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What do liberal feminists believe?

(50 Posts)
AnnieLobeseder Tue 04-Nov-14 15:12:35

I was involved in a conversation today that has left me slightly baffled. It was about this map which supposedly shows the global state of women's equality. A fair number of us thought it wasn't very good since countries with appalling women's rights records seemed to be doing well. Such as South Africa, which has the highest incidence of rape in the world, the US, where there is still no mandatory maternity leave or pay equality, or Ireland, where abortion is still illegal.

Someone made the comment that the reason was inaccurate was that it was based on "libfem notions of women's equality".

I blinked a bit and asked what that meant. First, I was told that libfems only want legislated equality, not real equality. That they don't oppose institutionalised violence, and that liberals of any stripe believe in individual's right to choose to conduct their lives the way they want, which fails to look at structures of power shaping people's lives.

When I questioned this, I was told that my definition of liberal is wrong.

This person then posted a link to a video where a radfem was explaining that libfems believe that people who are oppressed stay oppressed because they choose to.

In my understanding, liberal means that you feel that people don't have full control over their lives, that when you see someone who has fallen on hard times you understand that "there but for the grace of god go I". That people are trapped by circumstances, often insurmountable, that they cannot be expected to escape without help. But it does NOT mean believing that people choose or deserve their station in life. It seems to me that it's far more of a right-wing notion that people can somehow "choose" to transcend the oppressive conditions into which they were born.

I call myself a libfem, because a) I'm not a radfem and b) while a revolution to get women out of oppression would be lovely, I don't see how it could ever work in practicality unless every single women in the world stood up at the same time. I believe that social change of any kind generally happens by evolution rather than revolution, and that while we are constrained by societal conventions and expectations these can (and do) change over time.

So, have I grossly misunderstood the meaning of liberalism? Do libfems really believe women are oppressed because they "want" to be? Surely not?

FloraFox Tue 04-Nov-14 18:20:35

Annie I don't think I'm in a good position to set out what libfems believe but it's a very interesting topic so I wanted to answer.

My snapshot of liberal feminism is that it is based in individualism, like classical liberalism. I think saying libfems only want legislated equality means that libfems believe that if legislative or societal barriers are removed, women's individual strengths and choices will produce equality (as between the sexes). I don't know the precise border between libfems and other theories but the individualism is, I think, at the heart of it.

I think your understanding of liberal is consistent with many people who are politically liberal but I think the classical liberal theory is perhaps not the same. IMO classical liberal theory is a tension between people who already have quite a lot of power with some formal barriers. It focusses on things like free speech and an individual's right to make choices under the state rather than people who have no choices at all. I think that's why liberal theory talks about rights such as free speech or the right to vote but not about the right to have food, clean water and shelter. The helping people out aspect of liberalism comes less from "there but for the grace of God go I" and more from a middle class version of noblesse oblige.

Having said that (and it might all be tosh), I had a look at the methodology of the survey here:

reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/part-1/the-global-gender-gap-index-2014/

I'm going to have a proper look later and I might post some thoughts if I can muster any.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

penguinthermometer Tue 04-Nov-14 18:39:20

"Liberal" tends to have different meanings not only in political philosophy and history/general culture, but also very different meanings in Europe and the US. OP, you sound like you mean something closer to "liberal humanist"; which isn't the same as "neoliberal" or "liberal" in the American political/economic sense. In that case "liberal feminism" looks more like a politicised liberal humanism; whereas the idea that people can choose to transcend their station in life sounds like the kind of mythology of individualism that is characteristic of economic and political liberalism or neoliberalism (particularly in the US).

FloraFox Tue 04-Nov-14 19:01:39

Agree with both Buffy and penguin.

Buffy I think there's also an element of what you want to achieve as well as how to get there and how much of the underlying structures of society need to be changed, not just through legislative changes. I'm not going to say libfems support institutionalised violence because I don't see that and lots of libfems were involved in setting up women's shelters etc. However I can see a point that they don't see the need to change much about the underlying structures other than to remove the formal barriers to choice. It does resonate with a lot of arguments we here that so long as a woman was not forced to do something, her choice to do it should be supported by feminists. That seems to be to be pretty fundamental to the libfem position and I can see why other feminists might say that won't remove institutionalised violence rather than that libfems are in favour of institutionalised violence. Maybe.

AnnieLobeseder Tue 04-Nov-14 19:12:12

Those thoughts all make sense, thank you. It was just perplexed that when I tried to explain that my understanding of liberal feminism was much as Buffy described it, this person kept telling me no, I was wrong, "liberal" can only ever mean you believe in individualism etc etc, and the libfem idea of feminism isn't actually feminism at all, but liberalism for women. And kept demanding that if I had a different definition of "liberal" I needed to type out and cite my source accordingly. hmm

As a libfem (which is how I define myself) I'm not at all of the opinion that we would have attained equality once legislation says so. I aim to see equal representation in government, boardrooms and equal numbers of men staying home with their children. A huge change in attitude. Because of course I recognise that legislation alone is not holding women back, but also societal attitudes and prejudices which are much harder to break down. And that women's failure to succeed is not just about these barriers, but the framework in which they exist. We need a radical (there's that word) shift in thinking away from the male-centric set-up we currently have but once which lauds characteristics from both the typically "masculine" and "feminine" end of the spectrum, as removing the expectation people's gender will predispose them to express characteristics from the gender-appropriate end of that spectrum.

And I also realise that this sounds like middle-class, Western feminism. And for my immediate life, yes, it is. But I also accept that until Western feminism wins its own war, we're unlikely to be able to help women in other cultures. And that we, as Westerners, need to tread very lightly in "liberating" our sisters, for fear of going all colonial on them. How do we lend them the tools of their own liberation? I don't know.

Anyway, I'm rambling now.

But I got very cross at being told that a) I don't know what liberal means and b) I'm doing feminism wrong.

LurcioAgain Tue 04-Nov-14 19:13:15

Thanks so much for starting this thread, Annie. It's something I've wanted to talk about for ages, because I think liberal feminism is in need of going back to roots in liberal political theory (from Mill through to Rawls) and get rescued from right-wing US libertarian neo-liberalism.

First off - Rawls. (Bearing in mind recently expressed requests not to over-intellectualise, and making the important disclaimer that I am not a political philosopher). There was a great episode of the West Wing where one of the characters explains Rawls' "initial position." Imagine you are trying to create a fair society? You know that not everyone is born with equal abilities, and they are born into a society where what you can achieve/earn/own will depend in part on abilities. How do you set it up so that it's fair? How do you set it up so no-one drops through the safety net? How do you set it up so that people don't trade unfairly on inherited wealth/position, or get hammered because they've had the bad luck to be born into the wrong circumstances?

Now one really interesting piece of practical sociological research I read (only reported in a newspaper, so no citation I'm afraid) is when you pose the issue in these terms to a group of self-professed American Republicans (obviously without mentioning the political allegiances of the author), and ask them to design a political system, they come up with something to the left of Sweden!

I think Rawls could be co-opted into feminist thought - because it provides a framework to think about biological differences - the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant, who breast feed - and say "how do we design a society that still treats women fairly." (Because I think it is, as far as I can see, a tenet of radical feminism that one cannot ignore material and biological realities - to try to do so is to create a false "everything is rosy" picture which only gives equality to certain women - the ones who've chosen to stay child-free, the ones wealthy enough to afford adequate childcare, etc. Note that I do not intend this to be read as some kind of biological essentialism - that women are an intrinsically different sort of human being because they can have children - that's clearly bullshit. But it's a distinction I find really hard to articulate, so apologies if I'm not doing a good job.)

The other place where I think classical liberal theory could be useful to feminism is the distinction between positive and negative liberties (to my shame I can't remember whether this is Mill or Bentham). Too often you see an anything goes approach to porn or prostitution defended on the basis of "people are free to do what they want, and if you don't buy that, you're being illiberal", ignoring the fact that liberal theory usually says "you can make the choices you want and exercise your rights to certain things provided those choices/rights do not impact on other people." Thus for instance you can't say your right to life means you can take someone else's kidney - liberalism does not make that claim defensible. So properly understood, I think one could be a liberal and have a much more nuanced view on prostitution or porn than the frequently cited "anything goes in a free society/ it's all free choice, innit" strawman frequently ascribed to liberalism.

The big difficulty (and I owe this critique to a seminar I attended way back in the 90s by a South African political philosopher who was clearly a genuinely committed activist and general good egg, and desperately wanted to build a coherent liberalism because he thought it was the best chance of stopping a newly democratic South Africa go the way he'd watched Zimbabwe go) lies in the radical feminist claim that the personal is the political. Because liberalism typically relies very heavily on a division of the world into the public realm where we have to make compromises/trade offs (my right to life versus your right to keep your kidneys) where the state is allowed to intervene and legislate to set up a hierarchy of rights, and a private realm where you are free to pursue your own thing free from state interference. And typically in mainstream liberalism, your religious beliefs, your sexual activities, how you choose to run your marriage, how you choose to raise your children, fall into this private realm. And this guy (I really wish I could remember his name) said that the great thing radical feminism brought to the argument, the critique he had yet to see mainstream liberalism provide a response to, was that this private realm only remained private if you allowed women and children to remain subordinate. But once you realised that things like sexual choices, corporal punishment of children etc. typically involved conflicting rights in the private sphere, suddenly the idea of a private sphere free from legislative interference made no sense.

Anyway, sorry, huge brain dump, but this is so exciting to have a chance to talk about. (Ex naive liberal "radicalised" to some extent by motherhood!)

dreamingbohemian Tue 04-Nov-14 19:24:49

Yes, like Buffy, my understanding is that the main feature for libfems is that they think the system can be changed for the better, including by working within it, whereas radfems and others think the system itself needs to be overturned and something new created.

I'm not sure this means that they don't recognise structural oppression, more that they think the structures can be reformed. So there is a lot of focus on legislation and policy, not because only legislative equality matters but because legislation is an important vector for changing society.

As for the map: I would say the problem is thinking it's trying to measure women's equality. It's the World Economic Forum looking at the gender gap, they are mostly focused on a certain set of economic and political variables, not overall women's rights or quality of life or security.

If you look at the methodology, only a fairly limited number of variables went into the actual index. Things like abortion rights and sexual violence are provided as context but not used in the rankings.

So the problem with the map is not liberal feminism (as if the WEF is crawling with libfems!!) it's that it's presenting a narrow survey as a global gender gap.

YonicScrewdriver Tue 04-Nov-14 19:27:57

Agree with Buffy, off to read refs of thread.

dreamingbohemian Tue 04-Nov-14 19:31:20

That's interesting, Lurcio

Why is the elimination of the private sphere a good thing though? Unless I'm misreading you. Do we not want a private sphere free from legislative interference?

Blistory Tue 04-Nov-14 19:33:43

Given that liberal feminism seeks to remove inequality by political and legal means, I can see why that map, on the face of it, appears to support the idea that women's rights are improving.

It's because the markers used show an improvement in numbers and thus demonstrates that individual women have been able to achieve more whilst not commenting on whether the structure that supports inequality has been improved. Does an increase in women in parliament for example demonstrate that parliament itself and the way in which the electorate votes is now more favourable to women achieving those positions or is it simply that some individual women managed to buck the system ? Possibly explained by tokenism ?

I think all it demonstrates is that there may have been improvement, but if you're starting from an antiwoman position, any improvement is going to appear to be inflated when you break statistics down to percentages. And of course, it's not a liberal feminist view to ignore DV, rape and murder when considering the emancipation of women.

Liberal feminism is as broad a church as radical feminism. For me, I do believe that after you level the playing field, then it's up to the individual to an extent to take their own opportunities. In that way, I can get on board with the idea that exchanging sex for another commodity could be a free and valid choice of the individuals involved - it's not for the state or society to get involved. Where I can't get on board is that the current climate does not allow for there to be a free and valid choice and so, for me, there is no choice thus prostitution and pornography etc remain seriously problematic for women.

Basically if you believe that you can work within the legal and political system to make the changes necessary for equality then that's a liberal feminist view but it very much assumes that economic equality is needed to ensure equality in all spheres so it's problematic when it looks at SAHMs for example. Some of a well known poster's anti SAHM sentiments come from a position of liberal feminism.

Liberal in liberal feminism is not necessarily equal to liberal in a political sense. As a liberal feminist, I look at that map and think, meh, the markers aren't sufficient enough for me for it to demonstrate anything other than some women as individuals are doing a bit better economically and politically, until the political and legal structures are changed, then the individual woman's achievements are of no significance for women at large.

That ^^ was possibly a series of unconnected ramblings.

BloominNora Tue 04-Nov-14 19:33:49

I think the main difference is in the philosophical positions - from what I have read about radical feminism, it's aim is to overthrow the patriarchy. They see the patriarchy as a reality, a system or institution not dissimilar to capitalism or political institutions and that it can be abolished via revolutionary tactics.

Liberal feminism recognises that patriarchy is a social construct rather than an actual thing - it is an explanatory social construct which has come about due to the legal systems and cultural norms which place women below men. It can't be overthrown, there is no leader to replace, it has no headquarters to storm.

If you subscribe to the idea that patriarchy is a wrap around social construct rather than an absolute reality in and of itself, you understand that the only way to get rid of the patriarchy is to change it and the only way to change it is to change the legal systems and social norms which it is used to describe to the point where the construct no longer makes sense and is naturally replaced with a construct that better fits the circumstances. Social norms are incredibly difficult to change and are usually preceded by legislative change, so it makes sense to focus on changing those first. It also makes sense to work within the current system to make those changes, because until it can be changed, you are stuck with the current construct.

I often think a good analogy is to think of patriarchy like a rip tide - if you swim against it you don't get anywhere quickly, but if you swim with the tide and use it to your advantage, you eventually get out.

AnnieLobeseder Tue 04-Nov-14 19:38:00

Hmmm. Now personally, I agree that the system need a total overhaul. Which is the radfem view. But I think the only practical way we'll achieve it is slowly and through a push-me-pull-you combination of legislation and shifting public opinion. I also agree that the "private sphere" should be just as heavily regulated as the public one, since every choice an individual makes impacts on someone else. And I also disagree that every choice a woman makes is valid and should be supported by feminism, since many of these choices directly or indirectly impact on other women in a negative way.

So I guess I'm a rad-leaning libfem... grin

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

FloraFox Tue 04-Nov-14 19:42:03

dreaming I think the idea of a private sphere is not just in legislative terms but in societal terms as well. There are some legislative aspects e.g. for the treatment of children but there are also societal pressures on how we raise children. Since we all have to live with the adults produced, we have some stake in how other people raise their children. For example people say it's up to parents to keep their children away from porn or to choose their child's school. But what about the child with the parents who don't care or my child who might get shown porn by another child? I think it's drawing a line between acceptable interference and unacceptable interference which is ultimately a political issue.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

dreamingbohemian Tue 04-Nov-14 19:47:26

Is it worth distinguishing between lib fem ideals and lib fem strategies?

Because I think I agree with the lib fem 'strategy' that change will happen slowly, it's helpful to accumulate influence within current structures so you can shift them, etc. But I think my aims are a bit more radical, without necessarily agreeing ideologically with the rad fems.

A while back we all took that quiz to figure out what kind of feminist you are, I expected to come out lib fem but came out anarcho-feminist, which is probably about right. Made me feel a bit lonely here though wink

Blistory Tue 04-Nov-14 19:49:06

I disagree with your last sentence, Buffy.

I think liberal feminism recognises that the status quo is wrong and unequal but simply doesn't seek to change it all at once. And I don't think it always matter what the intention is behind seeking those changes.

Shared parental leave for example is one of my hot topics at the moment. It's taken me being a feminist to change the structure of my own organisation re maternity, flexible working etc but without the legal changes there would have been no legal requirement to do so, only a moral one.

Parental leave is now enshrined in law - to an extent, partly because it's not clear how it's going to work in practice and partly because it requires a massive sea change in thinking - workplaces with decent HR departments will get on board but the main change will be the mindsets of men and women in the workplace who need to use it.

Did the change come about in an effort to improve the rights of men to be involved with their children, to improve the lot of women or to improve taxation income ? Does it matter ?

We now have a legal structure that will filter down into the workplace and then into social attitudes. It's up to me as an individual thereafter to ensure that I use those rights (doesn't matter a jot to me personally as I don't have children ) but it gives me a way to improve the options open to women and men who are employed by me.

FloraFox Tue 04-Nov-14 19:54:42

nora I think patriarchy is a "real thing" just like capitalism but aren't they both social constructs? That doesn't make them not real (as Buffy made me realize on an earlier thread).

I agree with Annie that a combination of push and pull is the way to go. We have seen huge changes in our lives, attitudes and society through push and pull in the last few generations. I get down about the set-backs in attitudes towards women but I am optimistic that we can effect great changes.

dreamingbohemian Tue 04-Nov-14 19:55:03

Flora I agree that drawing the line between private and public is ultimately political, I'm just surprised to see people want more regulation in the private sphere. Perhaps this is from being American, where it wasn't that long ago that interracial marriage or homosexual acts were illegal, where abortion is constantly being curtailed, etc. I feel like if you accept the idea of regulation in the private sphere you could just as easily end up with less freedom, depending on who's in power.

(I'm not a libertarian btw, just a normal lefty still traumatised by GWB coming into power all those years ago)

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

AnnieLobeseder Tue 04-Nov-14 20:31:27

Now, see, I've always assumed that being a liberal meant that you had slightly socialist leanings, that while you believe in personal liberties, you also believe in helping out the less advantaged, making sure the poor and vulnerable were cared for and not demonised for having been born into less fortunate circumstances etc. More or less equivalent with being a political leftie. Have I misunderstood?

AnnieLobeseder Tue 04-Nov-14 20:33:44

Speaking personally, Buffy, as a libfem it's not such much that I don't think that complete radical restructuring is the way to go, but rather that I don't see how it can be practically achieved. If radfems have that bit worked out, I'll be happy to join in!

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Blistory Tue 04-Nov-14 20:41:15

Buffy - why does it feel like I need to add an apology simply for disagreeing ? Perhaps normal service will resume shortly.

I know what you are saying particularly in context of our own experiences but I think that liberal feminism in some way complements radical feminism.

It takes the radical feminism to speak out, loudly, against the injustice but for me, the liberal feminism approach then, I agree through people like me, who have access to professional bodies, colleagues, the Courts, the policitians, etc to soften that voice and make it more palatable. Then we reorganise one step at a time.

I think that most ( certainly in the UK) are liberal in their personal views about humankind and can get on board with the idea that change is necessary. There's resistance to what an individual perceives as a negative change for them but generally there is an easing of that attitude and social justice prevails - not quickly, not sufficiently but slowly.

That's not to say that there are not times when I want to take a sledgehammer to the lot of it.......

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