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Libertarian women’s history month: Suzanne La Follette

27 Mar

Suzanne Clara La Follette (June 24, 1893 – April 23, 1983) was an American journalist and author who advocated for libertarian feminism in the first half of the 20th century. As an editor she helped found several magazines. She was an early and ardent feminist and a vocal anti-communist.  Much of her career from the 30s to the mid-50s consisted of trying to find financial backing for a series of libertarian magazines, first working for Albert Jay Nock and then hiring him as a contributor, in a relationship slightly like that of Joan Kennedy Taylor and Roy A. Childs, Jr.   The Freeman, still published today by the Foundation for Economic Education, is the surviving publication of her career.  Like Zora Neale Hurston, she seems to have had little or no contact with Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson, or Ayn Rand.  One can only imagine what might have happened if these five women had had more collaboration.

She was born in Washington state into the politically prominent La Follette family. Her father was U.S. Congressman William La Follette; her brothers included politician William Leroy LaFollette, Jr. and Chester La Follette, a painter along with two other brothers and two sisters.  Author Mimi LaFollette Summerskill was her niece. 

She grew up in the wide open spaces of the American West. Her grandfather, John Tabor, was a 49er, having crossed the plains toCalifornia after service in the Mexican-American War.  Her father, William La Follette, had first come to the Washington Territory as a 16-year-old from Indiana. By the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the largest growers and shippers of fruit in the Inland Empire.  LaFaollette was born on her family’s large wheat and fruit farm along the Snake River in southeastern Washington state. As she told an interviewer who tracked her down many years later, she and her siblings “grew up on horseback” at a time when “the automobile had not yet come in.” It had begun coming in, though, a few years later, when Suzanne was on the verge of entering her teens and her father decided to lease out his rural property and build a new family home in the college town of Pullman, near the Idaho border, then with a population of approximately 1,500, the majority connected in some way with Washington State University. That school opened its doors in Pullman in 1890, so that it had been in business there more than 15 years by the time the La Follette family showed up in town.  Suzanne finished high school in Pullman and, at the age of 16, enrolled at Washington State. But she had only about a year there before her family was uprooted again. Her father was elected to Congress, and they all moved east.


While living in Washington D.C. with her family, Suzanne worked in her father’s Capitol Hill office as well as that of his cousin Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. As a young woman still in college, she observed many of the great political and intellectual debates of the time at the home shared by the two LaFollette families.  Apart from two years in the Washington State House of Representatives at the turn of the century and some time on his local school board, William La Follette confined his political career to the second decade of the 20th century, when he himself was in his 50s. But that single decade in Washington, DC was an eye-opening experience for his daughter Suzanne. She was 17 when she arrived in the nation’s capital and 26 when she left. She worked part time in her father’s congressional office and in her cousin Bob’s senatorial office, while finishing up her degree at Trinity College.  She witnessed Woodrow Wilson’s two terms in the White House from what amounted to a front row seat, including his disastrous decision to intervene in World War I and his attempt to suppress the dissent that decision naturally touched off all over America.

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Libertarian feminist Suzanne LaFollete’s family home in DC, on a block little changed since her residence.
Posted by Bruce P. Majors on Friday, March 27, 2015


While completing her college education, La Follette was involved with many of the great events of the day. She worked in her father’s congressional office as well as the office of their cousin, Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr.. For much of that period the two LaFollette families lived together in a large home that William La Follette had purchased. Debate and conversation were encouraged at the dinner table and a steady stream politicians, writers, labor leaders, professors and other opinion makers engaged in policy and political arguments late into the evening.  Living in the “huge old house on Sixteenth Street” (2108 16th, just above U Street NW) were her parents, those of her siblings who were still living at home, Fighting Bob and his wife, and their three youngest children. (The house was until recently the Embassy of Senegal, now the Embassy of Angola.) For the first three of those four years, Fighting Bob’s youngest kids included Robert La Follette Jr., two years younger than Suzanne. The younger La Follette moved back home to Madison in 1913 to attend the University of Wisconsin, then succeeded his father in the US Senate in 1925 and spent more than two decades as a Senator himself. Meanwhile, Suzanne had decided to leave Washington altogether to try her hand at journalism,  by 1919 landing a job at  The Nation, then a weekly  owned and edited by a tireless advocate for civil liberties and against imperialism, Oswald Garrison Villard.

At The Nation, Suzanne met a fellow staff writer and editor, Albert Jay Nock, almost as old as her father, a former Episcopal clergyman who had enlisted in the ranks of radical journalism a decade earlier, working on the American Magazine with Lincoln SteffensIda Tarbell, andJohn Reed. Nock was erudite, aloof, sardonic, fascinating. 
Nock recognized the talent and intelligence of this fresh-faced 26-year-old from Washington and made her his protégé. A year later, in 1920, when the financing came through for a new weekly magazine of which Nock would be editor in chief — The Freeman — he  made her managing editor. The Freeman was a Georgist paper, and its editorials (which Nock himself wrote) took a more or less Georgist line, though Nock brought in many non-Georgists to write for the magazine. He really didn’t care what their opinions on political economy were if they weren’t writing about political economy.
Libertarian revisionist historian Jeff Riggenbach (from whose essay on LaFollette parts of this biography are derived) reports that one LaFollette associate ended up as the model for an Ayn Rand character:  “As his literary editor, Nock hired Van Wyck Brooks, who had spent the war years as an admirer of H.G. Wells and a supporter of Eugene Debs. As one of his most frequent contributors, Nock chose Lewis Mumford, who later served as one of the real-life models Ayn Rand relied upon when she created the character of Ellsworth Toohey in her novel The Fountainhead.”

“At one time or another,” Nock wrote his autobiography, the Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, “we printed quite a bit of stuff that none of us believed in, but it all conformed to our three conditions” of The Freeman‘s editorial policy. “The first one,” he wrote, “is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third one is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.”  The magazine lasted only four years, and only with the support of a major angel donor.

Later she founded a revival of the magazine, called “The New Freeman” in 1932 which lasted only fifteen months. In the early 1950s, she served as a managing editor of yet another revival of Nock’s journal, the libertarian periodical The Freeman, with John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt serving as executive editors. In that role, she came into periodic conflict with Hazlitt due to her “sometimes strident way of expressing herself” on behalf of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It is this magazine which is widely considered to be an important forerunner to the conservative National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, another journal for which she was also an early contributor and managing editor.

After her father left Congress. she moved to New York City where she lived and worked for fifty years. She lived for most of this period in the Chelsea Hotel. Her brother, Chester La Follette‘s art studio was upstairs from her apartment on the tenth floor. During the 1920s she spent four years as an editor for the Freeman working as a deputy to Albert Jay Nock editing and writing. When the magazine folded, she turned her talents to writing, producing award winning poetry, as well as two books on very different subjects. In Concerning Women, she broke new ground as she analyzed feminism from the perspective of economic equality. Her former mentor, Nock, found the book to be brilliant and original. In Art in America she produced a monumental survey of American art from colonial times to the 20th century. The art historian, Walter Pach wrote the introduction.

In the 1930s she organized a new version of the Freeman, won a Guggenheim Fellowship for study of the fine arts, lectured at the Art Students League of New York, and traveled to Mexico as a member of the Dewey Commission.  La Follette, who had been interested in Russia since the revolution of 1917 and had been in contact with many exiles, including former president, Alexander Kerenskyserved as secretary to its chairman, the philosopher John Dewey and wrote the summary of the Commission’s findings after conducting investigations in Mexico where Trotsky was in exile (soon after he was murdered by an agent of Joseph Stalin).   The committee’s members, like La Follette, Carlo Tresca and Dewey, were not Trotskyists, but consisted of anti-Stalinist socialistsprogressives and liberals. In the 1940s and during World War II La Follette worked as director of foreign relief programs for the American Federation of Labor, focusing her efforts on keeping communists out of the American labor movement.

La Follette spent the rest of her own career trying to recapture what Albert Jay Nock had put together and managed to hold together for four years there in Manhattan in the 30s. For Suzanne, it was the best job she ever had, the high point of all her years in journalism. She had loved working with and for Albert Jay Nock.   Until she was well into her 60s, she worked indefatigably to find financial backers who would underwrite a reborn Freeman.

Twice she actually brought something of the kind off — or, at least, helped to bring it off. In 1930, six years after the original Freeman had ceased publication, at the age of 37, she became founding editor of a weekly magazine called The New Freeman, even managing to lure Nock back to write a column. After 15 months, the financial angel for the project backed out.  And it was nearly two more decades before Suzanne was able to bring off anything comparable in her ongoing effort to resurrect The Freeman.

In 1950, at the age of 57, she joined with Henry Hazlitt and John Chamberlain to found yet another, fortnightly, version of The Freeman; she served as managing editor, as she had on the original Freeman back in the 1920s. This latest version of the magazine attained a larger paid circulation and survived longer than either of its predecessors. It was 1956 before it was sold to the Foundation for Economic Education and transformed into a monthly of a very different sort — a kind of Reader’s Digest for radical free marketeers.  In her final editorial effort she became the founding managing editor of the magazine William Buckley founded in 1955, The National Review. She retired from this post in 1959 at the age of sixty-six.   In an interview conducted by libertarian feminist Sharon Presley in 1980, her colleague, John Chamberlain stated that she was a libertarian, not a conservative.  Her feminist views in fact often clashed with the conservative point of view. Based on an interview with Buckley, as reported in the “Freewoman” profile, Presley states, for example, that “in 1964, when the New York Conservative Party, of which she was a co-founder, came out in favor of anti-abortion laws, she demanded that her name be dropped from the Party’s letterhead – and it was.” 

LaFollette’s full-length book, Concerning Women, broke ground in the 1920s, but went out of print for a second time after a 1972 reprint in the Arno Press American Women series. In 1973, an excerpt entitled “Beware the State” was included in “The Feminist Papers,” an anthology edited by Alice Rossi. A short biography of La Follette, based on interviews with her grandniece Maryly Rosner, her brother Chester La Follette, and her colleagues John Chamberlain, Priscilla Buckley (sister to conservative editor William F. Buckley, Jr.) and Helen Tremaine, can be found in the article “Suzanne La Follette: The Freewomen” by Sharon Presley.

La Follette was active in the League of Equal Opportunity, a feminist organization that, unlike the larger National Women’s Party, opposed not just sex-based minimum wage legislation, but all such legislation. She explained her opposition to such laws in Concerning Women. 


Still politically active In the 1960s she was one of the founders of the New York Conservative Party. She ran for congress in 1964 and lost. In her 2004 book, Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary: Completing the Twentieth Century, Susan Ware described the many intellectual gifts that made La Follette such a force among the New York intelligencia for so many decades.  La Follette was “a rigorous opponent of government intervention. She was a very beautiful woman, with a hilarious sense of humor, a grammatical stickler … a feminist … generous and warm-hearted, recalled William F. Buckley Jr., who knew her in later years.”





In the 1970s, La Follette sold her Bucks County farm and left the Chelsea Hotel and New York City. She returned to the West Coast, settling in Palo Alto, not far from the Stanford University campus. She is interred in Colfax, Washington with other family members.