A Very Short Summary of
Liberal Feminist Theory and Practice
from Holly



1. Liberal feminists are part of a long tradition that begins with classical liberal thought.  This tradition regards human beings as rational, autonomous, and self-interested individuals.  This tradition strongly values liberty.  It argues for a state that will protect liberty and not undermine it. From the beginning of the classical liberalism, a very heavy emphasis is placed on rights.  We see this in John Locke's (and Thomas Jefferson's) emphasis on the rights to life, liberty, and property.  In the emphasis placed on the upholding of property rights, the advocacy of capitalism is taken for granted.  Classical liberals concern themselves with the public arena and believe that the state should stay out of the private arena (most especially the family). The earliest systematic defense of women’s rights within this tradition was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.


2. Who should have the full rights of citizenship?  For Locke and Jefferson, the answer was white, male property owners. The earliest systematic defense of women’s rights within this tradition was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792. Then John Stuart Mill in his work The Subjection of Women (1869) was the first philosopher of note to argue for equal rights for women. 


3. Of course, many activists had offered theoretical defenses of equal rights for women including important Americans such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass (Seneca Falls 1848).  The struggle for women's suffrage in the U.S. was the first large project of liberal feminism.  This struggle was interwoven with the struggle against slavery and for the rights of African-Americans in complex ways that are shown in the excellent documentary One Woman: One Vote.  Women in the U.S. won the vote in 1920.


3. In the 20th century, we see a division in the classical liberal tradition.  Many theorists - including the people we now call liberals - came to believe that human beings should not just have the traditional “negative” rights of liberty.  They came to believe that liberty would have little meaning without rights that emphasized equal opportunity.  These liberals came to defend what some philosophers call “positive” rights and what Tong calls welfare rights.  These are rights that require cost money (taxation) to provide.  A good example of a positive right is the right to a publically funded education.  The people we now call liberal feminists are associated with the current liberal tradition that advocates positive or welfare rights.


4. Contemporary liberal feminism emerged in the U.S. in the early 1960's.  It was associated with Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique.  In 1966 the National Organization for Women was founded with Friedan as president; it became and remains the premier liberal feminist organization.  In its early years, NOW greatest emphasis was on winning the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment.)  NOW was initially hesitant about emphasizing reproductive rights and gay and lesbian rights, due to a belief that emphasizing them would undermine the struggle for the ERA.  After many internal battles, the supporters of reproductive rights and gay/lesbian rights won the day.  Of course, the huge struggle for the ERA was ultimately unsuccessful, and this most fundamental concern of liberal feminism remains unfulfilled in the U.S.  Ms. Magazine, founded by Gloria Steinem in 1972, was an important publication for liberal feminism.


5. Liberal feminists believe the following:

          a. Equal rights should not be abridged because of sex.

          b. Laws should uphold equal rights and equal opportunities for women in all areas including schools and workplaces.

c. Positive rights such as the right to education, healthcare, and affordable childcare are also necessary for equal opportunity and should be crafted with the situation of women in mind.

d. Moderate reforms will secure the liberation of women.  The structure of the state, the economy, and the family do not need to be fundamentally changed.

e. The NOW website gives an interesting account of NOW’s history and the positions it endorses.

6. All other feminist theories begin with a critique of liberal feminism.  The inadequacies of this viewpoint have been widely examined, and many contemporary liberal feminists have tried to expand their view to answer these criticisms.  For example, most liberal feminists now strongly support reproductive rights and gay and lesbian rights.





Author: Hollace Graff
Oakton Community College
Updated: September 2014