Anarchism and Feminism: Restoring to Proper Place Department
Wendy McElroy unearths the thoughts of yet another feminist luminary buried by the received wisdom of modern-day feminists.
GERTRUDE KELLY: FORGOTTEN FEMINIST
by Wendy McElroy
In the opinion of Benjamin Tucker, editor of Liberty:
"Gertrude B. Kelly,...by her articles in Liberty, has placed
herself at a single bound among the finest writers of this or any
other country..." 1
From her first article in Liberty ("The Root of Prostitution", September 1885) to her split with that periodical over the
issue of egoism v. natural rights, Gertrude Kelly was one of
Liberty's most interesting and dynamic writers. Certainly, she
was its most conspicuous female contributor. 2
She joined what were called 'the plumb liners' -- the
hard line individualist anarchist group that congregated around
Benjamin Tucker and Liberty. 3 Although she was identified as a
'plumb-liner, Benjamin Tucker commented:
"If I did pretend to leadership, I would consider Miss Kelly
the most insubordinate member of my flock. Scarcely a day passes
that she does not show her mutinous propensities..." 4
Born in Ireland, Gertrude Kelly's introduction to individualism may well have been through the columns of "Honorius" in
Irish World -- an organ of the Irish No Rent movement. 5 "Honorius
was, in fact, the radical Henry Appleton who contributed frequently to Liberty, both under his own name and the pen name of
'X'. Whatever her introduction to libertarianism was, Kelly was
clearly influenced by the French anarchist Proudhon and the
English classical liberals Herbert Spencer and John Stuart
Mill, whom she often quoted to support her arguments.
Kelly emigrated to America, where she became a medical
Her articles brought a unique perspective on labor and women
to Tucker's pages for she believed "there is, properly speaking,
no woman question, as apart from the question of human right and
human liberty." 6 Overwhelmingly, she concerned herself with the
poverty of laborers, particularly that of women. Her first
article in Liberty dealt with this question in relation to prostitution and suggested that the unjust distribution of wealth was
the cause of this profession. 7 She wrote: "We find all sorts of
schemes for making men moral and women religious, but no scheme which proposes to give woman the fruits of her labor." 8
This condemnation expressed three themes common to Kelly's
analysis of poverty and of women :
First, women have been oppressed by the cultural stereotypes
that have been forced upon them, primarily by men. "Men...have
always denied to women," she protested, "the opportunity to
think; and, if some women have had courage enough to dare public opinion, and insist upon thinking for themselves, they have been so beaten by that most powerful weapon in society's arsenal,
ridicule, that it has effectively prevented the great majority
from making any attempt to come out of slavery." 9 She applied this
criticism to men in her own radical circle who, she claimed,
would "immediately change not only the serious topics of
conversation, but change the very tones of their voice..." when
wives or sisters entered the room. 10
Second, the rich are hypocrites in their attitudes and
behavior toward the poor. She particularly ridiculed the
philanthropic groups so popular in her day in which working
"...girls are given lessons in embroidery, art, science, etc.,
and are incidentally told of the evils of trade-unions, the
immorality of strikes, and of the necessity of being 'satisfied
with the condition to which it has pleased God to call them.' 11
Third, Kelly's contempt for "over-fed and sleek looking"
experts on poverty was surpassed by her disdain for Bible
explanations the role of 'labor'. She fumed at explanations such
as "the poor ye shall always have with you and at the popular
attempt to blame the plight of labor on the consumption of
Undoubtedly, Kelly's conviction that wealthy men who
professed concern for the poor were hypocrites came from her
condemnation of capitalism as the means by which their wealth had been accumulated. She viewed capitalism as the major cause of poverty. Like most libertarians of the late 1800's, Kelly
accepted the labor theory of value and, thus, believed that
interest, profit and rent were usury. She believed that
capitalists exploited the laborer by usurping the product of his
labor. Only a fraction of the wealth was returned to him in the
form of wages.
To modern ears, it sounds ironic that Kelly considered free
enterprise to be the cure for capitalism. Capitalism was popularly viewed by radicals of her day as being an alliance between
business and government in which government guaranteed special
privileges to the rich. To break this alliance, it was necessary
to break the power of government for "...all the laws have no
other object than to perpetrate injustice, to support at any
price the monopolists in their plunder." 13
Such laws were to be fought with peaceful means such as
boycotts, strikes and especially education for, "You cannot shoot
down or blow up an economic system, but you can destroy it by
ceasing to support it, as soon as you understand where its
evils lie." 14
The specific evils to be destroyed were restricted
bargaining, protectionist tariffs and government created
monopolies. The solutions were free banking, free trade and open
competition. And the means to achieve these goals was non-
Kelly's refusal to consider force as a means to achieve
social ends led her to further align with Benjamin Tucker on
several issues. The most controversial of these was called The
Haymarket Affair, when seven communist anarchists were arrested
after a demonstration became violent and was brutally broken up
by the police. While most of the radical community in America was
outraged by the unjust imprisonment of the Haymarket Seven.
Liberty was more reserved. it denounced the government's
action, but it also denounced the Haymarket Seven for being open
advocates of violence. Tucker steadfastly refused to make such
men into heroes and martyrs of the anarchist movement. he
refused to join the calls for retaliation and revenge.
Despite the criticism Tucker received for taking this stand,
Kelly quickly supported it. In an appeal for restraint, she wrote,
"Oh my brothers! let no blind feelings of revenge against the
state and its tools lead you to play into its hands by attempting
to meet force with force...Remember that the employment of force
leads to the redevelopment of the military spirit, which is
totally opposed to the spirit that must exist in the people
before anything that we wish for can be brought about." 15
Violence, even when it is justified in self defense, is a
reaffirmation of the state. In another article, she argues that
the state exists in order to enable crime and violence of the
part of the "large, honorable respectable thieves" against the
masses. 16 The police department -- as one of the main
facilitators of this sanctioned crime and violence, must be
eliminated. It must be turned over to private hands. Without a
state, it is clear to her that "...thieves and desperadoes will
for the most part disappear."
Over and over again, Kelly stressed education as the main
task of anarchists for ignorance was their main opponent.
"Remember that the government is really enforced, not by the
bayonets by which it is surrounded, but by the ignorance in the
minds of the people, and it is this ignorance, and this alone,
that we are called upon to combat..." 17
In an interesting article entitled "State Aid to Science",
Kelly addressed the destructive consequences of governmental
attempts to promote knowledge. 18 This article presents two
themes: "first, that progress in science is lessened, and
ultimately destroyed, by state interference; and, secondly, that
even if, through state aid, progress in science could be promoted,
the promotion would be at too great an expense of the best interests of the race." 19
She argued the impossibility of government promoting knowledge by pointing out: "It seems to be generally forgotten by those
who favor state aid to science that aid so given is not and
cannot be aid to Science, but to particular doctrine or dogmas,
and that, where this aid is given, it requires almost a revolution to introduce a new idea." 20 Such an arrangement of
government patronage creates "a great many big idle queens at the expense of the workers".
But, even granting for the sake of argument, that state aid
could promote knowledge, the cost of this promotion would
enormously outweigh any advantage. The cost would be the
violation of property rights through the taxation which would be
necessary to support the government's program. The government has no right to make the workers finance 'correct' knowledge. "I
maintain," Kelly insisted, "that you have no right to decide what
is happiness or knowledge for him, any more than you have to
decide what religion he must give adherence to. You have no
right to take away a single cent of his property without his
consent. Woe to the nation that would strive to increase
knowledge or happiness at the expense of justice. It will end by
not having morality, or happiness, or knowledge." 21
In this, as in all issues, Gertrude Kelly demanded 'no
compromise'. Her departure from Liberty robbed the periodical of
one of its most able defenders of natural rights theory.
Benjamin Tucker Liberty Whole No. 77, p. 4, March 6, 1886.
This is not to slight the high quality of contributions from
Clara Dixon Davidson and Zelm (a pseudonym for Sarah Holmes). But
their articles appeared far less frequently.
Her brother John F. Kelly also contributed and was one of its most adamant 'Spencerians'.
Liberty October 30, 1886
"Honorius" was the pen name of Henry Appleton, a contributor
to Liberty. Appleton claimed the distinction of introducing
Kelly to individualism in Whole No. 79, p.4, April 17, 1886.
Tucker's response in the same issue seemed to contradict this
claim. Kelly voiced no opinion.
Gertrude B. Kelly "Proudhon and the Woman Question" Liberty
Whole No. 95, p. 8, March 12, 1887.
Although subsequent individualist-feminists disagree with
this suggestion, Ms. Kelly deserves credit for presenting a
sophisticated analysis of prostitution at a time when it was
regularly dismissed on Biblical grounds.
Liberty, #66, p. September 12, 1885.
Liberty #74, January 23, 1886, "A Woman's Warning to
Liberty #74, p.?, January 23, 1886. "A Woman's Warning to Reformers".
Liberty #81p.5, May 22, 1886, "The Wages of Sin is Death".
Liberty #87, p.5 "A Time to Beware of Passion".
Liberty #88, p. , October 30, 1886.
In this, she was at odds with most feminists of her day who solicited money for state schools. This was to be Gertrude
Kelly's last article for Liberty.
Liberty #107, p.6-8, September 10, 1887.
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