Liberty's Leading Ladies

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John Blundell has just released a book designed to acquaint Americans with a fascinating, though largely unknown, part of their history — the role of women in maintaining (indeed, helping very significantly to create) America's tradition of individual liberty. His book is a series of introductions to 22 women who did important things for liberty.

The women are, in chronological order: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher. Twenty-two women. How many of them do you know?

Most Americans will recognize Washington, Stanton, Stowe, and maybe Adams. Libertarians will recognize Paterson, Rand, Lane, and Friedman — maybe Jane Jacobs too. People interested in abolition and the progress of black people in America will add Sojourner Truth, Madam Walker, and others to their list. Conservatives will welcome Luce and others. But all of them deserve to be known to everyone who is interested in American achievement and American character, as well as American ideas about individual freedom.

Few of these women were libertarians in the contemporary American sense. The libertarian movement (first intellectual, then political) is best dated from the 1920s. But all of them had something important to do with ideas and practices of liberty with which libertarians will proudly acknowledge a connection.

Blundell is to be congratulated for presenting a broad spectrum of interests and occupations. The most obvious occupation for an advocate of liberty is that of writer, and there are many professional writers represented: Stowe, Paterson, Rand, Lane, Caldwell, Luce . . . But business people are also prominent in this book. Who can exceed the personal interest and allure of such businesswomen as Madam Walker, one of America's great black entrepreneurs, or Vivien Kellems, the great anti-tax crusader?

Who wouldn't want to know more about these dynamic individuals? Blundell's format limits him to about ten pages for each; but once you know these people exist, you can read more about them, and he offers suggestions for further reading.

I'm not an unskeptical audience, about anything. So I would quarrel with some of Blundell's judgments, one of which in particular I wish he would rethink: the high value he places on Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943). Lane was a good writer, sometimes a writer of genius, but Discovery is a poor book — wandering, disorganized, self-contradictory, circular in logic, chronically wrong about historical fact.  If you want to see Lane to advantage, read Free Land (1938) or Give Me Liberty (1936). You'll find those books rewarding, and (something different) you'll like their author.

Such animadversions are, however, beside the point. Blundell’s project seems to me exactly right. The women he discusses are full of personality, full of vitality, full of fascination for any intelligent reader. It’s a disgrace that, as Blundell observes, so few people, so few libertarians, know much about them (with the exception of Ayn Rand). Blundell’s discussions are of exactly the right length and kind to stimulate interest. The book can be read at one sitting, as I read it, or at occasional moments in a busy week. In either case, it will entertain and inform. It’s a particularly good candidate for a Christmas gift to intelligent friends, libertarian or not. I would like to see it in the hands of young women, because young people right now are under great pressure to conform and become anything but vivid, eccentric, complex, vital, creative, or libertarian. And that’s no way to live.


Editor's Note: Review of "Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History," by John Blundell. New York: Algora, 2011. 220 pages.



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Comments

Jon Harrison

I knew 11 out of 22 -- 50%. That's a failing grade, isn't it?

Jim Henshaw

We're not in grade school any more, or getting graded, so not knowing about half the women on a list of obscure ur-libertarian-leaning feminists isn't something to be denigrated. It's conceiveable that knowing 50% could put you in the upper 1% of all Americans regarding such knowledge.

Stephen Cox

To me, Jim’s comment seems strongly counterfactual. Few of the women mentioned were feminists of any kind. Some were libertarians, frankly and fully; others were unaware of the concept. Put this together, and you don’t get “ur-libertarian-leaning feminists.”
In light of Jim’s 1% statement, what does it mean to say that some historical figure is “obscure”? It’s an interesting question. I’m sure that Charlemagne, Cromwell, Madison, Bismarck, Cather, Mann, Marlowe, Goethe, Marcus Aurelius, Wordsworth, Matisse, Pitt (both of them), and hundreds of others who weren’t Franklin Delano Roosevelt are “obscure” to the great majority of Americans. Actually, FDR is obscure, in the sense that few people really know much of anything about him. Does this establish the fact that FDR, or any of the rest of them, is obscure, in the usually disparaging sense of that word?
Fortunately, most of the women mentioned could be called famous, in the sense that people write about them, quote them, run museums about them, watch movies written about them or by them, and so forth, without worrying about the putative 99% of the population who don’t give a damn.

Jon Harrison

Uh, actually I was just having a little fun with Steve's piece.

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