Liberal feminist

Liberal feminism is an individualistic form of feminism theory, which primarily focuses on women’s ability to show and maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. Liberal feminists argue that our society holds the false belief that women are, by nature, less intellectually and physically capable than men, 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” and they work hard to emphasize the equality of men and women through political and legal reform.[1]

After the passage of the 19th amendment liberal feminism was quiet until the 1960s when it awoke during the civil rights movement by realizing that similar to race discrimination there was a great deal of sex discrimination inherent in the system.[2] 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 United States, 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.[3]

Liberal feminist writers

Popular feminist writers associated with this theory are Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill; Second Wave feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; and the 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 her. 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."[4]

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 first women's rights convention 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, amongst others.[5] 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”.[6] Additionally, in 1890 she founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association and resided as president until 1892.[7] 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.[8] By gathering a large number of signatures, she aided the passage of the Married Women's Property Act of 1848.

John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806-May 8, 1873) believed that men are not intellectually above women and much of his research centered on the idea that women, in fact, are superior in knowledge to men. 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.[9]

Popular liberal feminists

Liberal feminist organizations

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
  • EcoFeminism
  • Family
  • Opposing right-wing causes contrary to NOW's interests
  • Global feminism
  • Women's health
  • Immigration
  • Promotion of nominating judges with feminist viewpoints
  • Legislation
  • 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
  • Welfare
  • 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.[10]

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, these women 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.[11]

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 Fund was not a membership organization, and under federal tax law, as a 501(c)3 organization, could not engage in legislative activities. The two organizations merged in 1981 following changes in the tax code.[12]

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.

Other liberal feminist organizations

Legislation

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. 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.[13]

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;

Criticisms

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 no longer 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.[14]

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.[15] Additionally, liberal feminism has been critiqued on the basis of an overemphasis of the rational above the emotional, while arguably, a human is intrinsically both. Liberal feminism focuses on the individual, and in doing so, discredits the importance of the community.[16] A historical critique of liberal feminism focuses on its racist, classist and heterosexist past.[17] Granted, as a whole, liberal feminists feel that in and of itself, their philosophy has not only responded to, but has overcome any inherent racism, heterosexism, and in doing so, has exemplified the strength of liberal feminism and its ability to adapt. One of the leading scholars who have critiqued Liberal Feminism is 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.[18] She, among other leading scholars, view liberalism and feminism as incompatible due to the fact that liberalism offers women a, “piece of the pie as currently and poisonously baked.”[19]

Other critics such as black feminists and postcolonial feminists assert that mainstream liberal feminism reflects only the values of middle-class white women and has largely ignored women of different races, cultures or classes.[20]

References

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