Civil Liberties

Soundbite: Freedom's Feminist


Wendy McElroy is one of the nation's foremost proponents of gender equality. Yet her work—including Individualist Feminism of the 19th Century (2001) and XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (1995) frustrates many feminists. McElroy, an individualist anarchist whose formal education ended in high school, categorically rejects the idea that women need special protection under the law—arguably the major legacy of '70s-era feminism. True equality, says McElroy, requires a gender-blind government.

McElroy, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, is the editor of the new Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (Ivan R. Dee), a collection of essays by the likes of social critic Camille Paglia, American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen, and reason Contributing Editor Cathy Young. From her farm outside Toronto, McElroy runs the Web site and writes a column for Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke with her in April.

Q: Define ifeminism, the term you've invented to describe your philosophy.

A: It stands for "individualist feminism" and says that all peaceful choices for women should be legally tolerated. It's pro-free market and it embraces men, both literally and figuratively [laughs], as valued equals.

Q: Who are the forebears of ifeminism?

A: The historical roots of American feminism are overwhelmingly individualistic. In the 1830s feminism as a self-conscious movement grew around abolitionism, particularly around the individualist anarchist William Lloyd Garrison. These early feminists were Quakers and very politically aware women who demanded nothing more than that government and men "take their foot off women's necks, and allow us to breathe freely," as they put it.

Q: What's the single most pressing issue confronting today's ifeminists?

A: Absolute equality under the law, which means pushing back privileges like affirmative action. Other troubling areas include the current bias toward women in family courts, with men denied routinely custody of their children, and the attack against midwives in America.

Q: Has individualist feminism really triumphed, as Camille Paglia declares in Liberty for Women?

A: On various issues, yes. On topics like porn, which was the debate of the '80s, there's no question that free speech won. Sexual harassment and political correctness have crumbled. Groups such as the National Organization for Women are no longer relevant. After the Paula Jones debacle, where NOW's main strategy was to attack the woman, its membership fell by about 50 percent. So the icons of old-fashioned feminism are crumbling. The problem is sweeping away the institutions they bred.