Cult Fiction: Ayn Rand, Anais Nin, and the Feminist Backlash

The 1960s are, quite possibly, the most hyped decade of the 20th century. They shimmer somewhere on the border between history and myth, memorialized everywhere as a 10-year dream, a time when the boundaries of culture began to seem fluid and permeable, and when America itself became subject to question and radical change. The left wing gathered its forces and grew bright in those years, receiving an ever-increasing amount of consideration and influence in the political arena; radicals moved, as bell hooks famously put it, “from margin to center.” The ’60s were a vital decade for youth culture, for the Civil Rights Movement, and for the opposition to the Vietnam War. They were no less important for the feminist movement, which grew to critical mass in the years between 1963 and 1969.

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, sending shockwaves through the culture. In 1966, 28 women formed the National Organization of Women (NOW), and The National Review published an article entitled “Women Are The Next Great Issue In Civil Rights.” In 1968, the New York Radical Women staged a “Burial of Traditional Womanhood” in Washington, D.C. and NOW protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; news footage of women throwing their underwear into (decidedly not flaming) trashcans gave rise to the myth of the “bra-burning feminist.” As the decade progressed, the growing movement spawned a growing backlash; for every advance the feminists made, there was a scornful pundit to greet it, and for every scornful pundit, there was another feminist advance. In the midst of this cultural storm, two curious women rose to fame, emerging from the ivory tower of literature to become pop icons. They were Ayn Rand and Anais Nin.

On the surface, Ayn and Anais were polar opposites. Rand was a radically conservative Russian émigré who wrote immense, melodramatic best sellers about the Red Menace. Her philosophy, Objectivism, which she outlined in her novels and in several non-fiction tracts, preached the glory of the lone individual, the righteousness of capitalism, and the supreme power of the human mind. In contrast, Nin was an aristocrat of Bohemia, a quiet and charming woman whose circle of friends included Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, and Pablo Neruda (whose Communist Party meetings she occasionally attended). She spent most of her adult life publishing obscure experimental novels, and only attained widespread recognition at the age of 63, when she published highly edited excerpts from her voluminous diary. Her philosophy, which she diffused through personal anecdotes and meditations, was a gentle creed of self-examination, which shunned political involvement in favor of artistic experimentation.

When one reads the works of Rand and Nin side by side, it is difficult to imagine them living on the same planet, let alone at the same time. Yet in many ways, their careers were remarkably similar. Rand and Nin were both inimitable stylists; their books broke rules and made enemies, but they also enticed readers with their novelty and daring. Rand and Nin were alike, too, in the fact that their public personas were charismatic and exciting: they both frequently made appearances for the public dressed in full-length evening gowns and capes, reading their works in appealingly accented voices (the accent was Russian in Rand’s case, French in Nin’s). They both attracted dedicated coteries of fans, and maintained close relationships with them: Rand oversaw the foundation of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a school devoted entirely to her work, whereas Nin answered every fan letter she received, even though she received several hundred every week. These fans often expressed their love for Ayn and Anais by imitating them: Murray N. Rothbard, a former student of Ayn Rand, reports that Objectivists frequently cultivated a cigarette habit in honor of their chain-smoking idol, while Nin scholar Valerie Harms writes, quite seriously, that her meetings with Anais inspired her to start wearing turquoise eye shadow and a cape. People regularly admire performers, and even model themselves after them, but it’s difficult to imagine a writer attracting this kind of attention.

Why did Rand and Nin both hold such immense appeal? What was there in their works to inspire such devotion? To answer these questions, we must turn to their historical moment, for although Rand and Nin became famous as writers, they were also famous as women, at a time when women’s rights and roles were ever-present, ever-pressing concerns.

Any discussion of Ayn Rand’s relationship to feminism must begin with The Fountainhead (1943). To be more precise, it must begin at a certain point within The Fountainhead: with the three most notorious pages of Ayn Rand’s career, the graphic rape scene that prompted feminist Susan Brownmiller to declare Ayn Rand “a traitor to her own sex.”

The Fountainhead, Rand’s second novel and first bestseller, marked the beginning of her impact on pop culture. It is the story of an architect, Howard Roark, whose style is so fiercely original that he is condemned to obscurity, forced to work menial jobs until the day that his genius is recognized. It is also the story of a journalist, Dominique Francon, who is disgusted by society and everyone in it. She glides through life, haunted by the sense of her own superiority. When Dominique meets Roark, she employs him to do small tasks around her house, flaunting her mastery of him, until the night when he bursts through her window and makes the terms of their relationship abundantly clear.

Rand takes time to note Dominique’s “hatred” for Roark, her “helpless terror,” to describe the ways in which she tries to wrench free from him and beat him back, and to describe how Roark injures her as he pins her down. However, nothing compares to her description of the act itself:

It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit … the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted.

After Roark takes his leave, Dominique crawls, shaking and violated, to her bathroom, where she examines her bruises in a full-length mirror — and decides that she likes them. In fact, Rand’s novels are full of heroines who cherish their bruises. In a passage from her fourth and most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand’s heroine Dagny cracks a joke, and her lover, Francisco, slaps her so hard that he nearly knocks her to the ground. This startling assertion of dominance sparks an equally startling admission of masochistic pleasure. When Francisco volunteers to help Dagny clean the bleeding wound, she brushes him off: “I want to keep it as it is. I hope it swells terribly.” Later, Dagny lies in bed after an apparently consensual encounter and happily gazes at its aftermath, “a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.”

It is this — the fact that Ayn Rand’s heroes are violent and dominating in their relationships with women, along with the fact that her heroines enjoy the experience of being violently dominated — that prompted Brownmiller to denounce Rand, and that has led most feminists to revile her. Rand herself called the rape scene “wishful thinking,” and made no secret of the fact that it had been drawn from her personal fantasies. There’s no accounting for taste, and no call to legislate longing; however, feminist objections to Rand don’t rest on the fact that Rand herself enjoyed sexual submission, but on the fact that she thought all other women ought to embrace it. In several lectures, she went so far as to proclaim men’s “sexual superiority” a “metaphysical fact” and to define femininity as “hero worship,” that is, submission to an admirable man.

Despite all this, Rand’s gender politics are not as simple as one might imagine. She agreed with certain portions of The Feminine Mystique, because it suggested that women ought to work, a point that Rand herself made fervently and often. (It’s interesting to note that slapped, happy Dagny runs a transcontinental railroad). Ayn was also committed to abortion rights. She loathed feminism for purely ideological reasons, in spite of the fact that she agreed with many of its practical points. “I believe in masculine superiority passionately, enthusiastically, delightfully,” she once proclaimed, and when asked to give a comment on women’s liberation, she summed up her position in four words: “I’m a male chauvinist.”

She was not alone. The 1960s produced no shortage of male chauvinists. As feminism emerged, gender roles underwent a massive change, and many people longed for a return to — or even a violent assertion of — the old order. It is entirely possible that those people found, in Ayn Rand’s novels, exactly the sort of solace that they desired. Many of the readers in Rand’s right-wing audience regarded feminist women as threats to their vision of America. How comforting it must have been to hear the doctrine of masculine superiority spelled out in a female voice.

The first volume of The Diary of Anais Nin was published in 1966, the year that NOW was founded. It was, by any standard, a document far ahead of its time.

The Diary began with material culled from the 1930s. It documented Nin’s relationship with Henry Miller, a writer whose books had been banned for years. It also contained an account of Nin’s passionate, if unconsummated, love affair with June Miller, and contained an explicit description of lesbian sex in which Nin related her discovery of the clitoris (“that small core at the opening of the woman’s lips, just what the man passes by”). This material was written decades before the New York Radical Women published “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” and it was printed several years before NOW made the decision to admit lesbian members. In fact, The Diary of Anais Nin was nearly prescient in its treatment of gender. It gave a portrait of the artist as a young woman, wondering whether her “instinct” to fill traditional feminine roles might not be artificial and limiting, and whether she ought to serve as a muse to writers or become a writer herself.

The Diary was received with an explosion of praise and attention. Feminists, who had just begun to search the canon for overlooked and underestimated women, were thrilled to find a vital new female voice. The intimate nature of The Diary tied neatly into the practice of “consciousness raising,” a sort of collective storytelling session in which women shared and analyzed their intimate histories. Nin won a substantial readership in the movement, and had a close, productive friendship with the radical artist Judy Chicago. Yet, in the years following the initial publication of The Diary, feminism turned away from Anais Nin.

The second volume of The Diary is largely concerned with Nin’s activities in the Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War. She found the experience frightening and distasteful, replete with hazy threats of violence and unyielding dogmatism. The experience left her with a lasting dislike for political activism. “I am not committed to any of the political movements, which I find full of fanaticism and injustice,” she wrote. Many feminists were shocked to find that she applied this sentiment to their political movement, and were frustrated by her unwillingness to take a definite stand on the issues of the day.

Nin’s readers were also troubled by the fact that, although Nin described her diary as “a document by a woman who thinks as a woman does, not like a man,” her definitions of womanhood often seemed dependent upon male stereotypes. “The woman was born mother, mistress, wife, sister, she was born to represent union, communion, communication, she was born to give birth to life … woman was born to be the connecting link between man and his human self,” Nin wrote. Many feminists did not believe that “woman” ought to be defined by her relationships, were decidedly opposed to the idea that she ought to serve as “link” or caretaker to the men in her life.

As the decade progressed, discontented feminist readers began to appear at Nin’s public speaking engagements, openly challenging her lack of political engagement. On one notable occasion, a group of women interrupted her speech with jeers and catcalls. That particular confrontation elicited the most open-throated anger of Nin’s entire life. Her description of it brims with vitriol and wounded pride. She described the jeering feminists as “really psychotic,” “hostile, aggressive women,” and characterized the entire movement as being full of “narrow, bigoted robots mouthing slogans.” It seems that the sting of that night never faded: for the rest of her life, Nin spoke in essays and interviews about her disappointment with the feminist movement, and her refusal to identify with it. And so, the divide between Nin and her feminist readership grew, and became a decisive split.

Nin called herself “one who does not betray woman but seeks to speak for her.” For a time, many women entrusted themselves to her voice. Yet, over the past 40 years, Nin has faded back into obscurity. She is now nearly muted by disinterest and time.

However we choose to approach Nin and Rand, it is impossible to deny that they were both writers of great force, who dared to take on some of the defining issues of their time, and who refused to sacrifice the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of their thought for the relative safety of a party line. In that respect, they both approach the feminist ideal of self-determination and confidence; for that accomplishment, they deserve our lasting consideration.

In fact, their work has lived on in ways that they could not have foreseen. In The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), Barbara Branden quotes Mimi Gladstein, who says that “pre-Friedan and pre-Millett, nascent feminism had been nurtured by the reading of Atlas Shrugged … [it] has a protagonist who is a good example of a woman who is active, assertive, successful, and still retains the love and sexual admiration of three heroic men.” In fact, many of Rand’s contemporary readers dismiss her view of “masculine superiority” in favor of a focus on her powerful, professional female characters. Nin, too, has been subject to posthumous re-evaluation. After her death in 1974, her partner Rupert Pole published several books of her erotica, along with her “unexpurgated” diaries. These “unexpurgated” books include accounts of her many sexual relationships, all of which were edited out of The Diary of Anais Nin. Though many readers feel that these books severely damage Nin’s credibility, young women have flocked to them, inspired by Nin’s passionate accounts of sexual exploration. In fact, with the publication of these new diaries, Nin emerges as a feminist more in tune with Susie Bright than with Gloria Steinem, a tireless and daring champion of erotic freedom.

Anais Nin and Ayn Rand were controversial figures in their time; they remain controversial today. Their legacy rests, not only on their work, but also on their powerful and unique personalities: they have been deified and demonized, cast as unholy harridans and unheralded saints. In truth, they are prisms for our own conception of womanhood, screens upon which we project our own gender anxieties. Like the 1960s themselves, they are somewhere between history and myth, glimmering forever on the horizon.