Libertarian Women, Tattoos, and What Rebellion Looks Like


On a recent Thoughts on Liberty conference call, assistant editor Morgan Scarboro mentioned that she was preparing herself for her first tattoo. This was followed by contributors Sandra Sanchez and Cathy Reisenwitz piping up cheerfully about their tattoos, (Cathy, 1 and counting, Sandra, 7 and counting) and offering Morgan their stories.

So it got me to thinking: why does getting a tattoo seem to speak to libertarian women? I started to do some research and talk to Morgan, Sandra, Cathy and other libertarian women about their experiences.

Women are more likely to have a tattoo than men, according to the Harris Interactive Poll. Considering the history of tattoos, this was surprising, because tattoos were often more symbolic of male cultures (though to give credit to Whitey when due, “Great Britain” comes from Britons, meaning “people of the designs”). For a long time in the United States, tattoos were strongly correlated with sailors, in part due to military strife post-American Revolution. The government issued protection papers to establish sailors’ American citizenship so they wouldn’t face impressment by British Navy ships – but tattoos allowed much more specific personal descriptions, and therefore, protection.

That idea of personal identification seems to drive a lot of tattoos’ increasing popularity. As Sandra put it, “I started when I was 18 and I got a murder of crows on my shoulder blade … Like with my crows, I like to think that I’m like a crow – intelligent, mysterious, and misunderstood. I also have less serious tattoos – I have Star Wars tattoos.”

Sometimes it’s symbolic, but more and more it’s written on the wall, so to speak. Cathy writes regarding her tattoo that reads “I own me:” “I love having an obvious external manifestation of the fact that I hold property rights and self-ownership so dear.”

An underlining tension to tattoos is the perception of hypersexuality. Psychology Today reported a study where psychologist Nicolas Gueguen  monitored male reactions to the same woman on a beach when she was without tattoo and when she sported a fake one, chosen for its aggregate popularity as polled by several tattoo salons. The research showed that women with tattoos were solicited faster and more frequently than the same women without tattoos. While one in five Americans has a tattoo now, at least two in five say people with tattoos are “less attractive.” Greguen concluded that tattooed women are seen as more promiscuous, though whether this was based on men’s stereotypes or actual experience he thought unclear as of yet.

But for young women, particularly the younger libertarian women I know, it’s a question not only of reclaiming their bodies in the feminist tradition, but freedom of expression. Cathy writes about reactions to her tattoo: “Libertarians tend to love it. Only one person, my good friend, Englishman, Kiwi and former Reason co-worker Matthew Feeney, pointed out to me that it’s grammatically incorrect. But I decided to rep my home state of Alabama, claim poetic license and give no fucks because I dig brevity.”

And it’s not just political: the trend for young women seems to cross cultural boundaries. Kayla Mae Westbrook, a young libertarian, has one religious tattoo though she would consider more.  “My tattoo is of Philippians 4:13, which says ‘I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.’,” she said. “My faith has always been a huge part of who I am on the inside, so I wanted it to be a huge part of who I am on the outside, too.”

No matter what generation people are from, it should be shoring to think that for this younger generation of women, it’s easier and easier to simply say what they think. If that’s not feminist, I’d like to know what is.