Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 413 pages, $60.00, $19.95 (paper)
In Ayn Rand's lifetime, university professors regarded their students' interest in her writings with a mixture of scorn and dismay. Seventeen years after her death, the iconoclastic novelist-philosopher is becoming a respectable subject of scholarship. Most recently, a collection of essays on Rand has appeared in the "Re-Reading the Canon" series featuring feminist analyses of philosophers from Aristotle to Foucault.
That work, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra (the authors, respectively, of The Ayn Rand Companion and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical), could not have pleased Rand, given her aversion to anything called "feminist." To some extent, this attitude reflected the anti-individualist, anti-capitalist slant of the modern women's movement. But it also had to do with Rand's peculiar views on sex and gender.
Was Rand a feminist? Some of the book's contributors–Gladstein, author Karen Michalson, psychologist and former Rand protégé and lover Nathaniel Branden, and, with some reservations, biographer Barbara Branden–place her squarely within feminism's best tradition, pointing both to her own life of achievement and to her female characters: independent, strong women ahead of their time. As Nathaniel Branden puts it, "A feminism that sees woman at her best, as a heroic figure, will find support and validation in Rand's writings. A feminism that defines woman as victim and man as her evil oppressor will see Rand as the enemy."
Other contributors, such as libertarian feminist Joan Kennedy Taylor, philosopher Diana Mertz Brickell, and writer Thomas Gramstad, are more ambivalent. They argue that Rand's work has much to offer feminism but is marred by what Gramstad calls "flaws and inconsistencies in her notions of gender." All agree that nothing in Rand's basic philosophy is incompatible with feminism and that, in fact, her antifeminism was in many ways at odds with her individualism.
One obvious stumbling block for would-be Randian feminists is the infamous "rape scene" between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon in Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Is it rape or, as Wendy McElroy insists, "rough sex between consenting adults"? McElroy rightly criticizes feminists who employ very broad definitions of sexual violence. Yet, given Dominique's ferocious resistance, the act would seem to qualify as rape even under the narrowest definition of the term (though her desire for degradation at Roark's hands does complicate the situation). While McElroy needlessly blurs the lines between this episode and other Randian encounters that can be described as consensual rough sex, in some sense Dominique's ravishment is an extreme expression of Rand's general view of sex as involving male dominance and female submission.
McElroy asserts that this emphasis on female surrender to the male "on the altar of sex" is the only thing that "mitigates an otherwise stable state of equality between the man and the woman" in Rand's novels. But it may be more complicated than that.
Rand believed, of course, that men and women should have equal rights. She had little sympathy for the traditional ideal of womanhood, in which the morality of self-sacrifice and service to others that she so detested was distilled and magnified. In a 1964 interview, she affirmed that women, like men, should build their lives around work: "What is proper for a man is proper for a woman….There is no particular work which is specifically feminine." Her novels reflect that: Kira Argounova in We the Living and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged both choose "unfeminine" careers, engineering and railroad operations.
In "Who Is Dagny Taggart?" Michalson sees Dagny as a nearly unique female "epic hero" in Western literature. Particularly provocative is her analysis of the scene in which a teenage Dagny half-jokingly tells her future lover Francisco d'Anconia that perhaps she should play dumb in school to gain popularity. Francisco slaps her face, causing her "violent pleasure." Is Dagny "an oppressed woman reveling in her own abuse"? Michalson persuasively argues that the episode subverts the traditional paradigm in which men use violence "to keep women from excelling [or] being too uppity" (though I'm less inclined to agree that the subversion was intentional). Francisco slaps Dagny for threatening (even facetiously) to lower her standards, and her pleasure comes from realizing how intensely he values her achievement. Dagny, Michalson observes, is "the only important female hero in Western literature who is physically struck for refusing to excel at a nontraditional pursuit."
Michalson is undoubtedly right when she asserts that if most feminists wouldn't dream of embracing Dagny or her creator as role models, it's mainly because "some major strains of feminism posit themselves against individual achievement and traditional ideas of heroism, which are defined as 'male.' " Yet the case for Rand as crypto-feminist involves a good deal of wishful thinking and logical acrobatics.
Take Michalson's reading of Rand's statement, from the 1968 article "About a Woman President," that "a properly feminine woman does not treat men as if she were their pal, sister, mother–or leader" (emphasis in original). What this statement means, Michalson contends, is that a real woman does not define herself "in relation to men" but is "self-actualized and self-defined." Nice try, but unfortunately Rand was very specific about women's proper role in relation to men: "the essence of femininity is hero worship–the desire to look up to man." Indeed, the point of Rand's article was that it would be "metaphysically inappropriate" for a woman to become president–not because women were less qualified for the office but because it was inherently unfeminine. For a woman to be "the superior, the leader, virtually the ruler of all the men she deals with," Rand wrote, would be such "psychological torture" that any woman who would seek the job would clearly be too irrational to be fit for it.
Man-worship, Rand hastens to add, does not mean "dependence, obedience, or anything implying inferiority" but only "intense admiration." However, in an essay pointedly titled "Ayn Rand: The Woman Who Would Not Be President," anthropologist Susan Love Brown shows that these protestations are disingenuous, given Rand's assumption that a female president couldn't "worship" a man because she would be superior to all men in status and power. Leaving aside Rand's rather bizarre concept of the presidency, "About a Woman President" undercuts the claim that Rand's belief in male sexual dominance had no implications outside the bedroom.
Brown, who seems more critical of Rand than any other original contributor to the book, also takes a less sanguine view of the feminist element in Atlas Shrugged, pointing out that Dagny is not quite the equal of the novel's male heroes: She is not a "prime mover" and does not "originate thought," and even her work is more practical than creative. (French linguist Valerie Loiret-Prunet argues that Rand's most "feminist" heroine is Kira, who is morally and intellectually superior to both of the male protagonists in We the Living and is truly the center of the novel.) Notably, when Rand declared that her primary goal as a writer was "the projection of an ideal man"–The Fountainhead's Roark, Atlas Shrugged's John Galt, etc.–Dagny and Kira were conspicuously missing from the list.
To suggest that Rand tended to see women as the "second sex" may seem shocking. Yet she herself said as much: "Men are metaphysically the dominant sex"; "an ideal woman is a man-worshiper, and an ideal man is the highest symbol of mankind." As Gramstad observes, Rand's beliefs about gender contradict her general philosophy in several ways. Her notion of femininity clashes with the ideal of self-sufficiency, since "hero worship requires another, one who is the object and recipient of worship" (though, to be fair, Rand believed that a woman had to be a strong person in her own right to be worthy of the hero she worships). Gender-based rules also conflict with individualism and with Rand's view of the human being as "a being of self-made soul."
Gramstad offers a rousing "Randian-feminist synthesis" in which the heroic individualist potential of Rand's philosophy is fully extended to women. Like Brown and some other contributors, however, he is much too uncritical of the feminist dogma that all psychological differences between the sexes are social in origin, and much too inclined to dismiss biological theories of difference by citing ideologically driven critiques. (One welcome exception is Brickell, who acknowledges that "there may well be significant innate differences between males and females" but stresses that these general patterns should not translate into "normative prescriptions" for individuals.)
At the other extreme, Robert Sheaffer, the author of Resentment Against Achievement, chastises "neo-Randians" who repudiate Rand's opinions on sex roles for buying into "simplistic and unsound victim-feminist positions, which depict male dominance in entirely negative terms." But, while Sheaffer affirms that "Rand's views on the positive aspects of male dominance deserve…as much respect as her writings on other subjects," he seems to agree with Rand's feminist critics that her thinking on sex and gender is riddled with inconsistencies. And he is dismissive of one of her core beliefs: that sexual attraction is based on rational values and that a heroic man must pursue a strong, heroic woman whose "surrender" will give him a sense of accomplishment. Sheaffer argues that this theory was literally a rationalization of Rand's more fundamental Dionysian view of sexuality, expressed in the violence of her sex scenes.
In his most interesting argument, Sheaffer challenges Rand's assumption that her paradigm of femininity as the worship of a superior man would not preclude women from achieving any position except the presidency (which, Sheaffer astutely notes, Rand saw less in real-life terms than as a symbolic pinnacle of authority and accomplishment). In fact, it cripples the romantic options of any high-achieving woman, greatly narrowing the range of men she can "look up to," so that "female heterosexuality and female achievement seem to be inherently antithetical." Sheaffer thinks Rand was on to an important truth, even if she didn't quite know it herself.
Next to anodyne pieties about "gender as human-made," Sheaffer's candid belief that male dominance is the natural way of things is perversely refreshing. Yet taking his argument to its logical end, one must conclude that Randian philosophy puts women in an impossible bind: They are forced to choose between achievement, which Rand regards as the supreme human value, and heterosexual femininity, which she regards as the supreme female value. In that case, one might even argue that women would be better served by cultural conservatism, which does not place so absolute a premium on achievement and treats the traditional feminine sphere with more respect.
The alternative is to allow that, while the tension between female heterosexuality and achievement can be real, it may not be nearly as universal or inevitable as Sheaffer believes. Quite a few high-achieving women, notably Margaret Thatcher (one has to wonder what Rand thought of her), seem to have been happy with unheroic men. Rand herself had a gentle, passive, "nurturing" husband. Sheaffer is undoubtedly right that her husband's lack of heroism was a disappointment to her; yet when she pursued an affair, it was with a younger man to whom she was a mentor and idol. Perhaps it was the image, not the reality, of male dominance that Rand craved.
Was this view of relationships in some ways a reflection of prevailing cultural norms? Sheaffer pooh-poohs this idea, pointing out that Rand was willing to defy many other widely held values. But the most daring rebel can have a conformist side. According to Brown's compelling analysis, which relies on biographical information as well as Rand's work, Rand did imbibe the notion that intellect, ambition, and strength were male attributes; thus, her possession of these traits made her insecure about her femininity. Exaggerated "man worship" was a way to reaffirm it. Ironically, this allowed her to create a vision of heroic womanhood.
Too often, Rand is either revered as a prophet or dismissed as a crank. Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand approaches her as a writer and thinker of profound insights and equally profound contradictions, who offered an important and inspiring but flawed and limited vision of life. These contradictions and limitations are perhaps nowhere more evident than in her views on women–for whom, perhaps, her message of healthy selfishness was especially valuable.
To Rand herself, such treatment might have seemed more insulting than outright dismissal, and many orthodox Randians will no doubt take the same attitude. But I only such a serious approach can ultimately end Rand's intellectual marginalization. This volume takes a major step in that direction. In the process, it addresses issues of sexual equality and difference that are more relevant than ever today.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young (email@example.com) is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (The Free Press).