Women and the Invisible Fist

How Violence Against Women Enforces the Unwritten Law of Patriarchy

Read the most recent draft:

Women and the Invisible Fist, V. 2013.0503[PDF] (30pp/8,430 words)

(maximal draft, incorporating material from Molinari Society Symposium on Spontaneous Order, Radical Philosophy Association, and Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities)

Replies and comments on matters of style, content, and argument in this essay are welcome.

This essay is a draft in progress of work on the radical feminist analysis of rape culture, libertarian social theory, and the Hayekian concept of spontaneous order. It was most recently revised on May 3, 2013.


Feminist theorists insisted on the importance of this discovery by challenging the common distinction between “private” and “public” or “personal” and “political” in the discussion of oppression. Antifeminist critics often treat the challenge to this distinction as if it were a simple replacement of the “private” with a conventional understanding of the “political” – treating feminist analyses of patriarchy as little different from the use of conspiracy theories to explain the prevalence of male violence. I argue that, contrary to these canonical misunderstandings, the central insights of feminist analysis of patriarchal violence may be articulated with help from a surprising source – the work of radical libertarian social theorists, in particular the Austrian free-market economist Friedrich Hayek.

Using philosophical analysis and critique to charitably reconstruct Susan Brownmiller's “Myrmidon theory” of stranger-rape, as presented in Against Our Will, in light of Hayek's conception of social order as importantly structured by emergent “spontaneous orders” which are “results of human activity but not of human design,” I argue that the dialogue provides critical terms to articulate the radical feminist critique of rape culture, while also claiming and importantly enriching the concept of “spontaneous order” as a tool for radical social critique. When this analytic reconstruction is supplemented with a discussion of recent empirical data on the pervasiveness of rape, drawn from social-science and public health literature on male violence against women, it reveals a distinctive picture that should be of prime importance both to radical feminists and to serious libertarians: a pervasive, diffuse threat of violence that constrains the liberty of women in everyday life to move and act and live as they want, but which, unlike the kinds of State violence which male radicals are accustomed to discussing — modes of domination handed down according to explicit State policies, ratified through political processes, promulgated from the top down and consciously carried out by officially appointed or deputized agents of the State — expresses itself instead in attitudes, behaviors, and coercive restrictions that are largely produced by bottom-up, decentralized forms of violence without conscious collaboration or conspiracy, sometimes in conflict with the explicit provisions of the law, in which women are battered into the social position they currently occupy as if by an invisible fist.

I conclude that this unexpected convergence of Brownmiller and Hayek provides (1) a mutually illuminating dialogue on methodology in radical social theory and analytical understandings of structural violence, (2) a surprising synthesis of radical critiques of the construction of identity with radical critiques of domination through the state, and (3) an opportunity to ramify and radicalize understanding of both the feminist insight that “the personal is political,” and the Hayekian insight that society is structured by emergent orders that are “results of human activity but not of human design.”

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