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American Freedom—Sunk Without a Trace? Not if They Have Anything to Say About It

February 17, 2023

I spoke Thursday at the Goldwater Institute about the three remarkable women who jump-started the movement for individual liberty in America in 1943—Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand, who in 1943 published their books The God of the Machine, The Discovery of Freedom, and The Fountainhead, respectively.

If you weren’t able to attend, you can listen to the recording here or below.


These three women—novelists, journalists, and idealists—anticipated the ideas of such freedom-oriented thinkers as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Hazlitt. It’s no coincidence that this was an effort led by women, but why exactly that was the case is a complex story. Lane and Paterson were both born 1886, in poverty on America’s western frontier. They were 34 years old when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, but they’d already got a taste of freedom, thanks to the great transformations taking place at the time—particularly a movement known as the “New Woman,” which prioritized education and economic independence for women. Their longing for a life of significance and meaning was best expressed, however, by the experiences of a fictional woman: Carol Kennicott, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s pathbreaking 1920 novel Main Street.

Main Street gave voice to a generation—especially women—who longed to get away from the stifling boredom and gossipy authoritarianism of small-town America. To these women, suburban or rural life was, in Lewis’ words, “a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable…the prohibition of happiness…dullness made God.” They escaped to the cities to get away from the pressure to conform and obey. And they were joined there by the Russian immigrant Ayn Rand, who fled the Soviet Union in 1926 for the same reason. Communist Russia, she said, may look like a giant monster, but up close you find it’s made up of thousands of tiny cockroaches, packed on top of each other. It was a land of conformity, obedience, and control—a land of “dullness made God” to a degree far beyond what Americans could even imagine.

Then came the 1930s, and the explosion of bureaucracy, regulation, and taxation, in the form of the New Deal. Although Franklin Roosevelt portrayed himself as a forward-looking modernist, the reality was that expanding government control was just more of the same conformism and regimentation that these three women had tried to escape. As women, they were especially sensitive to the way that being “protected” and “helped” can be a mechanism for taking away people’s liberty. That had been exactly the excuse for depriving women of freedom when they were young—and now it was being applied across the country.

In my remarks, I explore in more detail why Paterson, Lane, and Rand all strove to vindicate individualism in an age when dictatorship and totalitarianism were sweeping across the globe.

You can listen here.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute and the author of Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness.



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