Faculty Spotlight Interview: Wendy McElroy
Wendy McElroy is the author of XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography (St. Martin’s Press,1995), Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women, (McFarland, 1996), The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998), and Queen Silver: The Godless Girl (Prometheus Books, 2000), and Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century (McFarland, 2001). Her most recent book is a new anthology, Liberty for Women, (Ivan R. Dee, 2002). Her book on prostitution, Le Gambe Della Liberta, has just been published in Italian by the publisher Leonardo Facco.
She is the editor of Freedom, Feminism and the State (1st ed., Cato, 1983; 2nd ed., Holmes & Meier, 1991), which provides a historical overview of individualist feminism in America. A portion of the Preface is provided to render a better sense of this tradition and where it fits in with the more general feminist movement. Individualist Feminism: Part One, and Individualist Feminism: Part Two
McElroy has also compiled Index to Liberty: 1881-1908, a comprehensive index to Benjamin Tucker’s 19th century periodical, which can be accessed through the Memory Hole Website — under the category of individualist anarchism. Bibliographic Essay to Individualist Feminism is also located on this site. Her recent work, The Debates of Liberty, is expected to be issued by Lexington Books (Rowman and Littlefield).
She is a weekly columnist for FoxNews.com, writing under the title “The ifeminist” — a column that is widely reposted on the Internet. She is the editor of the feminist website ifeminists.com which grows by approximately 10% each month. McElroy is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and contributing editor to Ideas on Liberty (formerly The Freeman), The New Libertarian, Free Inquiry, and Liberty magazines. Her writing has appeared in such diverse periodicals as National Review, Marie Claire, and Penthouse.
For over a decade, McElroy was a series editor for Knowledge Products. She has written and edited many documentary scripts for audio cassette, some of which were narrated by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott, and Harry Reasoner.
What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
My favorite hobby is cooking, especially ethnic food. Years ago, my husband and I moved from a big city to a farm that is down a gravel road with the nearest town containing fewer than 500 people. One of the few big city niceties my husband missed was the selection of ethnic food, especially Mexican. Thus, Mexican was the first cuisine I ‘mistressed’ in order to get the man’s blood-salsa level back to where it belonged.
What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
I was drawn to both by the inimitable economist and historian Murray Rothbard.
I believe most libertarians enter the movement from one of two directions or concerns: civil liberties or free market economics. My overwhelming focus was civil liberties. Although I understood there was no difference in kind between civil and economics rights – that is, they are both expressions of the ‘human’ right to person and property — I found economics to be quite dull. Indeed, those who entered from the direction of economics seemed to have a personality type that was more subdued, retiring, dry. This was an unfair judgment but one to which I do admit.
Then I read Murray and, then, I met him. He sparkled. He made economics sparkle. More importantly, his arguments were a perfect marriage of civil rights and economic liberty so that it has become impossible for me to divorce the two from any issue I now examine. This is true even of issues that are traditionally non-economic. For example, when I consider domestic violence, I heavily factor in economic considerations such as who’s definition is being used? Does the definer profit in some manner? -perhaps by being part of what has been called the “Domestic Violence Industry?” I now consider any treatment of civil liberties that does not include an economic analysis to be incomplete and ‘economic types’ no longer seem dull to me.
Murray also cultivated within me a lifelong passion for 19th century individualist anarchism. He had the discernment to discard what was flawed within Benjamin Tucker et al – specifically, the acceptance of a labor theory of value – and to embrace their analysis of the state.
It was a heady mixture. But more than this, it was a systematic and integrated world view in which Austrian economics played a key role.
Thus, the Mises Institute had the immediate appeal of being home to Murray; and, where the ‘bow tie’ went, a lot of us followed. Mises also had (and has) the rare talents of Lew Rockwell, who combines an eloquent understanding of the ideas with unusual administrative skill. This makes for a principled and well-oiled institute. I do not always agree with those principles – for example, I am adamantly anti-voting – but Mises has always tolerated such disagreements.
Who is your greatest inspiration?
In terms of a single person, the foregoing answer captures him.
In broader terms, however, my greatest inspiration has been the 19th century individualist anarchist movement and most specifically Tucker. In my early twenties, I worked days and, at night, I indexed Tucker’s periodical Liberty (1881-1908). After a year of nightly page-turning, it got so that I could predict the line Tucker would take on almost any issue and, then, I started to predict what his wording would be.
But it wasn’t merely Tucker with whom I felt an intellectual affinity, of course. It was the cluster of luminaries whom he called mentors (Spooner, Greene, Warren) as well as the up-and-comers who called Tucker mentor in turn (Yarros, Byington).
I am currently going through a microfilm run of Auberon Herbert’s periodical The Free Life, and I am more impressed by its quality than I expected. My former exposure to the British individualist Herbert – famous for popularizing the term ‘Voluntaryist’ – was largely through exchange of debate within Liberty with his American counterparts. I thought Herbert argued well but I underrated him. Last month, I finished reading a series of his commentaries that, taken collectively, constitute the single best refutation of Georgism I can imagine. The Free Life has changed my mind on several points of theory, which is no mean feat.
How is libertarianism viewed within the feminist movement? Is it seen as a viable political philosophy which can help progress the rights of women?
The movement has become a large enough umbrella to include schools like libertarian feminism or, more broadly, individualist feminism. This is an encouraging development over the last few decades.
The dominant school, however, is still ‘gender’ feminism which is politically correct and far-left leaning. They consider the free market to be one of the twin pillars of the patriarchal system that is, in turn, the oppressor of women. They also approach politics almost exclusively on the basis of class analysis and class interests. Predictably, an individualist feminist who touts the free market and reduces politics to individual rights is usually dismissed, accused of being a shill for male power, or otherwise treated with contempt. It can become a mite unpleasant. (By the way, I do not mean to discard ‘class analysis’; it plays an essential role in libertarian theory but a very different one than it does in gender feminism. Libertarian class analysis does not denigrate the supreme importance of individuals.)
On the other hand, libertarianism has produced wonderful female scholars, such as Ellen Frankel Paul, and an impressive body of supporting work in feminism. (Please see an anthology I edited entitled Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century for a sense of the richness and breadth of scholarship.) The last several years has seen an increasing acceptance of individualist feminism within academia; every month or so, I receive permission requests to reprint one of my pieces in a textbook or to have an article included in course handouts. Again, encouraging.
It will take quite awhile, however, for the zeitgeist of gender feminism to be lifted from the movement. Gender feminism has institutionalized itself within society through laws and within academia through Women’s Studies Departments.
Do you have any new works on the way?
Yes I do. For better or worse, however, I rarely discuss material on which I am actively working. Given how many parties I’ve attended at which authors sit and read aloud their manuscripts-in-progress, this is not necessarily a character flaw.
What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work?
I have so many answers to this one question. Let me chose just one. I wish to be among those who reclaim and sustain two neglected traditions: individualist anarchism and individualist feminism.
Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
Yes, but I would pass on the advice to libertarians in general.
Be more interested in ideas than you are in being ‘right’. By this I do not mean you should cease to pass judgment on ideas or cease to pursue the truth. But ideas are intrinsically interesting and you can learn a great deal from those with whom you disagree. Some of the best ruling class analysis out there comes from left wing historians.
My second piece of advice is a corollary of the first. Do not presume that people who are ‘wrong’ are less intelligent, less decent or well-informed than you. For many years, my BFF was an old-fashioned labor union socialist who kept hoping libertarianism was a phase through which I would pass. We had strong points of political agreement as well, of course, including a belief in free speech absolutism and anti-war activism. She was one of the most intelligent, kind-hearted, and well-read people I’ve ever known. When we disagreed, she did not suddenly become stupid, coarse and ignorant. She was the same human being; we simply disagreed.