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Women Who Made a Difference

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Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History by John Blundell (New York: Algora Publishing, 2011); 230 pages.

In contemporary American politics, women are generally assumed to be more inclined to socialistic ideas than men are. Women are more likely to favor candidates and policies that are supposed to help people, to provide a “safety net” against misfortune, and to promote “social justice.” John Blundell’s book Ladies for Liberty is a strong antidote to the notion that women are necessarily prone to mushy, collectivistic thinking and hostile to individualism. Blundell has written 20 short biographical sketches of American women who worked — sometimes at great risk to themselves — for freedom. At a time when governments pass one socialistic program after another and whittle away at individual liberty day by day, it is great to have this book to remind us that American women have often been great champions for liberty.

Blundell, who served as director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London until 2009, explains that the book grew out of his earlier book on Margaret Thatcher (published by Algora in 2008). He had many speaking engagements in the United States about that book and was frequently asked which American women he would compare Lady Thatcher with. In answering such questions, Blundell found out that few of his listeners knew anything about American women who had advanced the cause of freedom, other than some well-known names. That is why he decided to write this book.

It reads very rapidly, each chapter only 10 pages or fewer, getting right into the work each woman did on behalf of freedom. Blundell’s profiles are arranged chronologically: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimke Sisters (Sarah and Angelina), Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C.J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher.

Courageous opposition

Confronting authoritarians and oppressors usually requires not just conviction, but courage, risking bodily harm or severe financial loss. That was the case with several of Blundell’s ladies for liberty, starting with the first in the book, Mercy Otis Warren. She was the sister of the outspoken patriot James Otis, who was attacked and savagely beaten for having expressed his opposition to British rule in the wrong place. Mercy was every bit as much an opponent of British tyranny as her brother and engaged in a variety of subversive activities along with famous male patriots. She was, for example, instrumental in establishing the Committees of Correspondence that knit together opposition to British rule throughout the colonies. She also wrote plays that mocked the aristocracy and their mandarins.

Abigail Adams could have been hanged for spying had the British authorities intercepted some of her letters to her husband, John, that gave him information about Redcoat troop movements in and around Boston. Abigail also argued strongly (again through her letters) that the Declaration of Independence should contain language denouncing slavery, and she was disappointed when the document emerged without any such language. Finally, she attacked the many laws, both before and after the Revolution, that treated women as lesser citizens.

Blundell’s chapter on the Grimke sisters takes the reader into unfamiliar historical territory.  Sarah and Angelina were born into an upper-class, slaveholding Charleston family. Instead of enjoying the life of ease they could have had, the two sisters became outspoken opponents of slavery. They broke the laws of South Carolina by secretly teaching slaves to read and write. Later they moved to Boston and openly supported the abolitionist movement with monographs and speeches. Sometimes they were in danger from mobs of men who thought not only that their abolitionist cause was a bad one, but that it was unseemly for women to speak at public gatherings. Threats did not deter the two sisters.

Perhaps the bravest of all was Harriet Tubman. She was born a slave in Maryland and endured whippings in her youth — common punishment for any slave who got the least bit out of line or “uppity.” In 1849 she ran away, avoiding the patrols of slave catchers paid by the state and reaching safety in Pennsylvania. She found work as a maid but saved most of her earnings for a planned return to Maryland to bring her family out of slavery. She did so, despite the fact that helping slaves to escape, hazardous enough to begin with, had been made even more so by the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, which imposed a legal duty on all American citizens to assist in capturing fugitives. Nevertheless, Harriet succeeded in getting her own family to freedom. And then she became “the conductor on the Underground Railroad” and helped many other slaves escape bondage. Following the Civil War, she took up the cause of women’s suffrage and raised the funds for a home for aged and infirm black people — private charity long before government got into the welfare business.

Vivien Kellems displayed her courage in a different way. She stood up to the federal government and its nasty tax collector, the IRS. Vivien owned a small, successful business in Connecticut. She was greatly bothered by income-tax withholding during World War II. That system imposed costs on businesses without any recompense, and Vivien thought that just plain wrong. It also tended to hide from workers the true cost of the government; Vivien thought that people would pay more attention to what it was doing if they had to pay taxes directly. So she defied the law by paying her employees the full amount of their earnings and informing them how much they should set aside to cover their income-tax liabilities. She helped her workers to set up savings accounts where their taxes could be kept until they were due. Moreover, she spoke out in public against the tax laws, encouraging others to break the law as she was doing. Naturally, all of that led to a battle with the IRS. A jury in Connecticut, apparently practicing jury nullification, found her not guilty on the charge of willfully violating the law by refusing to comply with the tax-withholding rules. Unfortunately, she never got the legal showdown she wanted — a Supreme Court test case to challenge the constitutionality of tax withholding.

Defenders of liberty

To those “profiles in courage” Blundell adds other fascinating sketches of women who spoke, wrote, and acted to advance liberty. Their courage took the form of going against accepted beliefs and norms of society that restricted freedom and extolled government power.

I had never heard about Bina West Miller, but the chapter devoted to her is enlightening. She grew up in post–Civil War Michigan. In those days, before there was any government “safety net,” many Americans joined one of the numerous fraternal societies that sold life insurance. The problem, Bina learned, was that those societies allowed only men to enter into insurance contracts. She was determined to change that, and did. With years of almost ceaseless effort, she created a national insurance program for women, the Women’s Benefit Association. Some of her policyholders were killed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and without waiting for any claims, she wired funds to her representative in the stricken city. Furthermore, she led the effort to raise funds from members of the association to help all of the people of the stricken city.

Many readers probably have heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder through her famous “Little House” books, which teach the virtues of work, thrift, and voluntarism; they may also be familiar with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who published the exemplary Give Me Liberty in 1939. But what they may not know about Rose is that she had been a dedicated socialist and devotee of Lenin’s communist regime in the Soviet Union — until she actually went there. Unlike many American intellectuals who saw only what they wanted to see, Rose realized that the supposed workers’ utopia was a horrendous regime where the people lived in fear and poverty. She challenged the standard view that a centrally controlled society would be a great improvement over the “chaos” of freedom. Liberty, she argued, was infinitely better than life under collectivism.

Reader’s Digest is now a pale ghost compared with what it once was in America. Blundell’s chapter on Lila Acheson Wallace explains how she came up with the idea for the magazine and persevered until it succeeded. She was not just a good businesswoman, though. She was also a firm believer in freedom, and in 1945 she decided to run a condensation of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. The magazine’s banner called it “One of the most important books of our generation,” and millions of Americans got Hayek’s message that central planning would imperil our liberty. Incidentally, the Digest’s condensation is still available, translated into 20 languages, and is downloaded thousands of times every year.

Milton Friedman is famous for his advocacy of free markets and limited government, but few readers know how important his wife, Rose Director Friedman, was in his career. Take his breakthrough book, Capitalism and Freedom. It was developed by Rose from a set of lectures Milton gave at Wabash College under the sponsorship of the Volcker Fund. Rose was also a vital force in the writing and recording of the blockbuster “Free to Choose” set of television programs that aired in 1980. And, Blundell notes, Rose was an intellectual force in her own right. For example, following Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of his “war on poverty” in 1965, she wrote a monograph published by the American Enterprise Institute that explained the problems with the president’s definition of “poverty.”

Jane Jacobs is one of my favorites in Ladies for Liberty because she wrote so brilliantly about the damage that government planning does to cities, even though she never went to college. (America’s infatuation with college credentials and the absurd notion that only those who have them can possibly have anything worthwhile to say about public policy is one of my pet peeves.) In the late 1940s and on, American intellectuals were dazzled by the idea that government planning could and would make cities better, cleaner, more wholesome and livable. The result was federal “urban planning” legislation that led to the demolition of old neighborhoods, which were replaced with government housing projects and planned communities. Instead of falling for the theory, Jane looked at the results and found them appalling. Her 1964 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities quickly became a classic in the libertarian literature.

I haven’t mentioned all of the women Blundell profiles in this delightful book, but I heartily recommend that you get a copy and read it cover to cover.

This article was originally published in the December 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.