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Friday, March 11, 2011

4th Wave: A Struggle For Gender Liberty

This is a contribution that I wrote for a new 4th wave Feminist group, F.I.N.D. Feminism Is Not Dead, in the March 2011 issue of their zine.

Feminism is rooted in classical liberalism. The liberal notions that inform feminism are some of the same ones that informed the abolitionists of American slavery. Among those is the idea of self-ownership, which is the truth that each person and each woman owns her body and is the highest authority over that body. Neither the state nor any man (or woman) has a higher claim on your body than you do. This is encapsulated in the popular pro-choice maxim, “My body, my choice.”

Secondly there is the liberal notion that all people are created equal- everyone is born with the same rights and powers. In addition to repudiating the divine right of kings, the idea that we all have the same rights and powers also defies the institution of patriarchy. No woman is beholden to her husband or any other man simply by virtue of being a woman.

The highest purpose that government can aspire to is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. For a long time the powers that be mistakenly thought that this did not include women. The 19th and 20th centuries saw this anomaly corrected, and now women can own their own land, own and run their own business, marriage is now an equal and voluntary partnership instead of a slavery pact necessary for survival, and the violation of women’s bodies in cases of battery and rape are increasingly addressed as a serious matter rather than being seen as a private matter.

Yes, Liberty for women has expanded tremendously over the course of the past two centuries in ways previously thought unimaginable. But now, as we enter the 4th Wave of Feminism we must be careful. With the emphasis on including men and women we must focus on social equality and also equal legal rights. With this will many positive things. But it is possible to unintentionally create laws that pit men and women against each other- not as allies against the specter of sexism but as enemies for acquired false rights.

An example of this might be old laws that dictated that in a divorce the mother almost always got the children regardless of the circumstances. In response to this many groups of upset fathers organized and changed the law so that the children stay with the person who is the best parent. But for a while there women and men were engaged in a gender war that did not need to happen. These battles breed enemies of feminism and must be avoided.

What I am underscoring here is the danger of trying to acquire too many new and invented rights- positive rights versus negative rights. If we try to give a certain group rights that other groups do not, then everyone will want a piece of the pie. The story is the same whether we are talking about corporate bailouts, or if we are talking about laws and subsidies for a single class of people. When one group gets the perks then everyone else wishes to partake in the plunder. As Frederic Bastiat writes in his famous treatise The Law, one such law eventually develops into a whole system of class subsidies.

If women and men are to be seen on equal ground, and gender wars are to be avoided, then one gender cannot receive legal privileges or subsidies that the other does not receive. The primary task that I see for the 4th Wave is perfecting and maintaining equal liberty between genders under the law, and especially further eroding the remnants of sexism in our society.

Sexism, like racism, is a malign collectivist assumption that people can be lumped into groups and then assumed to hold common traits and habits based on a physical characteristic like sex or race. We’ve all heard the jokes about “women drivers”, and statements that women should not run countries because they get cranky once a month.

These collectivist statements can and must be countered by a philosophy that views men and women as unique individuals who are inherently equal as human beings under the law and that is what must be established going forward.

From a libertarian perspective this new 4th Wave of Feminism is encouraging and even exciting because of the strong emphasis on including men and women together as equal partners against sexism and gender stereotypes, and the willingness to view people as individuals. When I read this piece aloud at a F.I.N.D. open mic, it was very well received.

[Cartoon licensed under Creative Commons to Eric A. Sharp.]


Eric Sharp,
Regular Columnist, THL
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