Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 226-229
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Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. Edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Educators often observe with either chagrin or delight the continuing appeal of Ayn Rand to the young. It is nevertheless difficult to dismiss interest in Rand's thought as a youthful pastime. Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged ranked second in a 1991 joint Book-of-the-Month/Library of Congress survey of the most influential books on Americans' lives (the Bible came in first). Now, two decades after her death, Rand's books still sell upwards of 400,000 copies per year. Rand is not just an intellectual forebear of the modern libertarian political movement; sympathizers point to Rand's increasingly visible impact on pop culture, public sensibilities, public policy, and even on the academy. As part of a growing body of critical literature on the eponymous novelist/philosopher, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand highlights how feminists cannot help but have a conflicted relationship with Rand's ideas.
Ayn Rand's fiction often defies gender stereotypes. Her heroines are clear-thinking, passionate persons of action, integrity, and guiltless sexuality. Like Rand herself, her heroines have their own careers (often in traditionally male fields) where they are "in charge." But Rand held that "the essence of femininity is hero-worship" (1982, 561); she invariably depicts her heroines willingly submitting to sex after being physically overpowered by a man. Is Rand, then, as Susan Brownmiller claims in an essay reprinted in this volume, "a traitor to her own sex" (65), or do she and her work, as other contributors (for example, see Barbara Branden, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Diana Mertz Brickell) argue, embody important feminist ideals?
The editors' introduction provides a brisk overview of Rand's philosophy: Rand defends the objectivity of reality, the efficacy of human reason, the interdependence of mind and body, an ethics of rational self-interest, and a politics of laissez-faire capitalism. The nineteen essays (fourteen are new) are divided among three sections, one featuring retrospectives on Rand, another offering [End Page 226] feminist analyses of Rand's fiction, and the third exploring possibilities for what the editors call a "Randian feminism."
The scope of this anthology's title is ambiguous. Will readers get feminist analyses of Rand's ideas or of Rand's life? Essays sometimes blend the two approaches with undue ease. The selections are weakest when psychologizing Rand's choices in her writing or in her personal life; but they are strongest when discussing Rand's place in contemporary feminism.
Sharon Presley suggests that Rand would reject the notion of a feminist epistemology of ethics (263). No class of human beings is privileged with some unique way of knowing. Our ungendered reason is crucial for knowledge in any field, even in morality. Rand might seem to exemplify what Margaret Urban Walker elsewhere calls a "theoretical-juridical" moral epistemology over an "expressive-collaborative model" (1996, 268). Ethics for Rand partly consists in articulating, understanding, and applying abstract principles. Rand also believes there is room for objectivity in ethics, so the results of discursive processes would be entirely beside the ethical point. (For example, see Rand 1961; 1964, 13-35) Ultimately, however, Rand would reject Walker's distinction as a false alternative. While certainly action-guiding, morality also informs choice and fosters a dynamic understanding of oneself and one's world.
Rand treats the individual as the primary unit of social and moral analysis (see, for example, Rand 1964, 80-85; 92-100; 101-106). This puts her at odds with communitarian or collectivist feminist writers. Indeed, Rand's fictional heroes are hardly "socially embedded" selves. Her heroes may strike readers as caricatures of Hobbesian agents who have "sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity, without all kind of engagement to each other" (Hobbes 1991, 205). Judith Wilt's essay condemns Rand's seeming atomism as a license for totalitarian abuses. Other contributors applaud the voluntaristic social theory rooting Rand's narratives. Rand's work...