Liberal feminism: the individual is key

Submitted by Matthew on 24 November, 2011 - 5:54

Women’s Fightback is a socialist-feminist paper. Sarah Wright examines another feminist trend, “liberal feminism.” Future issues of Women’s Fightback will explore more “other feminisms”.

In a few words, a liberal feminist campaign would oppose anything that gets in the way of gender equality.

But the fundamental thinking of liberal feminism lies in a belief in the capacity of the individual woman. Changing the basic structures of society itself is not the issue: it is more about changing the laws that block women’s liberation. If this is done, women can change themselves and prove themselves to be equal.

Personal rights predominate over society as a whole; and through women being able to exercise our own personal rights, society will change, not the other way around.

In generalised terms, the “liberal” perspective could be described as seeing freedom as the fundamental value that must be maintained by the state and greater society. This can apply too to the liberal feminist viewpoint: humans as self-owners who should be free to solely make decisions about their own lives, and this right should apply to both men and women equally.

Men and women should have equal right to things such as freedom of expression, freedom to control your own body, freedom to acquire and control property, all free from coercive interference. The role of the state then, is to protect the individual, man and woman equally, from such coercive interference.

If, then, we are in a situation in which men and women do not have equal rights to such freedoms, the state either does not have the correct laws to prevent this, or they are not maintaining them properly. The campaign of the liberal feminist therefore is a political one, in so far as they must target the political institutions to bring about equality through political reform.

They must challenge existing laws that obstruct women’s rights, or demand new ones that will eradicate violation of women’s rights. Liberation is therefore individualistic, as it comes from being free to make your own decisions away from the coercive interference of others.

The kind of things that liberal feminists will fight for, then, tend to centre around law and policy change, such as: equal education, voting, reproductive rights, abortion rights, protection against sexual harassment and domestic violence, and equal opportunities in the work place.

Yes, these are all important things that must be fought for, however, I would argue not only that these things can be fought for as part of the class struggle, but that they must be, in order to free the lives of millions of women from oppression.

Let’s take the example of abortion. A liberal feminist campaigns for abortion rights, as illegalising abortion interferes with a women’s freedom of choice regarding her own body. Yet does winning this campaign end oppression for women?

For example, it does not acknowledge the economic and social disadvantage and prejudice that a single mother would face, which could be a factor in her choosing abortion. It does not acknowledge the social or traditional values of a community that would factor in her choice. Or what about the cost involved to have an abortion, if free health care is not available?

Legalised abortion is a far better situation for a woman making a choice than illegalised, but legal/illegal is not the only thing that could interfere in her right to choose.

Statistically, middle-class teenagers are more likely to have an abortion, arguably perhaps because they foresee a child as having more of a detrimental impact on their life, career choices, etc. The availability of abortions in theory is the same for both middle class and working class young women in Britain, but their social/economic background plays a bigger part in their decision.

What we see here is not that fighting for a change in abortion law, or whatever law, is bad, but that it is limited. It is limited because of the society we live in: the capitalist society.

Whilst we live under capitalism, any rights that women fight for will always be determined or affected by her economic position. Individual empowerment is immaterial: people’s decisions are limited by class.

Liberal feminist campaigns have been at the forefront of many, many important things, but the barrier of capitalism will only let this go so far: either you will never escape your economic situation, or you will have to leave your class behind, and succeed as an individual, not a collective.

The women’s struggle needs to not just think in terms of making the best of the way society is currently structured, but to restructure society as a whole.

If we examine part of the definition of patriarchy (in this school of thought, the overall oppressor of women) given by the London Feminist Network, we can further exemplify this point.

Patriarchy is defined as the “current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed.

“This takes place across almost every sphere of life but is particularly noticeable in women’s under-representation in key state institutions, in decision making positions and in employment and industry.”

Is the solution, then, to ensure that more women are in positions of power, that we have an equal gender balance in law implementing, decision making and executive positions? How would this make a difference? A female Conservative MP implementing public spending cuts would affect women no more favourably than if it had been done by a man.

But wouldn’t more female MPs mean that women’s issues would be taken more seriously in parliament, and would be more likely to carry through legislation that protect women’s rights?

Would they be more sensitive to how the cuts disproportionately hit women?

Possibly, but I think this is ignoring the issue. A government with more female MPs may pass such laws, a law that is trying to tackle our sexist culture, the censorship of lads’ mags, for example.

But this implies that our sexist culture, lads’ mags, etc., is the cause of women’s oppression, and not rather it being symptomatic of something more fundamental. The fundamental cause is capitalism, and the sexist culture we live in is a product of that.

On the issue of cuts; yes, arguably a more heavily female government might distribute the cuts more equally, but can we say this is progress? How can terms of equality or fairness be applied to welfare cuts at all? As feminists we should be fighting against cuts, full stop, rather than hoping to convince the government to balance it out.

Essentially, by getting more women into positions of power, it is only passing on oppressive decisions to a woman: it makes no odds to a working woman whether a man or a woman fires her.

On the surface, society may seem less sexist because we see more women in “successful” positions, but this is simply masking the suffering of millions of women who are oppressed by their economic situation.

I do not want to undervalue the liberal feminist position: many liberal feminist issues are important, and if they were not fought for the women’s movement would be in a worse place.

It is important, for example, to recognise and fight against how gender roles are socialised — how masculine characteristics are idealised, and feminine ones undervalued: but part of this recognition is recognising that these are also Marxist issues.

Masculine qualities are held up because they are associated with the successful capitalist; feminine qualities are looked down on because they are associated with the underpaid and under-acknowledged carer, or free-labouring housewife.

Essentially, this is not necessarily a disagreement with what they are fighting for: it is challenging the motive and the method. If we change laws that allow some women to climb the ladder and have a successful career without coercive interference, and say that this is feminism, then we are forgetting the millions of women still oppressed.

We cannot forget that class itself divides: you cannot call for solidarity with women across the world, and ignore the fact that some of these women oppress others. Sisterhood cannot exist purely and indiscriminately whilst class society exists. The women’s struggle must be fought alongside the class struggle.

One final example. During the miners’ strike, we saw how struggle transformed people. Not just the women, who abandoned traditional roles, and became frontline activists, but also the attitudes of the men towards their wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters. Alongside the miners’ defeat, came a reversal of such attitude changes. A sign that in order for permanent change, the workers’ struggle must be won.

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