Why we should teach girls (and boys) to be feminists AND individualists

“Free people trade. They form associations. They employ one another. They create communities. Even “atomized individuals” tend to form molecules.”Virginia Postrel

“It is thus that man, who can only subsist in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made. All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and all are likewise exposed to mutual injuries.”Adam Smith

FEE recently published Why We Should Teach Girls to be Individualists Instead of Feminists. Unsurprisingly (sigh.) it has been doing exceptionally well on libertarian social media. But replace every instance of “feminist” in the piece with “Christian”, “Jew”, or “Muslim”, and it should quickly become obvious that a blanket condemnation of groups isn’t necessary or even helpful for libertarians.

The selective distaste for feminism among libertarians, even those who aren’t particularly conservative or right-wing, is not only inconsistent (normally a deal breaker for this particular coalition), it is ahistorical. See also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and… look, you can use Google, right?

Feminism has been a part of liberalism for a very long time—including the radical liberalism that makes up much of the history of libertarianism—because liberals believe in the importance of the individual. There are feminists who reject or undermine the role of individualism. There are members of most groups who do so. But though libertarians might eventually convince feminists otherwise with enough indignant foot stomping, there’s nothing inherently collectivist about feminism.

What pieces like the one in question forget when they insist that there’s no place for something like feminism in libertarianism forget is that liberals also believe in the importance of groups.

So, yes. Of course we should teach kids to see themselves as empowered individuals and not as merely members of a group. They need to understand they’re not helpless. People are not just victims or just lucky. Hard work and character matter, and knowing so is crucial to kids feeling that they can become the person they want to be and strive for the life they deem worth living.

But it’s irresponsible (and, frankly, naïve) not also to teach kids that groups, both the ones we choose and the ones we don’t, matter in a liberal society. Our ability to choose our groups (religion, friends, work, school, associations) is a fundamental freedom. But as choosing groups is social, so are the ways in which people both in and outside of groups see them.

That’s why it’s naïve not to teach both girls and boys the ways they might be seen because they are girls or boys. As the joke goes, I might not believe in sexism, but sexism believes in me. Changing that ought to be an aspiration for liberals.

So teach kids that individuals are equal and that that means the groups into which we fall ought not to matter to how we judge one another. But teach them also that for many people those groups do matter. Denying it will leave them vulnerable to a world that doesn’t live up to an individualist’s ideal. Knowing it will empower them to stand up for themselves and others against prejudice and injustice.