Ph.D. Octopus

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“Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!”: the Deep Roots of the Birth Control Freakout

with 12 comments

By Peter

Thanks to Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and the Virginia Legislature we’re engaged in an elevated and enlightened national debate over just exactly how big slutty slut sluts are our nation’s women. We all know, of course, that sex without the intent to procreate is immoral, unless, like Newt Gingrich, you’re in the sanctity of a Congressman/aide relationship. So the question is, of course, exactly how many sexual experiences should women be allowed? 5? 10? Exactly how much should we humiliate those who have unapproved sex? Should they be forced to videotape the sex for Rush’s sweaty amusement? Be raped by the state of Virginia?

Some commentators have noticed that this rash of attacks on women’s rights is a bit strange coming from a political movement that, a year ago, was screaming about getting the government off its back, but is now so eager to get in between our sheets (and our knees). It does raise a serious question: why does the libertarian tradition in this country seem to be so blind when it comes to women’s rights? Why is it that the party that claims to speak for people’s private property rights, is so careless about the autonomy of people’s privates? We shouldn’t be surprised, though, as the conflation of property rights and control of women have deep roots in American history.

Corey Robin has discovered some great intellectual history that partly explains this disconnect, showing that libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises actually had repugnant views on women, worrying that access to birth control might give women too many free choices. And Mike Konczal has also written on some intellectual background. Together they suggest that there is a strong tradition of libertarianism that is not committed, even in theory, to what Robin calls a “project of universal liberty,” not even a project of negative liberty. At least as so far as women are concerned.

I would like to add a little social history to the mix, in a way that I think supplements the analysis of Robin and others. I’m currently reading Stephanie McCurry’s book on the troubles of Confederate nation-making, Confederate Reckoning. A major theme in her work, going back to her Masters of Small Worlds, is the intersection between domination of the home and perceptions of liberty. Many scholars piously tell us of the need to integrate analyses of race, gender, and class, but, other than maybe Glenda Gilmore, I can’t think of anyone who does this as well as McCurry.

In Masters of Small Worlds, she studies small households in the Low Country South Carolina, those with no or few slaves. These poor whites have always been a bit of a problem in historical understanding. In a nutshell, why did those white men who were not profiting from the slave system, still fight and die to protect it? One traditional answer, going back to Edmund Morgan, and before that W.E.B. Dubois, is that race was the factor that tied the poor white to the rich white, creating a “socialism of fools,” which seemed to unite the interests of all white people. McCurry doesn’t disagree, but adds gender to these analyses.

White men’s self-identity, she argues, in the age of the yeomanry, was intricately linked to domination of the home and, especially, domination of dependents: children, women, and slaves. Moreover, this was a process that linked private property with control of slaves and women. Her first chapter in Masters of Small Worlds is about the spread of laws regarding fencing and boundaries. Once this enclosure is complete, and property is ensured, than the white male can exercise control over his subordinates. “The law elided distinctions between forms of property, rendering a man’s control over his enclosure synonymous with his control over the familial and extrafamilial dependents within it.” (p. 14)

The result was an economic system in which the small property holder had total control of his property and total use of the labor of all dependents on this property. Like many yeomanry, they first produced a subsistence, and the remainder they sold for the market. Thus, they weren’t as totally integrated into the market as, say, a New England millworker was, or even a Western grain farmer was. Women’s labor, then, was crucial for the functioning of the economic unit, as they wove, cooked, cleaned, butchered, etc.. But it was a labor that occurred under the control of the male. In defiance of pro-slavery ideology, in fact, white women often worked in the fields alongside white men and slaves. And, though she doesn’t go into this, the reproduction of both the wife and slave women had direct economic benefit for the master.

White Southern men received real and tangible benefits from this system that ensured their near-total autonomy and power within the boundaries of their own property. While at home, they controlled the labor of their subordinates, and in public their status as a free-holding white man (a master) linked them to the elite. McCurry does not actually argue that this common mastery eliminated all class resentment or divides, but it did provide a common language that could be used to mobilize poor whites. Thus on the eve of the war, planter elites argued that the “black Republicans” would threaten the mastery of white men, an argument laden with gender and racial anxiety.

Moreover, this was a tradition that was hostile to most government action. Sure, you needed the government to capture fugitive slaves, protect against rebellion, and punish other transgressors. But, unlike those Whig factory owners in Massachusetts, a Southern freeholder had no need for tariffs or canals, no need for public education, and no need for a systematized and regularized legal code. The conflation of property with racial and gender privilege also partly explains the seeming paradox that the capitalist North actually had a far greater communitarian tradition, far more advanced public goods (libraries, roads, schools, etc…), and a far more advanced anti-capitalist tradition, than the supposedly agrarian South did. Southern white men had extra-good reasons to be suspicious of the Federal Government, as you would have to share power with those idealists from Ohio or Massachusetts who you couldn’t trust on the issue of slavery.

The result was, publically, an ideology that strongly linked the subordination of women and the subordination of blacks with the defense of white liberty and white private property. Few issues were as intricately linked in antebellum times as were black rights and women’s rights. Southern ideologists weren’t alone in noticing that in the North women’s rights activists came almost exclusively out of the ranks of abolitionists. While abolitionists imagined liberty as about individual self-possession and control, Southern ideologues imagined it as household self-possession and control, possession and control being exercised by the white man. George Fitzhugh wrote that abolitionists “give at once the coup de grace to the old world, and to usher in the new golden age, of free love and free lands, of free women and free negroes, of free children and free men.” (these are all bad things, for Fitzhugh). In Cannibals All, he constantly refers to the “women, children, and free negroes” as one group, those fit to be ruled. He also, interestingly, accuses all abolitionists of being socialists: “men once fairly committed to negro slavery agitation … are, in effect, committed to Socialism and Communism, to the most ultra doctrines of Garrison, Goodell, Smith and Andrews – to no private property, no church, no law, no government, – to free love, free lands, free women and free churches.” (p.368)

Now Fitzhugh was no libertarian, obviously, but he was a spokesman of a Southern ruling class that saw no inconsistently in emblazoning both “liberty” and “slavery” on their banners. The reason, as should be clear from McCurry’s analysis, is that the freedom of the white man (as they saw it) really did depend on the subordination of both women and blacks. As Fitzhugh said, in commendable honesty, “To secure true progress, we must unfetter genius, and chain down mediocrity. Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!” Moreover, you can see how, in his mind, loss of control over women would literally be an assault on private property, as women join slaves as being essential appendages of private property.

I haven’t finished McCurry’s new book yet. But I gather from what I’ve read so far that she will argue that it is exactly this style of freedom that Confederates think they are preserving when they go to war. But, in fact, the war necessarily politicizes and empowers women and slaves, who play a part in bringing down the Southern project.

The relevance, of course, is that, is that out of this social history comes a strong tradition of understanding liberty, not in abstract terms, but in the concrete, as the ability to dominate and control your own subordinates. Moreover this should remind us that the women’s rights movement does entail real losses for men: loss of status, loss of labor, loss of privileges. I think Robin has made similar arguments from an intellectual history point of view. But I think its important to also embed the arguments of classic conservatives in the particular economic forms that give rise to them and where they best grow. I suspect that the average Tea Partier knows relatively little about von Mises’ actual thinking. But the sort of deep cultural sense of control and hierarchy created in antebellum yeomen life (and continued in Jim Crow and after), laid deep roots in American society.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 2, 2012 at 23:35

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. […] slightly strange to read that statement, coming on the heels of a two-week controversy over the right of women to sexual autonomy, in which the Catholic Church has played a not […]

  2. Great post Peter– I’m going to quibble with one throw-away sentence at the end, which I think may help provide some further insight: “Moreover this should remind us that the women’s rights movement does entail real losses for men: loss of status, loss of labor, loss of privileges.”

    Of course the question is, which men? At what period? This post does a great job providing historical contextualization for our understanding of conservative minds, but of course gay men of the 1990s will feel a lot different about women’s liberation than Southern men of the Civil War era, as the various liberation movements of the late twentieth century have allowed them to be both sexually open while enjoying increased economic power. And men who enjoy the increased freedom they ALSO get to enjoy given increased access to contraception, and who view participation in home life as a form of satisfactory labor (in a different socioeconomic system, they might actually get paid for it– as would women) might think differently. Of course all this thinking depends on seeing power attached to individuals rather than units— would we think differently if we de-subjectivized power and thought of it on the level of social group or companionate partnership (in which case two working partners and an ability to control the number of mouths to feed might not be so bad)?

    But at base, you’re right, it is important to look at the socioeconomic profile in order to understand, concretely, what freedom means to different groups. And in this case to look specifically at who those conservative men who are so fiercely attacking women’s reproductive rights are, if they’re in power who their constituents are, and what “power” and “freedom” mean to them.

    Kristen Loveland

    March 3, 2012 at 10:57

    • Great points. And, I certainly hope it was clear that I wasn’t sympathizing with those men who feel that women’s rights are limiting their power. Rather, I was implying that the struggle for things like birth control are radical exactly because they do challenge real engrained power.
      It is an interesting point about whether power should be attached to individuals or to units. Southern reactionaries like George Fitzhugh would have said that this was exactly what distinguishes South from North, with the North composed of lonely exploited individuals, and Southerners wrapped up in comforting relationships of power within the family and community. Of course these particular units were under the command of the white man.
      Of course, it would look very different if the unit was a voluntary and equal association, in which all sides (except, perhaps the child) choose to be there and had equal say. Then, I could imagine basing some rights on the group rather than the individual.
      Good to see you back on the blog!

      Peter Wirzbicki

      March 3, 2012 at 11:25

      • Definitely clear that these weren’t your own sympathies, and an extremely important point overall. I wanted to make sure we were specific about where that real engrained power lies. Huzzah for challenging it!

        Kristen Loveland

        March 3, 2012 at 12:37

  3. Private property = domination = control = resistance to change, particularly egalitarianism. Nice. – TL

    Tim Lacy

    March 3, 2012 at 11:42

  4. Anand sent me this but…
    The Mises/Libertarian argument strikes me as a mirror image to the conservative argument that
    1. Margaret Sanger made pro-eugenicist remarks and spoke at eugenics rallies.
    2. Planned parenthood will be tainted for all time as a pro-eugenics organization (and perhaps
    still maintains a secret eugenicist/racist agenda)

    I don’t know if there is much value in picking over the timelines of beliefs this way.

    (Rush & Rick are still misogynist idiots though)

    Vivek Vaidya

    March 3, 2012 at 22:13

  5. […] “Liberty for the few – Slavery, in every form, for the mass!”: the Deep Roots of the Birth Con… […]

  6. Totally stumbled upon this. The current attacks on women’s choices seem so crazy to some of us, so they are exactly the sort of thing that we need more and better language for understanding. You help give us that by making the historical links so clear. Thank you for your work and your voice!

    Koritha Mitchell

    March 4, 2012 at 22:41

  7. Awesome – putting a link to this on G+

    Doug Alder (@DougAlder)

    March 6, 2012 at 20:55

  8. I found this quite enlightening. I come to the conclusion despite not wanting to, that the arguments about birth control and abortion come down to wanting to keep women down. What I had not seen until your post is that there are two forms of freedom: the freedom to control or oppress those below you and the freedom and justice for all. In the name of the second, the “state” is taking a kind of freedom from white men and men in general when it mandates that no one should take women’s control of their own bodies from them. OK this explains the tea party and fundamentalist Christianity, what explains the Catholic church?

    Carol P. Christ

    March 8, 2012 at 08:08

  9. Nice post Peter – found it through a Paul Rosenburg post at Al Jazeera. It made me think again of something that I’d like to point out (or ask) right wingers sometime when the opportunity presents itself: To the right (and particularly religious righties) I would ask,
    “How are you going to get ‘your’ America back or rectify all your grievances, without resorting to tyranny? How can you can mitigate, silence, control (or is it eliminate?) gays, homeless, welfare poor, intellectuals/academia, environmentalists, pacifists, immigrants, Muslims, atheists, feminists, union workers, non-military gov workers, OWS, community organizers, moderates, most scientists and RINO’s…. without instituting a bureaucratic, brutally repressive totalitarian or oligarchical regime… really that’s your only option anymore, considering you (the really committed true believers) only comprise about 30% of the population!”

    As you point out, including writers you reference – it is that undemocratic, rule of a few over the masses that is traditionally their preferred environment. Many have noted over the years the conscious and unconscious longing for those good ole days (pre-60’s) as the core of american right-wing consciousness. I, as a white male, don’t understand the appeal of that white rich man privilege – I’m not sure what one really gains except fleeting pleasures and power induced adrenalin rushes. Or maybe to mask issues with low self-esteem, low IQ, thwarted masculinity or impotence issues…

    I prefer a more peaceful, stress-free way of living and it’s easier on the conscience – Domination would be too much work for the pittance it provides.


    March 10, 2012 at 19:44

  10. […] Deep Roots of the Birth Control Debate: The Confederates wanted to control women as much as they wanted to control […]

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