The writings of one of the foundational thinkers in the feminist legacy, Mary Wollstonecraft, both exemplify the classical liberal spirit of individualism and freedom of action and, importantly, far predate the confused “feminist” label that has since been designated as the genre of this pursuit. If our intellectual ancestors found a way to simultaneously pioneer both individualism writ large and the specific institutional and traditional barriers that uniquely effected women, why is it so difficult to discuss among a group of people that share the necessary values, individualism and freedom of action, that undergird both classical liberalism and classical feminism?
Despite the rich history of feminist thought within the classically liberal tradition, it is fair to say that the popular understanding of the word “feminism” is not limited to the particular strain of individualist or mainline feminism that libertarian feminists have and continue to boldly shape. In fact, even within “mainstream” feminist groups on the left, large chasms of disagreement exist regarding transsexuality, intersectionality, the nature of sex and marriage, pornography, and sex work. Still, I’d hazard a guess that when most people hear the word “feminism,” they think of a worldview that advocates for more government intervention in private affairs than less. Indeed, it does seem puzzling that the two general wings of the philosophy of gender relations, the collectivist and the individualist, even share the same moniker. This term, I believe, leaves much to be desired in the way of clarity, and is responsible for much of the discord surrounding the discussion of gender issues within the libertarian movement.
In his book, Is There Anything Good About Men?, Roy Baumeister develops a character that he calls “the imaginary feminist” as a device to channel men’s (and some women’s) perception of an average feminist. The imaginary feminist is far from the standard that Bryan Caplan might set for an adequate feminist representative for an ideological Turing test, but she does exist in some of the shriller corners of the internets as well as the darker recesses of male gender warriors’ imaginations. The imaginary feminist is indifferent about and sometimes openly hostile to the welfare of men as their just desserts for either participating in or benefiting from the patriarchy. The imaginary feminist sneers at the suggestion that culture exploits men in comparable but different ways than it is widely-accepted to have exploited women. The imaginary feminist is real, but she comprises a small yet vexatiously vocal sect of broad-tent feminism. I believe that the imaginary feminist’s disproportionate influence in discussions of gender and society is responsible for a great deal of the tension that usually results in discussions of feminist issues.
For a recent demonstration of the dissonance that the imaginary feminist wreaks, we can look and reflect on the reactions to Sarah Skwire’s recent piece at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. The article detailed the heartbreaking sexual assault and subsequent cover-up and victim-blaming that a female officer suffered at the hands of a fellow soldier and the tone-deaf administrators of the institutions that protected her assailant. Skwire then issued a call-to-arms for libertarians to be more deliberate about addressing the Kafkaesque institutional nightmare that has plagued many rape victims in their quest for justice. What should have been an uncontroversial suggestion quickly turned into the subject of much debate.
Might some of these reactions be rooted in the fallacy of the imaginary feminist? It seems plausible. From what I saw, much of the discussion honed in on a popular hobby horse of the imaginary feminist: rape culture. While Skwire was addressing the decidedly-unlibertarian institutional culture that protects assailants and silences victims, many responders eschewed discussion of the specific ill described and immediately challenged the imaginary claims of the imaginary feminist about rape culture. What could have been a productive discussion turned into yet another public introduction to Feminism 101.
Upon reflection, I realized that my initial theory was tidy but incomplete. In fact, I think that I’ve been guilty of interfacing with a figment of my own imagination during heated discussions in the past: the imaginary misogynist. In the same way that emotional discussions on gender have been obfuscated by some libertarian men’s (and a few libertarian women’s) knee jerk anticipations of the imaginary feminist’s absurd claims, some libertarian women (and a few libertarian men) intuit feelings of antipathy towards women in comments that are innocently skeptical of a particular claim. Like Don Quixote chasing at windmills, I imagined sexism where there was only genuine questioning and necessary skepticism. In a way, I became the imaginary feminist because I allowed myself to see imaginary misogynists everywhere.
Libertarians should work together to elevate our discussion of gender and culture in a free society—what has heretofore unfortunately fallen under the catch-all and polarizing label of “feminism”—and continue its development within the classical liberal tradition. One way to do this is to keep our emotional reactions in check during discussions of gender and society and grant people a charitable interpretation of their challenges before simply chalking it up to malice. Next time you find yourself engaged in an emotional discussion on gender with a fellow traveler, take some time to ask yourself, “Am I engaging with the content of this person’s argument, or am I erroneously attributing the views of the imaginary feminist or imaginary misogynist to this person?” If more people practice the discipline and self-awareness that is required to reflect on and control one’s biases, I believe that more fruitful discussions on gender and society will result.