How has Feminism Challenged Traditional Liberal Thinking?

Feminism is often regarded as part of the liberal framework, and this can lead to a blindness to the ways in which it is intertwined with, influenced by, and influential towards, other lens through which we view politics.[1] In order to assess how it has impacted and challenged traditional ways of thinking, feminism must be viewed as a political critique and, importantly, its reflexive critical nature should be recognised.[2] Its role as a political critique emerged in the 1960s in what is often referred to as second-wave feminism when ‘political thought, history, psychology and the arts’ were all analysed from a feminist point of view.[3] This piece will examine the relationship between feminism and liberalism, and look at the ways in which feminism has challenged our understanding of, and some of the assumptions made by, liberalism.

Feminist philosophers have exposed the ‘gendered nature of liberal and democratic political theory’ and have gone on to re-conceptualise these ideas. In particular, they have addressed the tendency of liberalism to separate public and private spheres of society.[4] This is traditionally seen by liberals as a way of establishing boundaries of interference by the state. But, as Eisenstein states, it is ‘at one and the same time a male/female distinction…ideology identifies the realm of female, family, private life, as outside political life and the domain of the state’.[5] The separation of the private from the public, and the traditional relegation of women to the private sphere, has meant that the oppression of women that occurs behind closed doors, (such as domestic violence and even, as will be discussed later in the essay, housework and reproduction), is not seen as being part of the political sphere. Catherine McKinnon has persuasively argued that male rights to privacy strengthens this division between public and private and, wrongly, ‘depoliticises’ the oppression of women in the private sphere.[6] Changes such as marital rape being made unlawful in 1991, and the establishment of Domestic Violence Units within the police are evidence that feminism has had a tangible effect on attitudes and practices, making observable steps towards the erosion of the patriarchal society.[7]

Feminist criticisms of liberalism also target the nature of liberal democracy. Initially, feminism’s main criticism of liberal democracy was the exclusion of women, but second-wave feminism has extended and adapted their arguments following the extension of suffrage. Women are seen to have been prevented from being properly active in the political sphere because of their private roles. Additionally, the ‘supposed impartial role of the politician may threaten women’s concerns and bolster dominant, male interests.’[8] This is apparent in the states interventions in the private sphere, even within liberal democracy. Such state intervention includes the regulation of marriage, divorce, family property, contraception and abortion, and such regulation upholds patriarchal society. An extension of this argument is that the system is designed around male norms and empowers dominant groups, and that the failure of democracies to solve gender inequality is ‘evidence of a gender bias in democracy itself.’[9]

To conclude, it is clear that feminism provides ‘a subversive social analysis which continues to resonate.’[10] It has had significant impacts on liberalism and, more generally, the growth of feminism has had accidental but valuable consequences.[11] There has been an increased ‘theorisation of sexuality and sexual identity’, and it is not an exaggeration to say that ‘today’s identity politics and the celebration of diversity can be attributed to the insights of feminism as well as to the focus on ethnic minorities.’[12] More recently, there has been the development of a fourth-wave of feminism defined largely by its heavy use of the internet, social media and a ‘call-out’ culture with a strong drive for intersectionality.[13] It is not yet clear the impact that this will have on liberalism, but the relationship between the ideologies will likely become increasingly important as fourth-wave feminism becomes more nuanced and more developed.

[1] Lorna Finlayson, An Introduction to Feminism, (Cambridge, 2016), p.1.

[2] L. Finlayson, An Introduction to Feminism, p. 23.

[3] Barbara Goodwin, Using Political Ideas, 5th ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), p. 199

[4] Ibid., p. 226.

[5] Zillah Eisenstein, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, (Longman, 1981), p. 223. See also Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women, (Polity Press), 1989, p. 134 .

[6] Catherine McKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, (Harvard University Press, 1987) See also B. Goodwin, Using Political Ideas, p. 226

[7] B. Goodwin, Using Political Ideas, p. 227

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 230.

[11] A. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, p. 165; B. Goodwin, Using Political Ideas, p. 229

[12] See D. E. Hall, Queer Theories, Palsgrave MacMillan, 2003; B. Goodwin, Using Political Ideas, p. 229.

[13] Ealasaid Munro ‘Feminism: A Fourth Wave?’ Political Studies Association, Vol. 4, Iss. 2 pp.22-25

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