Woman versus the State

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

“All our liberties are due to men who, when their conscience has compelled them, have broken the laws of the land.”

So said William Kingdon Clifford, a 19th-century English mathematician and philosopher. Inspiring words, but did you catch the one glaring error? He forgot the women!

If Clifford had known Vivien Kellems, he wouldn’t have made that mistake.

Born in 1896 in Des Moines, Iowa, Kellems was a locomotive that never quit. Indeed, to continue the train analogy, she was a real-life Dagny Taggart, the railroad vice president protagonist of Atlas Shrugged. Before Kellems died in 1975, she could proudly look back on a life of service to her country as a successful entrepreneur, an accomplished public speaker, a political candidate more interested in educating than in winning, and, most famously, as a tireless opponent of the IRS and its tax code. Outspoken to the end, nobody ever accused her of hiding her light under a bushel.

Kellems was a tireless opponent of the IRS and its tax code.


While earning her bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Oregon in 1918, Kellems gave her classmates a dose of the spunk that would mark the next half-century of her life. She became the first and only female on the college debate team, humbling many men in a competition widely thought at the time to be for males only. She went on to earn a master’s in economics in 1921. Decades later, while in her 70s, she started work on a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The focus of her dissertation was the issue that made her a virtual household name in America: the income tax.

The Roaring Twenties were wel…