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Liberal feminism is a social movement based on the premise that women s subordinate position in society is due to unequal opportunities and segregation from men. Society is viewed as consisting of individuals who are equals and therefore everyone should have equal rights. Liberal feminists create change largely through assimilationist tactics; by working within existing social structures, seeking to change people s beliefs, and to eliminate gender inequality.
The seeds of US feminism, which now is largely categorized as liberal feminism, emerged out of the anti-slavery movement in the early 1800s. Early activists and women s groups boycotted businesses and churches that supported slavery, lobbied for changes in laws and engaged in public forums. Many of these early founders of the suffrage movement are viewed as the core of first wave feminism. Their activities in the abolitionist movement led to working for rights for women. For example, during the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Declaration of Sentiments which sought an end to the second-class status of women by establishing voting rights and eliminating sexist laws.
These tactics continued with the rise of the second wave of feminism in the early 1960s. The contemporary Women s Liberation Movement emerged seeking equal rights for women and ushering in modern liberal feminism. Women worked for reform in the areas of employment, health care, education and politics by lobbying politicians, giving speeches and again, marching in the streets. In the same vein as early feminists, when the National Organization for Women (NOW) held their first national convention in 1967, a ”Bill of Rights” was adopted which demanded equal rights for women including equal opportunities for education and job training, maternity leave, reproductive rights and the creation of the Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate discrimination based on sex.
One of the results of these efforts was the establishment of women s studies curriculum and departments in colleges and universities, including the formal development of feminist sociology. There have been many cultural and political changes due to the efforts of liberal feminists. Many companies now offer maternity and paternity leave, some provide childcare for their employees, additionally many business and local governments have non-discrimination policies based on sex or gender and laws stating that women are the property of their husbands have largely been eliminated.
One of the main tenets of liberal feminism is that it maintains a clear division between the role of the state (public) and individual freedom (private). One of the movement s greatest successes is the most controversial: the court cases of Roe v. Wade and Dole v. Bolton. In 1973 the US Supreme Court granted women the legal right to have access to safe abortions. The state s responsibility to provide funding or actual services is highly contested, as is the right to abortion itself. Due to critiques of the narrowness of the focus on abortion rather than reproductive rights and options, more recent efforts have been made to expand women s choices. This largely concerns lower income women and women of color who have historically been forced to bear children and have been the subject of medical experiments, and forced sterilization.
From the beginning of the women s movement, there has been strong criticism as to the elite nature of liberal feminism. The vast majority of positions of power and authority have been held by white women with privilege and women of color have been ignored for their contribution to the elimination of gender inequality. There is also a criticism of the absence of a systematic analysis of social structures that maintain inequality largely because liberal feminists seek entry into these institutions rather than to significantly change them.
- Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton, New York.
- hooks, bell (2000) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press, Cambridge.
- Morgan, R. (1970) Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. Vintage, New York.
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