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Liberal feminism – iPleaders


This article is written by Mrinal Mukul, a law student at O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana. This article talks about gender equality through political and legal reforms and the role of feminists in such reforms. 

To understand liberal feminism, it is crucial to understand what they focus on and when the movement started. Creating awareness among the people about feminism must be very challenging for them. It took years to explain that men and women are equal, and they both play a vital role in every sector. Liberal feminism has seldom expressed itself in pure form but is entangled with other sometimes conflicting traditions and assumptions. However, it retains a clear core idea based on the belief that women are rational beings and, as such, they are entitled to full human rights and, therefore, should be free to choose their roles in life and make the most of their potential in equal competition with men. 

Liberal feminism began in the 18th and 19th centuries and has continued to the present time. Throughout its history, the liberal feminist movement has focused on eliminating female subordination, rooted in customary and legal restrictions prohibiting women from entering and succeeding in the so-called public world. Liberal feminism is a theory that focuses more on issues such as the workplace, education, and political rights. Liberal feminism also focuses on how private life hinders or enhances public equality. As such, liberal feminists tend to favor marriage as an equal partnership and greater male involvement in parenting. Ending domestic violence and sexual harassment will remove barriers to equality between women and men. The main goal of liberal feminism is gender equality in the public sphere, such as equal education, equal pay for equal work, ending gender segregation at work, and better working conditions. From this perspective, changes in the law will make these goals possible. An important goal is equal pay and promotion in traditionally male-dominated occupations.

Regarding the needs of women, liberal feminists think they want the same things as men want: to receive an education and a decent life to provide for their families. Liberal feminism tends to rely on the state for equality—seeing the state as the protector of individual rights. Liberalism is a series of doctrines that emphasize the value of liberty and advocate that a just state ensures individual liberty. Liberal feminists embrace this value and the role of the state; with, insist on women’s freedom.

Liberal feminism 

This feminism focuses on women’s legal rights and gender equality. They believe that women have the same rights as men, and that women’s integration into the public sphere is as important as men’s integration into society. Women should participate in economic, educational, decision-making, and legal development. 

Marxist feminism 

Marxist feminists took ideals from Marx’s writings and applied them to the treatment of women during movements in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Marxist feminists believe that the path to women’s liberation is to dismantle a capitalist society that allows women to work for free.

Cultural feminism 

Cultural feminism examines radical feminist beliefs and transforms them in a way that celebrates what it means to be a woman. The term first became popular in the 1970s. While the notion that male-dominated societies set oppressive standards for women persists, cultural feminism has retracted and raised those standards. Characters like mothers are seen in cultural feminism as the natural beauty of a woman’s body, soul, and spirit.

Socialist feminism 

It focuses more on social relations and believes that women’s liberation must be in conjunction with social and economic justice. The key to socialist feminism is that patriarchy and capitalism are intertwined forms of exploitation and oppression of women.

Radical feminism 

It talks about the social dominance of men over women. They focus on abolishing patriarchy instead of adjusting the system by changing the laws. Radical feminists also object to economic or class issues that they equate with oppression, such as socialist or Marxist feminism. 

The ongoing struggle for equality dates back centuries, but the tradition of liberal feminism stems from specific philosophies and policies within the women’s movement. Here is a brief overview of the history of liberal feminism: 

Early Activism

Liberal feminism began during the Enlightenment with the rise of a political philosophy known as classical liberalism. Like many classic liberals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, liberal feminists believed that the best path to women’s liberation was the right to vote. Early feminist scholars and activists were inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Defense of the Rights of Woman’ (1792) and later by John Stuart Mill’s ‘Female Subdued’ (1869).

They also focused on the right to education and paid work. Later, the focus shifted to political rights because women were considered vulnerable in society, and to uplift the status of women, political rights were considered very important. All this led to the first wave of feminism.  

Seneca Falls Convention 

The 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, organized by early American feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, was probably the first of the feminist movement’s conferences. Discussions at the event focused on sexism in public spaces and the extension of fundamental rights, with a focus on voting. 

At the 1848 convention, Stanton read the ‘Declaration of Sentiments,’ a statement of grievances and demands patterned after the Declaration of Independence. She called on women to organize and fight for their rights. The convention passed 12 resolutions—11 of which were unanimous—aimed at acquiring certain rights and privileges denied to women in that era. The ninth resolution demanded voting rights for women; it passed after the insistence of Stanton, but later it caused many backers of women’s rights to withdraw their support. Still, it was a cornerstone of the women’s suffrage movement, culminating in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Right to vote

In 1920, American women gained the right to vote and hold public office. These are important steps towards an egalitarian society with gender equality.

The following year, as head of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt attempted to link women’s suffrage to America’s war effort in the First World War. Although many of her fellow activists were anti-war pacifists, Catt made the controversial decision to support the war, thereby portraying the women’s suffrage movement as patriotic. The effort was successful. President Woodrow Wilson also expressed his support for female enfranchisement.

On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote for all American citizens, regardless of gender. The Nineteenth Amendment was a significant victory and a turning point for the feminist movement.

Civil Rights

Major feminist activism gained momentum in the 1960s when many liberal feminists discovered a link between racism and sexism. During this period, pressure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment increased. 

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as its chairman. Its report, published in 1963, strongly supported the nuclear family and women’s preparation for motherhood. But it also documents a national pattern of workplace discrimination, unequal pay, legal inequities, and meager support services for working women that needs to be remedied through laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, equal employment opportunity, and expanded childcare services. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 provided the guarantee, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sex.

Influential texts

The Feminine Mystique (1963), by feminist scholar and activist Betty Friedan, examines women’s sacrifices in society, especially in household chores. Her indelible first sentences will resonate with generations of women, like  “This question has been lurking in the minds of American women for years. It is a strange agitation, a resentment, a longing for American women in the middle of the 20th century.” Women dissatisfied with pastoral life spoke about their dissatisfaction with their lives. The ingrained sexism in society limits their opportunities. Today, Friedan’s book is a classic and is often credited with sparking a “second wave” of feminism, which has sparked intense interest in issues such as workplace equality, birth control and abortion, and women’s education. 

Second-wave feminism promotes equal opportunity in the workplace, at home, and in public. In this movement, bourgeois liberal feminists fight gender inequality in the workplace. They speak openly about gender roles in the family, pay gaps, sexual harassment, domestic violence, health care, child care, and reproductive rights.

Lasting impact

Liberal feminist activism continues to this day, although the movement as a whole has diversified in representation and philosophy. Women increasingly control public spaces, participate in decision-making, promote their views and aspirations, and hold themselves accountable for different types of work. The patriarchal structure is increasingly questioned around the world – the process of achieving political and economic equality between men and women seems irreversible. However, the process is never complete, is always in disarray, and faces the greatest challenges and obstacles from more than one institutional structure.

Mary Wollstonecraft 

In Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft wrote that many so-called gender differences are either fabricated or exaggerated and therefore cannot be used as the basis for different rights and roles. Imposing different educational expectations on men and women is not only unfair but counterproductive and often results in lower productivity and weaker character in female citizens. Wollstonecraft believes both should be educated to improve their rationality, which they define as the ability to act as fully responsible moral agents. The realization of this capacity will provide moral agents with self-realization and benefit society. Because of this, women had to become more rational, while there was no reason for men to cultivate their emotions.

Wollstonecraft advocated formal equality in which women were entitled to the same civil liberties as men. In this way, women can experience a life of true freedom, free from all the constraints of patriarchy. It would even lead to women being allowed to pursue careers outside the home, an argument that was well ahead of its time. For these reasons, Wollstonecraft is rightly considered one of the founders of the feminist movement and managed to build an impressive legacy in her short life.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill considers it to be one of the most fundamental principles for building a liberal and democratic society. The issues on which Mill campaigned most intensively were related to women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and women’s equal access to education. From the second half of the 1850s until his death, he actively supported the then developing women’s movement, participating in various forms of women’s political struggle against oppression and discrimination, for civil and political rights, and especially for women’s suffrage, as well as political reforms to improve the situation of women. Mill worked to influence legislation and public policy on issues affecting women. For example, he fought for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 and, a year later, supported the Married Women’s Property Act. He criticized the idea that husbands protect wives through voting rights. For him, disenfranchising women means a bigger fight for women’s equality. As a liberal thinker, Mill firmly believes that depriving women of their liberty is unjust because such actions violate the principles of liberty and equal justice. 

Harriet Taylor

Harriet Taylor’s perspective was that women have the right to education and self-development, and she believed that a woman’s role as wife or mother should not prevent her from pursuing other careers. She believes that equal education and equal employment opportunities are integral to women’s full political equality with men. She said a woman should be able to choose any career, and if her choice is to be a wife and mother, then contributing to the family is her career. She was deeply influenced by ideas of political liberalism, especially equal rights, individualism, and liberty. Liberal feminists propose that accidents of birth like sex become irrelevant in society once true equality is established. She argues that the restrictions on public education were harmful to women, but so were the limitations of Victorian social life, including access to sexual knowledge, resulting in a lack of self-awareness and the entering into marriage contracts without the necessary knowledge. She linked the status of women to slavery. She layers the analogy, suggesting that both slavery and marriage are based on the threat of physical violence, so until domestic violence laws are improved, brutal physical violence in marriage is the same as violence in slavery. Language and law reinforce cultural assumptions evident in men’s incredible phrases about meddling with their wives or children.

Liberal feminism emphasizes the equal individual rights and freedoms of men and women and downplays gender differences. Liberal feminism is widely accepted as one of the most popular feminist social and political philosophies. Liberal feminists defend gender fairness and emphasize the importance of social, family, and sexual roles in a way that encourages women’s self-fulfillment. They emphasize the similarities between men and women rather than the average differences between them, and they attribute most of the personality and character differences between the sexes to the social construction of gender and tend to promote a range of androgynous virtues for both parties, as in both men and women.

Liberal feminists reject strong claims about gender differences that may support different and possible hierarchical rights and social roles but otherwise avoid promoting specific concepts of the good life for men or women, rather than defending what individuals can pursue in life. The fields of broad neutrality and privacy are most sympathetic to their forms. Although liberal feminists admit some of the decisions women make are questionable because sexist social practices condition them, they also try to avoid maternalism and any second-guessing of those choices made without coercion or threats. It is believed that well-informed and sane adult women are the ultimate judges of their own best interests. Thus, liberal feminists tend to oppose legislative interventions that contradict women’s judgments.

Regarding sexuality, liberal feminism appreciates the tradition of liberalism, valuing personal privacy and autonomy in ways that appear to conflict with the goal of eradicating sexist norms. For example, liberal feminists tend to take a liberal or public health approach to commercial sexual activity. For example, many liberal feminists reject calls to criminalize or even condemn prostitution and pornography, provided those who engage in prostitution and pornography participate without coercion. They defend this position by invoking privacy and the intrinsic value of autonomous choice. Liberal feminists defend the freedom to choose one’s sexual orientation, partner, and behavior because they are beyond the scope of the law.

Liberal feminism is different from other feminist ideas and activism. Here are some tenets of liberal feminism:

  • Individualism: Liberal feminism focuses on individual freedom and autonomy. They are rooted in liberal feminism. Individualist feminists took a more legitimate approach to equality, invoking natural law theory. They want to fully recognize women’s individual rights through laws that protect the persons and private property of men and women equally. When people think of feminism these days, individual feminism often comes to mind, precisely because it has become so mainstream.
  • Legal and political reforms: Liberal feminists tend to focus on using existing systems of power, such as courts and government, to secure rights and improve women’s lives. Women have historically fought for equal access to public institutions and the workplace, and representation in cutting-edge industries is a sign of progress.
  • Pragmatism: Many liberal feminists take a pragmatic approach to reform. They look for political struggles that seem to be won and gains they can make in the current political and economic structure of society.

Classical liberal feminism and egalitarian liberal feminism are both families of doctrines with significant internal differences. Nonetheless, the differences between classical and egalitarian-liberal feminists about freedom have some significant implications as to how the two articulate the problems feminism is trying to solve, how they specify what the liberal feminist agenda is, and what role is assigned to the state. 

Egalitarian-Liberal feminists believe that much can and should be done if we support women’s personal and political autonomy and achieve equality in the process of democratic self-governance in liberal societies such as the United States. They see the state as a potential ally in pursuing these goals and advocate for measures such as anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, and welfare state programs, as well as measures to change a culture and ensure equal participation in democratic self-governance. These crucial features put egalitarian-liberal feminism on the left side of the political spectrum. 

Classical liberal feminists, on the other hand, tend to hold that feminist political tasks are limited to opposing laws that treat women differently from men, a task they see as primarily accomplished in a society like the United States. They tend to support the outcome of largely unhindered economic and associational arrangements and oppose, for example, anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, and welfare state programs. These characteristics place classical liberalism on the right side of the political spectrum. However, some classic liberal feminists argue that the task of cultural liberalization remains on the agenda of liberal feminism, although they see it as a non-political task and oppose the use of state power for this purpose. These classic liberal feminists are culturally on the left. However, other classic liberal feminists reject cultural liberalization programs and consider themselves correct.

Egalitarian-liberal feminism understands freedom as personal autonomy (living the life you choose) and political autonomy (becoming a co-author of the conditions of your life). Egalitarian-liberal feminists believe that the exercise of individual autonomy depends on certain favourable conditions that do not fully exist in women’s lives or on social and institutional arrangements that often do not respect women’s individual autonomy and other factors in women’s prosperity. They also argue that women’s needs and interests are not adequately reflected in the framework of their lives and that the basic regulations that maintain these conditions are not legitimized because women are inadequately represented in democratic self-governance processes. Egalitarian-liberal feminists have linked autonomy deficits like these to the ‘gender system,’ i.e., inherited patriarchal traditions and institutions, and they argue that the women’s movement should work to acknowledge and correct these flaws. Since, from an egalitarian perspective, protecting and promoting the autonomy of citizens is an appropriate role for the state, egalitarian feminists believe that the state can and should be an ally of the women’s movement in promoting women’s autonomy. 

Equity feminists are classic liberal feminists who believe that in a society like the United States, the state is the only source of morally significant oppression of women. They saw the political role of feminism in ending laws that specifically restricted women’s freedom, as well as laws that privileged women. Some equity feminists see feminism as playing a non-political role in helping women to use their freedom by developing beneficial character traits, strategies for success, or navigating through a growing array of options. Other equity feminists are social conservatives who believe that while the state should not enforce them, traditional values ​​serve as bulwarks against state power and produce independent and conservative citizens. Cultural liberal feminists are classical-liberal feminists who believe that societies and cultures like the United States are patriarchal and a significant source of women’s oppression. They see patriarchal culture and the state as complementary systems of oppression. However, cultural liberal feminists believe that much of the oppression women experience today is noncoercive and should not be addressed through state remedies but rather through non-violent movements for feminist social change.

In India, the feminist movement has grown rapidly in modern times. In order to understand and empathize with the feminist response, it is important to note that Indian feminists present a completely different sequence of images. The long and painful suffering of women, the uphill struggle to get rid of the idea of ​​equal pay for equal work, the ongoing struggle for women’s abortion rights, and contraceptive practices are some of the clear signs of gender inequality that has continued and that women have had to fight. The feminist situation in India has had different periods. Indian society has always been hierarchical. The various hierarchies within the family that concretize age, gender, and status, and within the community in relation to social caste, education, occupation, and relationship to the ruling power, are very strictly maintained.

One of the first concerns of women’s groups across the country is violence against women, especially in India, in the form of rape and dowry deaths. The killing of young married women for dowry, money, or goods is also common in India under the current circumstances. This is also the beginning of the women’s learning process. Most of these protests have focused on the state level, and as women were able to mobilize support, the state government appeared to have responded positively by revising rape and dowry laws to make both stricter. This seemed like a huge victory at the time. But people are starting to realize that unless there is a will and a mechanism to implement it locally, there is little point in just changing the law and that the core issue of discrimination against women is not just in the law but is much more widespread.

To remove such stereotypical practices, Savitribai Phule started the very first movement. She was the first female teacher in the country who started 17 schools to educate women of all castes. She worked with her husband and other women to end caste discrimination and sexism. She also set up ‘Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha’ to prevent female infanticide and to oppose the killing of widows and pregnant rape victims. Today’s Indian feminist advocates highly regard Savitribai Phule.

Another very famous liberal feminist named Tarabai Shinde protested against patriarchy and caste discrimination. She opposed the patriarchy inherent in Hindu scriptures, and her views are still contested to this day. Her first work in Marathi, ‘Stri Purush Tulana’ (Translation – Comparison of men and women), explored the differences between men and women and is considered one of the earliest modern feminist writings in India. Tarabai Shinde was a partner of the Phule couple, and their shared views on gender and caste oppression gave her the platform she needed to lead her fight for women’s rights in India. However, Tarabai Sind not only focuses on women in India but also believes that women all over the world are equally oppressed.

In the early 21st century, Indian feminism tackled a range of issues, from domestic violence and rape to victim stigma and consent. Indira Jaisingh’s tireless efforts contributed to the drafting of the Domestic Violence Act (2005). The tireless efforts of Meenakshi Arora, a senior lawyer in the Supreme Court of India, led to the drafting of the Vishakha Guidelines, which culminated in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013). Activist Kavita Krishnan sparked a series of protests and riots following the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, culminating in the 2013 Criminal Code Amendment legislation making changes to the country’s existing rape laws. While much work remains to be done, the movement to secure women’s rights has come a long way with these inspiring and fierce figures who contributed against patriarchy. 

Many other individuals and organizations are working for gender equality and justice in India, and their efforts are paying off. Liberal feminism in India today shows some encouraging trends:

  • Increasing economic freedom enables women to combat stereotypes.
  • Women’s desires are changing, from economic rights to social and sexual rights.
  • Women do not give up their space, and they usually fight harder to achieve it.
  • There is genuine partnership and collaboration between women and men, especially the youth, to achieve meaningful gender equality.
  • The Internet is helping women build communities and networks, giving them a greater voice and tools to organize and assert their rights.
  • Critics of liberal feminism point to basic gender relations, a focus on government actions that link women’s interests to those in power, a lack of class or racial analysis, and a lack of analysis of the differences between women and men. 
  • Critics often accuse liberal feminism of judging women and their success by masculine standards.
  • ‘White feminism‘ is a liberal feminism that assumes the issues faced by white women are issues faced by all women. Unity around liberal feminist goals is more important than racial equality and other similar goals. Even if women achieve equality on paper, it fails to take into account the social and cultural factors that perpetuate inequality. 
  • Radical feminism arose partly because liberal feminism’s preferred approach was to ‘work within the system’ rather than abolish patriarchy entirely. 
  • Intersectionality is a theory developed in a critique of liberal feminism’s pervasive blind spot on race.
  • In recent years, liberal feminism has sometimes been conflated with a form of liberal feminism, sometimes called equity feminism or individual feminism. Individual feminism often resists legislation or government action, preferring to emphasize the development of women’s skills and abilities to better compete in the world. This feminism opposes laws that give either men or women advantages and privileges.

However, after so many criticisms, let’s not forget their important roles in our societal development. Every feminist theory has some criticism, and that is just a part of it, but indeed, one must work on these criticisms. 

After all this, even though they have their own setbacks, one must not forget that feminists have an ultimate motive to gain equal justice in society. 

The conclusion of this article can only be that feminism is not about world peace or love and harmony, but about eliminating society’s systemic, pervasive devaluation of women and women’s work. That means more competition but also much more sharing and cooperation. Feminism draws only one conclusion: equal rights for all genders. No gender is superior to another. All genders should be given equal opportunities, better chances, and social status and be equally respected in society.

Beyond that, we need to change the way people think about feminism in general. Our culture’s subconscious automatically associates ‘feminism’ with ‘man-hating.’ As a result, both men and women today refuse to identify themselves as feminists. This understanding of the term feminism is at odds with its original meaning. Having said that, mainstream society has a tendency to be blinded by fear (in this case, fear is often misplaced). We need to understand that feminism is liberating women from patriarchal oppression; at the same time, men are also being liberated through such initiatives. Feminism also liberates men from patriarchal oppression, just as women are harmed by traditional gender roles. Therefore, it can be said that feminism benefits both genders. Thus, it is high time that we not only promote feminism in society but also explain the term feminism to society so that no one lives in ignorance anymore.

Why was Mary Wollstonecraft called the first feminist? 

Wollstonecraft is known as ‘the first feminist’ for her essay ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ in which she argues that women are inferior to men only because of their lack of education, not because of innate deficiency.

What has been the effect of liberal feminism on society?  

Liberal feminism places great importance on the public world, especially the law, political system, education, and working life, and sees the denial of equal legal and political rights as a significant obstacle.

How can we differentiate between liberal feminism and radical feminism? 

Liberal feminists tend to focus more on equality, not just between people but between the sexes in general, and radical feminists tend to see gender differences as imposed by power. Strangely, while contradicting themselves and at odds with each other, these two approaches take sexual differences seriously.

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