“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Liberal Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

feminist thought cover

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

Today’s focus is Liberal Feminism.

Liberal feminists stress “the value of individual autonomy” (p. 11). They claim that individuals have rights and that “we can all choose our own separate goods, provided we do not deprive others of theirs” (p. 11-12). This type of feminism has a long history, and began with eighteenth-century thought. Mary Wollstonecraft could be considered a liberal feminist as she saw middle class women as “kept” and limited “from developing their powers of reason” (p. 13). She saw women as confined in cages, and argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that “unless a person acts autonomously, he or she acts as less than a fully human person” (p. 15). Choice is an important concept to liberal feminists. Personhood is also an important term.

In the nineteenth century, other writers addressed women’s rights. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (Mill) wrote about these ideas (see my review of The Essential Feminist Reader). Taylor contested “traditional assumptions about women’s supposed preference for marriage and motherhood over a career or occupation” (p. 17).   The writers of this time explored different avenues for allowing women choice in public life and also wrote about ethics and virtues.

Feminists of this century were also asking for suffrage. They believed that “women needed suffrage in order to become men’s equals” (p. 21). This led to the meeting in Seneca Falls in 1848 and the Declaration of Sentiments. However, these feminists failed to address class and race concerns. Their “women’s rights movement focused on the rights of mostly privileged white women” (p. 22).

In the twentieth century, another equal rights movement occurred beginning in 1960. They claimed that “women need[ed] economic opportunities and sexual freedoms as well as civil liberties” (p. 23). This led to many national groups being formed, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, was its first president. NOW was the “first explicitly feminist group in the United States in the twentieth century to challenge sex discrimination in all spheres of life: social, political, economic, and personal” (p. 25).

Some groups became focused on “the so-called sameness-difference debate: Is gender equality best achieved by stressing women’s oneness as a gender or their diversity as individuals, the similarities between women and men or the differences between them?” (p. 27).

The Feminine Mystique was criticized for being “hinged on women becoming like men. . . . To be a full human being is, in short, to think and act like a man” (p. 31). Women began to change this message, including Friedan, and instead focused on being culturally feminine or culturally masculine. Women were urged to stop being like men and instead use their gifts and intuitions to improve and solve problems. This raised the question of can we be different but equal? Or should “men and women become androgynous” (p. 32).

There are two types of liberal feminists, according to Tong. The first is classical liberal feminists, who favor limited government and a free market, view political and legal rights as important, and promote the importance of freedom of expression, religion, and conscience (p. 35). The second type is welfare liberal feminists, who think the government should provide for citizens, want the market to be limited by taxes, see social and economic rights as the condition of possibility for the exercise of political and legal rights, and urge affirmative action (p. 35).

Liberal feminists want “their sons to develop a wide range of emotional responses and domestic skills as much as they want their daughters to develop an equally wide range of rational capacities and professional talents. Complete human beings are both rational and emotional” (p. 40).

“Women owe to liberal feminists many of the civil, educational, occupational, and reproductive rights they currently enjoy. They also owe to liberal feminists the ability to walk increasingly at ease in the public domain” (p. 47).

Next week, I’ll post about Radical Feminism.

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46 thoughts on ““I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Liberal Feminism

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  1. So fascinating, this! I was struck yesterday by a response a contributor to O! magazine made to the prompt. “The last thing I was completely transformed by was…” Writer Roxane Gay replied, “…my understanding of women, which deepened after I embraced feminism–though I am not always the best feminist.”

    I wondered what Gay meant by not being the best feminist, and I thought about the young women I meet on campus who say, “I’m NOT a feminist BUT—” They fill in the blank with completers like, “…I believe women should be paid more equally.” “…I believe there’s still a glass ceiling.” “…I believe women have not yet achieved equal rights under the law.”

    I wonder what they see, in their minds’ eyes, when they think “feminist”–hairy, belligerent, uncultured, unloved??? Some spin doctor has done a great job of giving ‘feminist’ a negative connotation…

    1. It’s true. It has a negative connotation, and I was so surprised by that after I realized how much feminism lines up with my view of the world, especially from a religious and spiritual perspective. I was immediately drawn to it and then flabbergasted that others aren’t. But we are all different and I respect that. And on the flipside, I’m probably not the best feminist either. Thanks for sharing what Gay wrote, because that speaks to me. 🙂

    2. I think that feminism has a negative connotation to some people, especially younger women, because feminists are often portrayed as hard nosed, bitter women that will hail a women’s right to choose all day, but scorn a woman that chooses to stay home and raise her children. Stereotypes are perpetuated like shunning makeup, high heels, and hair salons. There’s an air of hypocrisy surrounding feminists, due in large part to a poor understanding of what feminism actually means and the misguided belief that radical feminism is the only kind there is.

      1. Faith, you articulated that so perfectly. I believe feminism boils down to the right to choose your life and not have a role forced upon you… So a stay-home mom, home-schooling her children, is making a viable, honorable feminist decision, just as much as is a high-powered female CEO. Thanks for saying this so beautifully!

        1. Agreed Pam! I’ve always felt that anytime feminism inadvertantly demeans a women’s choice (even if the choice is to make sacrifices for her husbands career or her family) it has totally backfired. Some of the most powerful feminists I’ve ever met have never collected a paycheck.

  2. Emily, good post on an interesting topic. I find it interesting when words become labels, they take on a larger meaning. People opposed to an idea will use the label to paint with a broad stroke that the person is just a feminist, tree hugger, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, etc. and therefore his/ her opinion should be discounted. On the flip side, people who favor a cause may shy from a term that has been labeled to avoid the labelers. So, when people couch what they say with “I am not a feminist” they probably are, but that is OK. In the worst extreme, when someone says “but, I am not a racist” that phrase usually precedes or follows a very racist remark. I like women willing to speak up for themselves or just do the right thing no matter what they call themselves. BTG

  3. In all honesty, I don’t know a woman who would be hurt by the tenets of feminism. I’m definitely a Liberal Feminist, with both classical and welfare tendencies. It’s all about choice and autonomy for this feminist.

    It also makes me sad that such a progressive and forward-thinking movement gets such a nasty connotation. It’s the word “Feminism” that girls today tend to shy away from–“Don’t you label me!” they holler. There are militants out there, certainly, but it seems to need a little more clarification that their perspectives and actions don’t guide us all. It isn’t about hating men as much as striving to be seen as equal to them, even when we’re inherently different. It seems to be like any other movement, where the biggest mouths get the most attention and those mouths end up being the more “fundamental” amongst them. I just hope connotations to the word won’t continue to hinder the progress of its goals.

    1. I love what you are saying. I had a conversation a few days ago with a good friend about how the extremists of any group tend to push away those of us who would identify but might be more in the middle. I guess it is just human nature that we tend to see things in their most extreme forms, and those voices are the loudest, as you say, so how can we not notice them? I hope these posts over the next several weeks clarify that feminism isn’t singular and that there’s something for everybody within the movement(s).

      1. Gosh, this is so true. I think you’ve both hit the nail on the head. I am a liberal feminist who loves men (my dad, brother, sons, and husband). I really get what you both imply or say outright about extremism. This is really about women standing up and claiming their own “personhood”. It should be a basic human right, and it’s sad and unacceptable that it is not in some places in the world. As a former stay-at-home mom, I sometimes felt abashed about claiming to be a feminist (and honestly, my husband bristles at the term exactly because of the connotation, not the true definition) while fulfilling a traditionally female role. And now that I am back to work as a teacher, I need to remind myself that women in these roles, more than ever, need to speak up to help define the importance of these roles and advocate for respect and autonomy in order to be complete ourselves – as well as be empowered to help others fulfill their potential for the betterment of our world.

  4. Good food for thought, Emily. My gripe with NOW, for instance, (and maybe it could be said generally of the lefty feminists today), is that they appear hypocrites. Rather than disapproving women’s mistreatment by the opposite sex, they only disapprove if it came from the opposite political persuasion. Case in point: leaders of NOW actually either defended Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky (and other) scandal(s) or kept silent–he was a liberal. Sure, he cheated repeatedly on his wife and used women under his power for what he wanted, but he was a liberal, so they took his side rather than speaking up for the women (of which there were myriad, some much less willing that Monica).
    That’s an older example, but there are plenty more recent.
    The lefty feminists in America today holler about the “basic” right of women to have others pay for their birth control (which is NOT a basic right, to be clear) but pay pretty much zero attention to the truly basic rights of women being daily violated by followers of Islam in many places. Ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali how many on the left are working tirelessly to share her story and raise that call. Not many. Because on the left it is not cool to speak up against anything Islam right now.
    On a philosophical level, I usually agree with what you have to say about women’s equality. I think the church we belong to espouses the right thing: men and women are different, but equal partners. They shouldn’t strive to be what they are not, but to be the best of what they are. To use the God-given gifts they each have to the fullest extent possible, as individuals. Maybe that falls under “classical liberal feminism” according to your definition above.
    But on a political level, where policy is debated and made, and the ball is moved, I see a different agenda. It’s primarily progressive, secondarily (if convenient) feminist. Which often does not end up actually improving the lot of women, or anyone else for that matter. It’s vision is encapsulated in Obama’s “Julia”, the liberated woman of the future who depends on the government for every type of assistance in her life pretty much from cradle to grave. Did you hear any leftist feminists concerned about that portrayal? Not many, if any. It was the right who objected to Julia’s dependency. Labels aside, and after the much good progress that’s been made over so many years, a pendulum can swing too far. When that happens, all you’ve done is swapped one set of problems for a different one, rather than really solved them. Ideas and intentions are one thing, but the actual consequences of them are what matters.
    In other words, to get back to where I began, sounding right and doing right are not always the same thing, in the feminist movement, as elsewhere.

    1. The pendulum can definitely swing too far. These posts aren’t necessarily “my” ideas, but what Rosemarie Tong wrote about in her book on feminisms. And I’ve done a short job of summarizing them. She does address more of the criticisms and problems with this sort of feminism in her chapter, but I didn’t have space or time to relay all of those. And she does so for each type. Thanks for the comment and for bringing more depth to the subject.

  5. For some reason I am drawn to the 1920’s and 1930’s and love learning about that time and the history and the people who were in a way pioneers, especially women. Loving your topic today – makes me think and ponder. Happy Day 🙂

    1. I love that time period too! I just finished an article for a special issue of a journal in my field on women in the workplace and the policies they faced in those decades. It is fascinating stuff!

  6. Wow. I feel to be equal to men we don’t need to be like them. Men and women can be different, yet equal. I take pride in calling myself female chauvinist. I don’t know if there is such a category or not.

  7. I look forward to reading your posts about the different types of feminism. 🙂 The word definitely has a negative connotation these days and it seems to be trendy at the moment to bash feminism. To me, “Women Against Feminism” sounds like an oxymoron!

    When considering the treatment of women in the past, I think Jane Austen was wise when she wrote in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”. Even though feminism as we know it today wasn’t around then, it is likely that Austen read Wollstonecraft and, judging from certain passages in her novels and letters, I’m pretty sure that she would be a liberal feminist, especially regarding women and motherhood. For example, she urged one of her nieces not to marry too young, so that she didn’t wear herself out with “the business of mothering”.

    This is off-topic but I listened to an interesting radio program a while ago which was discussing bluestockings and differing attitudes to intelligent women in different eras and countries. It would be interesting to do a study on how intellectual women have been perceived in different cultures in history.

    1. That would be an interesting study, especially given the book I read about “sister” editors and the types of women who read their magazines, like the intellectual blues. I love the quote you shared from Austen. Yes, women need to tell their story. Actually, that is part of third-wave feminism, which I’ll get to in the weeks ahead. Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. This is such a great series of posts. It’s so interesting to learn about the different types of feminists that exist today. It’s funny in a way that some women are afraid to identify as a feminist because they possibly don’t want to be associated with the more radical feminists. I feel that I am a feminist, and I would probably identify as a liberal feminist. Thank you for positing this, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

    1. You’re welcome! I have a feeling you’ll find more to identify with in other types of feminisms as well. Each type has its own set of good and interesting ideas. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I loved your post. I identify with welfare liberal feminism. I have considered myself a feminist for years, but I am still afraid of declaring it too openly in some contexts and only little by little I have admitted it without fear. Sometimes you just want to avoid an argument or you know that people around you are bullies. In my country machismo is the rule and I am in a very small minority, mostly filled with radical feminists, so it is not easy. 🙂

  10. Where I come from feminism is frowned down upon. I am constantly told to drop the coconut act and free myself from the propaganda of the colonialists! People just dont want to accept that females have opinions.

  11. As an at-home father for the past twenty years, I’ve learned that feminism comes in many different flavors, not a few of which seem artificial to me. I believe ardently in the principles of equality between the sexes, but no two people interpret that in the same way, so it can be meaningless. I’ll cite two examples from my own experience. I wish I had a nickel for every woman I’ve met (or even welcomed to my dinner table) who turns automatically to my wife to talk about food or the kids’ lives, though she knows I’m the at-home parent. Or the women I used to chat with just before my sons’ school let out, who’d be talking to me, only to turn away abruptly if another woman happened by. These reactions aren’t personal, but they’re endemic, and they suggest, admittedly in a small way, just how far we’ve yet to travel toward the Promised Land.

    In a literary sense, take a look at how much so-called women’s fiction is about men. I forget which critic pointed this out–kudos to her–but unless you’ve got female characters conversing about dreams, desires, and impulses that have nothing to do with men, that ain’t a feminist novel.

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