Libertarian Feminist Heritage Series Paper 2
Suzanne LaFollette: The New Free Woman
by Sharon Presley
SUZANNE LA FOLLETTE is the author of the probably first full-length book on libertarian feminism in existence, a book which her colleague, friend, and mentor, Albert Jay Nock, called "superb." Yet today she is almost unknown among libertarians and barely known among feminists. Of her book, Concerning Women (1926), Nock wrote, "at every turn, throughout the future, until freedom is attained, this book will be dug up and drawn upon, like Mary Wollstonecraft, but more effectively, as saying the final thing." Concerning Women was out of print until 1972 when it was reprinted in the Arno Press "American Women series. In 1973 an excerpt entitled "Beware the State" was included in The Feminist Papers, an anthology edited by Alice Rossi.
Born in 1893 on a ranch in western Washington, La Follette moved with her family to Washington, D.C., where her father, the cousin of Senator Robert La Follette, served in the House of Representatives for eight years. She and her brother Chester both recall that the adults in the family were all "good feminists."
While in Washington, La Follette got an early lesson about the difficulties women were up against in their struggle for rights. In a letter to Alice Rossi, she described her participation in a women's movement parade the day before Wilson was inaugurated. The progress of the parade was severely impeded, she recalled, by a "seething mob of men who surged around the struggling marchers, shouting obscenities. There were few police in sight, and those who were in sight were making no effort to control the crowd."
After finishing college in Washington, D.C. in 1919, La Follette plunged immediately into the world of politics with a job on the staff of the Nation. It was there that she met Nock. And when Nock founded The Freeman in 1920, she joined him as one of the editors for the four years of its existence.
After the demise of The Freeman, La Follette began work on Concerning Women. The most important influence in writing the book, in her judgment, was Nock rather than the feminist movement. It was Nock, confirms her grand-niece Maryly Rosner, who encouraged La Follette to write it. And Nock, who considered himself a "100 percent feminist," was well-pleased with her efforts. "I knew it would be a good book," he wrote in a letter to a friend, "but I assure you it is so far beyond all my expectations that I cannot say enough in praise of it. If I am any judge, it is a truly great book.'
The tone of Concerning Women is set by a passage from Mary
Wollstonecraft which appears at the beginning of the first chapter: "Let there be, then, no coercion established in society
and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into
their proper places." Women's "proper place," thought La Follette, was wherever they wanted to be. To those who,
for example, believed that woman's historically secondary
role proved something about her essential nature, La Follette replied
with typical incisiveness:
Though La Follette considered herself a radical libertarian rather than an anarchist, her analysis of feminist issues was as profoundly and consistently anti-statist as those of anarchist feminists such as Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman. The State, she believed, was the natural enemy of women. "It is evident from the very nature of the State," she wrote in a passage directly reflecting the influence of Franz Oppenheimer's The State, "that its interests are opposed to those of Society; and while the complete emancipation of women ... would undoubtedly imply the destruction of the State, since it must accrue from the emancipation of other subject classes, their emancipation, far from destroying Society, must be of inestimable benefit to it."
La Follette was
apparently not influenced by the nineteenth century anarchists,
but she did make one favorable comment on anarchism in her book,
in connection with her discussion of men's control over women:
Believing that the subjection of women, like chattel slavery or "industrial slavery," had its basis in economics, La Follette considered that the primary way in which the State hurt women was through legally imposed economic disadvantages. Economic freedom was, in her view, far more crucial to women than political equality or the right to vote. "The ultimate emancipation of women then," she wrote in a passage that embodied the main thesis of her book, "will depend not upon the abolition of the restrictions which have subjected her to man - that is but a step, though a necessary one - but upon the abolition of all those restrictions of natural human rights that subject the mass of humanity to a privileged class."
Her belief that economics was at the heart of women's problems led La Follette to a healthy skepticism about the reformist politics of the organized women's movement. "Even if we assume that the establishment of legal equality between the sexes would result in complete social and economic equality," she pointed out, "we are obliged to face the fact that under such a regime women would enjoy precisely that degree of freedom which men now enjoy - that is to say, very little." The State, she asserted, could be forced to renounce all legal discrimination against women without affecting its fundamental discrimination against the propertyless, dependent class - "which is made up of both men and women." She concluded that "until economic freedom is attained for everybody, there can be no real freedom for anybody ... The State represents the organized interest of those who control economic opportunity ... those who control men's and women's economic opportunity control men and women."
La Follette had no clear-cut solution for the problem of State control of economics, except education. Considering the ballot "ineffectual," she thought it would only be useful when voters came to understand the true nature of the system. People needed to recognize that the "essential nature of freedom ... comes out in the abolition of monopoly, primarily monopoly of natural resources, resulting in complete freedom of the individual to apply his productive labor where he will. It is freedom to produce, and its corollary, freedom to exchange - the laissez-faire, laissez-passer of the Physiocrats." Showing the influence of Henry George as well as of the nineteenth century classical liberals, she also asserted, "The right to labour and to enjoy .the fruits of one's labour means only the right to free access to the source of subsistence, which is land."
One of the kinds of legally imposed economic discrimination against women which La Follette analyzed in detail was protective labor legislation. In a lengthy chapter which closely foreshadowed modern libertarian feminist concerns, she pointed out that protective labor laws and minimum wage laws reduced women's chances of getting employment, and also reduced their ability to compete: So rapidly do [protective labor laws] increase, indeed, that women may be said to be in a fair way to exchange the tyranny of men for that of organized uplift. They are sponsored by those well-meaning individuals who deplore social injustice enough to yearn to mitigate its evil results, but do not understand it well enough to attack its causes; by women's organizations whose intelligence is hardly commensurate with their zeal to uplift their sex; and by men's labour organizations which are quite frankly in favor of any legislation that will lessen the chances of women to compete with men in the labour market.
Marriage laws provided another way that the State imposed economic disadvantage on women. La Follette saw marriage as a one-sided contract with all the rights on the side of the husband, countered by unjust privileges on the side of the wife. Marriage laws deprived woman of the right to control property while allowing her to be totally dependent on her husband. Women's economic independence would, La Follette thought, make it possible to escape from traditional marriage concepts that placed women in the role of serfs. And that would make it possible, in turn, to elevate marriage to a higher plane:
"For only when marriage is placed above all considerations of economic or social advantage, will it be a way to satisfy the highest demands of the human spirit."
Like the nineteenth century anarchist feminists, La Follette did not approve of State control of marriage in any respect. Institutional marriage was, in her opinion, simply a way for the State, the Church, and the community to interfere with a personal and private matter: "Marriage under conditions arbitrarily fixed by an external agency is slavery; and if we allow the right of an external agency - be it State, family or community - to place marriage in so degrading a position, we necessarily deny the freedom of the individual in this most intimate of relationships."
As examples of State interference in marriage, she indicted the regulation of birth control, which she saw as being forbidden for political and religious reasons; divorce laws, which made it difficult to free oneself from an unhappy marriage; and the concept of "illegitimacy," which placed a stigma on children born without the permission of the State. Her solution was to call for "marriage without legal sanction," i.e., without the State, at least for those who were willing to make that choice. Many modern day libertarians, more earnest in their theory than their practice, would do well to take inspiration from her unflinchingly radical position. (For the record, La Follette never married.)
The Church as well as the State came under La Follette's attack. She considered marriage and divorce laws to be impositions of Christian morality, which as practiced was, in her view, anti-woman, hypocritical, and puritanical. As a radical libertarian, she was, of course, opposed to laws which enforced morality, but she also saw clearly the negative, even devastating, social and psychological effects of such laws: "Society can never be made virtuous through arbitrary regulation; it can only be made unhappy and unamiable. The attempt to suppress all unauthorized expression of the sex-impulse in women tended to make them not only miserable and abject but hypocritical and deceitful; and it tended also to make men predatory."
Both in her book and in various later articles, La Follette struck out against hypocritical morality, condemning censorship, laws against prostitution, and laws limiting reproductive freedom. Her radical analysis of motherhood out-of-wedlock anticipated modern feminist thinking on that issue. Speaking out strongly against the rejection of the so-called illegitimate child, she saw unwed motherhood as a defiance of the idea of male proprietorship. Men condemned illegitimate children, she thought, because out-of-wedlock sexual activities implied a sexual freedom for women that would threaten male dominance.
The libertarian theme of Concerning Women is aptly summarized by Alice Rossi at the conclusion of her introduction to "Beware the State": "On issue after issue La Follette comes down on the side of the least degree of state interference in the lives of men and women and a consistent belief that it is only through full economic independence and personal autonomy that sex equality will be achieved." Sadly, however, this marvelous gem of a book was desultorily received. By 1926, concern with feminist issues was at an ebb and the book was reviewed in only a few magazines, then forgotten.
After the publication of Concerning Women, La Follette turned her humanistic sensibilities to the field of art. "All art," she declared, "serves humanity by the simple fact of its existence." Her interest in art, first publicly evidenced by a series of articles in The Freeman, led her to write a second book, again at Nock's suggestion. Art in America was published in 1929 - "just in time for the market crash." It has since become a classic of art history, and was reprinted in 1968 by Harper and Row.
La Follette's approach to art was as individualistic as her approach to feminism and to politics. Writing in the American Mercury in 1925, she proposed endowing individual artists rather than institutions. "The salvation of humanity," she declared, "never yet lay in the hands of any institution, not even in the hands of the Church. It is and always has been the individual who has cleared the path of human progress."
Not only an art historian but - briefly - a poet too, La Follette published two poems in 1927, "Ulysses" and "Wind on the Heath." Both were reprinted in The Best Poems of 1928.
In 1930, La Follette founded and became editor of the New Freeman. She was well-equipped to do so. Nock considered her "the best editorial mind I ever saw." In a letter to a friend in 1926, he wrote, "I think she is just as good an editor as I am and even a shade better (if you will look back on The Freeman, you will see that when she had it, she produced a trifle better paper than I did) and in another five years will be much better than 1 could ever be."
The New Freeman revived the concept of the original one:
it was politically libertarian and broadly humanistic, concerned with
cultural and social events as well as political ones. Each issue
contained several pages of commentary on current events written by
La Follette, usually expressing cynicism about government meddling in
foreign or domestic affairs. Occasionally the commentary would
include feminist topics such as protective labor laws, the Woman's
Party, prostitution, alimony, and divorce laws. Art, drama, music,
and literary criticism and reviews also graced the New
Freeman pages, as well as Nock's "Journeyman" commentary. An elegant and intellectual magazine, it was not
without humor also. In one issue of the New Freeman, for
example, subscriptions were solicited with this ad:
Are your mind's eyes looking forward or merely recreating images of
The timing of the New Freeman, however, was as unfortunate as the timing of La Follette's books. After 15 months, the magazine's financial backer, suffering from the Depression, had to withdraw support and the New Freeman folded.
The New Freeman was, unfortunately, the last public place in which Suzanne La Follette ever commented on feminist issues. The relatives and colleagues I interviewed for this article don't recall hearing her discuss feminist issues as such again after the magazine folded. But her brother Chester points out that she would have been unlikely to talk about such topics with people who agreed with her.
There are a few indications that La Follette retained her feminist views in later years. In 1964, when the New York Conservative Party, of which she was a co-founder, came out in favor of anti-abortion laws, she demanded that her name be dropped from the Party's letterhead - and it was. "She may not have said 'I'm doing this as part of the feminist cause,"' her grandniece Maryly Rosner told me, "but she believed in things that were part of the feminist movement." La Follette's colleagues in later years recall that she would not tolerate sexist remarks. "Suzanne would not take any putdown because of sex," says Priscilla Buckley. Columnist John Chamberlain remembers that "she didn't like people criticizing women."
After the New Freeman ceased publication, La Follette free-lanced for magazines like the Nation, The New Republic, and Scribner's, writing on her favorite topics of art, economics, labor, and current affairs. Always a perceptive observer of political affairs, she wrote an early indictment of Hitler and fascism for Scribner's.
Then, in the middle '30s, came one of the most important efforts of La Follette's life - her involvement with the trial of Leon Trotsky. Her previous qualified sympathy for the Soviet Union for what she perceived to be its experiments in economic justice had begun to sour in the early '30s with the first news of the Stalin purges. Her reaction was to join the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, an organization trying to secure asylum for him. Then in 1937, when the Dewey subcommittee of inquiry to investigate the treason charges leveled against Trotsky was formed, she became its secretary. Though John Dewey was the chairman because of his prestige, Chester La Follette recalls that the inquiry was actually his sister's idea. As secretary she attended the interrogation of Trotsky in Mexico and played a major role in writing the subcommittee's final report, Not Guilty. Her papers from this inquiry now reside in the Harvard library.
From 1937 to 1941, with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship, La Follette worked on a book on the economics of art. Though she had thought it was going to be her "magnum opus," it was never finished and she returned to freelance writing in the '40s.
In 1950, The Freeman was reincarnated for the second time, this time with John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt as editors and La Follette as managing editor. This new version of New Freeman was, in Chamberlain's words, "anti-statist and anti-communist." He told Time magazine, "We want to revive the John Stuart Mill concept of liberalism. We feel we're rescuing an old word from misuse." In 1952 a policy split over Taft vs. Eisenhower caused so much dissension among the Board of Directors (La Follette favored Taft, of course) that the magazine was sold, and finally ended up in the hands of Leonard Read and the Foundation for Economic Education. (There is very little resemblance, however, between the FEE Freeman and those edited by Nock and La Follette.)
During this period, La Follette's main focus became anti-communism. Not only the purges of the '30s, but the sufferings of her Russian friends (one woman's whole family was exterminated by Stalin because she had left Russia) convinced La Follette that the Soviet Union was a major threat to liberty. She even went so far as to defend Joe McCarthy, though she knew his methods were "slipshod." But, according to Chamberlain, she saw McCarthy as the only one willing to fight the Communists in the State Department.
In 1955, La Follette became a founding editor of National Review and worked as its managing editor until her retirement in 1959. Her anti-communism was the main reason she was willing to work with traditional conservatives like the Buckleys. In those days, recalls Chamberlain, there was no libertarian-conservative split. There were "precious few" of either and no place to publish except a handful of conservative journals. But, Chamberlain adds, La Follette was "not a traditional conservative…we were all anti-statists."
Though a few articles by La Follette appeared in National Review, including her introduction to the reprint edition of Nock's Snoring as a Fine Art, she wrote progressively less each year. Chester La Follette recalls that his sister was bothered because she felt that William Buckley never really utilized her literary talents. Helen Tremaine, her close associate, concurs, noting that "Suzanne complained that Bill Buckley never liked anyone's writings but his sister's."
But if La Follette did not write much for National Review, she was important as one of its editors. Indeed, her most significant contribution to the libertarian cause (apart from writing Concerning Women) may have been to nurture and direct four magazines. Too often the contributions of editors are insufficiently appreciated - writers get all the glory because they are more visible. But good editors are as crucial to a magazine as good writers. Not only Nock but her later colleagues like Chamberlain and Priscilla Buckley considered La Follette to be an excellent editor. She was, Chamberlain says, "a very good stimulator of other people's ideas and great at originating ideas."
La Follette passed away in 1982 but is remembered vividly by her friends as a beautiful and cultivated woman, "opinionated," "overwhelming" but "perfectly gracious," "extremely kind" and loyal. Suzanne La Follette was both remarkable as a person and admirable as a libertarian. Her contributions as a writer, editor, feminist, and radical libertarian deserve to be widely recognized and appreciated by libertarians and feminists today.
Sharon Presley was the National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists from 1976 to 1982 and from 2004 to the present. She wishes to acknowledge the following people for their help in making this article possible: "Charles Fowler, who first drew my attention to the excerpt in The Feminist Papers; and those who graciously consented to be interviewed - Maryly Rosner (La Follette's grand-niece), Chester La Follette (her brother), and her colleagues, John Chamberlain, Priscilla Buckley and Helen Tremaine. This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Center for Libertarian Studies."
Reprinted, with permission, from the January 1981 issue of Libertarian Review.
Copyright © 1981, 2003 by Sharon Presley
For the National Review obituary for Suzanne La Follette written by William F. Buckley, click here. © 1983 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission. Photo reprinted by permission.
For a longer bio of Suzanne LaFollette, see Jeff Riggenbach's article "The Life and Work of Suzanne LaFollette" at the Mises Institute by clicking here.
Photos from the Library of Congress Archives thanks to Carol Moore