Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction

Liberal Feminism

Summary Chapter 1 (pp.10-44)

Ryan E. Ruffcorn

Liberal Feminism began in the 18th and 19th centuries and has continued through to the present day. Throughout its history the liberal feminist movement has been and continues to be focused on eliminating female subordination, "… rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints blocking women's entrance to and success in the so-called public world (2)." Its long history is a testament to how well it has been able to adapt and change to the many issues confronting women.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) represents the beginning of the liberal feminist movement. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she makes the case that women need to be educated just as well as men so that they can grow up to be moral and autonomous human beings (12-13). Then in the 19th century John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (Mill) wrote about women needing to be more involved in society. While Harriet Taylor called for women to work outside the household as well as raise children, John Stuart Mill believed that women should "…be recognized as fully rational and worthy of the same civil liberties and economic opportunities as men (17)." Though many of their thoughts differed both Mill and Taylor supported the suffrage movement.

The suffrage movement in the United States had a difficult beginning because the suffragists wanted enfranchisement during the abolitionist movement. Suffrage for women was then often put to the side in order to focus on abolitionist goals. After several decades of struggle women were finally allowed to vote in 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed.

After the passage of the 19th amendment liberal feminism was quiet until the 1960's 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. Groups like 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 (23). NOW's first president, Betty Friedan, was an author and prominent feminist activist who was an important leader in the liberal feminist movement. She wrote some important books including The Feminine Mystique, The Second Stage, and The Fountain of Age. Each of these books was influential and they also show the progression of liberal feminist thought from the 1960's to now. Though there are many ideas in these books and in liberal feminism, the culmination has been to support the humanist ideal of androgyny. Androgyny is where women and men improve themselves by adopting both feminine and masculine traits to become fuller human beings.

Not surprising, there are several critiques of liberal feminism. One is that liberal feminism focuses too much on women becoming like men and it unnecessarily denigrates the importance of traditional female roles (35). Another critique attacks liberal feminism because it emphasizes the rational above the emotional while humans need both. It also questioned liberal feminism's focus on the individual and not on the community (38). A historical critique of liberal feminism focuses on its racist, classist and heterosexist past (40).

Liberal feminists believe that their philosophy positively answers each of these critiques and though liberal feminism at one time was racist, classist, and heterosexist, it has overcome these issues. With its focus on gender justice and its ability to adapt, liberal feminism is here to stay.