Don’t reduce Rand or Arendt to their sex

‘Ayn Rand’s life and work was a feminist manifesto. Though she wouldn’t like me saying that’, wrote Barbara Branden, a close friend of Ayn Rand and author of The Passion of Ayn Rand.

The relationship between Ayn Rand and the feminist movement has always been one of mutual mistrust. That was why it was quite odd to hear her political theory may be included on the new compulsory module on feminism for A-Level politics.

The philosopher and documentarian of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt, another well-known critic of feminism, may be included on the new syllabus, too. I was surprised when I first heard these two brilliant thinkers were to be taught as part of a course on feminism, and also concerned that it will cause young people, unfamiliar with them, to categorise their work in a very narrow way.

Both Rand and Arendt explicitly eschewed the feminist movement. Instead, they immersed themselves in a broader range of ideas and areas of study. As Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young Bruehl, noted, ‘[Arendt] did not think of herself as a feminist and she was deeply sceptical of any single-issue political movement, especially one that brought into question the distinction she drew between private and public life’. As for Rand, she simply called women’s liberation ‘a phony and false movement’.

Neither was interested in defining themselves primarily as ‘female’ philosophers and writers. Their sex was merely a fact of their biology, not what they chose to focus on philosophically.

Admittedly, feminism has been a major strain of contemporary political thought, so a familiarity with it is essential to understand much of recent history. But I have to wonder in what context Rand and Arendt’s thought will be studied, as neither produced much work that dealt directly with gender issues. If anything, both probed the depths of human nature: Rand with her idealistic heroes and Arendt in her study of the essence of evil.

Someone I follow on Facebook described Rand being taught on an A-Level feminism course as ‘ironic justice’. Which is a very apt way of describing how much Rand’s highly influential thought has been ignored by the education system. How very strange it is that she should finally gain entry into the education system through a strain of thinking she so resolutely rejected. It seems an odd fit indeed.

It is true, as Branden observed, that, ‘Rand’s life and work was a feminist manifesto’. Rand was very much a self-made woman who always maintained fierce independence of mind. Her novels contained female protagonists, such as Dagny Taggart, who were the intellectual and moral equals of her male protagonists.

Maybe that is why feminists have always treated her with suspicion and contempt. She dared to imagine that men and women might actually be equal and refuted the victim-feminist narrative that women are the weak prey of cruel and misogynistic men.

Perhaps the most valuable insight someone like Rand can offer in relation to feminism is that feminists marginalise themselves by clinging to the dystopian idea of man’s inhumanity to women.

Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena.

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