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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. 

May 31, 1999  (Bryan Register)

Ayn Rand: The Woman Who Would Not Be President  -  Susan Love Brown

     Chris Matthew Sciabarra introduced Susan Love Brown's essay (Date: Tue, 1 Jun 1999 12:02:06):
As we turn to discuss the essay by Susan Love Brown, I would--naturally--like to invite Susan to
say a few words about her essay: her reasons for writing it, and what she believes is its essential
message.
One of the most fascinating aspects of FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND, at
least in my view, is this: The book includes individuals from a variety of disciplines.  This is not
unusual for other books in the "Rereading the Canon" series, but it is unusual for any works
dealing with Ayn Rand.  Most books and articles written about Ayn Rand come from a few select
disciplines: philosophy and literature, but politics and economics are close behind.  In our volume,
we surely feature some individuals with degrees in philosophy (Barbara Branden, Diana Brickell,
Barry Vacker come to mind), but we also feature individuals who come from such disciplines as:
English, the Humanities, aesthetics, cultural and women's studies, linguistics, psychology, political
science, and anthropology.
Susan Love Brown harks from political and cultural anthropology, and she brings a unique
perspective to the discussion.  This anthropological vantage point contributes to Susan's
interpretation of the "mixed messages" in Rand's corpus especially as they relate to gender roles
and the ever-important questions "about a woman president."  I'd like us to consider in-depth some
of the following issues:
1. To what extent may Rand's attitudes be explained as a product of her cultural upbringing?  Does
this amount to cultural determinism?  Does such an explanation amount to a "psychologizing" of
Rand's attitudes?
2. How did Rand's attitudes evolve over time?  We should consider the important discussions in
Susan's essay on the evolution of Rand's views from her earliest to her later works.
3. Does Susan's approach offer us a "way out" of the paradoxes in the Randian corpus?  After all,
this part of the book is called "Toward a Randian Feminism?" and we need to keep that overall
question in mind.
     Susan Love Brown replied (Date: Wed, 2 Jun 1999 00:48:22):
I first read Ayn Rand's novels when I was in my twenties living in Louisville, Kentucky.  In one of
those, I found advertisements for The Objectivist, which I quickly subscribed to.  I was very
enthusiastic to discover novels with strong heroines, although I must confess I didn't know what to
do with Dominique.  Yet, Dagny and Kira both captured my imagination.  While I was mildly
disturbed by some of Rand's notions that seemed to hover in the background of her books, their
effect on me was overwhelmingly positive because of the strong message about freedom and the
sanctity of the individual, which I very much needed to hear at that time, and the conviction that
women were included within these.  Since mostly everyone had been trained to use the generic
"man," that didn't begin to bother me until later.
My enthusiasm was crushed in short order by two separate pieces written by Rand.  First, there
were articles about aesthetics that eventually became THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO.  In one of
these Rand talked about the art of dance and made the statement that tapdancing was superior to
ballet.  Since I had been a semi-professional ballet dancer and knew about all kinds of dance,
including the Balinese and other eastern dancing that Rand seemed to dismiss, I came to realize
that Rand really knew very little about dance, music, or fiction -- but she knew what she liked.  I
too liked tapdancing and still do.  But to say that one form of dance is objectively superior to
another is utter nonsense to anyone who knows the principles and efforts involved.  So, I decided
that in the area of the arts, Rand knows what she likes.  I concluded that what Rand liked was also
what was easy to like: tapdancing, Tchaikowsky and Rachmaninoff with their beautiful melodies,
and Mickey Spillane.  It is a lot harder without training to like ballet and Mahler.  But I will leave
the ins and outs of this topic for now.
The other piece of writing that made me sit up and take notice was "About A Woman President." 
I cannot tell you how disturbed I was when I read this piece.  How could a woman who paid so
much attention to objective reality come to such a conclusion, I wondered.  Even then, without any
formal training in academia, I could see what I considered to be a logical flaw in Rand's thinking. 
If a woman is equal to men as Rand proposed, then why not the presidency?  I did not understand
the "woman qua woman" that Rand promoted as the reason why a woman would not want to be
president.  In fact, as a twenty-year-old, I dismissed Rand's conclusion as stupidity.  I knew that I
would damn well have no problem being president, and I suspect that many other young women
felt the same (whether the job is worth doing is another story).  While I still continued to read
Rand after that, I did so with a much more critical eye.  The spell that she had initially cast over me
was broken.  I no longer accepted her words and ideas at face value (as I should not have done in
the first place, but Rand has a way of sweeping young people off their feet).
Eventually, having read all that Rand had written except the then unpublished early works and
journals and letters, I left Rand behind.
There seemed nowhere else to go in terms of Rand scholarship.  The great scholarly examination
of Rand had not yet taken place, but eventually it would, and FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS
OF AYN RAND is part of that new scholarship.  By the time that the opportunity arose to write
"Ayn Rand:  The Woman Who Would NOT Be President," I had spent years studying people
around the world, specializing in political and psychological anthropology (subfields of
sociocultural anthropology, which studies living people), and getting deeply into the scholarly
literature on gender that has developed since the seventies.  It seemed time, thanks to Chris and
Mimi, to subject Rand's views to further analysis.
I would like to address some of the questions Chris asked in his introductory post and then listen to
what the rest of you have to say.  In particular, I want to address the problem with such concepts
as "cultural determinism" and "psychologizing," which are bound to come into this discussion.
Culture, from an anthropological point of view, is not about books and music and art; it is about
those deeply held understandings that people in a particular society or segment of a society share. 
Mark Swartz defines culture as "shared understandings," and these are of three varieties:  (1)
descriptive understandings (beliefs) that have to do with our understanding of how the world
works; (2) procedural understandings that have to do with our understanding of what the proper
way to do things is; (3) normative understandings (values) that specify our notions of right and
wrong.  Human beings -- all human beings -- live within cultures, so they are all subject to cultural
influence to different extents.  We begin learning our cultures (the process is called enculturation)
when we are babies and before we can even talk.  Therefore, much of culture is subconscious (just
outside the range of consciousness) and some is unconscious (we are not aware of the premises
upon which we are acting).  Culture does not cover just the obvious -- that is conscious belief
systems -- but such things as how we use space (how far we stand from another person), or
protocol for reacting to conflicts, our sense and use of time, and so on.  We also have beliefs about
the nature of our own sexuality and its implications.  These are said to be culturally constructed,
because they do not necessarily accord with objective reality.  Thus, sex refers to biological
attributes of maleness and femaleness and gender refers to the cultural construction usually
indicated by femininity and masculinity.  But, as I state in my chapter, gender identity is formed
very early, and we operate on assumptions about our gender ever after.
Culture is the means by which human beings have survived in most of the environments on this
planet, so it is not likely to ever disappear.  However, the problem is that culture does not
necessarily reflect the truth or facts, and when it doesn't, it is often enormously difficult to get
people to change it.  Usually people change in the face of important environmental changes, but
they try to hold on to as much of their culture as possible, because it is a part of their identities and
very uncomfortable to lose.  That is why knowledge alone does not get people to change wrong
ideas.  This is a good thing in that it guarantees that culture -- the repository of a group's wisdom --
is not changed frivolously.  However, it is a bad thing when it recreates negative situations for the
people involved -- when it is anti-life for the individual and, ultimately, for the group as a whole.
To repeat, all people -- even Ayn Rand -- live in a cultural context.  There are no extra-cultural
people.
Culture, to the extent that we accept it, does determine the actions that we take.  Because most of
us don't ever get around to consciously challenging our most basic understandings, our actions
based on these understandings are "determined" by those understandings.  I don't think that this is
a particularly unusual situation.  In an ideal world with perfect knowledge, culture and reality
would be identical.  That is, people's understandings would determine their actions, and all would
be well.  However, our knowledge is imperfect, wrong ideas are passed on from one generation to
the next, and each generation and the individuals in it rework the culture to suit their particular
situations.  Since most people are not aware of this deeply embedded culture, they are not aware
of the particular understandings of the world that influence their decision-making.  This was the
case, I argue, with Rand and gender.  This does not mean that there is not also a conscious
component to decision-making, simply that their understanding of the world generally determines
how people act.  But this undertstanding is based on both cultural understandings and personal
experience.
"Psychologizing" is often used to attack anyone who attempts to make a psychological analysis of a
situation.  It  is true that psychological principles (just like other principles of science) are often
misused for all kinds of purposes.  This, however, does not mean that psychological analyses are
inaccurate.  As human beings, we are psychological animals -- we have minds, and those minds
work according to certain principles.  If one is familiar enough with these principles, then one can
do analyses of people on that basis. But perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned after studying
people for so many years is that human beings are problem solvers, whether those problems relate
to the external or internal world.  Psychology is often involved with how people solve emotional
problems and contradictions in their own sets of understandings.  This is essentially the argument I
make about Rand -- that she was trying to solve a particular problem in her own life.
Since I regard Ayn Rand as a human being -- one who has produced a large body of literature
consisting of novels of ideas, essays, letters, and journals -- I suppose her to be as understandable
as any other human being.  I regard her conclusion about women presidents (as well as many of
her other conclusions about women) to be wrong.  I have set out to understand what might have
led her to reach this conclusion, given what I know about culture, psychology, women as leaders
of nation-states, and gender.
And one more thing.  For my part, I do not think there will ever be a Randian feminism, because
there is no more Rand to formulate it.  As her ideas stand in her own works, there are too many
fundamental errors in her view of women and men to arrive at such a noncontradictory feminism.
However, if scholars who consider themselves objectivists can work out a reasonable attitude about
gender based on objective reality, there might one day be an Objectivist feminism.

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