Liberal Feminism

People carrying picket signs in the March4Women protest in London
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In 1983, Alison Jaggar published Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism:

Her analysis was not completely new; the varieties of feminism had begun to emerge as early as the 1960s. Jaggar's contribution was in clarifying, extending and solidifying the various definitions, which are still often used today.

Goals of Liberal Feminism

Jagger described liberal feminism as theory and work that concentrates more on issues such as equality in the workplace, in education, and in political rights. Liberal feminism also focuses on how private life impedes or enhances public equality.

Thus, liberal feminists tend to support marriage as an equal partnership, and more male involvement in child care. Support for abortion and other reproductive rights have to do with control of one's life and autonomy. Ending domestic violence and sexual harassment remove obstacles to women achieving on an equal level with men.

Liberal feminism's primary goal is gender equality in the public sphere, such as equal access to education, equal pay, ending job sex segregation, and better working conditions. From this standpoint, legal changes would make these goals possible.

Private sphere issues are of concern mainly as they influence or impede equality in the public sphere. Gaining access to and being paid and promoted equally in traditionally male-dominated occupations is an important goal.

What do women want? Liberal feminists believe they want the same things men want:

  • to get an education
  • to make a decent living
  • to provide for one's family.

Means and Methods

Liberal feminism tends to rely on the state to gain equality—to see the state as the protector of individual rights.

Liberal feminists, for example, support affirmative action legislation requiring employers and educational institutions to make special attempts to include women in the pool of applicants, on the assumption that past and current discrimination may simply overlook many qualified women applicants.

Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been a key goal for liberal feminists. From the original women's suffrage proponents who moved to advocate a federal equality amendment to many of the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s in organizations including the National Organization for Women, each generation viewed the amendment as necessary to create a more just society.

The amendment is one state shy of the 38 needed for passage, but ERA supporters in 2019 saw renewed hope as the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage approached.

A vote that could have made Virginia the 38th state to ratify the ERA missed by a single vote in early 2019. But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld new redistricting lines in the state later in 2019 and a move was underway in Congress to officially extend the ratification deadline.

The text of the Equal Rights Amendment, as passed by Congress and sent to the states in the 1970s, is classical liberal feminism:

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

While not denying there may be biologically-based differences between men and women, liberal feminism cannot see these differences as adequate justification for inequality, such as the wage gap between men and women.

Critics

Critics of liberal feminism point to a lack of critique of basic gender relationships, a focus on state action which links women's interests to those of the powerful, a lack of class or race analysis, and a lack of analysis of ways in which women are different from men. Critics often accuse liberal feminism of judging women and their success by male standards.

"White feminism" is a kind of liberal feminism which assumes that the issues facing white women are the issues all women face, and unity around liberal feminist goals is more important than racial equality and other such goals. Intersectionality was a theory developed in criticism of liberal feminism's common blindspot on race.

In more recent years, liberal feminism has sometimes been conflated with a kind of libertarian feminism, sometimes called equity feminism or individual feminism. Individual feminism often opposes legislative or state action, preferring to emphasize developing the skills and abilities of women to compete better in the world as it is. This feminism opposes laws that give either men or women advantages and privileges.

Resources and Further Reading