Liberal Feminism Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Aug 19, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • Liberal feminism believes that equality should be brought about through education and policy changes. They try to change the system from within.
  • Liberal feminism has been criticized for being too optimistic about the amount of progress that has been made. It has been acused of dealing with the effects of patriarchy and not the causes.
  • Marxist and Radical feminists also argue that liberal feminists fail to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression and changing the law is not enough to bring about equality, there needs to be a fundamental change in social structures.

What Is Liberal Feminism?

Liberal feminism is a prominent branch of feminism which aims to advocate for women’s legal and political rights. It was born in western countries and emphasizes the value of freedom which can be achieved through political and legal reform.

The ideas of liberal feminism are rooted in liberalism, a political philosophy that encourages the development of freedom, particularly in the political and economic spheres. These key ideas of liberalism include individual freedom, democracy, equal opportunities, and equal rights.

Liberal feminists apply liberalism to gender equality and claim that the oppression of women lies in their lack of political and civil rights. Liberal feminism emphasizes the rights of the individual woman and aims to grant access to equal rights and representation through legislation.

Accordingly, women’s ‘liberation’ would be achieved by putting an end to discriminatory practices and by pushing for equal rights. Liberal feminists have fought for women’s right to vote, to work, to an education, and to have equal pay.

Many liberal feminists think that their fight for these rights is largely won, but others believe that there are still issues to work on such as the gender pay gap, representation in politics, and in the media.

What Are The Principles Of Liberal Feminism?

Gender equality

While they may not deny there may be biological differences between men and women, liberal feminists do not see these differences as justification for inequalities between the sexes.

Thus, their main principle is for women to be treated as equals to men. This can include having the same social and political rights, having equal pay for doing the same job as men, and being equals in marriage and partnership.

Equality in women’s representation

Liberal feminists believe that women have the right to be as active in society as men, and thus be equally represented in the workplace, politics, and in the media.

This may mean that they would want to be equally represented in higher career positions such as CEOs and directors. They would also want to be equally represented in political roles such as having more women world leaders.

Moreover, they would want to be better represented in film and television, through having more female leading actors and more female directors and producers.

Reforming the system

Liberal feminists do not necessarily question the system of society as a whole, but instead believe in its capacity to reform.

They believe that gender justice is best achieved by modifying existing social institutions and political systems. They rely on the state to gain equality and support affirmative action and legislation which grants equal rights and opportunities to both men and women.

For instance, liberal feminists would generally be supportive of employers and educational institutions which make special attempts to include women as serious applicants.

Individualistic

Liberal feminism is individualistic rather than group based. This means that the rights are granted to individual women who are assumed to be equal and thus equally deserving, rather than granting rights to a whole group.

The concept of sexism

Liberal feminists are thought to have popularized the concept of ‘sexism’ to refer to ideas and social practices that keep women in a subordinate role.

They believe that sexism is rooted in the idea of biological determinism, which is the idea that certain behaviors or abilities are inherent to women or men and are derived from biological characteristics.

Sexism, liberal feminists believe, is the fundamental cause of discrimination against women.

What Are The Goals Of Liberal Feminism?

Equality in the public sphere

The primary goal of liberal feminism is gender equality in the public sphere. This includes equal access to education, equal pay, ending job sex segregation, and better working conditions for women. All of these are believed to be achieved through legal change. 

While early liberal feminists sought to gain the right to vote and access to education for women, modern liberal feminists aim to secure equal social, political, and economic opportunities, equal civil liberties, and sexual freedoms. If there is gender inequality in existing institutions, then liberal feminists seek to eradicate this to create a fair and just society. 

Equality in the private sphere 

Liberal feminists also suggest that gender equality should be present in the home as well as in public life. The family can be seen as a social institution and thus should be an equal structure according to liberal feminists. 

They tend to support marriage as long as it is an equal partnership. In an equal partnership, men and women share the household chores, cooking, house management, and childcare as equally as possible. 

Liberal feminists also generally support abortion and other reproductive right that are related to control of one’s life and autonomy. They also believe that ending domestic violence and sexual harassments removes obstacles to women achieving on an equal level with men.

Examples of Liberal Feminism Today

Since liberal feminism was traditionally focused on legal equality, it could be considered almost fully achieved in some western countries.

In practice, however, gender equality in law and legislations does not necessarily mean that there is real and productive equality, which is why liberal feminism still exists. 

In the family

Feminists are critical of the family as a social institutions. They believe that the family is a tool of female oppression and in particular the nuclear family serves the needs of men rather than women. This is through issues such as unequal division of domestic labour and domestic violence.

Liberal feminists argue that families are slowly becoming more equal through changes in law and social attitudes. They do not believe that full equality has been achieved but the process is well underway.

For example they show how parents are now socialising their children in more gender neutral ways, with similar aspirations for both sons and daughters and chores not being determined by gender.

In the workplace

While there may be more equality in the number of women in the workplace, liberal feminists argue that there are inequalities within. 

Typically, women are over-represented in positions which are traditionally ‘feminine’ roles such as nursing, teaching, and social care. These are positions which are often underpaid compared to jobs which are typically male-dominated such as in science, law, and medicine. Likewise, there is often still a gender wage gap in many countries where women still earn less on average than a man for the same job. 

While there are more women represented in sectors that were once considered ‘male’, they are often confined to lower positions in the hierarchy and there are disproportionately less women CEOs, vice-presidents, and directors. Liberal feminists would like to see more women in these higher positions.

In politics

While there may now be more women involved in politics, there is still an under-representation in the number of women in political roles. Particularly, men still dominate political leadership such as in the United States where there has never been a female president, or in the United Kingdom where there have only been two female prime ministers. 

Men still make a lot of the decisions and laws in society meaning that less women’s voices are heard. Liberal feminists would suggest that having more women in positions of power would trigger positive changes to make their views understood. 

In the media

In film and television, female characters are under-represented, with women less likely to play the protagonist character. Women in film and television often play the love interest to the main male character or play a smaller role with fewer speaking parts. 

There is a test known as the Bechdel test which aims to examine the presence of women in film and highlights the sexism that persists. To pass the Bechdel test, the film must contain two named, speaking female characters who have a conversation with each other where the topic of conversation is not related to a man. There are still many films released today that do not pass the Bechdel test. 

There are also fewer female directors in films. Liberal feminists suggest that having more female directors would allow for more female actors and less female stereotyped characters. 

The History Of Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism is thought to have emerged in the 18th and 19th century with the rise of the political philosophy known as classical liberalism. This was a period of great social change in western countries alongside the rise of capitalism.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Early feminist scholars drew inspiration from Mary Wollstonecraft, especially from her notable writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. Wollstonecraft was a passionate advocate of educational and social equality for women.

In her writings, she makes the case that women need to be educated just as well as men so that they can grow up to be moral and autonomous human beings. She called for the improvement of women’s status through such political change as the reform of national educational systems.

John Stuart Mill

A century after Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill defended the civic and legal equality of women and their right to vote in his essay titled >On the Subjection of Women, published in 1869. He argued that women’s social and political equality was rooted in liberal principles.

Mill suggested that the central problem encountered by women is that they are denied a free and rational choice as to how they are to lead their lives – that they are denied the autonomy of the individual.

He claimed that the capacities of women cannot be known until they enjoy equal access to education and the vote.

First Wave Feminism

There was a gradual rise of the liberal feminist movement over time, but the first major advancements in gender equality did not happen until the first wave of feminism hit the 20th century in the west. The women’s suffrage movement fought for the right for women to vote.

This struggle was mainly led by liberal feminists although more revolutionary feminists also took part in the movement. This movement is known as the first victory of liberal feminists towards having equal rights to men.

Second Wave Feminism

Second wave feminism took off in the 1960s, a period marked by the civil rights movement. Although women at the time had the right to vote, and more were entering the workplace, this did not automatically result in equal rights.

Liberal feminists now demanded the right to equal pay. Women of this time also faced employment discrimination, unequal pay, legal inequalities, and poor support services for working women.

Through this wave of feminism, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was introduced. Moreover, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sex.

Strengths And Criticisms Of Liberal Feminism

A strength of liberal feminism is that it is a relatively popular branch of feminism, and the goals are ones that support a lot of public opinion. For instance, it is easy for most people to support equal rights for both men and women to vote and work – it would be difficult to justify otherwise. Likewise, the major victories of liberal feminists are rarely questioned. For example, not many would suggest that the vote should be taken away from women. 

Liberal feminists have helped to bring forward legislature which helps to protect more women. They cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their sex in the workplace, they have more rights, and they can own property. Also, liberal feminism extends its principles into the private sphere so as to protect more women from the forms of oppression specific to this sphere 

Since liberal feminism is the oldest version of the feminist movement, it faces a lot of criticism, especially from other feminists. 

It is argued that liberal feminists overlook how differences of race, class, and sexual orientation, among others, can intersect to create different levels of women’s oppression. Liberal feminists are accused of being ‘white feminists’ which means that they assume that the issues facing white, mostly western women are issues that all women face. 

Much of work of liberal feminism has been carried by white privileged women whose fight has mainly been for other white women. They may question the number of women in politics, for instance, but may not argue for more women of color, or working-class women in this field. The suffrage movement saw the vote granted to women in the early 20th century as a win, despite many women of color not being granted the vote until decades later. 

Many liberal feminists would celebrate a woman being promoted to a position of power without considering the values of the person. They may overlook the fact that the woman in power has goals that are oppressive and immoral, because as long as she is in power, it is a win for the liberal feminists. 

Liberal feminism does not really consider the root cause of gender inequality. Marxist feminists would argue that liberal feminists ignore the systemic discrimination – that women’s oppression coming from the patriarchy and capitalism. Instead, liberal feminists do not see the need to overthrow the system, and in fact, may even promote capitalism. 

Liberal feminism often faces additional criticism for the notion of trying to make women ‘superheroes’, capable of successfully combining marriage, motherhood, and career. While many women may desire this, it can be considered as more oppressive towards women as they are now expected to succeed in a male-dominated workplace while simultaneously managing their roles of housewife and mother.

Women who do not have the desire or time for a successful career may feel judged by liberal feminists for not living up to the male standards of success.  

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Aug 19). Liberal Feminism Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/liberal-feminism.html

References

Cottais, C. (2020). Liberal feminism. Gender in Geopolitics Institute. Retrieved 2022, August 16 from: https://igg-geo.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/IGG_CCottais_Liberal_feminism2020.pdf 

Donner, W. (1993). John Stuart Mill's liberal feminism. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 69(2/3), 155-166.

Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. WW Norton & Company. 

Gerson, G. (2002). Liberal feminism: Individuality and oppositions in Wollstonecraft and Mill. Political Studies, 50(4), 794-810.

Mill, J. S. (2006). The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill.

Oxley, J. C. (2011). Liberal feminism. Just the Arguments, 100, 258262.