguing that by doing so she'll be making it harder for all other women in class. She was putting her own interests ahead of other women and by doing so, imposing an externality on them, whereas a feminist collectivist action would be to get all the female students in class not to cave in to the professor's low morals, until the situation is resolved with the school.

  2. Consider myself one of the signers as well.