Feminism Fights for Liberty and Equality for All: An Interview With Kat Murti
A libertarian feminist discusses what her side gets wrong about feminism
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Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. It's all too common to dismiss ideas without understanding them. Feminism suffers this affliction more than most, with many people quick to denounce it while advancing very little knowledge of what feminists argue or what evidence they muster to support their claims. To help address that unfortunate ignorance, I'm joined today by Kat Murti, co-founder of Feminists for Liberty.
A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: It seems like a lot of the disagreements about feminism, the value of feminism, and the place of feminism, come down to, or at least are informed by disputes about the definition, about what we mean by this term. What do we mean by feminism?
Kat Murti: I think you've hit the nail on the head right there. People just don't agree about what feminism is, and a lot of times they're responding to a caricature of what they believe it to be, rather than how feminists themselves might describe it. Of course, there are so many different schools of feminism just as there are different schools of libertarianism or other ideological beliefs. I agree with you, it helps if we're all coming from the same definition. I think the best definition of feminism is probably the most widely accepted one, and the most general one, which is feminism is the advocacy for equality between the sexes or among the sexes.
Aaron: What does equality mean in this case? Because a lot of the anti-feminist arguments take the equality approach, but they look at it in terms of outcomes and economics, the majority of people entering college are women, women are achieving in the workforce, and making economic gains. They look at it in measurables and say those measurables point to equality, or at least not as much inequality as we might believe. Therefore, feminism is unnecessary. There's another kind of equality we might be talking about, which is social standing equality or relative privilege or power within society or within relationships, and that doesn't show up in the measurables.
Kat: Right. I think that there are a few different ways to look at the word 'equality', because it's just as hard to define perhaps as feminism. Oftentimes, we talk about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. When I'm talking about equality, I'm really talking about equality of opportunity, equal rule of law, equal legal standing, all of those kinds of things. The chance to compete, which for the vast majority of history was really not guaranteed to most people. In fact, the state was actively working to prevent women and all sorts of other minorities, really the vast majority of humanity, from being able to compete on an equal level.
That's certainly at the core of this, but when you get to measurables as well, I think that there is something to be said for looking at data. I think data is an important indicator, but it doesn't really tell us the whole story. It's really valuable to look at the data in order to see patterns. It's also very valuable to gender disaggregate this data a lot of times because it tells us a story that's quite different than the one that we might see when we go into something. Of course, people make choices too, and that's not a problem.
If we happen to see that women are more likely to do one thing than men are, or vice versa, that's not inherently a problem. It just is something that we could look further into to see why they are doing this. Is there a legal reason? Sometimes there are a lot of regulatory burdens that might push people in one direction or another based on gender, even if people aren't even thinking about it in that way. Is there a societal or a cultural reason? Is there a political reason? Are there ways in which our society is treating people differently on the basis of gender regardless of them as individuals?
I'm a libertarian feminist. The way that I look at this is that gender equality is tied not just to social and cultural liberty, but to economic liberty as well. The long history of women's liberation is, in many ways, the story of women's greater access to markets, greater access to capital, and therefore greater political, cultural, and social choice for women as individuals. When I'm thinking about equality, I'm really thinking about, does everyone have a chance to compete and are they treated equally when they do.
“Gender equality is tied not just to social and cultural liberty, but to economic liberty as well. The long history of women's liberation is, in many ways, the story of women's greater access to markets, greater access to capital, and therefore greater political, cultural, social choice for women as individuals.”
Aaron: Let me pick up real quick on that, the access to markets as a driver of women's economic equality and economic growth. There's a common pattern on the right of looking at theories that they view as being of the left. Feminism falls into this category, critical race theory falls into this category, and so on. Seeing that the people who they view as the main advocates of these theories come to non-market conclusions. Where I am a feminist, and among the things I'm blaming for the place of women is capitalism or markets, or I'm a critical race theorist, and one of the things that I am blaming is capitalism or free markets, and therefore we need more state intervention.
Someone who's on the right or among libertarian circles or so looks at that and says, "I don't want more government intervention, I'm a big fan of free markets, et cetera. Therefore, the theory is wrong or suspect." As opposed to saying they're drawing the wrong economic conclusions for the underlying theory, but the theory itself, or the things that it's pointing to, or the problems it's identifying are genuine, and I should wrestle with them even if I come to different conclusions. How much of the anti-feminism we see in a lot of circles do you think is simply that: rejecting the economic leftism of a lot of feminists, but confusing that for rejecting the theory itself?
Kat: I think it's certainly a marked part of it. I don't think that that fully explains what's happening here, but yes, absolutely, I think that we hear things like feminism is Marxism, and that's just not true. There are, of course, schools of feminism, including Marxist feminism, but that doesn't mean that feminism itself is. I think you're putting the cart before the horse when you view it as fundamentally an economic theory that then discredits everything else that feminism has to offer. Even many Marxist feminists themselves have pushed back on those who put Marxism ahead of feminist ideas about equality and about the rule of law and those kinds of things.
It does us a great disservice as advocates of human liberty. Because if we are not addressing the same issues that people that we disagree with are, and if the only thing that we have to contribute is, "That is a feminist issue and I disagree with feminism because I like capitalism," then, of course, one, you're creating a great reason for people who are not totally sold on this idea of capitalism to therefore oppose capitalism because you're essentially telling them that it's not for people who believe in women's liberation, women's equality, or other things like that.
You're also just completely ceding the ground for policy solutions and ideological arguments for why the real problem is the state. We need to remove the state and free the individual to make choices in a way that really has been absent, including when it comes to markets. Of course, there's a long history of libertarian feminism. I've been reading the book Reclaiming The Mainstream that was published in the early '90s by Joan Kennedy Taylor. She was a libertarian feminist, very much a libertarian, definitely not a Marxist, and she talks about this as well.
One of my favorite quotes about libertarian feminism comes from that book. I'm going to be butchering it as a paraphrase, but essentially, her thesis is that women have always been drawn to the idea of individualism. Feminism represents the idea that they should be able to take ownership of their own lives and their own bodies and make their own choices. Yet there are ideologues on the left and ideologues on the right who benefit from viewing feminism as fundamentally about the statist action, whether that's in the marketplace or other types of statist solutions.
That not only is significantly less popular as an idea than feminism as a whole but it also often shortchanges women. It shortchanges the people who are meant to be benefiting from these policies. I also think that there's another element here, and this came up several years ago when the thick versus thin libertarian argument was very in vogue. I think a lot of people look at this as, "Okay, but if it's not the state…" and a lot of times it is the state, "But if it's not the state, if this is a question of choices, then, as a libertarian, people should be able to make their own choices." Absolutely, I agree, as a libertarian, people should be able to make their own choices, and sometimes they can't.
We should address that, and we should look at that, and we should see why. Sometimes it's getting the state out of the way, and sometimes it's making an argument for cultural change. Sometimes it's selling in the marketplace of ideas this idea that no one should be oppressed, people should have the ability to make their own choices, and that individuals matter. We often like to say that there is simply nothing more collectivist than treating someone as nothing more than a representative of their sex or gender. I think that's a deeply libertarian idea, while also being a deeply feminist idea.
Aaron: How then do we respond to the argument that lots of people who say they're not feminists or they reject feminism, say, "Of course, I believe in equality between the sexes. Of course, I believe that the law or the state should not treat people differently because they are a man or a woman. Of course, I believe that women should be treated equally in society." Why is that feminism as opposed to just believing in equal treatment?
If I want to be a little bit unfair, it's analogous to the people responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter. ”It's a similar move of, "Of course, I believe this, but I think it just applies to everyone." Because you’re not just saying everyone should be equal. You're privileging women in this equation in the name of your ideology— feminism—but there's something more going on. There's a sense of we live in a patriarchy, and we have to attack that and so on. That this is fundamentally different from simply the claim that people should be treated equally independent of their sex or gender.
Kat: You just packed a whole lot into that question. I want to start, first and foremost, by saying that feminism is not just about women, which is very confusing to people, in part, because it starts with the root “fem”. Throughout the history of this movement, it certainly did start as being about women's rights and women's equality. Because for the vast majority of human history, and certainly for the majority of American history, ranging from colonial times, as a result of laws that were brought over from Europe, all the way up until honestly the '80s and '90s, a lot of laws really did differentiate based upon sex and gender.
We do still have some remnants today, but it is much less the way in which the world works now than how it did. The focus was on women from an early stage. However, feminism today does address issues of sexism—whether it impacts a woman or a man or anybody else. It's more about allowing individuals to be individuals rather than gendered stereotypes forcing them into specific boxes. There are many ways in which feminists have fought for men's rights or trans rights or things like that. It's not just a newer phenomenon, although, that's much more of where the discourse is these days than it was in the 1800s.
“Feminism today does address issues of sexism. Whether it impacts a woman or a man or anybody else. It's more about allowing individuals to be individuals rather than gendered stereotypes, forcing them into specific boxes. There are many ways in which feminists have fought for men's rights or trans rights or things like that.”
There are many ways in which feminism has specifically positively impacted men. In the fight for the ERA, a lot of people coming out against the ERA — people who were opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, in the fight in the 70s — of course, this started before then, but the big era we’re really talking about this was in the 70s. In the fight for the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], a lot of the people who opposed the ERA opposed it on the grounds that, "Okay, but then women would have to be drafted." "Okay, but then women would have to be treated the same under the law." They couldn't have protective legislation that was meant to give them an advantage and things like that.
Feminists were coming out saying, "That's good. We don't want that." Most feminists, especially of that era, of course, were against the draft, just as most libertarians are against the draft for everyone, regardless of gender. What I found really interesting is that it was the feminists who were pushing and saying, "No, men should not get drafted. Men should not be treated unequally in these ways." That was very much a part of the feminist fight.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was definitely a feminist, and definitely not a libertarian. Someone I don't agree with on many different things, but what a lot of people miss is that her very first case that she argued in court was actually a tax law case. It was a way in which the tax law negatively impacted men. This is Moritz. There was a man who was a caretaker for his mother, but because he had never been married, he was not able to take a caretaker's tax credit because the IRS decided that caretakers would, in most cases, be women, and only in very narrow cases that did not include unmarried men, could caretakers be men.
This was a feminist issue—for men to be able to take a tax credit that previously was only open to women. There are numerous examples over the years. In the fight for changing the federal definition of rape in the early 2000s, a big focus of that was the fact that the federal government previously had defined rape so that someone could only be raped if they were a woman. Of course, this is a huge problem, particularly considering that the federal government runs these massive prisons filled with men who are subject to rape all the time and all these other problems.
These are feminist causes that fundamentally focus on men's rights and men's equality. I think it is really important that we realize feminism is not just about women, and it's not about privileging women. That doesn't mean that there aren't people who will make those arguments. As there are with every single ideological belief that you could have, there are people who make disingenuous or poorly thought-out arguments, whether they're coming at it from a pro position or a con position.
“The federal government previously had defined rape so that someone could only be raped if they were a woman. Of course, this is a huge problem, particularly considering that the federal government runs these massive prisons filled with men who are subject to rape all the time and all these other problems.
These are feminist causes that fundamentally focus on men's rights and men's equality. I think it is really important that we realize feminism is not just about women, and it's not about privileging women.”
I frequently get asked, "Okay, then, if feminism is not just about women, why call yourself a feminist? Why not call yourself an egalitarian?" Or from the other side of the coin, as a libertarian feminist, they might say, "Well, okay, if you're saying that feminism is part and parcel of the larger libertarian umbrella, why specifically call yourself a libertarian feminist and not just call yourself a libertarian?" I think there are a few reasons that matters. One is that feminism is a thing that everyone all over the world already knows about.
There is an existing movement that is focused on a certain set of issues that mean something to people, and that mostly means that you believe in gender equality. By refusing to engage with the people who care about these issues, you're not actually furthering them. It's you're being overly concerned about the label, without actually thinking about what the impact is.
To some degree, I don't care whether an individual chooses to call themselves a feminist any more than I care that an individual chooses to call themselves a libertarian. I care that they are not sexist, do not support sexism, believe in individual rights and freedom and liberty for everybody, and are not working to oppress individuals, whether through the state or through another course or means. How they choose to identify is honestly not the fight for me, but I think that it is valuable to identify as a feminist to be able to be part of those discussions and work on those issues.
This is something that's come up numerous times in the history even of libertarianism. Tonie Nathan, who was one of the co-founders of the Libertarian Party in the United States. Then went on to be the first woman to win an electoral college vote as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nominee in—I think it was in 1972? The following year after the campaign, she founded the Association for Libertarian Feminists, and she addressed this point and said, of course, as a libertarian, she felt that feminism was core to libertarian beliefs. But a lot of libertarians might focus on many different issues, and she specifically thought it was important to address feminist issues and the issues that feminists were concerned with from a libertarian perspective.
I think that words matter and how people interpret your words matter. Honestly, if you truly are only concerned with the word “feminism,” and the root of that word, and that's the thing that you're upset with, it seems to me that you're wasting energy trying to rename an existing movement rather than trying to focus on changing the ideas, and changing the policies, and doing things to make people freer and happier.
Aaron: It seems that there are a lot of the anti-feminist views on the center-right and the libertarian right that have to do with the cultural aspect of it as well. Kind of presented as an objection to saying women have been mistreated in the workplace, sexual harassment has been rife within the workplace. You see a kind of, "You can't tell me what to do," response in terms of, "Oh, so you're saying anything I do is going to get me in trouble? I can't hit on my colleagues anymore." That sort of stuff. There is this, "You're telling me that my culture, that the way that I behaved was wrong," and people tend to react fairly strongly against that.
That gets baked into a lot of these critiques. I think that also is what pushes the critiques in the direction of, "Well, the data says this isn't a problem." Because that removes this subjectivity, the empathy side of it, of understanding what it's like to be a woman in the workforce and have people hitting on you or making various remarks that they think of as innocent, but add up to what can be a hostile or toxic work environment. It just seems like a lot of it is, "I don't want you telling me my culture is bad, or that I have been misbehaving, and so, therefore, I'm going to point to wealth differentials, or higher education attainment, or other things that deflect from that."
Kat: It is very, very difficult to feel like someone is telling you that you are doing something wrong or that you've been a bad person in some way. People feel personally attacked. They feel like this is a personal attack on them. Saying that even though they think of themselves as a good person, even though they've tried to do good things in the world, they are a terrible person. Of course, no one likes hearing that.
It's worth mentioning that most of the time, most people are not terrible people. Most people want the world to be a better place, and most people are trying to be likable, kind human beings. It's just that sometimes that doesn't land. There are a few different things that happen here. Some of the feminist messaging, some of the messaging around these issues, could be improved because it is difficult to have people question themselves and certainly to question core things that they consider part of their identity, and their gender is absolutely a part of that.
If you use brash messaging that makes it sound to people like being a man is bad, of course they're going to respond poorly, and then they're going to find any possible way to discredit whatever you're going to say that makes it sound like being a man is bad. Of course, I don't think that being a man is bad, I think that men are perfectly fine individuals just like anyone else, and we need men in the world just like we need women in the world.
“If you use brash messaging that makes it sound to people like being a man is bad, of course they're going to respond poorly, and then they're going to find any possible way to discredit whatever you're going to say that makes it sound like being a man is bad.”
I think that anything that causes people to respond in this reactionary way, we do see a negative impact. It is worth thinking through the messaging that is used a lot of times here. Again, the more statist responses to a lot of the problems that we might highlight around gender discrepancies or things like that, again cause this reactionaryism that turns into this culture war, and that then makes it part of someone's core identity to want to actively push back.
I think we've seen a lot of this in recent years, for example, with the LGBT rights movement, where we've had a lot of wins, and I think that that's been really good for individual freedom. Now, a lot of people are really targeting LGBT folk particularly because they feel personally attacked. They are now going out on the attack. I don't think that that means trying to create a world in which people should not be discriminated against or should definitely not be targets of violence based upon their sexuality, or their gender affiliation is a problem. But I think that we need to be careful with the way in which we pursue those solutions.
I think there's another part of this, and it almost ties to the seen and the unseen. It's hard for most people to put themselves in someone else's shoes. It's especially hard to put themselves in someone else's shoes when they identify with the opposite person there. Particularly, when you're talking about sexual harassment. A lot of men say now men feel scared to go to work, men are potentially being held back in the workplace, men are facing—they're worried about how they can present themselves in the workplace, how they should talk, who they should talk to, what wording they should use, all of these kinds of things, that’s impacting their work.
I think that it does to some extent, and I don't think all of that is necessarily negative, some of it might be. What they're missing is, women have had all of those same concerns in the workplace for generations. There are numerous studies that have shown—if we want to outweigh data with data—that women, because of sexual harassment, have been held back. Women's careers are held back. Particularly women who make complaints about sexual harassment, they're less likely to advance in the workplace even than the men who have complaints made against them.
I do think that as we get much more rigid, and as we get more carceral in our approaches to these kinds of things, that causes more problems because of this reactionary problem. Yes, I think sometimes cultural change is difficult, but it is important. I think that it's better to live in a world where people get judged on the basis of merit rather than to live in a world where people get judged by whether or not you're willing to sleep with your boss, or whether or not you're willing to put up with being groped at work.
Those are very real impacts that do affect the careers of women and have for a long time. Women have always worried about, "Okay, can I wear this? Can I do this? Can I speak like this? Can I go into a meeting with a man and close the door behind me? Will it then raise these concerns?" I think that that's not a good environment for anybody. It's not the most productive work environment.
We don't want to see that being a rising concern for men, and we want to create an environment where people are able to learn and change how they're approaching other people. To create fewer of these problems without a punitive approach. This is not a new problem that has just come out of the woodwork and now men are being targeted. This is just a shifting of who might be feeling some of the negative impacts around this.
This isn't even a generational change. Since the MeToo movement in 2016, where women started to talk about all of these issues, the percentage of women who reported sexual harassment, who reported feeling unsafe at work, and who reported being held back in their careers because of unwanted or non-consensual sexual interfaces with people in the workplace, whether it was verbal or otherwise, has significantly dropped. That's from a cultural movement, that's not from laws, that's not from regulations, that's not from this carceral approach. Yes, there are men who now feel like, "Well, now I can't have meetings where in the meeting I make sexual comments about my coworkers." Well, maybe work is not the best place for that.
“The percentage of women who reported sexual harassment, who reported feeling unsafe at work, and who reported being held back in their careers because of unwanted or non-consensual sexual interfaces with people in the workplace, whether it was verbal or otherwise, has significantly dropped. That's from a cultural movement, that's not from laws, that's not from regulations, that's not from this carceral approach.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us in Apple Podcasts and als o check out ReImagining Liberty, our sister podcast at The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. Zooming In is produced by Landry Ayres and is a project of the UnPopulist.
I was pretty excited to see this topic as a feminist who gets frustrated with the anti-capitalist impulses in mainstream feminism. I liked the point about how seeking protective laws from the state often backfire and wish more feminists would keep in mind that the power to protect is inseparable from the power to control. I also think that strong collectivism is dangerous for the feminist project given that the same sexist impulses and power differentials would exist without the market making some space for creativity and drive, etc to allow oppressed peoples to make some space for themselves.
I was a bit dissappointed that she didn't even touch on motherhood (and free care-labor in general), which is the source of a lot of the gender disparity that still exists today. As it stands, public school funding and Medicaid/Medicare were eliminated or drastically cut, it would fall on mostly women to make up for those programs for free, forgoing their other hopes, dreams, and ambitions in the meantime. Given that reality, it's pretty rational for women and feminists to reach for the state rather than markets when they need to be empowered.
Ultimately, I wish that libertarianism had more valence in mainstream feminist circles, and that feminists would work harder to insure the markets gave us our due, rather than hoping some protector uses that power perfectly and benevolently forever.
I've been looking for this flavor of feminism, if that's the right label....
The overwhelming vast majority of violence at every level of society all over the world for thousands of years has been committed by men. Nobody in history has ever figured out how to keep the majority of peaceful men while getting rid of the minority of violent men. And so, to have men, is to have violent men. And to have violent men is to live in world permeated with unspeakable violence.
In a world without men, almost all the violence goes away. And once that happens, trillions of dollars now needed for responding to male violence could be reinvested in life affirming projects like health care and education. The radical reduction in violence, plus the vast new resources, would bring us to something pretty close to the long dreamed of world peace. And so questions like these arise...
Why should we choose the male gender over world peace?
What is so important about a penis that it justifies us accepting so much suffering of the innocent?
14 more pages of this flavor of feminism can be found here: