Defending Freedom Feminism

Not reactionary, says the author, but rather a call for a reality-based, liberty-centered, male-respecting, judicious feminism.


Readers of Reason who happened to see a review of my book Freedom Feminism by Sharon Presley might conclude that I am a hidebound reactionary—someone with views antithetical to liberty. As Presley tells it, I believe most women are homebodies who would be far happier staying out of the workplace altogether. She confidently concludes that my views have "nothing to offer feminism, let alone libertarian feminism." I wish Presley had engaged with my arguments instead of caricaturing them. Freedom feminism is libertarian feminism. 

Freedom feminism stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes—and the freedom of women (and men) to employ their equal status to pursue happiness as they choose. Freedom feminism is not at war with femininity or masculinity and it does not view men and women as opposing tribes. Theories of universal patriarchal oppression or the inherent evils of capitalism are not in its founding tablets. Nor are partisan litmus tests: It welcomes women and men from across the political spectrum. Put simply, freedom feminism affirms for women what it affirms for everyone: dignity, opportunity, and personal liberty.

I developed this freedom-centered alternative by studying the history of the women's movement. Since its beginning in the 18th century, reformers have taken distinct positions on gender roles. Egalitarians stressed the metaphysical equality and essential sameness of the sexes and sought to liberate women from conventional roles. By contrast, "maternal feminists" were not opposed to gender roles. They fought for an empowered femininity and looked for ways to enlarge and strengthen the roles of wives and mothers.

Contra Presley, I don't endorse maternal feminism. I praise both schools for advancing the cause of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women appear to have made their greatest progress when the two movements worked together. But, as I make crystal clear: the world has moved on and neither theory quite works for 21st century men and women. That is why I proffer "freedom feminism."

Freedom feminism shares with egalitarianism an aversion to prescribed gender roles: Women should be free to defect from the stereotypes of femininity if they so choose. At the same time, however, it respects the choices of free and self-determining women—when they choose to embrace conventional feminine roles.  Nowhere do I say women should stay in the home or that women who defy convention are "aberrations." I simply note that, to the consternation of hardline contemporary genderists, many women, when given their full set of Jeffersonian freedoms, continue to give priority to the domestic sphere. Somehow in Presley's mind "giving priority" means a total rejection of the workplace. Not at all. But many women, especially when they have children at home, do appear to have a strong preference for working part-time.

No! insists Presley: "Sommers does not provide evidence that 'many, perhaps most' women feel this way." Yes, I do. I cite 2009 data from the Pew Research Center on how mothers and fathers describe their "ideal" working arrangement. To wit:

A strong majority of all working mothers (62%) say they would prefer to work part time.Only 37% of working moms would prefer to work full time. Working fathers have a much  different perspective. An overwhelming majority (79%) say they prefer full-time work.

Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, got similar results when she studied the preferences of women and men in Western Europe. A 2013 national Pew poll  found that the higher the socio-economic status of women, the more likely they were to reject full-time employment. Among women with annual family incomes of $50,000 or higher, only 25 percent identified full-time work as their ideal.

As a freedom feminist, I respect men's and women's preferences. For me a good society is defined by levels of human satisfaction—not statistical parity between groups.  Freedom feminism stands for equality of opportunity for all­­ but neither expects nor demands equality of results.

Presley faults me for accepting the possibility that the sexes are equal—but different. "From a feminist point of view—and from an individualist one—Sommers' stereotyping is unacceptable."  She reports that the consensus among "most serious scientists" is that gender differences are small and insignificant. She cites a few of her favorite feminist authors as proof.  That won't do. In fact, there is a vast body of serious research indicating a biological basis for sex differences. In 2009, David Geary, a University of Missouri psychologist, published Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences under the auspices of the American Psychological Association. This thorough, fair-minded and comprehensive survey of the literature includes more than 50 pages of footnotes citing studies by neuroscientists, endocrinologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and psychologists showing a strong biological basis for many gender differences. While these particular studies may not be the final word, they cannot be dismissed or ignored. Presley's instinct is to ignore or dismiss research that challenges her worldview.

Presley seems to be captive to a 1970s–style of "free to be you and me" feminism that sought to free human beings from the constraints of gender. But is that truly liberating? In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, "Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality." New York Times science columnist (and awesome libertarian) John Tierney summarized the study this way: "It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France."

Why should that be? The authors of the study hypothesize that prosperity and equality bring greater opportunities for self-actualization. Wealth, freedom, and education empower men and women to be who they are. It is conspicuously the case that gay liberation is a feature of advanced, prosperous societies: but such societies also afford heterosexuals more opportunities to embrace their gender identities. This cross-cultural research is far from conclusive, but it is intriguing and has great explanatory power. Just think: What if gender differentiation turns out to be a sign not of oppression but of well-being—and freedom?

Some readers of Freedom Feminism have made a criticism, not raised by Presley, that has given me pause. Why call my view feminism? Why not label it "equalism"? I am tempted, but I still believe the United States needs a women's movement. Though the major battles for equality and opportunity have been fought and largely won, the work of feminism remains unfinished. Across the globe, fledgling women's groups struggle to survive in the face of genuine and often violent oppression. In the West, popular culture contains strong elements of misogyny. Women, far more than men, struggle with the challenge of combining work and family. Despite women's immense progress, poverty rolls are disproportionately filled with women with children.

Anyone who cares about improving the status of women around the world should be working to create a women's movement that resonates with women and men. A reality-based, liberty-centered, male-respecting, judicious feminism could greatly help women both in the United States and throughout the world. Freedom Feminism is my humble contribution to that effort.