Every March, celebrators of Women’s History Month trot out all the usual names to be praised for their iconoclasm: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinham, Hillary Clinton. But forgotten in this old medley is one who was every bit as feminist.
Consider the career of the never-celebrated Susan La Follette. She had the same swashbuckling iconoclasm that Gloria Stenhem is celebrated for: she was an author of one of the first books to examine feminism from an economic perspective, an editor on an all-male magazine, and a member of the feminist group The League of Equal Opportunity. Like other feminists, she was pro-Choice, viewed marriage as a form of slavery for women, and praised unwed mothers as the ultimate gesture against male domination.
So why isn’t she celebrated?
Because La Follette had the misfortune of being a libertarian. Unlike feminists today, La Follette saw the State as not the tool for feminism, but its ultimate threat. She opposed not only sex-based wage legislation, but wage legislation as a whole.
Unlike feminists in academia today, who still find worth in the Soviet Union, with its abortion laws and supposedly equal pay for women, La Follette was a vociferous anti-communist. Her committment to civil liberties was so strong, however, that she applied it to the other side, most famously by serving on the Dewey Commission, which dared to provide a forum for Leon Trotsky to defend himself against Stalin’s charges that he was an agent of Hitler. In this, La Follette was truly an iconoclast, for in this period many notable “feminists” such as Lillian Hellman were denouncing anyone who criticized the Soviet Union as “fascist.”
This “fascist” worked for the American Federation of Labor during World War II in its foreign relief program. After the war, she continued her trespasses into traditionally male preserves. She was the founding managing editor of National Review in 1955. In the 1960s, she helped found the New York Conservative Party and ran on its ticket in 1964 for Congress and lost. She passed away in 1983.
La Follette was every bit as committed to the economic rights of women as her leftist counterparts. But her prescriptions were more rigorous. Rather than use the government, which help make sexism more broadly possible, she saw limiting it as the key to freedom. Regarding equal pay for women, she wrote “until economic freedom is attained for everybody, there can be no real freedom for anybody.” When one considers that after years of feminist legislation, the one job where women make more than men is in adult films, then one has to consider that La Follette’s ideas remained untried.
As groupyism once again rears its ugly head, with feminists swooning over Obama (one group of starlets calls themselves “Angels For Obama,” while college-age students wear t-shirts that say “Barack My World”), it is time for La Follette, who worked around men she admired all her life and yet never wanted them to lead her, to be celebrated as a feminist who dared to practice what she preached.