Liberal Feminism

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Feminism is a social ideology that centres around the liberation of women and the equality of the sexes. Feminism has been around for centuries, which means the ideology itself has been through many changes, lots of progress, and plenty of updates. During the second wave of the women’s rights movement, the ideology became divided by academic and cultural differences in thought.

This division led to the development of several different types of feminism. The three most significant types are Marxist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism. More recently, intersectional feminism has also risen massively in popularity. Let’s have a look at liberal feminism…

What Is Liberal Feminism?

Since it began, liberal feminism is the most dominant and popular type of feminism in the west. Liberal feminism is a fairly centrist ideology that focuses on pragmatic change that promotes the status of women. Also known as ‘mainstream feminism’, liberal feminism aims to fully integrate women into typically male-dominated spheres, such as politics and corporate positions. Liberal feminists advocate pragmatic and conclusive change at an institutional level, believing that the state should and will protect the rights of women. Liberal feminism is built on two key elements:

  1. Women are rational individuals that are entitled to universal human rights.
  2. The aim to facilitate a diversity of lifestyles for women.

Liberal feminists see equal integration into the current system as a key aspect of gender equality for women. Liberal feminism strongly emphasises their principal goal, which is for women to break into the political realm and dismantle the patriarchy by equal representation in politics. Part of this involves employing legislative and employment measures to tackle sex-based discrimination in public spheres. This includes equal pay, job segregation, and unfair treatment in the workplace. Liberal feminists see education, employment, and politics as the most important areas for women.

Marriage and family aren’t necessarily key areas (but are still significant) for liberal feminists as they see the key to change as being political influence and legislative change. However, they see marriage as an equal partnership between a man and a woman. So they advocate for men to be increasingly more involved in childcare. Ending domestic violence and abuse is also important to the agenda because this will provide many women with increased access to wider society.

Egalitarian-liberal feminism sees the complete liberation of women as:

  • Personal autonomy – to live your life the way you choose
  • Political autonomy – to have your lifestyle respected in a political context
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How Did Liberal Feminism Start?

Liberalism first met feminism during the American Civil Rights movement, which occurred during the first wave of feminism (mid-late 19th century). Two women’s rights activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were denied seating at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention.

This led many abolitionists, male and female, to also advocate feminism. Although, liberal feminism (as a concentrated ideology) did not properly gain authority and recognition until the 1960s (during the second wave). Since then, it has grown and become synonymous with ‘mainstream’ feminism, and also has had several crucial accomplishments, such as:

Key Elements of Classic Liberal Thought

Liberals view human nature as being inherently rational. All of humanity, regardless of gender, is rational and autonomous. Liberal feminists use this key point to emphasize that women are equal to men, by claiming that women are capable of all the same things that men are.

Classic liberal thought argues for a state that protects liberty rather than undermining it and heavily emphasises human rights, such as the right to…

  • Life
  • Education
  • Food and water
  • Own property

Liberalism supports state intervention but believes that the state should only intervene in public issues and should not be involved in private spheres (such as the family).

Criticisms of Liberal Feminism

One of the key arguments against liberal feminism is that it is not intersectional. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ actually developed in criticism of liberal feminism’s most blatant defect. Liberal feminism still struggles to advocate for the rights and concerns of disabled women, transwomen, queer women, and women of colour. Liberal feminists do not focus on the concerns that face different women. Although, the topic of employment and wage discrimination did mildly bridge the gap between the movement and women of lower classes.

However, liberal feminism assumes that the issues facing middle-class, white women are the issues facing all women, which is not at all the case. By refusing to effectively communicate with women in other cultures/regions, mainstream feminism neglects women in low-income countries that are living in much worse political climates. For example, queer, trans, and disabled women require change on a more social-interactional level in order to socialise comfortably. Mainstream feminists overlook this issue and still focus exclusively on institutional change by going directly to the men in power.

Liberal feminism only considers women’s relationship with power, going straight to the lawmakers, which doesn’t pay any attention to women’s relationship with men, family or other women. This ignores basic gender relationships, social-interactional issues and societal structures.

Liberal feminism also does not acknowledge that women are different from men in many ways, especially contextually. It’s important to acknowledge that men and women do have differences but, of course, are still equal. Biologically, males and females do have clear differences but it is heavily debated as to whether these biological differences actually cause men and women to behave differently within society. Gender roles, oppressive ideals and transgenerational trauma are passed on to women in the gender socialisation process. Contextually, women hold a history of oppression and women have fundamentally different needs to men, which need to be respected and addressed. This presents the importance of ‘affirmative action’, which is ignored by liberal feminism.

Radical feminists argue that gender roles and expectations have been so intricately woven into society that it is realistically impossible to bring about social change by pragmatism. After centuries of political, economic and social oppression that has manifested globally in all of today’s cultures, true progress for women requires radical change and revolutionary action.   

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