As a libertarian capitalist who celebrates western culture, science, and the technological mastery of nature, Ayn Rand is the sort of woman many contemporary feminists might want to call a traitor to femininity.(1) Before we ratify this assessment, though, it may be of interest to try to situate Rand's writings on sexuality within feminist discourse. This reading, marginalized by Rand's followers and by the feminist establishment alike, is hardly supported by Rand's intentions. Nevertheless, in this paper, I will investigate Rand's views from the perspective of Glennon's ideal-type analysis of feminist discourse. On the one hand, I will consider and reject the claim that Rand is a synthesist, and argue that Rand's critique of contemporary gender roles is an instrumentalist critique. But on the other hand, I will investigate the darker underside of Rand's bizarre sexual ontology, finding elements of Aristotelian biologistic polarism propping up the theory and practice of the oppression of women. Finally, I will propose that Rand thus keys us in to the dangers of polaristic feminism.
What Glennon calls 'synthesist feminism' is specifically a synthesis of what she calls 'instrumentalist' and 'expressivist' feminism.(3) Instrumental feminism (hereafter IF) is feminist discourse which argues that human authenticity stems from instrumental rationality, action, and autonomy, while expressivist feminism (hereafter EF) is discourse which suggests that human authenticity stems from expressive modes of action, especially communal activities and sympathetic or helping activities. Both IF and EF argue that contemporary gender assumptions are mistaken and that there is a mode of authentic living for human beings as such, regardless of sex.
Loiret-Prunet proposes that Rand is a synthesist (hereafter SF) because she employs dialectical modes of thought; specifically, such modes are on display in the style and characterizations of Rand's novel We the Living. Loiret-Prunet's claim about Rand's dialectical tendencies is a safe one.(4) What she is mistaken about is whether SF is neutrally dialectical; it is not. Rather, SF tries to work a specific synthesis of instrumental and expressive elements of human activity; such elements as linear rationality and spontaneous emotionality. Not just any dialectical thought is an SF approach.
Rand rejects two proposals which are key to SF. The first is a proposal about the relationship, within the individual, between instrumental and expressive features of the self. SF will claim that, within oneself, the relationship between reasoning and emotionality is one of dialectical, mutual influence. The second is a proposal about gender and culture. SF will claim that a synthesis of instrumental and expressive components of the self is key to authentic human existence for persons of any sex. Masculinity's association with instrumentality, and femininity's association with expressivity, are evidences of the fracturing dualities of modern culture; cultural reform or revolution will eliminate the dualities and thus eliminate arbitrary sexual differentiations.
Regarding the first proposal, the crucial relationship to consider is the one between a person's articulate reasoning and her spontaneous expressions of emotionality. Rand, as an Aristotelian, proposes that emotions are judgments.(5) But emotional judgments for Rand are non-cognitive epiphenoma of reasoning. The individual, through reasoning about which things are good and bad, will adopt criteria, often tacit, by which to evaluate phenomena in the world. Emotions are spontaneous evaluations or judgments. The relation here is a reductive one: emotions stem from, but have no effect on or autonomy from, reasoning. This is not a dialectical synthesis of two related phenomena, but rather a monistic reduction of the emotional aspects of human nature to the instrumental aspects.
Rand has a similar response to the second proposal, and one which displays her ominous gender essentialism. I want to delay looking at the details of this point.
The main female character of the novel, Dagny Taggart, is the daughter of the owner of a transcontinental railroad. In the novel, Rand writes that, "Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day.... She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought - and never worried about it again."(8) We may take it that Dagny's reaction is appropriate from Rand's point of view. In Rand's novel, Dagny breaks the glass ceiling by pure talent, systematically violating sexist expectations about the limits on a woman's instrumental abilities.
But moreover, Rand's novel encompasses a critique of traditional marriage and its exploitative nature. Two marriages are depicted which are of interest: one between Taggart Transcontinental heir, Dagny's brother James Taggart, and working-class clerk Cherryl, and one between rags-to-riches steel magnate Henry Rearden and his New York socialite wife Lillian.
James Taggart inherits his presidency of the railroad while his sister Dagny has to work her way up from night operator of a small station; the injustice of their relative merits and positions suggests a critique of the good-ol'-boys' network by which masculine authority is preserved. James spends most of the novel in cynical fascist power brokering, propping up corporate welfare and exploiting those without the ability to manipulate the reins of power.
This power structure is replicated in his marriage. James finds naive, working-class Cherryl the perfect target for his abuses. James shows her around elites for the amusement of watching her be humiliated by her ignorance of high-society etiquette. As she learns the ways of this new world, he makes veiled accusations that she is embarrassing to him in ways that she cannot understand. He encourages her to think that she had married him for his money, inculcating guilt. As she learns about his political manipulations, and challenges him, he suggests that she has obligations to him as his wife not to question his actions, saying, "Have you thought of my feelings? ...You should have considered my feelings first! That's the first obligation of any wife - and of a woman in your position in particular!"(9) James Taggart is here appealing to the notion of a sexual hierarchy, wherein women are natural caretakers of the emotions of others. He also implies that her working-class background makes her doubly beneath him, replicating class hierarchy.
What's most important, though, is that the notion of woman as natural caretaker becomes in traditional marriage an excuse for men to suppress the critical consciousness of their wives. As Cherryl acquires her authentic sense of James's nature, primarily through discussions with workers, James tries to warp her awareness by his appeal to wifely duties to remain silent in the face of a husband's actions, even if they are ethically questionable. The notion of sexual hierarchy becomes a means of psychological abuse, and Cherryl eventually commits suicide. Rand's depiction of high-society sexism as excuse for psychological torture can easily be extended. A similar picture might hold for men whose assault on their wives is physical and deadly, but who excuse their crimes by appeal to a woman's obligations to silence. And no extension is even necessary to grasp the function of a rule that women must docilely serve the feelings of men: silencing women is a means of preventing critique of power structures.
This is the context from which the other marriage, between Henry and Lillian Rearden, must be understood. Lillian Rearden embodies the exploitative practice drawn from the experience of high-class sexism. Lillian, recognizing the tacit power struggles intrinsic to traditional marriage, does not intend to be the target of psychological abuse. But she is unable to subject the practice to radical critique. She is able, at best, to reverse the line of abuse, and victimize her husband.
Moreover, Lillian has, unlike Dagny, accepted severe limits on instrumental abilities as constitutive of femininity. For Rand, these instrumental abilities are the core of an authentic human existence. For Lillian, a character in Rand's novel, there is no alternative mode of authentic human action. She is thus filled with envy for men, who have high levels of instrumental ability. This envy leads her to take as her goal damaging her husband, who is unusually talented.
So the character of Lillian is an expression of two elements of traditional sexual relations: the power struggles and psychological abuses endemic in traditional marriage, and the sexual conflict induced by ideological limitations placed by men on women's instrumentality. Lillian fights back with the weapons at her disposal: other features of the very sexual relations she is repressed by. Just as James appeals to the notion of female obligation in his psychological assault on his wife, Lillian appeals to the Madonna-whore stereotype and sexist notions about men's compulsive and simplistic sexuality in her assault on her husband.
Lillian's strategy is one of sexual self-repression for psychological advantage. Her practice is described as follows:
She had never objected [to his sexual advances]; she
had never refused him anything; she submitted whenever he wished.
She submitted in the manner of complying with the rule that it was,
at times, her duty to become an inanimate object turned over to her
She did not censure him. She made it clear that she took it for
granted that men had degrading instincts which constituted the
secret, ugly part of marriage. She was condescendingly tolerant....
"It's the most undignified pastime I know of," she said to him once,
"but I have never entertained the illusion that men are superior to
She did not censure him. She made it clear that she took it for granted that men had degrading instincts which constituted the secret, ugly part of marriage. She was condescendingly tolerant.... "It's the most undignified pastime I know of," she said to him once, "but I have never entertained the illusion that men are superior to animals."(10)
Her goal is to use her husband's sexuality as a hook to induce destructive guilt in him. Just as men have traditionally been known to insult, as 'loose', women with whom they have sex, Lillian insults Henry, as not in control of himself and as sexually exploitative. Henry, whose self-esteem is based in the notions of self-control and fair dealing which constitute the capitalist ethic, is deeply wounded by the prolonged allegation. The very same sense of obligation prevents him from expressing to her his anger at the harm she is doing him.
These neurotic power struggles are caused by traditional sexism. The standard stereotypes all come into play: women are to be docile and emotionally supportive, are incapable of instrumentality, and are to be purified of sexual desire; men are incapable of emotional expression and have a simplistic sexuality without connection to personality. These stereotypes are excuses generated for psychologically abusive behavior, but they also cause just the psychological problems which lead to and channel the abuse.
Rand's contrast between Dagny and Lillian is her IF critique of the sexual traditions. Dagny serves as an example of a fully instrumental, authentic human being who is also a woman. Lillian serves as an example of the victim/victimizer who produces and is produced by the sexual traditions, which refuse women the alternative of instrumental activity and stifle their authentic humanity. We are showed both the possibility and nature of women's liberation and the contradictions and destructive tendencies of the present, sexist, society.
In the next section, I want to take a more critical view of Rand and draw an ultimately negative lesson from her. But I think that Rand ought to be of positive interest from a feminist point of view, as well, because she combines radical critique of existing society with a libertarian political view, providing an alternative to the traditional association of radical critique with the left. An engagement between socialist and libertarian radical critics of contemporary society (and contemporary gender relations) could produce a fascinating and fruitful dialogue.
[Polarism] takes the position that the instrumentality and expressivity males and females act out in their present sex roles are distorted forms. True femaleness and true maleness are hidden beneath today's sex roles and must be rediscovered and allowed to flower without social interference.... the instrumental-expressive dichotomy is identical with the male-female one only if we remember that the versions of the two pairs we see today are shams.(11)
Rand certainly agrees that the male-female dichotomy that we get from the sexual traditions is a sham. James Taggart's use of other people as tools and Lillian Rearden's emotional manipulations of her husband are the twisted forms of male instrumentality and female expressivity yielded by the present society. But moreover, Rand agrees that femaleness and maleness are biologically polarized. I want to investigate the polarization which Rand proposes. (This will also constitute my argument that Rand is not a synthesist at the cultural level.)
Rand is credited by her biographer and long-time colleague Barbara Branden with the following obscure claim: "Man... is defined by his relationship to reality; woman - by her relationship to man."(12) Such a suggestion is difficult to make sense of, but its implications are obvious and startling. Rand believes that the most authentic human mode of being is the instrumental mode, and the instrumental mode is dedicated to the rational awareness of the world and to practical activity to produce desired effects. But it is men who are defined in relation to reality, with the relation being the instrumental one. If women, insofar as they are human beings, must relate to the world instrumentally, but insofar as they are women need not seek relations with the world but only with other people (men), then femininity is a defect in authentic humanity. This may be the saddest expression of Rand's Aristotelianism, because Rand's view seems to parallel Aristotle's theory that the female is a defective and ill-formed male.(13)
For Rand, the definition of a category ought to state the most causally significant features of the members of the category. If the category of women, then, is to be defined with reference to the category of men, then femininity must be something which is radically dependent on masculinity for its meaning and activities. In what way, then, ought women to relate to men? Rand is blunt: "For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship - the desire to look up to a man."(14)
This isn't fully clear, but I want to suggest that what it is to 'look up' will be clarified by seeking out the justification for this notion. Rand does not provide it herself, but her colleague and lover Nathaniel Branden, during the time of his association with her and in a journal over which she exercised strict editorial control, made the following argument: "Physically, man is the bigger and stronger of the two sexes... Sexually, his is the more active and dominant role; he has the greater measure of control over his own pleasure and that of his partner; it is he who penetrates and the woman is penetrated..."(15) The idea seems to be as follows. In sex, a man penetrates a woman from above her. Since he is above her, he is exercising the greater physical control. Thus he is dominant. Rand seems to draw the bizarre conclusion that "men are metaphysically the dominant sex..."(16) Men are the dominant sex because of the missionary position, apparently.(17)
It's important to follow the logic. Rand and her followers are reading a normative claim about the relative ontological merit of the sexes from a cultural artifact: the compulsory adherence to a particular style of intercourse. Unable to distinguish between nature and culture, Rand raises an arbitrary feature of culture to the level of sign of basic metaphysical relation.
Before discussing the implications of Rand's argument, I want to trace out the direction she takes her conception in Atlas Shrugged.(18) At a point in the novel when fascists have taken control of her railroad, Dagny Taggart resigns in protest and leaves New York City, seeking refuge in a country shack her father had owned. She gives herself the purpose of repairing a path which had become overgrown:
The work of cooking a meal was like a closed circle, completed and gone, leading nowhere. But the work of building a path was a living sum... A circle, she thought, is the movement proper to physical nature, they say there's nothing but circular motion in the inanimate universe around us, but the straight line is the badge of man.... It is not proper for man's life to be a circle, she thought...(19)
The key symbolism here is the comparison between lines and circles. Certain features of this are obvious; the phallic lines are human, the vaginal circles are subhuman; women, with their menstrual cycles, become natural and sink from humanity. But moreover, Rand selects what has traditionally been considered a kind of woman's work, cooking, as her example of an activity whose cyclical nature renders it a mere instrument. A human life which was essentially cyclical and consisted of patterns of activity such as cooking a meal would be an inadequate, inauthentic existence.
Later in the novel, Dagny is involved in a plane crash in the hidden utopian valley created by the novel's hero, John Galt. For reasons which are not relevant, Dagny decides to work as Galt's cook and housemaid. She thinks that she would rather do this "than anything else in the world."(20) Such a switch seems odd. Earlier, Dagny had thought of cyclical tasks as subhuman and as not constituting a human mode of existence, while now she thinks of them as ideal for her to undertake.
The switch is explained, I think, in Dagny's reflection on housework:
There is reason, she thought, why a woman would wish to cook for a man... oh, not as a duty, not as a chronic career, only as a rare and special rite in symbol of... that which gave it meaning and sanction...[:] the meeting of two bodies in a bedroom...(21)
Housework, then, is an authentic mode of being for a woman in virtue of her femininity, because it somehow symbolizes her worshipful sexual feelings for the man for whom she is doing the housework. This is true despite the fact that housework, being cyclical, is not an authentic mode of being for a human being as such. So femininity, again, shows up as a defect to be defined in relation to the proper expression of humanity, which is masculinity.
Rand's followers, unfortunately, have sometimes found Rand's polarism plausible. This is because it was presented as grounded in timeless biological gender essences. But Rand's followers, acculturated to male sexual dominance and female domestic service, were inclined to accept the claim that these features of their culture were actually expressions of a natural ontological distinction between the sexes.
There is, unfortunately, nothing like a database of sociological research on Rand's followers, who call themselves Objectivists; something like that would be valuable from the perspective of the study of cults and subcultures. But there does not exist an account of the Objectivist movement which does not discuss the sexual confusions of Objectivists from the top down.(22) Moreover, I can speak from the experience of many dealings with Objectivists.(23) In explicit discussions of issues of sex, there is an unusual number of people who call themselves 'patriarchalists' or who otherwise adhere to Rand's views on sexuality. I have anecdotal data suggesting that Objectivist heterosexual relationships are more dysfunctional than the norm. I conclude that Rand's views on sex are alive and well in the minds of many of her followers; these views have been damaging people's lives for decades and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
The argument with which I wish to conclude is that Rand's PF projection should key us in to the dangers of PF theories. Gender essentialism, based on alleged biological facts, is now fairly common among feminists in various fields - I am taking Gilligan's ethic of care as a paradigm case of a sophisticated PF which seeks empirical grounding. But, as Rand's biologism shows, it is all too easy to mistake the contingent and cultural for the necessary and biological. We should be especially careful in drawing normative conclusions from biological premises when the biological premises are the same ones appealed to by the tradition for the suppression of women, and when the conclusions seem ominously like those of the tradition. So on the one hand, I want to suggest that any polarism is liable to be false.
But on the other hand, polarism aids the tradition in setting up a matrix of discourse which makes it necessary to characterize the sexes as opposed. The biological differences proposed by polarism have always been used as ideological props to support some kind of sexual suppression. But polarism, once its biological essentialism has become foundational for the justification of power relations, allows for only two options: for the dominance of men over women, or for the dominance of women over men. So polarism supports the status quo of sexual suppression; even the advocacy of matriarchy tacitly supports patriarchalism by agreeing that someone must be dominant. Taking Rand as my example, I've shown how one version of polarist feminism plays into the hands of the suppression of women. I want this to serve as a cautionary tale for other polarists, that they may have taken a side in a power game which no one ought to be playing at all.
2. Loiret-Prunet supports this interpretation in Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 83-115. Glennon herself mentions Rand as an example of instrumentalist thinking in Glennon, p. 46.
3. Glennon discusses synthesism in Glennon, pp. 97-119, but drawing on pp. 46-96.
4. The dialectical interpretation of Rand is defended in Sciabarra, which is easily the best discussion of Rand's philosophy yet written.
5. For Rand's view see Rand 1964 esp. p. 27. for discussions of Aristotle, see Nussbaum chapter 3 and Register 1999 chapter 3.
6. Glennon p. 46.
7. Glennon pp. 48-49.
8. Rand 1992 pp. 54-55.
9. Rand 1992 p. 817.
10. Rand 1992 p. 155.
11. Glennon p. 120.
12. Branden, Barbara p. 18.
13. For a discussion of Aristotle's view of the sexes, see Allen ch. 2.
14. Rand 1990 p. 268.
15. Branden, Nathaniel p. 386.
16. Rand 1975 p. 175.
17. Gramstad makes a similar point in Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 349-350.
18. An alternative interpretation of these passages appears in Michalson.
19. Rand 1992 p. 569.
20. Rand 1992 p. 707.
21. Rand 1992 pp. 720-721.
22. I have in mind here the biography by Barbara Branden, Nathaniel Branden's memoir, and such critical accounts as Walker and Rothbard. See also the sad tale of Lissa Roche, discussed in Vincent 2000.
23. I've moderated Objectivist discussion lists which discussed feminism and other topics and have attended several Objectivist events. These experiences have led to a number of personal dealings with members of the movement; it's private discussions about individuals' relationships, as well as public discussions about issues of sexuality, which have generated the anecdotal evidence I'm relying on. But my claims should not be confused with anything which a social scientist would find acceptable as evidence.
Branden, Barbara. 1986. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City: Doubleday.
Branden, Nathaniel. 1968. "Self-Esteem and Romantic Love, Part II" The Objectivist, January.
Brownmiller, Susan. 1999 . "Ayn Rand: A Traitor to Her Own Sex". In Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 63-66.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Gladstein, Mimi, and Sciabarra, Chris, eds. 1999. Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. University Park: Penn State Press. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/femstart.htm
Glennon, Lynda. 1979. Women and Dualism: A Sociology of Knowledge Analysis. New York: Longman.
Gramstad, Thomas. 1999. "The Female Hero: A Randian-Feminist Synthesis". In Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 333-362.
Loiret-Prunet, Valérie. "Ayn Rand and Feminist Synthesis: Rereading We the Living". In Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 83-114.
Michalson, Karen. "Who is Dagny Taggart? The Epic Hero/ine in Disguise". In Gladstein and Sciabarra, pp. 199-219.
Nussbaum, Martha. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton: Princeton UP.
Rand, Ayn. 1992 . Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet.
-. 1975. The New Left. New York: Signet.
-. 1990. The Voice of Reason. New York: Meridian.
Register, Bryan 1999. The Logic and Validity of Emotional Appeal in Classical Greek Rhetorical Theory. Thesis composed to meet the honors requirements for the degree of bachelor of science in speech communication, Spring 1999. http://www.olist.com/essays/text/register/thesis/index.html
-. 2000. "Should Ayn Rand Have Been a Feminist?" Navigator, April.
Rothbard, Murray. 1987. "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult". (Pamphlet) Port Townsend: Liberty Publishing.
Sciabarra, Chris. 1995. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Penn State Press. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/randstar.htm
Vincent, Norah. 2000. "The Polecat Makes a Comeback." Village Voice, March 15-21. http://villagevoice.com/issues/0011/vincent.shtml
Walker, Jeff. 1999. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago: Open Court.
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