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Liberal and/or Radical Feminism

Still necessary?

I'm tough, I'm ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch,

okay. ~Madonna Ciccone

Feminism is a political discourse aimed at equal rights and legal protection for women (Wikipedia,

n.d.). According to Steans (n.d.), feminism covers different perspectives and practices, […] it is a

“point of departure”, where opposing values and practices are assessed and evaluated. It also explains

the notion from which “one’s own actions are given social meaning and political significance” (p.

15). There are many different streams in feminism, “all concerned with issues of gender difference;

that advocate equality for women; and that campaign for women's rights and interests” (Wikipedia,

n.d.). However, this paper will focus on liberal and radical feminism. Liberal and radical feminism

fight for equality and change within society, but is this really necessary? This paper will give a

critical analysis of the different aspects of liberal and radical feminism and some of the different

fields in those studies such as: gender, separatism and masculinity.

“Liberal feminism is centrally concerned with equal rights, […] rights were frequently denied to

women on the ground that they were ‘irrational’ creatures and so less than fully human” (Steans, n.d.

p. 16). A good example of liberal feminism is the American women fighting for the right to vote

during the 19th century. This fight started in 1848, at Seneca Falls, by Elizabeth Katy Stanton, and

finally ended in 1920 when women received the right to vote (One Women, One Vote). They were not

trying to change the system, they were “only” fighting for the right to vote. Liberal feminism does not

see the system as flawed and it, therefore, does not need to be changed.

Think for example of the family, liberal feminism would want to make the family more equal but will

not try to change the deeply embedded system in the rest of the society that suppresses or

differentiates women from the rest. As Okin (1987) mentions, even the smallest changes can be very

significant, especially changes within the family. The family is a “crucial place for early moral
development and for the formation of our basic attitudes towards others. It is […] a place where we

learn to be just.” It is important that children who are to become adults with a strong sense of justice

and commitment spend their early years in a loving environment where principles of justice and

equality are abided (Okin, 1987, pp 316-319). However, the problem is that many families are not

equal in the divisions of tasks and treatment. This is where liberal feminism will have to come into

play to fight for equality within the family to create a place where young children can learn about

justice and equality.

However, the question remains if liberal feminism looks deep enough at the problem. Can the

problems that exist within the family be changed by just demanding equality? Many believe not.

Furthermore, many women do not think that there is inequality within their family, and therefore, do

not believe that the change that needs to be made needs to be made by them. During a class discussion

one girl said that her mother was perfectly happy being a housewife and taking care of her children.

The problem with this statement is that a mother will not tell her daughter very quickly that she is very

unhappy and/or lonely, which many women are according to Bergman (1986). Because these women

work alone and are surrounded by small children all the time, they do not have much interaction with

adults and as a result have become very lonely (p.203).

Another area in which liberal feminism is active, is in the fight for equality between races. Racism has

become institutionalized, meaning that it has become part of our “system of believes and behaviours

by which a group defined as a race is oppressed, controlled and exploited”, it is a part of our everyday

society and embedded in a system of power relations (Collins & Anderson, 1995, pp. 59-60). Like

Yamato (n.d.) states, various elements of racism are not able to do much damage, but for one

“generally overlooked key piece: power/privilege”. In our society, people are stratified into different

classes and some of these classes have more privileges than others (p. 74). McIntosch (1988) adds that

“whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege.” White peoples skin colour is an asset for

any move they are educated to want to take. Whiteness protects them in many cases from violence,

hostility (p. 79-81) and inequality based on skin colour.

But again can liberal feminism change this systemic racism by only wanting to change inequality or

does the whole system need to be changed? McIntosch (1988) states that the disapproval of the system
will not be enough. “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen

dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tools here” (p. 82).

McIntosch is taking a more radical view here at believing that the system is flawed and needs change.

Just as Firestone (1970) said, “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem

always goes deeper” (p.353).

Steans (n.d.) explains radical feminism as not seeing women’s oppression as a by-product of

capitalism but rather as the root of all systems of oppression. The central thought of radical feminism

is patriarchy. But, oppression plays an important role as well. It can be explained as the “systematic,

institutionalized mistreatment of one group of people by another for whatever reason.” Usually the

oppressors have the access to economic resources, respect and information, while the oppressed are

seen as humans with whom something is wrong (Yamato, n.d. p.12). A similar study was done by

Marilyn Frye (n.d.) who states that, oppression’s roots lie in the element press; “The press of the

crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button.”

Something pressed is something, or someone, “caught between barriers and forces which are so related

to each other that they jointly restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold.

Mobilize. Reduce” (pp. 31-32). Powerful. Unfair. Cruel.

Knowledge has become a part of oppression as well. “Knowledge is that body of information, facts,

and theories through which a society or culture defines what is true and important.” Knowledge can

become a part of oppression because to be excluded from “these bodies of knowledge” and the process

of creating knowledge, as women and other marginalized groups often have been, “is to live in a

“reality” not of one’s own making” (Kolmar, n.d.). By keeping certain knowledge away from groups

of people, power over these people is generated. Power to influence and oppress these minority groups

that do not have access to important knowledge.

Patriarchy plays a big role in oppression, because a part of patriarchy is the “actual power structure

built around men’s domination of women” (Blood, Tuttle & Lakey, 1983, p.155). Furthermore,

Johnson (1997) found that we all participate in something larger then ourselves. We do not create this,

but we do have the power to affect it trough the choices that we make. This something is patriarchy, it

is a system that cannot be reduced to the people who participate in it, be it man or women, black or
white. “Patriarchy is a kind of society organized around certain kinds of social relationships and ideas.

As individuals we all participate in it.” Johnson furthermore states that, if a society is oppressive, then

all the people who grow up in it will tend to “accept, identify with, and participate in it as “normal”

and unremarkable life.” Meaning that all men and women are involved in this oppressive system, and

“none of us can control whether we participate, only how…” (pp. 99-105). Or as Blood, Tuttle and

Lakey (n.d.) state, patriarchy is not just a power structure “out there”; it is “mainly enforced by our

own acceptance of its character ideals for our lives” (p. 155).

However much I believe that the system of patriarchy needs to be changed, radical feminism does

move across the edge sometimes. A good example of this is given by Marilyn Frye (n.d.). She believes

that the process of a man opening a door for a women renders the women as weak or incapable. She

states that the gallant gestures have no practical meaning, it is symbolic. These behaviours “intimate

the behaviour of servants towards their masters and thus mock women.” The message behind the false

helpfulness of male gallantry is “female dependence , the invisibility or insignificance of women, and

contempt for women” (pp. 40-41). What is the men supposed to do, slam the door in the women’s

face? Life would get dull very fast when we are all supposed to act the same. One can also see opening

the door as a sign of respect toward women. As Steans (n.d.) noted, in the radical feminists attempt to

find a basis for solidarity among women and give suggestions for alternatives to patriarchal society,

they have tended to “gloss over major divisions which exist between groups of women and men”


Both liberal and radical feminism have their drawbacks, but they have both studied important social

phenomenon such as gender, separatism and masculinity. Gender is not what you are biologically,

male or female, but what we become because of our sex. Gender plays such an important role in

feminism because with gender it all begins, the devaluation of the feminine. Meaning that feminine

traits are devalued and seen as weak. “As a process gender creates the social differences that define

“women” and “men”” (Lorber, 1994, p. 114). We cannot avoid gender socialization, the process by

which female and male babies are turned into feminine and masculine (Kourany, Sterba & Tong,

1999), because it is virtually in “every significant dimension of a child’s environment” and is

“structured according to cultural expectations of appropriate gender behaviour” ( Renzetti & Curran,
1995, p. 12). Gender limits women in the way of employment, economic stability, child rearing and

power. And this is mainly because men are afraid for the power women have , as Rich (1983)

explains, men were (and still are) afraid of the power of the Great Mother. In the beginning, she was

powerful and mysterious, connected to the wholeness of nature. But for those outside the process, she

became too strong, unable to partake in the mystery of wholeness represented by the Great Mother,

“men first divided her, then wrested more and more control on her divided powers” (p. 154).

One thing that women can do to get part of their power and control back again is deny men access.

“When women separate, they are simultaneously controlling access and defining.” By doing so these

women are being insubordinate because access and definition are fundamental parts of power (Frye,

1983, pp. 365-366). And by grabbing back parts of power women become a danger to men and their

lifes and need to be suppressed and punished.

One aspect that feminism often does not research is masculinity, and this is a serious fault. Because of

this error, critique on masculinity is often ignored. Men’s feelings are not of the powerful, but “of

those who see themselves as powerless” ( Kimmel, 1994, p.152).

These are the feelings that come inevitably from the discontinuity between
the social and the psychological, between the aggregate analysis that
reveals how men are in power as a group and the psychological fact that
they do not feel powerful as individuals. They are the feelings of men who
were raised to believe themselves entitled to feel that power, but do not feel
it. (Kimmel, 1994)

Men are pressured and evaluated by their environment and one of the biggest fears of men is to be

seen as inadequate. Their fear is not of women, but of being shamed in front of other men. This shame

leads to silence – “the silence that keep other people believing that we actually approve of the things

that are done to women” (Kimmel, 1994, 149-150). This social pressure by men on men make men

repress their feelings. Petrie (1982) states that men were being told to “behave or you will be

destroyed.” This has made men cautious and now men find that they are too careful, too private, not

open and not willing to explore. They cannot expect to go on like this, to go trough a lifetime of

silence and repressing their feelings because they are male (p. 234). It is therefore important for
feminism to start studying the effects gender socialization have on men as well, and to start thinking of

solutions that will help create a society where ALL men and women are equal to one another.

Lastly I would like to take a completely different view upon feminism. A short while ago I was

reading a Dutch article in “Het Parool”, a Dutch newspaper, in which Marike Stellinga was talking

about feminism in the corporate culture. This article really got me thinking. Do women even want to

be on top? In Holland most women choose for a part-time job and only 20% of the women want a job

at the top. Stellinga says that on the way to the top, people get eliminated, “that is a definition of the

top.” When a women fails, she can fall back on the point that she was discriminated because she is a

women. When a man fails all he can blame is himself. By demanding that more women should work at

the top, women are actually discriminating against man. First let them prove that all women really

want a position at the top of the hierarchy. When one compares the amount of Dutch full-time women

working at the top, to the amount of full-time man at the top, the former group is a bigger one. People

just do not want to see that the largest part of women do not choose for a high position, according to a

survey with working women, they are happy with what they are doing right now. Dutch women do

what they want, then, the answer from feminists is that they do not notice that they are being

oppressed. These feminists do not even see the women as able to know whether they are happy or not.

Many feminists try to push women into a mold in which 80% of the women do not fit.

In summary, is the fight for equality and change within the society really necessary? It most definitely

is. As long as the society does not change there will remain inequality between the genders, races and

classes. Like Kimmel (1994) said, peace of mind and relief from gender struggle will only be achieved

in a climate of political inclusion, not exclusion (p.154). How this must be achieved is a topic for

further study, as well as the differences between the sexes and how they view feminism. It is important

that this becomes a fight within which the entire society is involved. What can we do to take away the

fear of men to loose power? What I do know is that there is not one stream of feminism better than the

other. Liberal feminism often does not go into the subject deep enough, for one thing to change the

whole society must change, “No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem

always goes deeper” (Firestone, 1970, p.353). This would mean taking a more radical approach, but
sometimes radical feminism is just too radical. Not everything needs to be changed from within

society. Thinking that opening a door for women makes them weak just blows my mind. I believe that

a balance between these two types of feminism needs to be found in order to find a solution to the

problems that exist in the world because of patriarchy, gender, masculinity and racism. Furthermore,

the fact that many women are happy with how things are right now need to be taken into account as

well. We need to fight for equality, but at the same time, keep in mind the freedom and rights of

individuals as well. We cannot push all women into one mold, we need to value the differences

between the sexes and use both to create a society in which no one is discriminated. Finally, I would

like to end my article with a quote: “Never let the hand you hold, hold you down” (Feminism quotes,

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One Women, One Vote