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Introduction to Feminist thought: The three phases

Liberal Feminism

Marxist Feminism

By Tanmaya Negi

National Law University Jodhpur


Some thinkers have sought to locate the roots of

feminism in ancient Greece with Sappho (d. c. 570 BCE),
or the medieval world with Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179)
or Christine de Pisan (d. 1434). Certainly Olympes de
Gouge (d. 1791), Mary Wollstonecraft (d. 1797) and Jane
Austen (d. 1817) are foremothers of the modern women's

All of these people advocated for the dignity,

intelligence, and basic human potential of the female
sex. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century
that the efforts for women's equal rights coalesced into a
clearly identifiable and self-conscious movement, or
rather a series of movements.
The first wave took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and
liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up
opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The wave formally
began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 when three hundred
men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women.

In its early stages, feminism was interrelated with the temperance and
abolitionist movements. Victorian America saw women acting in very
"un-ladylike" ways (public speaking, demonstrating, stints in jail), which
challenged the "cult of domesticity." Discussions about the vote and
women's participation in politics led to an examination of the
differences between men and women as they were then viewed.
Some claimed that women were morally superior to men, and so their
presence in the civic sphere would improve public behavior and the
political process.

The second wave began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s. This wave
unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the
growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups around the world
and drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood
and solidarity. Feminists spoke of women as a social class and coined
phrases such as "the personal is political" and "identity politics" in an effort to
demonstrate that race, class, and gender oppression are all related.

The New Left was on the rise, and the voice of the second wave was
increasingly radical. In this phase, sexuality and reproductive rights were
dominant issues.

The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-

Marxism and psycho-analytical theory, and began to associate the
subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism,
normative heterosexuality, and the woman's role as wife and mother.

Sex and gender were differentiatedthe former being biological, and the
later a social construct that varies culture-to-culture and over time.
A major thrust for the second wave was the protests against the Miss
America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. Feminists parodied
what they held to be a degrading "cattle parade" that reduced
women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought
to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs. The radical New
York group called the Redstockings staged a counter pageant in
which they crowned a sheep as Miss America and threw "oppressive"
feminine artifacts such as bras, girdles, high-heels, makeup and false
eyelashes into the trashcan.

One of the strains of this complex and diverse "wave" was the
development of women-only spaces and the notion that women
working together create a special dynamic that is not possible in
mixed-groups, which would ultimately work for the betterment of the
entire planet. Women, due whether to their long "subjugation" or to
their biology, were thought by some to be more humane,
collaborative, inclusive, peaceful, nurturing, democratic, and holistic
in their approach to problem solving than men. The term eco-
feminism was coined to capture the sense that because of their
biological connection to earth and lunar cycles, women were natural
advocates of environmentalism.
The third wave of feminism began in the mid-90's and was informed by
post-colonial and post-modern thinking. In this phase many constructs
were destabilized, including the notions of "universal womanhood," body,
gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. An aspect of third wave
feminism that mystified the mothers of the earlier feminist movement was
the readoption by young feminists of the very lip-stick, high-heels, and
cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases
of the movement identified with male oppression.

Pinkfloor expressed this new position when she said that it's possible to
have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time, Eschewing
victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not
as objects of a sexist patriarchy. They developed a rhetoric of mimicry,
which appropriated derogatory terms like "slut" and "bitch" in order to
subvert sexist culture and deprive it of verbal weapons.

Most third-wavers refuse to identify as "feminists" and reject the word that
they find limiting and exclusionary. Its transversal politics means that
differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are
celebrated and recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional.
Emphasizing equal individual rights and liberties for women and men and
downplaying sexual differences, liberal feminism is the most widely accepted
social and political philosophy among feminists. Liberal feminists defend the
equal rationality of the sexes and emphasize the importance of structuring
social, familial, and sexual roles in ways that promote women's autonomous

They emphasize the similarities between men and women rather than the
average differences between them, attribute most of the personality and
character differences between the sexes to the social construction of gender,
and tend to promote a single set of androgynous virtues for both women and
men. While rejecting strong claims of sexual difference that might underwrite
different and potentially hierarchical rights and social roles, liberal feminists
otherwise avoid the promotion of particular conceptions of the good life for
either men or women.

While liberal feminists acknowledge that some choices made by women are
questionable because conditioned by sexist social practices, they also tend
to avoid maternalism and any second-guessing of those choices made
without coercion, or threats. Fully informed and mentally competent adult
women are assumed to be the final judges,of their own best interests.
Liberal feminism has its roots in the writings of, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft
(1759-1797), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858).

Many writers prior to Wollstonecraft, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had explicitly

argued that men and women were by nature not merely different in kind but
different in "natural rank,'' with women being weaker physically, intellectually, and
emotionally. Men were said to be more rational, women more emotional; their
respective educations should reflect these differences.

In Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft wrote that many of the

supposed differences between the sexes were either fabricated or exaggerated
and therefore could not be used as the basis for differential rights and roles.
Imposing different educational expectations on men and women was not only
unjust but also counterproductive, tending to create less productive female citizens
with "artificial, weak characters. John Stuart Mill echoed Wollstonecraft's
sentiments in The Subjection of Women (1869). He described sex roles as a kind of
caste system in which women were assigned lower status and restricted in what
they were permitted to do simply because of their sex, even though there were no
categorical differences between the sexes that could justify it. Harriet Taylor,
argued that f given an opportunity women would choose to participate more fully
in public life, going beyond simply voting and performing charity work. Women
would choose to become the partners of men in productive industry and would
have fewer children.
Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomyliving a
life of one's own choosingand political autonomybeing co-author of
the conditions under which one lives. Liberal feminists hold that the
exercise of personal autonomy depends on certain enabling conditions
that are insufficiently present in women's lives, or that social
arrangements often fail to respect women's personal autonomy and
other elements of women's flourishing.

Women's access to options is frequently and unfairly restricted due to

economic deprivation, in particular due to the feminization of poverty.
Therefore, Education and subsequent Employment, for liberal feminists is
the enabling conditions which are essential for equality and human
dignity. Both of these will provide women with the ability to assess one's
own preferences and imagine life otherwise and the autonomy to
pursue this goal.

Mill thought that when provided with the same

educational and civic opportunities that men had, most
women would choose to remain wives and mothers,
improving domestic life for the family.

Harriet Taylor, disagreed, arguing that women would

choose to participate more fully in public life, going
beyond simply voting and performing charity work.
Women would choose to become the partners of men in
productive industry and would have fewer children.
As the protection and promotion of citizens' autonomy is the appropriate role
of the state on the liberal view, liberal feminists hold that the state can and
should be the women's movement's ally in promoting women's autonomy

Liberal feminists hold that the state must effectively protect women from
violence, regardless of where that violence takes place. They also hold that
sexist paternalistic and moralistic laws are an unjust use of state power. Such
laws place control over women's lives in the hands of others and steer women
into preferred ways of life.

Laws restricting access to abortion are of particular import in this context

because they take an extremely momentous choice away from women, and
together with the cultural assignment of caregiving duties to women, steer
women into the social role of mother. In addition, liberal feminists hold that
the state must not grant preferential treatment to particular family forms.
Some argue that this means giving gay and lesbian partnerships the same
recognition currently available to heterosexuals. Liberals tend to reject laws
prohibiting prostitution. They advocate instead the legal regulation of the sex
trade prioritizing women's safety and women's control over their own working
conditions. They also support laws against sex discrimination in education,
employment, and public accommodations.

In various cases, the central am of liberal feminism was to

achieve for women various traits associated with males. They
did not question the value of traditional male attributes.

While they seek to alter the societal structures and institutions,

the mostly focus n individualism which prevents them from
coming together as a community.

Hey automatically assume that traditionally women specific

work such as child care, child rearing, care of the sick and
aged to be devalued and unpaid work.

There was not enough focus on bringing in men to the private

Marxist feminists are feminists who ally themselves with the
philosophical and economic theories of Karl Marx, who
discovered the economic laws underlying capitalism and wrote
about them in his masterpiece, Capital.

Marxist feminists view the capitalist drive for profits as responsible

for women's second-class status and other forms of oppression
such as racism and homophobia. Prejudice and privilege also
aid the ruling class by inhibiting workers from organizing
together. Women workers are exploited at a higher level than
males, with women of color suffering the highest degree of
exploitation because of gender and race discrimination.
Women are also a source of unpaid domestic laboran
arrangement that allows the world's capitalists to save trillions of
dollars every year.
The rise of capitalism, in separating the family household from
commodity production, further solidifies this control of men over
women in the family when the latter become economic
dependents of the former in the male breadwinner-female
housewife nuclear family form.

Marx and Engels viewed women's entry into the paid labor force
as the first step toward liberating women from stifling
dependence on men, though it does not free them from the
class oppression they share with male workers. To achieve the full
liberation of women and of the multi-racial, working class of all
nations, international socialism is necessary, which is in essence a
return in modern form to the cooperative egalitarian foundations
of early human existence.

Liberal feminists object to housework if it is unpaid labour.

Marxist feminist theorists see this as part of the problem, but
some go further to maintain that housework is part of a
household feudal mode of production of goods for use that
persists under capitalism and gives men feudal powers over
womens work. Other Marxist feminists argue that womens
housework is part of the social reproduction of capitalism.
That the necessary work of reproducing the working class is
unpaid allows more profits to capitalists. It is the sexual
division of labor in productive and reproductive work that
makes woman unequal to men and allows capitalists to
exploit womens unpaid labor.
In Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick
Engels drew on the work of early anthropologists to show how
women's oppression developed in pre-history when communal,
matrilineal societies were violently replaced with patriarchal societies
in which individual wealth and private property were key. Women
lose power when private property comes into existence as a mode
of production. Mens control of private property, and the ability
thereby to generate a surplus, changes the family form to a
patriarchal one where women, and often slaves, become the
property of the father and husband. From a position of early
leadership and respect, women became powerless domestic slaves.
Engels describes this as "the world historic defeat of the female sex."

A men gained more and more property, they wished to pass on this
property to their genetic survivors. Mothers rights over their children
were overthrown. The traditional inheritance from father to children
was ensured through monogamy. Engel argues that prostitution and
gender subordination is also the result of marriage.

The sexual division of labor from the Marxist perspective is

natural as it is biologically determined i.e. differences in
age and gender naturally determine division of labor.
Marx suggests women must be excluded from those
industries which are unhealthy or morally objectionable
to the female body.

Thus, despite Marxist advocacy for women to enter

public industry, they dont advocate a complete
abolition of sexual division of labour. It is limited both by
moral and biological factors.
Marxist categories are sex blind. They are unable to explain
how capitalism assigned homestead to women and
workplace to men.

There are certain dubious assumptions made such as the

family patterns being similar across the globe and the
women playing a dominant role in early societies.

There is an underlying implication that even in socialist

societies, while childcare is collectivized for optimization, it is
nonetheless women who are primarily responsible for it.
Marxist have not analyzed the dual work women will be
doing when they are engaged in paid work and nonetheless
responsible for unpaid domestic work.