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Women Of Liberty: Isabel Paterson

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“If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be? We wish you then your own wish: you name it. Our is liberty, now and forever.”

Isabel Paterson came to influence the likes of Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley, but her early life was rough and tumble. One of nine children, Paterson had only two years of formal education but loved to read. Her father had a difficult time making a living and was constantly uprooting his family in search of work. However, Paterson credited her early life for teaching her self-sufficiency and hard work.

As a teen, she moved to Calgary and began a career as a journalist. It was in Vancouver that she found her voice, writing about the changing role of women both in the family and in the world, and chiding those with servants for their snobbish attitudes towards those who worked for them.

Paterson became a novelist and a highly influential literary critic. Her column, Turns With a Bookworm, was a feature of New York’s Herald Tribune for 25 years and could make or break a young writer’s career. However, Paterson was no darling of the New York elite, as her politics leaned to the conservative. “By the late 1930s Paterson was publishing fiercely political stand-alone columns in the Herald Tribune, with catchy titles like ‘New Deal Likened to Small Boy Always Stalking the Jam’ and ‘Free Education’ Declared Myth, Since Somebody Has to Pay Bill.'” She publicly questioned why prostitutes were treated like criminals, but the men purchasing their services were never legally admonished.

According to historian John Blundell:

Isabel was almost a lone voice in her praise of individualism over collectivism. She … attached both Russian communism and German/Italian fascism. To her they were limbs of the same tree … whichever way you looked at them, they both added up to ‘serfdom,’ a word she used often in the decade before F. A. Hayek published his epic book, The Road to Serfdom. (Blundell, Ladies of Liberty)

Paterson was said to have encouraged Ayn Rand in her writing of Atlas Shrugged, but the two had a spectacular falling out, partly due to Rand’s atheism.

In her retirement, Paterson refused social security, and managed to stay solvent with investments, particularly real estate. She refused to be part of the publication of The Freeman, because it was not run strictly on subscriptions and advertising. Asking for donations was bad business, Paterson believed.

Her abrasive nature cost her relationships and money, but she is remembered as a great defender of capitalism and liberty. She died in 1961.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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