Rand Paul’s approval ratings among Republican women lag far behind his approval ratings among Republican men. An explanation for this phenonomeon is offered by Katherine Mangu-Ward and quoted in Jeet Heer’s The New Republic article on this topic: “Libertarianism,” she says, “has historically been a fringe movement. And fringes tend to be populated by men. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, if you investigate the long tails of any bell curve you’re going to discover a sausage fest, and libertarianism is no exception.” Although this theory resonates strongly with me, I disagree with Mangu-Wards’s characterization of Libertarianism as something that has “historically been a fringe movement.” Libertarianism is now a fringe movement and was a fringe movement for the better part of the twentieth century, and that is enough to explain why there are not many female libertarians today. But Libertarianism has not always been on the fringes. Classical Liberalism, the political philosophy from which Libertarianism derives, was actually quite popular in both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, in an essay about Suffragettes entitled ‘The Modern Surrender of Woman,” G.K. Chesterton argues that a radical form of Libertarianism has actually been the preferred political doctrine of approximately half of the population in almost every historical era:
By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money.
This is an interesting and timely idea for us. Perhaps, if Rand Paul can convince women that, far from being a fruitless and fantastical habit for male nerds, Libertarianism – the political doctrine which states that the government should be as unobtrusive as possible – is an essentially feminine idea, he would gain more female supporters.
We can test Chesterton’s theory about the political inclinations of women by contrasting the political views of male and female writers from a time when Liberalism was popular. In the nineteenth century, before there was much talk about extending suffrage to members of the gentler sex, not a few women took a share in the political discourse of the day by writing political novels and poems. These literary ladies can generally be relied upon to protest against intrusive and inefficient central planning, to maintain that the government cannot be relied upon to solve problems, to rail against the inhumanity of collectivist force, and even to propose private sector solutions to large-scale dilemmas.
While most nineteenth century male writers do not promote Socialist, big government policies any more than their female counterparts do, they are much less emotionally incensed by injustices perpetrated by the government than the women writers are. Something else that sets the men apart is that, regardless of whether they are Conservative or Liberal, they tend to revere and honor the idea of government and the calling of the men who work for it (Dickens is a notable exception to both of these rules). Lord Macaulay, a Victorian historian who was also a politician himself, regulary heaps scorn upon men in his histories who –he thinks – should have become involved in the political struggles of their day, but instead chose to live at home and lead “Epicurean” lifestyles. Thackeray wrote a thrilling historical political novel – Henry Esmond – which is inspired by Macaulay’s account of the Stuarts’ struggle to maintain power. Any political thriller grants implicit significance to the question of “who will be in power?” Although the novels of Anthony Tollope gently satirize politicians and the political system, there is in all of them, and especially in the Palliser novels, an underlying reverence and love for the business of politicans. Trollope states in his Autobiography that
I have always thought that to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman….that to serve one’s country without pay is the grandest work that a man can do,—that of all studies the study of politics is the one in which a man may make himself most useful to his fellow-creatures,—and that of all lives, public political lives are capable of the highest efforts.
This statement typifies what Chesterton characterizes as the masculine attitude towards politics. A brief survey of the political writings of four nineteenth century women will reveal a feminine scorn directed towards those who seek power which surpasses the scorn of Macaulay for those who do not. Nineteenth century women are not certain, as the Classical Liberals Macaulay, Thackeray, and Trollope are, that it is our politicians who “are capable of the highest efforts.”
The novels of Jane Austen are not, of course, explicity political. Chesterton, in his essay, ‘The Evolution of Emma,’ was the first critic to recognize the deep political ramifications of Jane Austen’s fifth novel. It is the story of an energetic and domineering young lady whose attempts to make her lower-class friends happier by arranging their lives for them end up causing misery. Jane Austen’s satire of the hubris of a certain kind of upper-class busybody foreshadows the dismay of contemporary libertarians when a nanny state punishes its least fortunate citizens with measures that are intended to help them. The modern government behaves like Emma when it sickens the children of the poor with its nutritional guidelines, prevents their mothers from working with its minimum wage, and puts their fathers in jail with its wars on drugs -– all with the most charitable of intentions.
Elizabeth Gaskell was a minister’s wife who lived in the manufacturing town of Manchester and who, unlike Jane Austen, was on familiar terms with many of her poorer neighbors, and wrote novels in which working class people and their problems are central. In Mrs. Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, a Manchester workers’ union sends a delegation to Parliament, hoping to convince the lawmakers there to prevail upon the factory owners to cede to the union’s requests. The spirits of the delegates are shattered when they discover that the men who are supposed to govern their country have no interest in even hearing them speak of their problems. When asked about his experience at the Parliament house, one of the delegates says
If yo please, neighbour, I’d rather say nought about that. It’s not to be forgotten or forgiven either by me or many another; but I canna tell of our down-casting just as a piece of London news. As long as I live, our rejection that day will bide in my heart; and as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us; but I’ll not speak of it no more.
Although her sympathy for the poverty and difficulties of members of the labor unions is real, Mrs. Gaskell also sympathizes strongly with the dilemma of the factory owners: throughout her novels, she demonstrates a keen understanding of economics and the market forces which may constrain “the masters” to offer their hands low wages. Mr. Thornton, the factory owner who is the hero of North and South says, “We will hardly submit to the decision of an umpire, much less to the interference of a meddler with only a smattering of the knowledge of the real facts of the case, even though that meddler be called the High Court of Parliament.”
Mrs. Gaskell’s strongest charitable feelings, however, are reserved for the “knobsticks” or would-be knobsticks – those factory hands who work while the union is striking. One of the most dramatic scenes in North and South occurs against the backdrop of an angry mob physically threatening the Irish knobsticks who have been brought in to replace the usual factory workers because of a strike. Later in the book, one of the strikers, whose wife is ill and who has many hungry children pleading for food, kills himself out of despair. He was forced to strike by the union and is not able to deal with the consequent privations and stress. Despising the national government and detesting the coercive union, Mrs. Gaskell proposes a cooperative, free market solution to the conflict between masters and hands: Mr. Thornton anticipates Silicon Valley by over a century when he offers the benefit of free communal lunches to the workers in his factory. Unlike Silicon Valley CEOs, who are fiercely competing with each other for highly skilled workers, Mr. Thornton implements this measure because it is a cost-effective way of ensuring that his employees and their families will not be in danger of starving or of striking.
In Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot is witheringly skeptical of the inherent value of male political posturing. Felix Holt, an educated middle-class young man who gives up his patrimony and devotes his life to teaching the children of the poor, is contrasted with the comfortable and callous upper-class Harold Transome, who wants to become a Radical member of Parliament, but never does or says anything particularly radical. The point of the novel is given away by its title: it is conscientious private citizens, and not ambitious politicians, who accomplish real change in society. Another George Eliot novel with a similar message is Middlemarch, which features a brilliant and intense young woman whose dreams of implementing Christian Socialist policies for the poor in her rural area are frustrated. In the beginning and middle of the novel she is constatly chafing at the fact that, as a woman, she cannot find an outlet for her rather masculine ambitions and talents (she is also interested in scholarship). By the very end of the novel she is happily married and has found peace, despite the fact that
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s long narrative poem, Aurora Leigh, is the most ambitious and explicit piece of feminine libertarianism from the nineteenth century. Just before Romney Leigh, a Christian Socialist, proposes to his cousin Aurora, who is an aspiring poet, he semi-playfully rebukes her for her lack of interest in projects to alleviate the suffering of the multitude. He maintains that women think only of individuals and never of the big picture, that Aurora fails to sympathize with his Socialist ideals because of her sex, and that a woman, because she cannot think in general terms, can never be a poet.
…does one woman of you all,
(You who weep easily) grow pale to see
This tiger shake his cage?–does one of you
Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls
And pine and die, because of the great sum
Of universal anguish?–Show me a tear
Wet as Cordelia’s, in eyes bright as yours,
Because the world is mad? You cannot count,
That you should weep for this account, not you!
You weep for what you know. A red-haired child
Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
Will set you weeping! but a million sick…
You could as soon weep for the rule of three,
Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you.
Aurora rejects Romney’s proposal that they should get married and work together to make a Socialist utopia, because her individualist, artistic aims and aspirations differ so much from his general, material ones, – and because she despises his aims:
I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet’s individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul,
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses . . even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s breadth off
The dust of the actual.–ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.
Aurora’s cousin, motivated by altruistic guilt and despair, becomes engaged to marry a working class woman he does not love; his plan backfires when a jealous female friend has his intended bride kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He transforms his stately home into a charity commune, but this project also goes awry; some of the communards set fire to it (Romney Leigh can be thought of as a humorless version of Emma Woodhouse, — on steroids). He is blinded by the blaze. This blindness is, of course, symbolic of the spiritual blindness that has been plaguing him all along. When Aurora tells him that she loves him and regrets her rejection of him in the last book of the poem, he tells her that he repents of his old philosophy and agrees with hers.
‘Fewer programmes; we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems; we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses, to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier’s void,
And Comte is dwarfed,–and Cabet, puerile.
Subsists no law of life outside of life;
No perfect manners, without Christian souls.
Many books have been written about the eternal struggle between the ideals of men and the ambitions of women (for examples, Virgil’s Aeneid and Tennyson’s The Princess). Aurora Leigh is wonderful and unique because it is the first book (that I am aware of) in which the feminine ends up totally vanquishing the masculine. It is a story of generality and power bowing to individualism and influence.
In the twenty-first century, the majority of educated women are, for better or for worse, wedded to the essentially masculine idea that government matters. In a time when the State has achieved Orwellian levels of intrusion into citizens’ private lives, this shift in feminine attitudes is no longer to be wondered at or thought of as some kind of pitiable surrender. The power of a State which drops bombs on children, which incarcerates more than one sixth of its black male population, which complicates healthcare with bureaucracy and inefficiency, which sprays toxic pesticides on public land, and which ushers younger and younger children into crowded, centrally controlled preschools, reaches into the traditionally feminine province of the home. Once women do take an interest in politics, they are most genuine and, therefore, most impactful when they hew to the power-averse values of their great-grandmothers. It is no accident that the most brilliant and powerful female politician of all time and that the most dynamic and effective crusader against the intrusive, big-government policies of the twentieth century were one and the same person: Margaret Thatcher. Rand Paul will be able to win the female vote when he convinces women that his message is not inherently masculine, strange or nerdy (although it has unquestionably been adopted by many masculine, strange, and nerdy people). The political ideals he is advocating are as ancient, as familiar, and as common as the idea of the inviolate home itself. And they are, like that idea, very feminine.