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Can we talk about liberal feminism?

(573 Posts)
BertrandRussell Wed 07-Feb-18 10:27:51

Can I say what liberal feminism means to me, then can others tell me whether I am understanding it properly?
My understanding is that liberal feminists believe
1) There are no-or very few structural or societal barriers in the way of women's progress. There were, but since the passing of equality legistation they have been almost-if not completely removed
2) That any choice a woman makes is by definition a feminist choice.
3) That women hold the keys of their own empowerment in their own hands- they have nothing to fear but fear itself, to coin a phrase- and realising this is the touchstone to progress.

Is that broadly it? Or am I madly wide of the mark......

HelenDenver Wed 07-Feb-18 10:34:40

That's not what I think it means. I think it means 'making changes within the existing structures, not tearing the structures down and starting again'

So shared parental leave is a 'libfem'-type policy because it's adding 'dads' to the existing 'mum' structures. 24/7 childcare with compulsory workplaces creches and indefinite breastfeeding breaks is a 'radfem' type policy because it's a rethink of the balance between children and work.

As I have said otherwhere, I self-define as feminist rather than radfem or libfem, hence I'm not going to die on a hill for this definition.

BertrandRussell Wed 07-Feb-18 10:38:59

That's interesting. I wish I had added a bit about working with existing structures to my definition. Consider it added!

BeeInMyBonnet1985 Wed 07-Feb-18 10:50:33

I didn't understand liberal feminists even when I was one! Women are oppressed because...reasons, nobody knows, it's a bit of a mystery. Men are all evil oppressors, but performing degrading, sexually-pleasing feminity for their benefit is totes empowering and feminist. In fact, anything that any woman does is a feminist act, even when it isn't. Sexism is only experienced as individuals - there is no class based analysis, because 'women' is defined as loosely as 'anyone who says they are'.

Yeah, liberal feminism is nothing but a puppet show with men pulling the strings from behind the curtain. It's a handy means for letting young women express their anger and desire for social justice, but doesn't actually threaten the patriarchy in any way.

TheShaniaTwainExperience Wed 07-Feb-18 10:50:37

My experience of Liberal feminism is: instead of changing things, just label the oppressive stuff empowering, thus making it so. Patriarchy solved!

thecatfromjapan Wed 07-Feb-18 10:58:38

I'm not sure that most definitions of liberal feminism would agree with points 1, 2, and 3, to be honest, Bertrand.

I've always used Helen's definition, though I'd say that liberal feminists don't necessarily think existing structures don't have to change, they just believe that fundamental liberal principles are adequate as a foundation for women's rights - and there's nothing in that which supports points 1-3. So it's rather that they believe in fundamental liberal principles and therefore call for women's rights by way of those fundamental principles being extended to women.

I don't think there's necessarily anything in that that would suggest Liberal feminists don't think there are structural barriers, etc., to women's progress - quite the opposite, really. They would be arguing, in the name of a given liberal society's own protestations of equality of opportunity, to 'widen' access and 'remove' impediments to women's progress. What they might not be arguing is that there is no sovereign individual behind that call for women's rights, or that violence is necessary to answer a hidden and necessary structural violence that necessitates women's exclusion.

Similarly, I think you're doing liberal feminists a disservice thinking they agree with point 2. Only very, very dim people think/argue that. Liberal feminism is quite capable, within itself, of offering a critique of patriarchy-supporting women. Similarly, Liberal feminism was deemed to be somewhat blithe about post-modern critiques of rationality - which took issue with the idea that politically-positioned subjects would necessarily espouse a discourse of their own interests and introduced the idea that people can and do act and think against their own interests and those of their political class - but that battle has pretty much been won, and I doubt that any self-identifying Liberal feminist would have such an uninflected position.

Your third point, well, there would be no political project at all if that were the case, would there? And Liberal feminists - the kind who got together and worked within existing power organisations to extend/enact legislation that empowered women - definitely had a political project and saw a need for communal action and change.

I wonder if 'Liberal feminist' isn't something of a floating signifier these days, used to discredit feminists who aren't deemed radical enough?

Certainly, I think what you describe in points 1-3 wouldn't really hit the mark of feminism for me at all. They describe someone very individualist, who hasn't any kind of political project in mind at all.

Like Helena, though, I think of myself as 'feminist', not falling into a category, and wouldn't be prepared to die on a hill for my definition either.

Elementtree Wed 07-Feb-18 10:59:55

I think liberal feminism is more a method of making do within a system that can be outmanoeuvred by an individual/ a specific group of individuals if they can leverage enough financial/ cultural capital against it. Such is my prejudice.

thecatfromjapan Wed 07-Feb-18 11:03:13

One of the things I hated about the 80s was the labelling of capitalism-loving, porn culture-accepting, inequality-apologist women as 'Liberal Feminists'. They weren't. It wasn't feminism. It was complicity. And that's fine - there are good reasons why a woman may choose complicity (even 'strategic complicity'). I get it. I don't judge a woman - or lots of women - choosing that. But feminism - even Liberal feminism - it wasn't.

NataliaOsipova Wed 07-Feb-18 11:03:42

That any choice a woman makes is by definition a feminist choice.

This is one of the reasons I struggle with a chunk of feminist theory. It's a bit like the point that there has to be an illiberalism within liberalism or, ultimately, it means nothing.

But I digress!

GoodyMog Wed 07-Feb-18 11:04:26

Back when I'd have seen myself as more of a libfem I saw it much the same as HelenDenver described it.

Changing the system from the inside.

Now it seems a little defeatist, as I'd much rather tear it all down. But I do remember arguing (on this board a long time ago) that tearing it down is such a massive goal with so many people invested in maintaining it, that changing it from the inside made more sense.

For example the thought with prostitution was, there are so many people invested in it that there's little to no chance of getting rid of it entirely, better to give to treat the prostitutes as workers with all the employment rights and protection that entails.

Same logic is used with beauty standards and gender. We can't tear them down, so work within them.

I can still see the appeal, sometimes it can feel overwhelming knowing just how far we are from being truly free, and it's easier to get those in power to agree to liberal feminist requests, so it can feel more rewarding as you see results sooner.

Nowadays I'm too angry for this approach, but can see that we need a degree of it in order to make things slightly more bearable within the current system.

Problems occur though as sometimes the work within the system fixes directly undermine the tear the system down fixes. Eg. gender.

SeekEveryEveryKnownHidingPlace Wed 07-Feb-18 11:08:19

I equate it with 'choice' feminism - any 'choice' a woman makes, and particularly a consumer one, because liberal feminism overlaps with neoliberalism, is an empowering and feminist choice. Being a feminist means endorsing women's choices, which they make within the existing structures.

Emma Watson's 'I really don't see what my tits have to do with it' is the slogan of liberal feminism, for me. As is she. Her feminism began with a doe eyed appeal to the boys, acknowledging how hard they have it and also noting the stats on women in power. The stats are bad: if people understood, they'd be kinder. Now here I am with my tits out, for money, right in the male gaze, and don't you dare have a problem with that. There is no inconsistency to see here.

Getting a cleaner, doing pole-dancing, being 'nice' to trans women because they're the same as you (they've even bought the same clothes as you!), renting out wombs, respecting 'sex workers' because they obviously 'choose' to do it, and generally downplaying any sort of systemic, male-based oppression or connecting it with your female body, are all liberal feminism to me. You acknowledge the stats, but you don't really think it's anyone's fault, or deliberate, or to do with your biology. Just silly old-fashioned-ness.

DioneTheDiabolist Wed 07-Feb-18 11:09:19

The above link outlines Liberal, Marxist and Radical theories of feminism and is a pretty good starting point for distinguishing them. My experience of liberal feminism in practice is mostly from Women's Aid who gather information and use that knowledge to help women in abusive relationships, inform their training of other bodies like the police and lobby for laws to be put in place to give women the protection they need.

RatRolyPoly Wed 07-Feb-18 11:16:26

I'm really pleased you started this thread Bertrand, thank you!

Haven't read all the posts yet but before I do I just wanted to say I think I'm a Liberal Feminist and I don't subscribe to any of your points 1, 2 or 3!!

Gonna have a catch up now...

GoodyMog Wed 07-Feb-18 11:23:52

Dione That's an interesting article.

I can safely say, after reading that, that my views align much more with radical feminism. Though they used to be very liberal.

Especially this bit, "Thus from a liberal feminist perspective, all the major barriers to gender equality have been broken down over the last century and since women now have equal opportunities to enter the workforce and politics, we have effectively achieved legal gender equality in the UK and there is very little else that needs to be done."

I will also say that the author needs to back up their claim that "Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives".

BertrandRussell Wed 07-Feb-18 11:24:12

Just as an aside, and with reference to another current thread, there is something very wierd about discussing this subject with helendenver. I am thinking of changing my name to Amaranth Sylvester-Quick. I bet she was a liberal feminist!

hollowtree Wed 07-Feb-18 11:24:35

Well I figured I must be because of everything rat said in another post but no none of what you have written is how I feel or think

hackmum Wed 07-Feb-18 11:27:33

I regard Betty Friedan as the pioneer of liberal feminist thought. As far as I can see it, the emphasis is on equality: so everything men can do, women should also be allowed to do - fight alongside men on the frontline, become CEO of an organisation, go back to work the day after your baby is born. They think that women should earn the same as men for the same job - that's very important. It's very much about working within the system as it is. They decidedly lack an analysis.

A long time ago, Germaine Greer said that feminism should be about liberating women, not about giving them equal rights, and I very much agree with her about that.

BertrandRussell Wed 07-Feb-18 11:31:38

Dione’s article seems to broadly agree with my original definition. I am a bit surprised to see Women’s Aid quoted as Liberal Feminism in practice. Of all people they are picking up the pieces after women fall victim to toxic societal expectations and practices.

RatRolyPoly Wed 07-Feb-18 11:32:00

Hmm, interesting definitions Dione.

Personally I don't agree with this: they do not believe that social institutions are inherently patriarchal.

But I do agree with this: they believe that men and women are gradually becoming more equal over time and that this trend will continue.

The "choice" issue you raise is interesting SeekEvery because it seems to imply that either you believe every woman's choice is empowering, or you believe that it bounded and shaped by the patriarchy.

I personally believe it is both; which is why I think it's hard to negotiate the gulf between feminist ideals and societal enactment. You have to want feminism, really women aren't going to want it if it is imposed on them, and it would be - to my mind - counterproductive if they felt the thing that sought to empower them disempowered them of choice! However loaded that choice may originally have been...

I'm keen to know what others think of the same question though. I've heard it said that this "softly softly" approach is actually an expression of male socialisation, but whose to say? I don't think it serves the purposes of feminism to insist too strongly that a woman's mind is not her own.

RatRolyPoly Wed 07-Feb-18 11:32:44

Hi hollow!

GoodyMog Wed 07-Feb-18 11:33:58

I am a bit surprised to see Women’s Aid quoted as Liberal Feminism in practice. Of all people they are picking up the pieces after women fall victim to toxic societal expectations and practices.

Yeah I can't say that sounds right to me

RatRolyPoly Wed 07-Feb-18 11:34:08

I agree GoodyMog, I really don't think any feminists at all - liberal or otherwise - think our work here is done confused

RatRolyPoly Wed 07-Feb-18 11:34:32

Responding to your previous post there, in case it's confusing.

GoodyMog Wed 07-Feb-18 11:35:28

But I do agree with this: they believe that men and women are gradually becoming more equal over time and that this trend will continue.

I think overall this is the case, but I did read Susan Faludi's Backlash recently, and it's not a stable gradient. And for every period of gains there's a following period where much effort is expended in order to roll them back.

GoodyMog Wed 07-Feb-18 11:36:10

Quite, if the work is done then surely there'd be no need for feminism - of any kind

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