I find that when I talk to libertarians, they often scoff at the idea of feminism. To me, that just means that “second-wave-get-the-state-involved” feminism is the first kind of feminism most people think of. Libertarian feminism is different.
Feminism is an amorphous term that covers over a hundred years of international activism and numerous ambiguous and strangely specific movements (such as “ecofeminism,” “nego-feminism,” and “post-structural feminism“). The term has become so convoluted that unless a specific wave or subcategory is defined, “feminism” can mean almost anything—and thus nothing.
Feminism can be broken down into three waves. The primary goal of first-wave feminism was to right de-jure inequalities (most famously, women’s suffrage), and it was popular in the United States and the United Kingdom in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Famous first-wave feminists included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf.
Second-wave feminism started in the United States in the early 1960s and lasted until the 1980s, though many of its teachings continue to be widely influential today. Second-wave feminism epitomizes many “feminist” stereotypes—while first-wave feminism focused largely on legal equality, second-wave feminism expanded into matters like reproductive rights, family, the workplace, rape, and popular culture. Second-wave feminists tend to argue that the government should right the social wrongs that oppress women. We still see a lot of their influence today in legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the ObamaCare Contraception Provision. Famous second-wavers include Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis.
Second-wave feminism garnered a lot of criticism because it was centered largely around the issues that concerned only certain types and understandings of what it means to be a woman. Third-wave feminism has, partially in response, adapted an understanding of gender that is outside of the typical man/woman or male/female binary, believing that such binaries exist to reenforce existing power structures. In the third-wave, the label “feminism” is not necessarily a prescriptive lens to understand how social change should happen—they employ a variety of methods of change, from social activism to government interference. Third-wave feminists are often said to have no concrete goals. Compared to its predecessors, feminism is apolitical. Famous third-wavers include Sandra Oh, Amanda Palmer, and Jean Kilbourne.
In some ways, libertarian feminsim is a lot like third-wave feminism. Because libertarians believe that people are individuals, libertarian feminists are subject to the same criticisms that third-wavers are: they don’t appear to have a set goal. They don’t have specific policies that they propose because they don’t think that government force is the solution to gender inequality but also because they simply do not know what is best for an individual or group of people.
However, libertarian feminism does have a goal; it’s just a bit more esoteric. One of its tenets is that the government has a long history of oppressing women and thus it strives to have as little government involved in people’s lives. The goal of libertarian feminists is to increase the amount of freedom women have by minimizing or removing the state. Libertarian feminism argues that voluntary approaches to birth control, education, and traditionally family and women-oriented topics procure better results than state interference—and this also stretches to non-political issues that specifically affect women, like slut-shaming and hiring discrimination. They argue that a refocus on non-coercive social change creates a longer-lasting impact that can ebb and flow with the needs of society; it relies heavily on spontaneous order. Political coercion hinders real societal change, and many libertarian feminists argue that state involvement necessarily creates further injustice.
Famous contemporary libertarian feminists include Sharon Presley, who runs the Association of Libertarian Feminists, Joan Kennedy Taylor, who noted the importance of groups and associations in free societies, and Deborah Siegel, an author and speaker who notes, “Feminism should no longer be about communal solutions to communal problems, but individual solutions to individual problems.”
Libertarian feminism is not so different from libertarianism itself: it promotes the well-being of the individual and strives to reduce the role of the state. Libertarian feminist goals are noble, and its time to step up and recognize their importance to the liberty movement as a whole.