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Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminist theory, which focuses on women’s ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. 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.
Liberal feminism was quiet for four decades after winning the vote. 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.
- 1 Writers
- 2 Popular liberal feminists
- 3 Organizations
- 4 Legislation
- 5 Critiques
- 6 References
Popular feminist writers associated with this theory are Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Helen Taylor; Second Wave feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; and Third Wave feminist Rebecca Walker.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) has been very influential in her writings as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman commented on society's view of the woman and encouraged women to use their voices in making decisions separate from decisions previously made for them. Wollstonecraft "denied that women are, by nature, more pleasure seeking and pleasure giving than men. She reasoned that if they were confined to the same cages that trap women, men would develop the same flawed characters. What Wollstonecraft most wanted for women was personhood." She argued that patriarchal oppression is a form of slavery that could no longer be ignored. Along with Judith Sargent Murray and Frances Wright, Wollstonecraft was one of the first major advocates for women’s full inclusion in politics.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (November 12, 1815 – October 26, 1902) was one of the most influential women in first wave feminism. An American social activist, she was instrumental in orchestrating the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Not only was the suffragist movement important to Stanton, she also was involved in women's parental and custody rights, divorce laws, birth control, employment and income rights, among others. Her partner in this movement was the equally influential Susan B. Anthony. Together, they fought for a linguistic shift in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to include “female”. Additionally, in 1890 she founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association and resided as president until 1892. Despite never authoring a feminist text, she produced many speeches, resolutions, letters, calls, and petitions that fed the first wave and kept the spirit alive. Furthermore, by gathering a large number of signatures, she aided the passage of the Married Women's Property Act of 1848 which considered women legally independent of their husbands and granted them property of their own.
John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806 – May 8, 1873) believed that both sexes should have equal rights under the law and that "until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely." Mill frequently spoke of this imbalance and wondered if women were able to feel the same "genuine unselfishness" that men did in providing for their families. This unselfishness Mill advocated is the one "that motivates people to take into account the good of society as well as the good of the individual person or small family unit. Similar to Mary Wollstonecraft, Mill compared sexual inequality to slavery, arguing that their husbands are often just as abusive as masters, and that a human being controls nearly every aspect of life for another human being. In his book The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that three major parts of women’s lives are hindering them: society and gender construction, education, and marriage. He also argues that sex inequality is greatly inhibiting the progress of humanity.
Popular liberal feminists
- 18th Century
- 19th Century
- 20th Century
The National Organization for Women
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is the largest Liberal Feminist organization in the United States. Though their primary focus and issue currently is the Constitutional Equality Amendment, they also deal with reproductive issues and abortion access as well as ending violence against women, combating racism, economic justice and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights (LGBT).
Various other issues the National Organization for Women also deals with are:
- Affirmative action
- Disability rights
- Opposing right-wing causes contrary to NOW's interests
- Global feminism
- Women's health
- Promotion of nominating judges with feminist viewpoints
- Legal recognition of same-sex marriages
- Media activism
- Mothers' economic Rights
- Working for peace; opposition to conflicts such as the Iraq War
- Social Security
- Supreme Court
- Title IX/Education
- Workplace discrimination
- Women in the Military
- Young feminist programs
The National Women's Political Caucus
The National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) was founded in 1971, this organization is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to increasing women's participation in all areas of political and public life as elected and appointed officials, as delegates to national party conventions, as judges in the state and federal courts, and as lobbyists, voters and campaign organizers.
Founders of NWPC include such prominent women as Gloria Steinem, author, lecturer and founding editor of Ms. Magazine; former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; former Congresswoman and current president of Women USA Bella Abzug; Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Jill Ruckelshaus, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner; Ann Lewis, Political Director of the Democratic National Committee; Elly Peterson, former vice-chair of the Republican National Committee; LaDonna Harris, Indian rights leader; Liz Carpenter, author, lecturer and former press secretary to Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
These women were spurred by Congress' failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970. They believed legal, economic and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation's political decision-makers. Their faith that women's interests would best be served by women lawmakers has been confirmed time and time again, as women in Congress, state legislatures and city halls across the country have introduced, fought for and won legislation to eliminate sex discrimination and meet women's changing needs.
The Women's Equity Action League
The Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) was a national membership organization, with state chapters and divisions, founded in 1968 and dedicated to improving the status and lives of all women primarily through education, litigation, and legislation. Its sister organization, the Women’s Equity Action League Fund, was incorporated in 1972 "to help secure legal rights for women and to carry on educational and research projects on sex discrimination." The two organizations merged in 1981 following changes in the tax code.
The stated purposes of WEAL were:
- to promote greater economic progress on the part of American women;
- to press for full enforcement of existing anti-discriminatory laws on behalf of women;
- to seek correction of de facto discrimination against women;
- to gather and disseminate information and educational material;
- to investigate instances of, and seek solutions to, economic, educational, tax, and employment problems affecting women;
- to urge that girls be prepared to enter more advanced career fields;
- to seek reappraisal of federal, state and local laws and practices limiting women's employment opportunities;
- to combat by all lawful means, job discrimination against women in the pay, promotional or advancement policies of governmental or private employers;
- to seek the cooperation and coordination of all American women, individually or as organizations *to attain these objectives, whether through legislation, litigation, or other means, and by doing any and all things necessary or incident thereto.
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, both Republicans. 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. Anthony was the nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Through the efforts of Alice Paul, the Amendment was introduced into each session of the United States Congress. But it was buried in committee in both Houses of Congress. In 1946, it was narrowly defeated by the full Senate, 38–35. In February 1970 twenty NOW leaders disrupted the hearings of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, demanding the ERA be heard by the full Congress. In May of that year, the Senate Subcommittee began hearings on the ERA under Senator Birch Bayh. In June, the ERA finally left the House Judiciary Committee due to a discharge petition filed by Representative Martha Griffiths. In March 1972, the ERA was approved by the full Senate without changes, 84–8. Senator Sam Ervin and Representative Emanuel Celler succeeded in setting an arbitrary time limit of seven years for ratification. 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 state legislatures that were most hostile to the ERA were Utah, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Oklahoma. The NOW believes that the single most obvious problem in passing the ERA was the gender and racial imbalance in the legislatures. More than 2/3 of the women and all of the African Americans in state legislatures voted for the ERA, but less than 50% of the white men in the targeted legislatures cast pro-ERA votes in 1982.
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;
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. A historical critique of liberal feminism focuses on its racist, classist and heterosexist past. One of the leading scholars who have critiqued liberal feminism is radical feminist Catherine A. MacKinnon. Catherine A. MacKinnon is an American lawyer, writer and social activist. Specializing in issues regarding sex equality, she has been intimately involved in the case regarding the definition of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. 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.
- 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
- Baker, Jean H. Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists. Hill and Wang, New York, 2005. ISBN 0-8090-9528-9.
- Evans, Sara M. 1997. Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York, NY: Free Press Paperbacks.
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Address to the New York State Legislature, 1854” in Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 110.
- Mill, John Stuart (1869). The Subjection of Women (1869 first ed.). London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Brink, David (9 October 2007). "Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy". Stanford University. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
- Bryson, V. (1999): Feminist Debates: Issues of Theory and Political Practice (Basingstoke: Macmillan) pp.14-15
- Tong, Feminist Thought, 38.
- Tong, Feminist Thought, 40.
- Catherine A. MacKinnon, “Sexuality” in Kolmar, Wendy K. and Frances Barkowski.2005.Feminist Theory:A Reader.2nd Edition. Boston: McGrawHill
- 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