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Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand

THE RANDIAN-FEMINISM MAILING LIST

SELECTED ARCHIVES FROM THE FOUR MONTH CONFERENCE

The Randian-Feminism Mailing List is a forum for Objectivist and Randian Feminists -- people who share a common interest in Feminist philosophy, issues and perspectives, and in Ayn Rand's ideas and philosophy.  Thomas Gramstad created the list on January 14, 1998. 

June 7, 1999  (Thomas Gramstad)

Reflections on Ayn Rand  -  Camille Paglia

Rereading Rand on Gender in the Light of Paglia  -  Robert Sheaffer

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra introduces a discussion of Robert Sheaffer's essay (Date: Mon, 7 Jun 1999 13:49:25):
This week, we discuss Camille Paglia's "Reflections on Ayn Rand" and Robert Sheaffer's
"Rereading Rand on Gender in the Light of Paglia."
While Paglia is not participating in this discussion, Sheaffer surely is!  So I would like to invite
Robert to say a few words about his essay--why he wrote it, and what he hoped to accomplish
with it.  One very interesting question that I would like to see Robert address is this: Every essay in
this volume is, ostensibly, a "feminist" interpretation of Ayn Rand.  Since Robert has been critical
of many incarnations in contemporary feminism, I think it would be important for him to address
how his essay might be viewed as a specifically "feminist" take on Rand.
To a certain extent, of course, this question carries with it an implicit subtext: Is Camille Paglia a
feminist?  Paglia surely thinks that Rand has been neglected in women's studies (and it would be
good to address this aspect of her essay here), but many have doubted Paglia's own "feminist"
credentials.  With regard to Sheaffer, then, who takes a "Paglian" perspective on Rand, some may
question his "feminist" credentials, by extension.
So that this debate does not focus on "who is a feminist"--since, after all, our volume is based on
the assumption that feminism is not monolithic, and that many diverse perspectives might
legitimately be called feminist (remember our discussion of the concept in the context of Joan's
essay)--I'd like to also see addressed here some other important issues raised by Paglia and
Sheaffer:
1.  Is Rand an "elitist" as Paglia says, and is this "elitism" at odds with "feminism"?
2.  How does Sheaffer's take on Rand's "woman president" essay differ from -- (or is similar to) --
Susan Love Brown's take?
3.  How do the parallels (noted by Sheaffer) between Rand and Nietzsche, and between Rand and
de Sade (on the questions of dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) help us to
contextualize her views on sexuality?
I KNOW that there will be lots to discuss concerning Robert's views--and that the discussion will
surely be provocative--but I'd like us to at least keep the above questions in mind.
     Robert Sheaffer responds (Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1999 22:59:49):
Many thanks for the introduction, and for the query. This catches me somewhat unprepared, so let
me hasten to scribble a few thoughts.
Chris wrote:
> This week, we discuss Camille Paglia's "Reflections on Ayn Rand"
> and Robert Sheaffer's "Rereading Rand on Gender in the Light of
> Paglia."
> While Paglia is not participating in this discussion, Sheaffer
> surely is!  So I would like to invite Robert to say a few words
> about his essay--why he wrote it, and what he hoped to
> accomplish with it.  One very interesting question that I would
> like to see Robert address is this: Every essay in this volume
> is, ostensibly, a "feminist" interpretation of Ayn Rand.  Since
> Robert has been critical of many incarnations in contemporary
> feminism, I think it would be important for him to address how
> his essay might be viewed as a specifically "feminist" take on
> Rand.
My position is that of the "classic liberal", seeking to guarantee full rights and full responsibilities to
all persons, regardless of race or sex.  (Today's feminists, however, work to grant women rights
without responsibilities. Good jobs are to be offered without the necessity of earning them in the
same way as men always have, and crimes can be excused on the grounds that women are
"victims.") I STILL cannot imagine what legitimate demand a supposed "individualist feminist"
might make in the U.S.  today, where women not only enjoy all the rights men do, but enjoy a
very special, indeed highly-privileged, legal position. ("Violence against women" is a worse crime
than violence against men, and killing a man even when he is asleep can usually be excused by
claiming he was an "abuser," of which little if any proof is needed. See Warren Farrell's chapter on
"Women Who Kill Too Much, and the Courts that Free Them" in The Myth of Male Power).
It was recently suggested on this list that the complete abolition of all sex roles was a legitimate
"individualist feminist" demand.  This leaves me speechless. It is as if it were said that libertarians
demand that everyone else become libertarian, by unspecified means. Sex roles, like political and
religious beliefs, exist in the private realm of individual actions, and nothing short of a totalitarian
state could possibly change them (and that only in public: in private, they would remain what they
actually are). To suggest that individuals have a "right" to expect others to hold and express certain
beliefs about them is either a serious misunderstanding of the autonomy of individuals (even those
who disagree with us!), or else a covert ploy for coercive power.
My position on feminism is quite close to that of Paglia (who is also a 'good buddy' of Christina
Hoff Sommers) and who is undeniably a "feminist," however unconventional. Paglia and I both
advocate strong self-determination for women and for men. But unlike conventional feminists, we
recognize that there are trade-offs and costs to every decision. Today's mainstream feminists, both
those who are overtly collectivist and those claiming not to be, are demanding to have their cake
and eat it, too. Women are to "have it all" - high-powered careers and families, too. If they can't
manage this, blame men. Women should advance ruthlessly past the (mostly male) competition,
yet they still require "positive role models" and a "non-hostile environment" if they are to do so.
(Men, however, have always known that they must move forward on their own, in spite of
obstacles.)
Paglia recognizes the fundamental, ineradicable truth of the male/female dichotomy,
notwithstanding that small percentage of individuals who don't "fit the mold." She encourages
anyone who feels the urge to "defy nature" to go out and boldly do so - but with full recognition of
the possible costs.  For example, starting in the late 60s "gay liberation" with its Herculean
promiscuity boldly set out to "defy nature" and to make what was then called "unnatural" accepted
as "natural." But when you fight nature sometimes nature wins, and most who went down that
path infected themselves with a fatal, incurable disease, which nobody previously knew existed
because the conditions most conducive to its spread - massively promiscuous anal sex - had never
before existed. It is wrong to demand, afterward, that others carry the burden of saving one from
the consequences of one's own Promethean hubris. The problem with being Prometheus is that
sometimes you end up with a bird eating your liver. If you're willing to defy the risks and give it a
try, go for it. But if you find yourself in a trap of your own making, don't blame "the patriarchy."
Chris writes:
> To a certain extent, of course, this question carries with it an
> implicit subtext: Is Camille Paglia a feminist?  Paglia surely
> thinks that Rand has been neglected in women's studies (and it
> would be good to address this aspect of her essay here), but
> many have doubted Paglia's own "feminist" credentials.  With
> regard to Sheaffer, then, who takes a "Paglian" perspective on
> Rand, some may question his "feminist" credentials, by
> extension.
> So that this debate does not focus on "who is a feminist"--
> since, after all, our volume is based on the assumption that
> feminism is not monolithic, and that many diverse perspectives
> might legitimately be called feminist (remember our discussion
> of the concept in the context of Joan's essay)--I'd like to also
> see addressed here some other important issues raised by Paglia
> and Sheaffer:
> 1.  Is Rand an "elitist" as Paglia says, and is this "elitism"
> at odds with "feminism"?
Rand is a Nietzschean, however much some want to deny it. This kind of elitism, however, is
based not on an accident of birth but on personal merit, and I do not find it objectionable. Nobody
is legally privileged above anyone else.
While feminism professes its indifference to hierarchies, its adherents have created a system where
women have only rights, and men have only responsibilities. This creates a de facto system of
female elitism, however much it may be formally denied.
Chris writes:
> 2.  How does Sheaffer's take on Rand's "woman president" essay
> differ from -- (or is similar to) -- Susan Love Brown's take?
Brown, and the other contributors who have discussed it, suggest that Rand must have been
suffering from some sort of temporary insanity or social brainwashing when she wrote that essay.
I, however, think that Rand has identified an extremely important issue, although she failed to
complete the analysis of exactly what it implies, and where it leads. It is simply a FACT that
women overwhelmingly reject those men who are below them on the economic and social status
hierarchy. This applies even to feminists (or at least to those among them who are heterosexual).
As I note in the essay, doctors (mostly male) have been marrying nurses (mostly female) in large
numbers for as long as those professions have been around. But despite the partial breakdown of
sex roles, there is NO trend suggesting that female doctors and male nurses, both nontraditional
and presumably non-sexist, are hitching up. The woman doctor still wants a husband whose status
at least matches hers, despite feminism's professed rejection of hierarchies. Therefore, the higher a
woman moves up the status hierarchy, the smaller the number of men (especially available men!)
there are above her. When a women reaches the top of the pyramid (let's assume that's "the
president," although it might be something else), there is literally nobody above her, and therefore
no satisfactory choice.
Of course, Rand's view is an oversimplification. For example, what if the woman is a lesbian, and
can therefore look down the pyramid for a sweet young femme, exactly as a man might?
Suppose the woman is an older widow, and has no interest in remarriage. Might she not then
become president? What if the woman cared more about the position than her marriage? Rand
would presumably dismiss all these situations as "metaphysically inappropriate," but they sound
like real possibilities to me.  Still, Rand's essay about a woman president is important because it
identifies an extremely important issue that has been just about universally ignored in the
feminist literature.
Chris asks:
> 3.  How do the parallels (noted by Sheaffer) between Rand and
> Nietzsche, and between Rand and de Sade (on the questions of
> dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) help us to
> contextualize her views on sexuality?
Somewhat "kinky," it would seem, but not greatly so. Actually, sado-masochistic fantasies are
extremely widespread, even (especially???) among feminists, which may help to explain Rand's
popularity. In her book Going Too Far, Robin Morgan (a prominent lesbian feminist, and
former editor of Ms. Magazine) talks frankly about her own S&M fantasies in her youth of being
dominated, and suggests them to be nearly universal among feminists. Whether or not they are
equally common among non-feminists, she does not say.

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