Gender Inequality Theories of Feminism

Gender Inequality Theories of Feminism

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4090-9.ch007
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This chapter discusses liberal feminism, divided into liberal feminism and libertarian feminism. The liberal variant of liberal feminism sees freedom as personal autonomy and political autonomy. The exercise of personal autonomy depends on some enabling conditions that are insufficiently present in women's lives and other elements of women's flourishing. Autonomy deficits like these are due to the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's movement should work to identify and remedy them. Liberal feminists believe that the state should be the women's movement's ally in promoting women's autonomy. The libertarian variant of feminism sees freedom as freedom from coercive interference. It believes that both women and men have a right to such freedom due to their status as self-owners. Coercive state power is justified only to the extent necessary to protect the right to freedom from coercive interference. Feminism's political role is to bring an end not only to laws that limit women's liberty but also to laws that grant special privileges to women.
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7.1 The Foundation And Overview Of Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism is rooted in the tradition of the 16th-17th century liberal philosophy, which focused on the ideals of equality and liberty. It originated from the harshness of the industrial revolution and the emergence of a bourgeois class that challenged feudal and aristocratic classes in the West.

Historically, the first element in the liberal feminist argument is the claim for gender equality. A key document for understanding the basis of this claim is the Declaration of Sentiments issued by the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The signers declared that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. They claimed for women the rights accorded to all human beings, under natural law, on the basis of the human capacity for reason and moral agency; asserted that laws which denied women their right to happiness were “contrary to the great precept of nature”. They thus called for change in law and custom to allow women to assume their equal place in society. The denial of those rights by governments instituted by men violates natural law and is the tyrannical working out of patriarchal ideology and multiple practices of sexism. The radical nature of this foundational document is that it conceptualises the woman not in the context of home and family but as an autonomous individual with rights in her own person (DuBois, 1997).

According to Musingafi, Dumbu & Chabaya (2013), the liberal conception of equality was based on the belief that all human beings have the potential to be rational and that any inequality has to be justified in rational terms. Liberal feminism, thus, rests on the beliefs that all human beings have certain essential features-capacities for reason, moral agency, and self-actualization; the exercise of these capacities can be secured through legal recognition of universal rights; the inequalities between men and women assigned by sex are social constructions having no basis in nature; and social change for equality can be produced by an organized appeal to a reasonable public and the use of the state.

The result was the spread of the suffragettes’ movements in Great Britain and the USA, but this did not bring freedom for the majority of women. This was mainly because liberal feminism has its foundation in bourgeois liberalism. Women from the new ruling class hijacked the struggle and thus liberal feminism turned out to be moderate feminism aiming for gradual change in the political, economic and social systems. It ended up seeking women’s liberation through legal reforms and political participation and greater participation in education and training (Musingafi, Dumbu & Chabaya, 2013).

Liberal feminists focus on equal opportunities for women and men. Their concern that women should receive equal opportunities in education and before the law has motivated worldwide campaigns for women’s voting and property rights. These feminists are also concerned that job opportunities be equally open to women so that women can achieve positions of power in government and business. Liberal-feminists are concerned with ensuring that laws and policies do not discriminate against women and that women have equal opportunities in all aspects of life (Musingafi, Dumbu & Chabaya, 2013).

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