Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory. It has also been said that liberal feminism is liberalism as applied to gender issues. Liberal feminists argue that society holds the false belief that women are, by nature, less intellectually and physically capable than men; thus it tends to discriminate against women in the academy, the forum, and the marketplace. Liberal feminists believe that "female subordination is rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints that blocks women’s entrance to and success in the so-called public world". They strive for sexual equality via political and legal reform.
The goal for liberal feminists in the late 1800s and early 1900s was to gain women’s suffrage under the idea that they would then gain individual liberty. They were concerned with gaining freedom through equality, putting an end to men’s cruelty to women, and gaining the freedom to opportunities to become full persons. They believed that no government or custom should prohibit the exercise of personal freedom. Early liberal feminists had to counter the assumption that only white men deserved to be full citizens. Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Judith Sargent Murray, and Frances Wright advocated for women’s full political inclusion. In 1920, after nearly 50 years of intense activism, women were finally granted the right to vote and the right to hold public office in the United States.
In the 1960s during the civil rights movement, liberal feminists drew parallels between systemic race discrimination and sex discrimination. Groups such as the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Political Caucus, and the Women's Equity Action League were all created at that time to further women's rights. In the U.S., these groups have worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment or "Constitutional Equity Amendment", in the hopes it will ensure that men and women are treated as equals under the democratic laws that also influence important spheres of women's lives, including reproduction, work and equal pay issues. Other issues important to liberal feminists include but are not limited to reproductive rights and abortion access, sexual harassment, voting, education, fair compensation for work, affordable childcare, affordable health care, and bringing to light the frequency of sexual and domestic violence against women.
A fair number of American liberal feminists believe that equality in pay, job opportunities, political structure, social security and education for women especially needs to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The Equal Rights Amendment
Three years after women won the right to vote, the Equal Right Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress by Senator Curtis and Representative Anthony. This amendment stated that civil rights cannot be denied on the basis of one’s sex. It was authored by Alice Paul, head of the National Women's Party, who led the suffrage campaign. In March 1972, the ERA was approved by the full Senate without changes, 84–8. The ERA went to individual states to be ratified by the state legislatures. In 2008, the ERA was stopped three states short of ratification.
The Constitutional Equity Amendment
The Constitutional Equity Amendment (CEA) was rolled out in 1995 by American women's organizations. The CEA incorporated all of the concerns that have arisen out of a two-year study by NOW and other groups of the ERA which reviewed the history of the amendment from 1923 until the present. The items that were included in the CEA which were missing in the ERA include:
- States that women and men shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place and entity subject to its jurisdiction;
- It guarantees rights without discrimination on account of sex, race, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, national origin, color or indigence;
- It prohibits pregnancy discrimination and guarantees the absolute right of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions including the termination of pregnancy;
The Case for Liberal Feminism
Liberal feminism, viewed simply, is a movement to achieve equal opportunities for women in every area of life. Liberal feminists believe that whatever opportunities men can have, women must be able to have too.
One of the strongest cases in support of liberal feminism is its track record in improving opportunities for women throughout history. The right to vote, the right to equal education and equal pay in work, and the enactment of anti-discrimination laws were all heavily influenced by liberal feminist ideas. The liberal feminist TaraElla has argued that liberal feminism is basically liberalism as applied to the area of gender, and is therefore solely based upon basic ideals of liberty and equality, ideals both feminists and non-feminists can understand and support. As such, it is not as controversial and divisive as other forms of feminism, and is not as open to accusation of creating a 'women vs men' debate. This in turn at least partially explains its political success.
Furthermore, some liberal feminists believe that, as liberalism is inherently pro-liberty and pro-equality without judgement, liberal feminism is more readily inclusive towards religious feminists and trans feminists, whereas the various branches of radical feminism may or may not reject these people, depending on their own theories. Radical feminists generally do not agree with this assertion, however.
The Case against Liberal Feminism
Critics of liberal feminism argue that its individualist assumptions make it difficult to see the ways in which underlying social structures and values disadvantage women. They argue that even if women are not dependent upon individual men, they are still dependent upon a patriarchal state. These critics believe that institutional changes like the introduction of women's suffrage are insufficient to emancipate women.
One of the more prevalent critiques of liberal feminism is that it, as a study, allows too much of its focus to fall on a "metamorphosis" of women into men, and in doing so, disregards the significance of the traditional role of women. Liberal feminism focuses on the individual, and in doing so, discredits the importance of the community. However, it is also argued that liberal feminism is actually more accommodating of traditionalist discourse than other branches of feminism.
One of the leading scholars who have critiqued liberal feminism is radical feminist Catherine A. MacKinnon. She, among other leading scholars, view liberalism and feminism as incompatible because liberalism offers women a, “piece of the pie as currently and poisonously baked.”
Other critics such as black feminists and postcolonial feminists assert that mainstream liberal feminism reflects only the values of middle-class, heterosexual, white women and has largely ignored women of different races, cultures or classes.
Who Are Liberal Feminists?
Historical liberal feminist philosophers:
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Judith Sargent Murray
- Frances Wright
- John Stuart Mill
- Harriet Taylor
- Harriet Tubman
- Susan B. Anthony
- Betty Friedan
Contemporary personalities who either identify as liberal feminists, or are considered liberal feminists by some people:
- Gloria Steinem
- Rebecca Walker
- Naomi Wolf
- Martha Nussbaum
- Sheryl Sandberg
- Amy Schumer
- Lena Dunham
- Hillary Clinton
- TaraElla. (2017): Liberal Revival Now: A Moral and Practical Case for a 21st Century Back-to-Basics Liberalism
- Tong, Rosemarie. 1989. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Oxon, United Kingdom: Unwin Human Ltd. Chapter 1
- Marilley, Suzanne (1996). Women's Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States: 1820-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. pp. 1–10.
- hooks, bell. "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center" Cambridge, MA: South End Press 1984
- TaraElla. (2017): Feminism Isn't A Political Party: My Case for a Real Liberal Feminism
- Bryson, V. (1999): Feminist Debates: Issues of Theory and Political Practice (Basingstoke: Macmillan) pp.14-15
- Tong, Feminist Thought, 38.
- Morgan, Robin. 1996. “Light Bulbs, Radishes and the Politics of the 21st Century.” in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, ed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein. North Melbourne: Spinifex.
- Mills, S. (1998): "Postcolonial Feminist Theory" in S. Jackson and J. Jones eds., Contemporary Feminist Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) pp.98-112