From the archives of The Memory Hole

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.


by Wendy McElroy

In the opinion of Benjamin Tucker, editor of Liberty:

"Gertrude B. Kelly, 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 doctor.
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 alcohol. 12
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- violence.
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.
  1. Benjamin Tucker Liberty Whole No. 77, p. 4, March 6, 1886.

  2. 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.

  3. Her brother John F. Kelly also contributed and was one of its most adamant 'Spencerians'.

  4. Liberty October 30, 1886

  5. "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.

  6. Gertrude B. Kelly "Proudhon and the Woman Question" Liberty Whole No. 95, p. 8, March 12, 1887.

  7. 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.

  8. Liberty, #66, p. September 12, 1885.

  9. Liberty #74, January 23, 1886, "A Woman's Warning to Reformers".

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Liberty #74, p.?, January 23, 1886. "A Woman's Warning to Reformers".

  13. Liberty #81p.5, May 22, 1886, "The Wages of Sin is Death".

  14. Ibid.

  15. Liberty #87, p.5 "A Time to Beware of Passion".

  16. Liberty #88, p. , October 30, 1886.

  17. Ibid.

  18. 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.

  19. Liberty #107, p.6-8, September 10, 1887.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

✳ ✳ ✳