This article was co-written by Campus Coordinator Moriah Costa of Arizona State University in collaboration with Luca Gattoni-Celli of the College of Charleston
When women in the United States won the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, it was a significant victory in a long struggle for equality. Women have come very far since the days of being considered their fathers’ or husbands’ property. In recent years, they have attained new opportunities for success in the work place and elsewhere. Instead of being told that, “the female’s whole life is wrapped up in her vital role as a wife and mother” to quote a 1948 book about female sexuality, women are now told that they can have a career and a family. Yet, they are still not considered equals by many men in both social and professional settings. Women continue to face widespread discrimination and disrespect. As libertarians, we should find this alarming. There are certainly biological differences between men and women, but gender inequality is a separate issue. When applying for a job, an individual should be evaluated on the basis of accomplishment, not her gender or his ethnicity. Men and women alike should be evaluated on individual merit.
The importance of individual merit is embraced by most libertarians. However, we find that some libertarians do not take feminism seriously, or even consider gender inequality an issue. If we are intellectually honest about the world around us, it is clear that the world is still misogynist even as society enters a fourth wave of feminism. Advertising and mass media portrayals of women are frequently shallow and superficial, focused only on the physical aspect of the individual. For example, the TLC reality program Toddlers in Tiaras features young girls competing in beauty pageants. Although they are judged on their talents and personalities as well as their beauty, these young girls are dressed in an overtly sexualized manner. Outside of their sexual role, women face difficulty being taken seriously. Meryl Streep, a great dramatist, struggles to have the innate validity of her work and characters recognized. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, she remarked, “No one has ever asked an actor, ‘You’re playing a strong-minded man.’ We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal.” A strong-willed woman contrasts sharply with the passive, reactive feminine stereotype almost ubiquitous in Western cultures. A tough woman is considered an overbearing diva while a tough man is thought to be acting appropriately. Women are often encouraged to seek more “feminine” roles, even in the work place. Only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, despite strong evidence that corporations with women in top positions achieve higher financial performance. A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Female Directors: Why So Few?” states: “Major companies with three or more female directors achieved significantly better financial results than those with none between 2004 and 2008, according to a 2011 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit research group.” To be sure, causality could flow either way, and most executives began their professional lives in far more sexist settings than today’s work environment. Nevertheless, the absence of women in top management and executive positions is striking.
The trend also exists in politics. Margaret Thatcher (whose portrayal by Meryl Streep was the subject of the interview cited above) earned the nickname “Iron Lady” with her tenacity and resolve in the face of incredible public and political pressure. She outwitted and outworked her male counterparts, rising to become Prime Minister of Great Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s. Throughout her political career, she was dogged by snide comments and criticism from observers who, in so many words, were uncomfortable with a woman holding so much power. The encouragement of “proper” gender roles starts at an early age. Even marketing of toys to boys and girls reflects this culture, and as this viral video illustrates, some children understand that they are being subverted.
Despite the evidence, libertarians are arguably more inclined than other ideological groups to brush off claims of sexism. We view the individual as captain of his or her own destiny and hold a strong conviction that he or she can triumph over enormous adversity with sufficient force of will. Many libertarians have never faced significant socioeconomic constraints such as racial discrimination, so they have difficulty empathizing with individuals who do. Another libertarian critique is that many feminists assume their grievances are best resolved by the force of government (as do members of other contemporary cultural and social movements). While many basic objectives of self-described feminists such as wage equality have essentially been met, a toxic culture continues to surround gender in our society. Given trends including the greater enrollment and success of women than men in American colleges, there has actually been a push back against efforts to advance the interest women have in recognition as individuals. However, this reaction is misguided. The social hostility women face is subtle yet pervasive. It should be taken seriously, and classical liberals are in a unique position to appreciate and understand the need for a paradigmatic shift in the culture and even the basic social construction of gender.
As individualists, we hold something of great potential value to those who seek gender equality. We can offer an ethical framework of dignity and innate human value. We can offer an economic framework that selects against arbitrary discrimination and empowers the vulnerable to become as wealthy as the richest members of their parents’ generation. We can offer them an ethos of respect and self-reliance. We can offer them a pathos that emphasizes an exchange of values and ideas within a supportive community. Both ideologies seek a world in which the dignity of all individuals is universally recognized. They seek a world in which merit determines professional outcomes, where civility and respect triumph over bigotry and violence. Whether as a libertarian you are on the right or the left, thick or thin, you are already a feminist. At its core, feminism is not about women getting special privileges. It is about men and women being respected equally. As we strive together along the path of human progress, let us remember the small steps we can and must take in our own lives to become a part of the solution instead of a problematic status quo.