Blogs > Liberty and Power > Vivien Kellems: Tax Resister, Feminist, and Industrialist

Jun 8, 2006

Vivien Kellems: Tax Resister, Feminist, and Industrialist

Vivien Kellems, like Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Zora Neale Hurston, was a champion of individual freedom during an era of New Deal and war. Overcoming tremendous odds, she took on the Internal Revenue Service and won, at least a temporary victory.

Kellems was born on this day in 1896 is Des Moines, Iowa. She attended the University of Oregon (getting a M.A. degree) and was the only woman on the debate team. She worked alongside her engineer older brother, Edgar E. Kellems, who patented a cable grip. Moving to Connecticut, she founded the Kellems Cable Grips serving as president for more than thirty years. The company’s grips were used on such structures as the Chrysler Building, George Washington Bridge.

Already a prominent industrialist in Connecticut, she waded into the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. In stating her case, she put forward her own brand of individualist feminism. By contrast, many “social feminists” at the time such as Eleanor Roosevelt opposed the ERA because it would strike down “protective legislation” for women. In 1943, Kellems asked “what are you going to do with all these women in industry? If we're good enough to go into these factories and turn out munitions in order to win this war, we're good enough to hold those jobs after the war and to sit at a table to determine the kind of peace that shall be made, and the kind of world we and our children are going to have in the future."

In 1948, however, Kellems took the national spotlight in the cause that would dominate the rest of her life. She refused to withhold income taxes from the paychecks of her 100 employees. The IRS retaliated by taking $8,000 from her bank account. Kellems took the feds to court arguing that because her workers had already paid their taxes personally, she should not be liable. For much valuable information on her struggles with the IRS, see here.

Her showdown with the IRS gained so much attention that “Meet the Press” had her on one of its first guests. The audio tape of the show still exists and reveals Kellems to be witty, feisty, charming, and eloquent in her defense of individual freedom. In her comments, she puts the blame on men for causing wars and big government.

In 1952, a jury surprised everyone by deciding in her favor and handing a rare defeat to the IRS. The same year brought the appearance of her book Toil, Taxes, and Trouble, an account of her fight with the IRS.

Kellems did not mellow with age. In 1969, she spurned a court order to produce her financial records for a federal district court, arguing that it violated her rights under the Fifth Amendment. She also refused to file a tax return. Although the IRS hit back with an assessment, she continued her defiance. For the rest of her life, she never filed another return. Shortly before her death in 1975, she described American tax law as “a hydra-headed monster” and vowed “to attack, attack and attack until I have ironed out every flaw in it."

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Craig J. Bolton - 6/8/2006

Incidentally, where is where you can order the audio tape or cd of the Meet The Press episode with Kellems

David T. Beito - 6/8/2006

If you want to order something worthwhile, order her audio interview on Meet the Press. It is quite a treat and very inexpensive. Here is the site were you can get it (show number 5):

Craig J. Bolton - 6/8/2006

Well, you've now created a dilemma for me. I clicked on your first link and it led me to a website offering, among other things, the complete trial transcript of Kellems' ordeal plus other goodies having to do with her crusade. The dilemma is that the creator of the cd-rom containing these treasures is obviously a crackpot and wants me to send him $24.95 for what is probably 95% content idiocy concerning matters such as taking Vitamin C for cancer, Timothy McVeigh being a secret Arab, and declaring myself to be a sovereign citizen.

Fortunately, I am a weak person with an insatiable appetite for more and more information [much more than I will ever process], so the dilemma has a predictable outcome even if I resent sending money to this sort.

On your second link: I can't believe that Kellems' book is out of print. Perhaps it is possible that Liberty Fund could be induced to reprint it?

David T. Beito - 6/8/2006

Both links are now fixed. I was very impressed when I heard her on the Meet the Press tape. We could use her now.

Craig J. Bolton - 6/8/2006

I have known of Kellems since I was in my early teens and have always admired her greatly. Only when more Americans are willing to stand up and follow her excellent example of defiance of tyranny will things change for the better. [Incidentally the link you gave for more information is broken.]