The notion that men have dominated the libertarian movement is a myth. In history and the modern day, women have profoundly influenced the ideas of liberty. The following list comprises women who fiercely embodied independence from the state, turned their unique obstacles into their greatest assets, challenging their government and society in ways that only few men would dream.
1. Hannah Arendt
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” – Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt is one of the greatest political philosophers of all time, substantially contributing to the understanding that liberty is a moral necessity. After living in the firing line of tyranny, she confronted the difficult reasons for its existence. She derived conclusions that stirred controversy on all sides, and never
lost hope in the “small islands of freedom” that could exist both because and in spite of human nature.
Born in the early 20th century Germany to an assimilated Jewish family, she studied philosophy at university. Arendt had strong ties with influential intellectuals including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers and was already a well-respected theorist while completing her degree. Nazi contempt against her however, was simply compounded by her prominence in academic circles. She was forced to escape to the United States where she published her most important works.
Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism published in 1951 went beyond Hitler and Stalin to reveal underlying reasons for complicity and support of terror:
“What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together.”
Arendt’s most famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem explores the complex nature of political tyranny. Although the Holocaust had not yet received due attention in the Western world until these trials, Arendt’s perspective on the incident stirred controversy within Jewish circles when she wrote:
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Where many believed she trivialised Eichmann’s crimes, Arendt was always more interested in the broader scope of evil. For her, the invisible inaction on the part of the good was the necessary accomplice of cruelty. The manifest responsibility of each individual is clear:
“When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.”
Hannah Arendt holds an irreplaceable position in Western literature for filling a void in the explanation of political evil hitherto unexplained by other thinkers. She moved beyond the naïve optimism of her age, beyond unbridled cynicism and beyond affiliation to any political or cultural entity to uncover the true structure of tyranny. She covered the nature of political evil in its entirety through the complex lens of the individual.
2. Helen Hughes
“Appalling living standards on Indigenous lands are not the result of indigenous failure but of government failure.” – Helen Hughes
Helen Hughes has been described as Australia’s “greatest female economist”. Her work reshaped our understanding of the economy and the role that the state should and should not play within it.
“Appalling living standards on Indigenous lands are not the result of indigenous failure but of government failure.”
Helen Hughes has been described as Australia’s “greatest female economist”. Her work reshaped our understanding of the economy and the role that the state should and should not play within it.
Hughes was of European Jewish descent, having immigrated as a small child with her family to Australia in the 1930s. Throughout her successful academic career, Hughes was always most interested in the political frameworks that would help the most vulnerable in society.
She began her intellectual endeavours as a socialist. However, following her evaluation of socialism in theory and practice, she adopted a classical liberal philosophy that went against the grain of the majority in Australian academia.
She was always enamoured with economics, but developed a particular fondness for development economics which would ultimately shape her worldview. After having established her professional career with the Australian National University, her ideas came to particular prominence during her 15 years with the World Bank.
She presented television lectures on the ABC, Australia in a Developing World, and spent several years working on development within the Pacific region, becoming a renowned expert on Nauru. During her later years at the World Bank, she became involved with remote Indigenous communities, where her observations and proposed solutions to challenges within indigenous communities were largely unprecedented.
Her final book Lands of Shame, published in 2007 was one of her most provocative, declaring:
”The most damaging discrimination in Australia’s history has been the exceptionalism of the last 30 years that was intended to make up for past mistreatment. It has widened the gap between indigenous and mainstream Australians in critical respects. It persuaded them, moreover, that they wanted apartheid in property rights, education and welfare rather than employment. The natural enemies of apartheid on the Left, who played such an important role in dismantling it in South Africa, have been the principal defenders of exceptionalism in Australia.”
Her bold statements earned the respect of like-minded colleagues and the scorn of many academic figures. The field of Indigenous studies was largely dominated by government solutions, and remained untouched by classical liberal proponents. Hughes devoted all her energy to transforming the debate by offering a vigorous and well thought alternative to “the socialist experiment.”
Following vigorous study and countless conversations with Indigenous leaders in remote communities she fiercely advocated for extensive reform in welfare and property rights. Often quoting Indigenous elders themselves, her research had greater credibility than the numerous studies that failed to mention of Indigenous community concerns.
Her painstaking efforts paved the way for a complete revamping of academic debate. By questioning the validity of big government solutions, Hughes arrived at the conclusion that denying individual freedoms does more harm than good. Her unique significance was to apply the theory of classical liberalism to the practice of Indigenous communities, advocating for empowerment through independence.
3. Ayn Rand
“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be the defenders of minorities.” – Ayn Rand
In the history of ideas, Ayn Rand is a legendary figure and arguably one of the most influential philosophers of all time. Her theory of objectivism redefined laissez-faire capitalism in the 20th century. A bestseller of fiction and non-fiction in the millions, her theories continue to inspire and irritate in equal measure, influencing generations of thinkers, business people and political activists.
A child prodigy born into a bourgeois Russian Jewish family, Rand found school unchallenging and wrote screenplays at the age of 8 and novels by the age of 10. Living in St Petersburg, her childhood was happy until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Her father’s successful pharmaceutical business was seized by the Red Army and her entire family was dispossessed of their property and forced to flee to the Crimean Peninsula.
Rand immigrated to the US in 1925 with only $50 to her name. She “cried tears of splendour” upon her first sight of the industrial Manhattan skyline. Undoubtedly her experience with totalitarianism and consequent opportunity in America shaped her unbridled appreciation of liberty and defence of the individual. She undertook many menial occupations before gaining worldwide recognition as both playwright and author.
Her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, portrays the life of the individual amidst ever increasing burdens of the state, using her main protagonist, John Galt, to express liberty not just as a right but as a responsibility:
“To think is an act of choice. The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature’…is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process…you are free to think or to evade the effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival.”
Ultimately believing that liberty would triumph, Rand exemplified relentless optimism in the individual through her other protagonist, Dagny Taggart:
“I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.”
Rand also dedicated extensive thought to non-fiction philosophy throughout her life. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, published in 1966, is a unique appraisal of the actors within the free market:
“Businessmen are the one group that distinguishes capitalism as a way of life from the totalitarian statism that is swallowing the rest of the world. All the other social groups; workers, farmers, professional men, scientists, soldiers- exist under dictatorships, even though they exist in chains, in terror, in misery, and in progressive self-destruction. But there is no such group as businessmen under a dictatorship. Their place is taken by armed thugs: by bureaucrats and commissars. Businessmen are the symbol of a free society.
Ayn Rand was an elegant poet for laissez-faire, able to romanticise and celebrate the achievements of capitalism in a way that no economics textbook ever could. Singlehandedly influencing millions of individuals to follow a path of liberty, she ultimately proved that “the question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
4. Mary Wollstonecraft
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft was perhaps the most profound precursor of the 20th century feminist movement. Her significance came from applying the noble ideals of the enlightenment to all people, both men and women, thus revolutionizing the way society thought about liberty and the individual.
Born in England in 1759, Wollstonecraft faced a difficult early life with an abusive father. She was determined to establish her own independence and livelihood from a young age. Living an unconventional lifestyle among other intellectuals, Wollstonecraft relentlessly pursued writing until her early death during childbirth in 1797.
Wollstonecraft’s desire for an independent income eventually led her to writing. However, she was forced to undertake many other occupations before this was possible, including domestic work and as a governess.
Wollstonecraft faced the challenge of London publishers who refused to take female writers seriously. She persisted until she was hired as a translator for the Analytical Review in 1788. Thereafter, she devoted the majority of her time to writing and publishing numerous controversial novels, books and reviews.
Her most celebrated work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, provoked a heavy handed reaction from conservative voices of the day. However, it has since revealed its relevance. Wollstonecraft extended the logic of liberty to women as well as men, declaring:
“Make them free, and they will quickly become wise and virtuous, as men become more so; for the improvement must be mutual, or the injustice which one half of the human race are obliged to submit to, retorting on their oppressors, the virtue of men will be worm-eaten by the insect whom he keeps under his feet”
Her defiant, independent lifestyle is also reflected in her work, and helps to explain her radical take of individualism and self-ownership. “Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath,” she writes.
For Wollstonecraft, rejecting dependence on men also meant rejecting dependence on the state. “How can a rational being be ennobled by anything that is not obtained by its own exertions?” she asks.
Mary Wollstonecraft almost applied Lockean philosophy to the liberation of women, arguing that “each and every person has an inherent property in their own body, mind and labour.” was applicable to all human beings.
5. Isabel Paterson
“The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.” – Isabel Paterson
Now recognised as one of the greatest political philosophers in the 20th century, Isabel Paterson devoted her life to advancing the ideals of liberty in the midst of massive state expansion. Born in England and raised on the American frontier, Paterson grew up in abject poverty and spent the majority of her early years undertaking low paying work as such as waitress, stenographer and bookkeeper.
Paterson refused to let her circumstances and just two years of formal education handicap her intellectual pursuits. She read a wide varierty of literature. With dedication she became an outspoken philosopher, journalist and literary critic, earning the respect, scorn and ambivalence from fellow intellectuals and the wider public sphere.
Paterson’s writing began in the busy year of 1910. She worked at number of newspapers but her favourite was as a featured columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, where she was free to write on economics and politics without top-down censorship. She also began to write a series of novels, eventually publishing her greatest work in 1943, The God and the Machine which declared:
“Personal liberty is the pre-condition of the release of energy. Private property is the inductor which initiates the flow. Real money is the transmission line; and the payment of debts comprises half the circuit. An empire is merely a long circuit energy-system. The possibility of a short circuit, ensuing leakage and breakdown or explosion, occurs in the hook-up of political organization to the productive processes. This is not a figure of speech or analogy, but a specific physical description of what happens.”
She elegantly combined poetic prose with engineering jargon to illustrate the necessity of economic liberty. Rather than narrowing her scope to issues of the economy she took this approach to all government programs generally:
“There can be no greater stretch of arbitrary power than is required to seize children from their parents, teach them whatever the authorities decree they shall be taught, and expropriate from the parents the funds to pay for the procedure.”
Her work had such an extensive impact that Ayn Rand once wrote “the book had done more for capitalism than what Das Kapital did for the Reds.” While other free marketers existed during her time, none had the same extent of influence. Rather than a wealthy industrialist seeking to justify his wealth, Paterson remain a struggling writer throughout her life.
She raised many eyebrows with her thoughts of the wealthy, refusing to associate her advocacy of limited government with the upper classes. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which massively expanded the scope of government, was announced she immediately pointed out who the real winners were: “the inheritors of non-productive fortune, the beneficiaries of fixed charges and endowments, the recipients of public money… believing themselves moved by other principles, take the spoils given them by force.”
Her adherence to libertarian philosophy was observed in practical ways throughout her life. Despite earning a meagre salary during her career, she refused to claim any social security and supposedly returned all sent pay checks under an envelope marked “Social security swindle.” Her fierce independence reverberated to inspire a generation of libertarian thinkers including Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, who would continue to champion the timeless cause of individual liberty.
6. Rose Wilder Lane
“The need for government is the need for force; where force is unnecessary, there is no need for government.” – Rose Wilder Lane
The person who coined the term “libertarian movement” was none other than Rose Wilder Lane, a key figure in 20th century America. Like Isabel Paterson, she grew up on the American frontier with only one year of formal education. Despite being top in her class, her family’s dire financial situation forced her to take on menial occupations before establishing her profession and travelling the world. Thereafter she became a prominent political activist, journalist and writer, gaining accolades and enemies.
Lane traversed a multi-faceted intellectual journey, briefly entertaining an admiration for central planning in the First World War, notably declaring “I am at heart a communist.” However, her extensive travels, particularly to the Soviet Union, changed her worldview immensely. She observed the words of the peasants themselves, who said “a man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great head. Only God can know Russia.” She began a philosophical pursuit for liberty, taking every opportunity in her literary career to incorporate elements of individualism.
Her most important non-fiction book, The Discovery of Freedom, was published in 1943, the same year as Isabel Paterson’s The God and the Machine. Unlike Paterson’s scientific approach however, Lane’s work was primarily historical. She traced the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition of liberty and asked profound questions:
“For sixty known centuries, multitudes of men have lived on this earth. Their desire to live has been as strong as ours. Their energy has always been enough to make this earth at least habitable for human beings. Their intelligence has been great. Why did they die of hunger? Why did they walk, and carry goods and other men on their backs, for six thousand years, and suddenly, in one century, only on a sixth of this earth’s surface, they make steamships, railroads, motors, airplanes, and now are flying around the earth in its utmost heights of air?”
And provided her readers with unbridled optimism in liberty:
“The revolution is only beginning. When all living men know that men are born free, the energy of twenty-two hundred million human beings will be released upon this earth. A hundred million have made America. What will twenty-two hundred million do?”
Her ideals were not limited however, to the written word. Wary of party politics, she did not steer clear from bad policy itself, and often landed herself in their firing line. A senator, Samuel Grafton, had praised social security and called on American teachers to teach Germans about democracy, to which Lane publicly responded:
“If American teachers said to German children, ‘We believe in social security’ the children will ask, ‘Then why did you fight against Germany?” All these ‘social security’ laws are German, instituted by Bismarck and expanded by Hitler.”
The words were enough to trigger an FBI investigation. When they entered her home she famously remarked:
“I am an American citizen. I hire you. I pay you. And you have the insolence to question my attitude? What is this—the Gestapo?”
She won massive public support, galvanised the movement for more civil liberties, and further charges were dropped. Both her works and her deeds were the catalyst for a movement to create a free America.
7. Zora Neale Hurston
“Sometimes, I am discriminated against … but it merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me.” – Zora Neale Hurston
A literary icon of 20th century America, Zora Neale Hurston is remembered by the modern left for her novels and by the right for her political affiliations, yet the nature of her character was far more complex. Refusing to harbour past historical grievances in the present or the squalor of government dependence, Hurston found refuge in the ongoing pursuit for liberty.
She dreamed of a world that looked beyond narrow racial expectations and yet dedicated her life to revive African American culture during an era now known as the Harlem renaissance. She was at heart an individualist who refused to toe the line of those around her, declaring “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”
Brought up in Eatonville, one of many self-governing black towns in America, Hurston saw the potential of the African American community that many had overlooked. She had a relatively happy early childhood, however the death of her mother at age 13 opened a fractured relationship with her father, who was mayor of Eatonville at the time. She left her town to undertake menial jobs and eventually won a scholarship to university. She studied anthropology with a field study in African American folklore, an area she would cherish her whole life.
Upon graduation she turned literature into her profession, writing many bestselling novels and plays. Her most celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a story not unlike her own of “a vibrant but voiceless teenage girl who becomes a woman with a finger on the trigger of her own destiny.” Hurston used her characters to embody independence and success, in a context where many refused to believe she could.
After the Second World War, she became more directly involved in political issues. Her published articles I Saw Negro Votes Peddled and Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism criticised the use of African American poverty for political goals. She wrote that “The labor unions looked down upon us and despised us. They discounted our abilities and integrity infinitely more than those southerners from who they were pretending to defend us.” Of the communists she said: “They had mistakenly cast blacks in the same role as downtrodden Russian peasants and did not understand that they were actually like other Americans in their determination to work their way up the ladder.”
First and foremost, Hurston believed in the potential of the African American individual, and demonstrated this through extensive achievements in her own life. She never wavered to prove that in a land of freedom and opportunity, there was no need to hold on to grievances of the past.