Criticisms Of Liberal Feminism Essay

1. Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomy—living a life of one's own choosing—and political autonomy—being 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. They hold also that women's needs and interests are insufficiently reflected in the basic conditions under which they live, and that those conditions lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in the processes of democratic self-determination. Liberal feminists hold that autonomy deficits like these are due to the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's movement should work to identify and remedy them. 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. There is disagreement among liberal feminists, however, about the role of personal autonomy in the good life, the appropriate role of the state, and how liberal feminism is to be justified.

1.1 Personal Autonomy

1.1.1 Procedural Accounts of Personal Autonomy

Liberal feminists hold that women should enjoy personal autonomy. That is, they hold that women should live lives of their own choosing. Some offer “procedural” accounts of personal autonomy (MacKenzie and Stoljar discuss these, 1999, 13–19). These accounts suggest that to say women should enjoy personal autonomy means they are entitled to a broad range of autonomy-enabling conditions. On this view, the women's movement should work to identify and promote these conditions. Identifying these enabling conditions requires careful attention to the particular ways in which autonomy deficits are produced in diverse women's lives. Procedural accounts avoid judging directly the substance of women's choices or the arrangements that ensue. The following list of enabling conditions is representative.

Being free of violence and the threat of violence: Violence and the threat of violence violate women's dignity; they make women do what others want or reduce women's sphere of activity to avoiding harm. In some cases violence fractures the self and takes from women their sense of self-respect (Brison 1997). The feminist literature on violence against women documents the particular role that violence and the threat of violence play in unfairly disempowering and limiting women (Cudd 2006, 85–118).

Being free of the limits set by patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws: Patriarchal paternalistic laws restrict women's options on the grounds that such limits are in women's interest. Think for example of laws that limit women's employment options on the grounds that taking certain jobs is not in women's interest (Smith 2004). Patriarchal moralistic laws restrict women's options on the grounds that certain options should not be available to women because morality forbids women's choosing them. Think for example of laws that prohibit or restrict prostitution or abortion, or laws that favor certain kinds of sexual expression or family forms (Cornell 1998; Brake 2004). Together, patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws steer women into socially preferred ways of life. These are unfair restrictions on women's choices, on the liberal feminist view, because women's choices should be guided by their own sense of their self-interest and by their own values. (But see Chambers (2008, 203–231) for liberal feminist uses of paternalism.)

Having access to options: On the liberal feminist view, women are entitled to access to options (Alstott 2004, 52). Women's access to options is frequently and unfairly restricted due to economic deprivation, in particular due to the “feminization of poverty” (Pearce 1978; see also Cudd 2006, 119–154). Other sources of unfairly reduced options for women are stereotyping and sex discrimination in education and employment (Smith 2004; Rhode 1997). Such stereotyping and discrimination affects some racial, ethnic and cultural groups in particularly pernicious ways. Liberal feminists also point to the way cultural homogeneity unfairly limits women's options (Cudd 2006, 234), for example when culture assigns identities and social roles according to sex (Okin 1989, 170ff; Alstott 2004; Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998, x; Chambers 2008).

Some emphasize the importance of internal, psychological enabling conditions as well, for example the ability to assess one's own preferences and imagine life otherwise (Meyers 2002, 168; Cudd 2006, 234–235; MacKenzie 1999). Without the ability to assess the preferences on the basis of which one makes choices, and the ability to imagine life otherwise, one can't meaningfully be said to have options other than affirming the status quo (see also Chambers 2008, 263–4). These internal enabling conditions are related to the external ones. Violence and the threat of violence, stereotyping and discrimination, material deprivation, and cultural homogeneity all can have the effect of closing down reflection and imagination.

On this view, the women's movement should work to identify and promote autonomy-enabling conditions. Identifying these conditions requires careful attention to the particular ways in which autonomy deficits are produced in women's lives. On the liberal feminist view, the state has an important role to play in promoting these conditions (see sections 1.1.4, 1.2.1, and 1.2.2). But there is much that cannot be done by the state (Cudd 2006, 223). For example, while the state can refrain from blocking such endeavors, women themselves must develop new “alternative emancipatory imagery” (Meyers 2002, 168), and fashion new ways of being a woman and new kinds of relationships through experiments in living (Cudd 2006, 234; Cornell 1998).

Some critics argue that freedom is of limited value because, even when enabling conditions like these are in place, women may choose limiting and disadvantaging social arrangements. Some point to the phenomenon of deformed preferences: when attractive options are limited or arrangements unfair, people may develop preferences for those limits or for less than their fair share (Nussbaum 1999a, 33, 50; Cudd 2006, 152). This phenomenon makes changing preferences through increased freedom problematic, and leads some feminists to reject theories that prioritize free choice (Yuracko 2003). Advocates of procedural accounts of autonomy concede that the enabling conditions do not rule out that a woman could choose, for example, to undergo clitorectomy (Meyers 2004, 213) or become a pornographic model (Cudd 2004, 58). As Ann Cudd explains, possibilities like these must be accepted because liberal feminism values freedom and thus cannot advocate direct “preference education” (Cudd 2004, 57). Liberal feminism must offer only a “… gradualist approach. Individuals and groups will make various experiments in living that we cannot now precisely imagine. They … will sometimes go on a mistaken path” (57). But they must be freed up to find their own way. As Diana Meyers explains, the moral imagination of feminist theorists and activists is limited (as is everyone's); they cannot know with certainty what substantive choices are compatible with personal autonomy (Meyers 2004, 213). Moreover, one should expect autonomous lives to take diverse forms in diverse cultural contexts. On this view, “a morally defensible and politically viable conception of autonomy for an era of global feminism” must be agnostic about the content of women's choices as long as they do not close off autonomy (205).

1.1.2 Fairness in Personal Relationships

Some liberal feminists hold that the social arrangements of personal life should not only be freely chosen, but should be characterized by fairness or justice. Jean Hampton draws on the contractualist tradition in moral and political philosophy to describe one way in which heterosexual intimate relationships often fail to be fair or just (Hampton 1993). (For extended discussion of Hampton's feminism, see Abbey 2011, 120–151. For more on feminist uses of contractualism, see section 1.2.1.)

On Hampton's view, a personal relationship is fair only if both parties to it could “reasonably accept the distribution of costs and benefits (that is, the costs and benefits that are not themselves side effects of any affective or duty-based tie between us) if it were the subject of an informed, unforced agreement in which we think of ourselves as motivated solely by self-interest” (Hampton 1993, 240). Of course, many women choose to enter or remain in relationships in part because of affective benefits; for example women often get satisfaction from satisfying others or fulfilling a duty. Why set aside these affective benefits, as Hampton recommends, when evaluating the fairness of a relationship? Hampton does not set them aside out of a conviction that a woman's affective nature is not part of her essential self. Nor does she set them aside out of a conviction that this aspect of a woman's nature is not valuable. (For criticism of Hampton, see Sample 2002.) Her test sets them aside because affective benefits of relationships are not received from the other; they are benefits that flow from one's own nature (Radzik 2005, 51). Thus while they may, and probably should, figure in a woman's overall decision about whether to enter or remain in a particular relationship, Hampton believes they should not figure in the evaluation of a relationship's fairness. As Linda Radzik explains in her defense of Hampton, a relationship is fair or just if the benefits that flow from each to the other are on par, that is, if each gives as much as she gets (51). When one party gets from the other significantly more than he gives, he is denying the other her legitimate entitlement to reciprocation.

This test formalizes an important insight of the women's movement: personal relationships, in particular traditional heterosexual relationships, are often unfair to women, indeed often exploit women's tendency to care about others. Injustice of this sort is not uncommon. Thus Hampton's test invites criticism of a wide swath of human social life (Sample 2002, 271). But Hampton does not call on women to cease valuing others' satisfaction or the fulfillment of duty (Hampton 1993, 227). Instead, she calls on the women's movement to cultivate in women and men a sensitivity and an aversion to this kind of injustice, and to develop remedies.

Procedural accounts of personal autonomy (see section 1.1.1) do not require that relationships be just in the way Hampton recommends. According to procedural accounts, it is possible that a choice to enter or remain in a personal relationship in which one gives more than she gets from the other can be autonomous. Therefore, according to procedural accounts, liberal feminists should focus on ensuring that women are not pressured into or unable to exit them.

To be sure, Hampton's account of justice in personal relationships can be a resource to women and men reflecting on their own preferences. It invites reflection on how one's own preferences affect the distribution of benefits and burdens within a relationship. Also, moral criticism of relationships that exploit women's preferences reminds us that relationships can be otherwise (because ought implies can). This reminder enhances personal autonomy by broadening the imagination. Thus procedural accounts of personal autonomy can include Hampton's test, not as definitive of the acceptability of social arrangements, but as a contribution to the kind of reflection about the good life on which the personal autonomy of individuals depends.

1.1.3 Personal Autonomy and Human Flourishing

Martha Nussbaum proposes an account of the good life that has “at its heart, a profoundly liberal idea … the idea of the citizen as a free and dignified human being, a maker of choices” (Nussbaum 1999a, 46). Echoing procedural accounts of personal autonomy (section 1.1.1), Nussbaum explains: “If one cares about people's powers to choose a conception of the good, then one must care about the rest of the form of life that supports those powers” (45). But for Nussbaum personal autonomy is merely one of the “major human functionings” (43) which define “a good human life” (42). These functionings include, among other things, bodily health and integrity, affiliation, and political participation (41–42). To be sure, personal autonomy, or in Nussbaum's words “practical reason,” is a good that “suffuses all the other functions” (44). But personal autonomy is not prioritized. A good life is one in which one is able to enjoy all of the major human functionings, that is, to flourish.

Nussbaum's approach takes on the problem of deformed preferences (see section 1.1.1) directly. To be sure, some may choose lives that do not include the actual exercise of some of the functionings—an ascetic may choose to compromise bodily health. But, Nussbaum explains, one must be able to function in each of these ways. Social arrangements are to be criticized if they render their participants unable to function in the valued ways regardless of their preferences (50). The women's movement should sensitize women and men to the injustice of denying women the ability to function in these valued ways, identify arrangements that are unjust to women by paying careful attention to diverse women's lives, and recommend remedies. Nussbaum holds that her account is compatible with global moral pluralism and thus may function as a foundation for a global feminism (Nussbaum 1999a, 40).

Nussbaum's “capabilities approach” may be compared with procedural accounts of autonomy (see section 1.1.1). Procedural accounts suggest that the women's movement should work to protect and promote women's ability to live lives of their own choosing by identifying particular autonomy deficits in women's lives and promoting the conditions that enable autonomy. These approaches avoid directly judging the substance of the choices women make or the arrangements that result. They leave it to individuals and groups to fashion new, diverse, non-oppressive ways of life. The list of enabling conditions for personal autonomy is not unlike Nussbaum's list of human functionings. But advocates of procedural approaches may worry that the goal of the women's movement, according to the capabilities approach, is to bring to women a particular way of life, namely one in which women can function in these ways, instead of freeing women up to find their own way (Cudd 2004, 50). As Drucilla Cornell, an advocate of a procedural approach explains, “social equality [should be] redefined so as to serve freedom” (Cornell 1998, xii) because “there is nothing more fundamental for a human being” (17; see also Cudd 2004, 51–52). Procedural accounts of autonomy can include Nussbaum's approach, not as definitive of the kinds of lives women should live, but as an important contribution to the kind of reflection on the good life on which personal autonomy depends. (There is a large literature on Nussbaum's liberal feminism; for liberal feminist discussion, see for example Abbey 2011 152–205; and Robeyns 2007.)

1.1.4 Personal Autonomy and the State

There is substantial agreement among liberal feminists that the gender system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, plays an important role in perpetuating morally objectionable deficits in personal autonomy in women's lives, and that the state can and should take action to remedy them. There is also substantial agreement among liberal feminists concerning what the state should do. There is disagreement about some hard cases, however, that pit liberal values against one another.

Liberal feminists hold that the state must effectively protect women from violence, regardless of where that violence takes place (Cudd 2006, 85–118, 209; Rhode 1997, 1193–95). 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. Women must have a legal right to abortion and meaningful access to abortion services. In addition, liberal feminists hold that the state must not grant preferential treatment to particular family forms (Brake 2004, 293; Lloyd 1995, 1328; McClain 2006, 60). Some argue that this means giving gay and lesbian partnerships the same recognition currently available to heterosexuals (McClain 2006, 6; Hartley and Watson 2011). Others argue for removing marriage's privileged legal status altogether or treating it legally more like other associations (Case 2006; Metz 2010).

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 (Cornell 1998, 57; Nussbaum 2002, 90). They support the right to collective bargaining to secure decent wages and working conditions (Cornell 1998, 57; Cudd 2006, 211), as well as a guaranteed minimum income (Cudd 2006, 154). They also support laws against sex discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations. According to liberal feminists, the refusal to hire or promote a woman or do business with her because she is a woman is a morally objectionable limit on her options. So are workplaces that are hostile to women. Liberal feminists argue that laws prohibiting sexual harassment, and requiring affirmative action and comparable worth policies are often called for to remedy past and ongoing sex discrimination (Williams 2000, 253).

Liberal feminists hold also that a significant source of women's reduced options is the structure of the workplace, which assumes that workers are free of caregiving responsibilities (Okin 1989, 176; Williams 2000). Women, and increasingly men, do not fit this model. The effect of not fitting the model is dramatic. As Anne L. Alstott explains: “Caretakers at every income level have fewer options than noncaretakers at the same income level” (Alstott 2004, 97). She continues: “I am worried that child-rearing too dramatically contracts the options among which mothers can choose” (23). Alstott and others argue that the state must ensure that the socially essential work of providing care to dependents does not unreasonably interfere with the personal autonomy of caregivers. Policies proposed to ensure sufficient personal autonomy for caregivers include parental leave, state subsidized, high quality day care, and flexible work schedules (Cudd 2006, 228; Okin 1989, 175). Some recommend financial support for caregivers (Alstott 2004, 75ff), others suggest guaranteeing a non-wage-earning spouse one half of her wage-earning spouse's paycheck (Okin 1989, 181).

But workplaces fail to accommodate the socially essential caregiving work of their employees in various ways. Thus Joan Williams has argued for legal recognition of the right to not be discriminated against in employment on the basis of one's caregiving responsibilities. Williams recommends, if necessary, legal action alleging failure to recognize this right as an incentive to employers to accommodate caregivers (Williams 2000, 274).

There is disagreement among liberal feminists about some hard cases that pit liberal values against one another. Liberal feminists tend to reject legal limits on pornography (Cornell 1998, 57–58). But some hold that arguments for restricting violent pornography are not unreasonable (Laden 2003, 148–149; Watson 2007, 469; for what such a not unreasonable argument might look like, see Eaton 2007), and that the best arguments for freedom of expression fail to show that it should not be limited (Brison 1998). Indeed some argue that violent pornography can undermine the autonomy of viewers (Scoccia 1996) and the status of women as equal citizens (Spaulding 1988–89).

Other hard cases concern the role of the state in family life. Family life has dramatic effects on the personal autonomy of its adult members. Assuming the role of caregiver, for example, dramatically contracts women's options. On a liberal feminist view, the state has an interest in ensuring that family life does not undermine women's personal autonomy. Some hold that the state should promote justice in the family—for example, the sharing of paid and unpaid labor by its adult members (Okin 1989, 171). Others hold that the state may not be guided by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott 2004, 114; see also Nussbaum 2000, 279–280; and Wolf-Devine 2004). (See section 1.2.1 for more discussion of this issue).

Girls' participation in families is, especially in the early years, nonvoluntary. The family affects the development of girls' sense of self-worth, as well as their preferences, and the capacities, like the capacity for reflection and imagination, on which their ability to live lives of their own choosing depends (Okin 1989, 97). Liberal feminists hold that the state must protect and promote the development of autonomy capacities in children, especially girls. For example they hold that child-marriage should be legally prohibited (McClain 2006, 79); girls should have access to abortion without parental consent or notification (Rhode 1994, 1204); girls must receive a formal education free of sexist stereotyping, including instruction in the legal equality of women (McClain 2006, 81; Lloyd 1995, 1332), including autonomy-promoting sex education (McClain 2006, 57–58), and ensuring that girls are prepared to be economically independent (Lloyd 1995, 1332). Beyond this some hold that girls' interest in developing autonomy capacities requires that families be internally just, that is, that there be an equal division of paid and unpaid labor between adults, so that families are not characterized by “dependence and domination” (Okin 1989, 99–100; see also Follesdal 2005). Others are not convinced that there is a necessary connection between this kind of justice in families and the development of girls' autonomy capacities (Lloyd 1995, 1335–1343), and hold that the state may not be guided by a substantive ideal of family life (Alstott 2004, 114; see also Nussbaum 2000a, 279–280; and Wolf-Devine 2004). (See section 1.2.1 for more discussion of this issue).

1.2 Political Autonomy

Some liberal feminists emphasize the importance of political autonomy, that is, being co-author of the conditions under which one lives. Some use contractualist political theory to argue that the state should ensure that the basic structure of society satisfies principles of justice that women, as well as men, could endorse. Others argue that the democratic legitimacy of the basic conditions under which citizens live depends on the inclusion of women in the processes of public deliberation and electoral politics.

1.2.1 Distributive Justice

Some liberal feminists, inspired by John Rawls' contractualist liberal theory of justice (Rawls 1971; 1993), argue that the state should ensure that the basic structure of society distributes the benefits and burdens of social cooperation fairly, that is, in a manner that women as well as men could endorse (Alstott 2004; Baehr 2004; Bojer 2002; Lloyd 1998; McClain 2006; Okin 1989; Thompson 1993; for an overview of feminist responses to Rawls, see Abbey 2013). They argue that the basic structure currently distributes benefits and burdens unfairly, in part due to the gender system, or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions.

As Rawls puts it, the basic structure of society is: “The way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements…Competitive markets and the monogamous family [are] examples of major social institutions… The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others” (Rawls 1971, 6–7).

Rawls argues that the fairness of the basic structure of society may be assessed by asking what principles representatives of citizens (parties) would choose to determine the distribution of primary goods in society if they were behind a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls 1971, 12). The veil of ignorance blocks from the parties knowledge of their place in society: for example their socio-economic status, religion, and sex. (Rawls does not include sex in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), but adds it in “Fairness to Goodness” (Rawls 1975, 537).) Susan Okin proposes we “take seriously both the notion that those behind the veil of ignorance do not know what sex they are and the requirement that the family and the gender system, as basic social institutions, are to be subject to scrutiny” (Okin 1989, 101).

Rawls argues that parties behind the veil of ignorance would choose two principles: a liberty principle providing for the “most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all;” and a principle of equality requiring equality of opportunity, and permitting inequalities only if they are to the benefit of the least well off (Rawls 1971, 302–303).

Okin argues that the “gender system” violates both the liberty and equality of opportunity principles because by effectively assigning roles to citizens according to sex it circumvents citizens' “free choice of occupation” (Okin 1989, 103). On Okin's view, this means that in a just society “gender could no longer form a legitimate part of the social structure, whether inside or outside the family” (103). None of the institutions of the basic structure, including the family, could assign roles according to sex.[2] It is common to argue that the state, educational institutions, and workplaces should not assign roles according to sex. But Okin argues that this applies to the family as well. Gender blindness must play the same role in the family that it plays in these institutions. In Okin's words, there must be “congruence” between the principles that govern these institutions and those that govern family life (21). That is, families must be just.

Okin offers a second argument to support the claim that families must be just. Rawls explains that a society based on his two principles of justice can be stable because within it citizens develop a sense of justice (Rawls 1971, 453ff). For our purposes consider that citizens must develop the conviction that citizens generally are due the rights of equal citizenship. Okin argues that when children are raised within unjust families, families which lack “equality and reciprocity,” and are characterized by “dependence and domination,” they are not likely to develop the requisite sense of justice (Okin 1989, 99–100; see also McClain 2006, 73–84). Instead, girls and boys and may grow to believe that women are not entitled to equal citizenship. Therefore, if the society governed by Rawls' two principles of justice is to be stable, families must be just.

What can and should the state do to ensure that gender no longer forms a “part of the social structure, whether inside or outside the family” (Okin 1989, 103)? Okin endorses measures for the workplace, for example state subsidized daycare, parental leave, and flextime (176, 186). These accommodations make it possible for women and men to choose against traditional roles. She also recommends protecting from vulnerability those women who do choose traditional roles by making them entitled to half of their spouse's paycheck (181). But Okin does not think that the state should stop at increasing the voluntariness of women's choices and compensating for disadvantage. She argues instead that the state may and should promote a particular ideal of family life. She tells us that the state should “encourage and facilitate the equal sharing by men and women of paid and unpaid work, or productive and reproductive labor” (171). Accommodations by employers may be understood, then, not only as a way of making options available to women, but as a way of encouraging the sharing of paid and unpaid work by spouses. Another way the state may encourage such egalitarianism is through autonomy-promoting education, especially for girls (177). To be sure, Okin argues that what is desired is a “future in which all will be likely to choose this mode of life” (171, my emphasis). But the fact that many people currently don't choose it does not mean, for Okin, that it is not an appropriate goal of state action (172). (There is a substantial literature on Okin's use of Rawls' theory of justice. See for example Reich and Satz 2009. See also Liberal Feminism Works.)

Other feminists apply contractualist political philosophy inspired by Rawls to the problem of justice for women but draw slightly different conclusions from Okin. S.A. Lloyd (1998), Anne L. Alstott (2004) and Linda C. McClain (2006) each argue that a basically Rawlsian contractualist argument supports the claim that the current disadvantages women suffer as a result of their shouldering a disproportionate share of the burdens of social reproduction must be remedied by state action. All three endorse many of Okin's policy proposals (Lloyd 1995, 1332; 1998, 218; Alstott 2004). But they reject Okin's claim that the state should promote a particular substantive ideal of family life (Lloyd 1995, 1340–1341; Lloyd 1998, 218; McClain 2006, 78). Alstott writes: “The egalitarian family is, even in principle, a troubling ideal. Strictly equal sharing seems unduly constraining, not merely because families today deviate from the idea, but because free people might want to organize their lives differently” (Alstott 2004, 113). Other liberal feminists have voiced similar concerns. Ann Cudd worries that state action intended to promote gender fairness and foster women's autonomy could impose a homogenizing conception of the good life, and stifle the very reinventions of self and experiments in living that women's liberation requires (Cudd 2006, 209, 223; see also Wolf-Devine 2004). Elizabeth Anderson writes: “The plurality of conceptions of the good that are likely to survive in a world in which the state has done all it can be reasonably and justly expected to do will include a host of unreasonable conceptions of the good, some of which may well be patriarchal. In the face of such injustices, liberals counsel feminists to redirect their claims from the state to those promulgating such unreasonable conceptions of the good, and to redirect their activism from a focus on state action to other domains, including civil society, churches, and the family. I think this counsel is wise, which is why I am a liberal feminist” (Anderson 2009, 131; see also 141–144).

A substantial liberal feminist literature engages this tension between associational liberty and possible state action aimed at remedying the way the current distribution of the burdens of reproduction disadvantages women. Much of this literature draws on both the liberal tradition within feminism and feminist work on caregiving (Barclay 2013; Bhandary 2010; Brighouse and Wright 2008; Engster 1995, 2010; Gheaus 2009, 2012; Gornick and Meyers 2008; Hartley and Watson 2012; Lloyd 1995, 1998; Robeyns 2007; Gheaus and Robeyns 2011; Wright 2008).

1.2.2 Public Deliberation and Electoral Politics

Some liberal feminists, who emphasize the importance of political autonomy—that women be co-authors of the conditions under which they live—focus in particular on participation in the processes of democratic self-determination. These processes include both political deliberation in the many arenas of public political discourse, and electoral politics. Liberal feminists hold that the conditions under which women live lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in these processes. They hold that this political autonomy deficit is, in large part, due to the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), or the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, and that the women's movement should work to identify and remedy it.

Attempts to increase women's participation in public deliberation and electoral politics confront a vicious circle of women's exclusion. The gender system leads to women's being underrepresented in influential forums of public deliberation, including in elected law-making bodies. For example women have less free time to engage in public deliberation because of the double-burden they carry of paid and unpaid labor; sex stereotyping leads many to think that women (especially women from particular ethnic and cultural groups) are less capable of leadership than men; the behavior called for in agonistic public deliberation and electoral politics is understood to be masculine; issues of particular interest to women are seen as personal and not political issues; women lack power in the many institutions (like churches, universities, and think tanks) that influence political debate, etc. But when women are underrepresented in these forums and law-making bodies, it is unlikely that the justice of the gender system will become the subject of public conversation or its dismantling a target of legislative action.

Some liberal feminists explore ways to escape this vicious circle. Because women are excluded from important forums of public deliberation and electoral politics in complex ways, remedies must address a variety of problems. Justice in the distribution of benefits and burdens in society would go some way towards enabling women to access forums of public debate on equal terms with men (Okin 1989, 104). But cultural change is necessary as well if stereotypes about women's abilities are not to interfere with their participation, if women's needs and interests are to be understood as legitimate claims on democratic power, and if men's dominance in institutions of influence is to be overcome. Seyla Benhabib argues that the women's movement, along with other new social movements like the gay and lesbian liberation movement, has begun this work (Benhabib 1992). While much of this change is cultural and must come about through civic action, the state has a role to play. Linda McClain argues that all children must receive civic education—to equip them for democratic citizenship—including instruction in women's equality (McClain 2006, 81). She also argues that the state may use its persuasive power to put traditionally excluded issues, like violence against women or the dilemma of balancing work and family, on the agenda for public deliberation (78).

Others take on the vicious circle of women's exclusion by recommending legal mechanisms for the inclusion of women in electoral politics (see Rhode 1994, 1205–1208; Peters 2006; Phillips 1991). Some suggest that legal mechanisms for including those who have been systematically excluded may be justified as remedies for the unjust disproportionate political power enjoyed by others (Phillips 2004, 6–10). Suggested mechanisms include targets or quotas for women (and other underrepresented groups) on party slates, or proportional representation in elected bodies. Karen Green, for example, argues for “guaranteed equal representation of both sexes in parliament” (Green 2006). There is diversity of opinion, however, among liberal feminists about the justice and efficacy of such mechanisms (Peters 2006; see also Rhode 1994, 1205).

1.3 Justification

We can distinguish between comprehensive liberal feminisms and political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms). The distinction between political and comprehensive doctrines in political theory is due to Rawls (1993) but has been taken up by some liberal feminists in recent years. (For explicit discussion of the distinction in liberal feminism, see for example Abbey 2007; 2011, 72–82, 226–247; Baehr 2008; 2013; Chambers 2008, 159–201; Enslin 2003; Hartley and Watson 2010; Lloyd 1998; Neufeld 2009; Neufeld and Schoelandt 2013; Nussbaum 1999b, 108; 2000b, 76 fn38; Okin 1994; 1999, 129–130; and Watson 2007).

Comprehensive liberal feminisms are grounded in moral doctrines. Liberal feminisms typically give accounts of how state power should be used to feminist ends; so a comprehensive liberal feminism typically includes the claim that state power should be used to some particular feminist ends because some moral doctrine requires it. A comprehensive liberal feminism typically gives an account of how part of associational life—beyond what is traditionally understood as ‘the political’—should be arranged, for example that the family should foster women's and girls' personal autonomy, or that domestic associations should distribute benefits and burdens fairly. Some comprehensive liberal feminisms focus primarily on associational life and only peripherally on the role of the state. Comprehensive liberal feminist accounts of how associational life generally should be arranged may, but need not, include the claim that the state ought to enforce such arrangements. There is nothing about grounding in a moral doctrine that forces a comprehensive liberal feminism to include the claim that the state should enforce liberal feminist values outside of what is traditionally understood as ‘the political.’ To be sure, comprehensive liberal feminisms typically do this. The reason is that comprehensive liberal feminisms typically reject the traditional public/private distinction, and hold that the political justice liberalism promises for women can be realized only when associational life—the family, for example—does not undermine girls' and women's personal autonomy, or distribute benefits and burdens unfairly. (But note that to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject any and all such distinctions.)

Political liberal feminisms (or feminist political liberalisms) are accounts of how state power should be used to feminist ends that are grounded in public political values. Public political values are not the particular values of any one moral doctrine; they are values that are shared by the many reasonable comprehensive moral doctrines citizens hold (Rawls 1993, 227–230). Advocates of political liberal feminism hold that state power is used justly when supported by values that are endorsable by all reasonable citizens. Like comprehensive liberal feminists, political liberal feminists typically reject the traditional public/private distinction. Thus they typically hold that public values can justify using state power to compensate for, or even to dismantle, patriarchal (and other disadvantaging) hierarchies that are pervasive in associational life. (Again, to reject the traditional public/private distinction is not to reject any and all such distinctions.)

Among comprehensive liberal feminists we may count Jean Hampton, Drucilla Cornell, Ann Cudd, Susan Okin, and Clare Chambers. Hampton's feminist contractualist account of justice in personal relationships (see section 2.2.1) is explicitly grounded in Kant's moral philosophy (Hampton 1993, 241; on Hampton, see Abbey 2011, 120–151). Cornell's psychoanalytically informed liberal feminism (Cornell 2003) focuses on the right to intimate and sexual self-determination and is also grounded in Kant's moral theory (Cornell 1998, 17–18; see also Thurschwell 1999, 771–772). Cudd explains that her liberal feminist account of oppression as harm is grounded in a “background moral theory,” namely “a liberal contractarian view of the sort developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, or the more libertarian version of David Gauthier in Morals by Agreement” (Cudd 2006, 231). Okin's liberal feminism draws on Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which Rawls himself claims is a comprehensive liberalism (Okin 1999, 129; Rawls 1993, xvii). (But note that Okin claims hers is “in between” comprehensive and political liberalism (Okin 1999, 129–130).) Chambers' liberal feminism – which explores the relationship between social construction and choice—may also be counted among comprehensive liberal feminisms as it is grounded in personal autonomy as a moral value (Chambers 2008).

Among political liberal feminists we may count S.A. Lloyd, Linda McClain, Martha Nussbaum, Christie Hartley, Lori Watson, and Amy Baehr. Lloyd constructs an argument based on public political values to the conclusion that “women's disproportionate burden in social reproduction [must] be eliminated” (Lloyd 1998, 214). McClain argues that sex equality is a public and constitutional value (2006, 60; see also 22–23, 60–62, and 76) which requires state opposition to relations of subordination and domination in the family (62); state support for autonomy in intimate matters (22); and support for the development of autonomy capacities in children, especially girls (109). Nussbaum also presents her “capabilities approach” as a political, and not a comprehensive, liberalism (see section 1.1.3.). The capabilities list, she argues, can be shared by citizens holding a wide variety of comprehensive conceptions of the good life, and thus should be able to function as a foundation for a political liberalism (Nussbaum 2000b, 76 fn38). Hartley and Watson argue that public deliberation based on shared values is incompatible with “pervasive social hierarchies” (Hartley and Watson 2010, 8). As Watson puts it, “a central task of public reason arguments, in the context of social hierarchy and inequality, is to expose the ways in which background conditions (inequalities) undermine the necessary conditions for reasonable deliberations among citizens to occur” (Watson 2007, 470).

Political liberal feminists suggest some advantages of political liberal feminism over comprehensive liberal feminism. According to S.A. Lloyd, “it's true that confining the argument to talk of socially recognized values requires operating with one hand tied behind one's back, so to speak. Conclusions that would be quite easy to reach from stronger feminist principles, or other comprehensive principles, are much harder to reach using the sparse … toolbox [of public reason]” (Lloyd 1998, 210). But if we can reach feminist conclusions on these sparse grounds, they will be much more difficult to reject. Amy Baehr suggests that arguments to feminist ends from public political values can move the political community toward a more reasonable understanding of those values (Baehr 2013; see also Rawls 1993, 227). (For further examples of political liberal feminism, see Neufeld (2009) and Neufeld and Schoelandt (2013).)

Comprehensive liberal feminists argue that political liberalism (and thus political liberal feminism) will not be adequately feminist if it is grounded in the public values of a still-patriarchal society (Abbey 2007; Chambers 2008, 159–201; Enslin 2003; Okin 1993; see also Munoz-Darde 1998, 347).

1.4 Historical Sources

Liberal feminism is part of, and thus finds its roots in, the larger tradition of liberal political philosophy; thus we see much liberal feminist work inspired by Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls (and other figures in this tradition). But liberal feminism shares with feminist political philosophy generally a concern with understanding the “gender system” (Okin 1989, 89), that is, the patriarchal nature of inherited traditions and institutions, so that it might recommend a remedy. To get a good picture of that system, liberal feminists draw broadly from the rich tradition of feminist theorizing. For example, some liberal feminists draw on radical feminist insights into the nature of violence against women (Nussbaum 1999a) and into the nature of gender identity (Chambers 2008m 43–80); some draw on psychoanalytic feminist theory (Meyers 2002; Cornell 2003); some on socialist feminist work on women's exploitation in the home (Anderson 2004; Gheaus 2008); and some on feminist theories of care (Alstott 2004; Bhandary 2010).

1.5 Criticism

1.5.1 Liberal Criticism

Some argue that liberal feminisms run the risk of being insufficiently liberal. Measures intended to promote gender fairness and the autonomy of women could end up unreasonably hindering autonomy (Cudd 2006, 223). Some argue that Susan Okin's claim that the state should be guided by an egalitarian ideal of family life is an example of such a measure (see section 1.2.1). Other measures recommended by liberal feminists that some hold may be illiberal include quotas on party slates or in elected bodies (Peters 2006) (see section 1.2.2), and bans on violent pornography (see section 1.2.4).

Classical liberals or libertarians are critical of liberal feminisms because, on their view, liberalism cannot support the claim that the right of some against coercive interference may be violated in order to promote the autonomy capacities of others, such as we find in affirmative action programs, or in the substantial taxation that would be necessary to fund the social programs liberal feminists endorse (Epstein 2002; Tomasi 2009).

1.5.2 Multicultural Criticism

Multicultural critics of liberal feminism suggest that liberal feminism's emphasis on autonomy and fairness in personal and associational life runs the risk of elevating one particular comprehensive conception of the good life over the many others found in multicultural societies (Shachar 2009; for discussion, see Okin 1999).

1.5.3 Conservative Criticism

Conservatives hold that reformers can do more harm than good when they undermine the institutions and norms which, while surely offending in many ways, also serve as the foundation for many people's well-being (Muller 1997; see also Fox-Genovese 1996). Such conservatives worry about the radical implications of liberal feminism, its willingness to put women's autonomy ahead of institutions and norms on which many people rely for their well-being. Ann Cudd suggests that the expansion of opportunity and equality promised by liberal feminism “makes us all better off” (Cudd 2006, 237). Conservatives encourage us to consider also the loss that is in liberation.

1.5.4 Feminist Criticism

Some comprehensive liberal feminists (see section 2.3) argue that the public political values on which feminist political liberalism relies render the latter insufficiently critical of precisely those hierarchies and forms of disadvantage liberal feminism aims to criticize and undermine (Abbey 2007; Baehr 1996; Chambers 2008, 12, 159–201; Okin 1994).

Some nonliberal feminists argue that even comprehensive liberalism will be insufficiently critical. Several reasons are offered. Some argue that feminist political theory must rely on a much more robust feminist ideal of the good life than liberal feminism provides (Yuracko 2003). Some argue that liberal feminism's commitment to moral individualism and ideal theory renders it incapable of identifying and criticizing the oppression of women (Schwarzman 2010). Some argue that liberal feminism's focus on the distribution of benefits and burdens in society neglects power relations (Young 1990, 37) and the eroticization of domination and subordination that are the true linchpins of the gender system (MacKinnon 1987; 1989). Still others argue that liberal feminism inherits from liberalism a focus on the autonomous individual and is, for this reason, incapable of accounting sufficiently for the fact of human dependency, the value of being cared for, and the role that caregiving plays in a good society (Held 1987; Kittay 1999).

2. Classical-Liberal or Libertarian Feminism

Classical-liberal feminism or libertarian feminism (these terms will be used interchangeably here—see fn. 1) conceives of freedom as freedom from coercive interference. It holds that women, as well as men, have a right to such freedom due to their status as self-owners. It holds that coercive state power is justified only to the extent necessary to protect the right to freedom from coercive interference. Equity feminists are classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold that, in societies like the United States, the only morally significant source of oppression of women is the state. They hold that feminism's political role is to bring an end to laws that limit women's liberty in particular, but also to laws that grant special privileges to women. Some equity feminists see a nonpolitical role for feminism, helping women to benefit from their freedom by developing beneficial character traits or strategies for success, or navigating among their increasing options. Other equity feminists are socially conservative and argue that, while the state should not enforce them, traditional values function as bulwarks against state power and produce independent and self-restraining citizens. Cultural libertarian feminists are classical-liberal or libertarian feminists who hold that the culture of societies like the United States is patriarchal and a significant source of oppression of women. They hold that the patriarchal culture and the state are complementary systems of oppression. Cultural libertarian feminists hold that much of the oppression women suffer today is noncoercive, however, and thus should not be met with state remedies but with a nonviolent movement for feminist social change.

2.1 Self-Ownership and Women's Rights

Classical liberalism or libertarianism holds that women and men are self-owners capable of acquiring property rights over things. As such women and men, equally, have the right to freedom from coercive interference with their person and property. This right to freedom from coercive interference consists in, at least, rights to freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to control what happens to one's body, freedom of association, freedom to acquire, control and transfer property, freedom of contract, as well as the right to compensation when rights are violated. The state's role is, exclusively, to protect citizens from coercive interference by protecting their rights. Some reject even a limited state, however, holding that nongovernmental means of protecting rights are to be preferred.

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that the right to freedom from coercive interference has powerful implications for women's lives. It implies that women have the right to freedom in intimate, sexual and reproductive matters. This includes sexual autonomy (the right to engage in sexual activity of one's choosing including the buying and selling of sex (Almodovar 2002; Lehrman 1997, 23), and the right to defend oneself against sexual aggression, including the use of firearms (Stevens et al. 2002)); freedom of expression (the right to appear in, publish, and consume pornography free of censorship (McElroy 1995; Strossen 2000)); freedom of intimate association (the right to partner or enter into a private marriage contract (McElroy 1991a, 20)); and reproductive freedom (the right to use birth control, have an abortion (on the minority of pro-life libertarians see Tabarrok 2002, 157), and buy and sell bodily reproductive services, for example as in surrogate motherhood (Lehrman 1997, 22; McElroy 2002b; Paul 2002)). Freedom from interference with person and property also means that women have the right to engage in economic activity in a free market, entering contracts, and acquiring, controlling and transferring property free of sexist state limits (Epstein 1992; Kirp, Yudolf, and Franks 1986, 204).

One way to characterize the wrong involved when states fail to recognize these rights of women is as a failure to respect women's right to be treated as men's equal, or the right to equal treatment under the law. To be sure, classical-liberal feminists hold that the law should not treat women and men differently. But this is because they believe everyone has the same rights, not because they believe women have a right to be treated the same as men. This is clear when we note that, for classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, equal treatment under unjust law is not justice (McElroy 1991a, 3).

Same treatment under the law does not guarantee same outcomes. Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that women's rights are not violated when citizens exercise their rights in ways that create unequal outcomes (Epstein 2002, 30). A woman's rights are violated only when she is interfered with coercively, that is, when there is, or is a threat of, forced loss of freedom, property or life (which does not serve as just restraint or compensation).

2.2 Equity Feminism

Equity feminism is a form of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism that holds that feminism's political role is simply to ensure that everyone's, including women's, right against coercive interference is respected (Sommers 1994, 22). Wendy McElroy, an equity feminist writes: “I've always maintained that the only reason I call myself a feminist is because of [the] gov[ernment]. By which I mean, if the government (or an anarchist defense assoc[iation]) acknowledged the full equal rights of women without paternalistic protection or oppression, I would stop writing about women's issues” (McElroy 1998c).

Feminism's political role involves assuring that women's right against coercive interference by private individuals is recognized and protected by the state (for example women's right against groping on the street or rape within marriage (McElroy 1991a)), and that women's right against coercive interference by the state itself is respected. The latter means feminists should object to laws that restrict women's liberty in particular (for example laws that limit women's employment options (Taylor 1992, 228)), and laws that protect women in particular (for example laws granting preferential treatment to women (Paul 1989)). Equity feminists suggest that this has been largely accomplished in countries like the United States. Joan Kennedy Taylor explains: feminism's “goal of equal political liberty for women has been pretty much reached in the United States” (Taylor 2001; see also Sommers 1994, 274).

2.2.1 Equity Feminism on the Oppression of Women

On the equity feminist view, the feminist slogan “the personal is political” is accurate when the state fails to recognize women's right against coercive interference, especially in women's personal lives. So, for example, in some countries husbands have legal control over their wives' persons and property. (Some equity feminists argue that the women's movement in Western countries should not hesitate to criticize countries in which this occurs (Sommers 2007).) But in countries like the United States, where the right of women against this sort of coercive interference is recognized and protected by law, equity feminists hold that “the personal is no longer political” (Lehrman 1997, 5; see also 21).

If an individual or group of individuals suffers sustained and systematic denial of their rights, on the equity feminist view, we may call them oppressed. Women were oppressed in the United States during most of its first two centuries; people of African descent were oppressed before the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. While the culture of the United States supported this denial of rights, equity feminists hold that the oppressor was the state (McElroy 1998c), which refused to recognize and protect the right of women and people of African descent to treatment as self-owners. When the state recognizes and protects this right of women and Americans of African descent, they are no longer oppressed, even if the culture disadvantages them. So, for example, in a discussion of whether Muslim women are oppressed, Cathy Young focuses on whether women's conformity with a religious tradition that subordinates them is enforced by law. If it is, then women are oppressed (Young 2006).

If women are to be described as currently oppressed in societies like the United States, on the equity feminist view, one must show that the state fails to protect women, as a group, from sustained and systematic rights violations. Some feminists have argued that violence against women is pervasive in societies like the United States so that, even though the law recognizes women's right against it, that right is insufficiently protected, and thus women endure sustained and systematic denial of their right to bodily integrity (Dworkin 1991). Equity feminists endeavor to refute this claim by showing that the prevalence of violence against women has been exaggerated. For example Rita Simon contests the claim that as many as 154 out of 1,000 women have been raped. On her accounting, the number is closer to 19 per 1,000; and “rape is less common than other violent crimes”(Simon 2002, 235). In addition, she claims, “the criminal justice system does not ignore or make light of crimes against females”(Simon 2002, 236). Katie Roiphe argues that date rape is not a significant threat to women (Roiphe 1994). Concurring with Roiphe, Cathy Young writes: “women have sex after initial reluctance for a number of reasons … fear of being beaten up by their dates is rarely reported as one of them” (Young 1992).

Women have also been said to be oppressed because their right to be treated the same as men by employers, educational institutions, and associations has been violated in a sustained and systematic way. That is, some argue, women have been regularly denied the right to equal access to opportunities because they are women. Equity feminists generally hold that no rights are violated when employers, educational institutions, public accommodations or associations discriminate against women (see section 1.5). Nonetheless, equity feminists argue that discrimination against women is not a serious problem. Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba argue that “complaints about systematic economic discrimination against women simply do not square with the evidence” (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xi; see also 2001). They argue that “women's wages and education levels are closing the gap with those of men” (xii). In addition, Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth claim that women have “surpassed men in education” (23; see also 23–43). Christina Hoff Sommers concurs, arguing that, rather than failing to provide girls with an education equal to that of boys, our current educational system disproportionately benefits girls (Sommers 2000, 20–23, 178).

Equity feminists argue that the differences in outcomes between women and men can be explained, not by violence against women and sex discrimination, but by differences in the preferences of women and men (Epstein 2002, 33; Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). “In many cases where women remain behind men, personal choices explain outcomes more readily than does overt discrimination” (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii). To be sure, classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that women and men are sufficiently the same that they have the “same political interests,” in particular the interest in being treated as a self-owner (McElroy 2002, 14–15). But, for some equity feminists, biological differences between the sexes largely explain the sex segregation in the workplace and in family roles still common in countries like the United States (Epstein 2002; Lehrman 1997, 5, 31).

Other equity feminists think biological sex differences alone do not explain this phenomenon (Young 2004). Women's preferences may reflect the effects of socialization or incentives: for example women may be socialized to prefer stereotypically female roles, or the rewards associated with such roles for women may provide motivation for women to take them up. But equity feminists hold that, because women are not legally required, or actually forced in some other way, to choose traditional roles, their choices are not coerced, and thus state remedies are inappropriate. On the equity feminist view, a law prohibiting women to become surgeons is coercive because it constitutes a threat of loss of liberty or property. But if one is socialized to prefer stay-at-home motherhood, or one discovers that one prefers to stay home with children given the other real options, one may still choose to become a surgeon without risking loss of liberty or property. As Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth put it (using the word“prevents” in a very strong sense): “Nothingprevents women from choosing the surgical specialty”(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, 60; my emphasis).

2.2.2 Feminism's Nonpolitical Role

While equity feminists hold that feminism's political task—securing for women the right to freedom from coercive interference—is nearly completed, some equity feminists believe that feminism has a nonpolitical role to play in women's personal lives. In its nonpolitical role, feminism can help women to develop character traits and strategies that will help them benefit from their freedom; and it can help women to navigate personally among their increasing options.

Karen Lehrman writes: “Men have typically held title to quite a few traits that women can now put to good use. In addition to ambition, assertiveness, and independence, there's also decisiveness” (Lehrman 1997, 33; see also 62). Other character traits emphasized by equity feminists include“self-confidence” (Stevens et al. 2002, 255), being able to think and argue independently (McElroy 1998a), and taking responsibility for oneself (Taylor 1992, 86). Some equity feminists suggest that feminism offers individual women and men the opportunity for freedom from conformity with sex roles (Lehrman 1997, 6; Taylor 1992, 23–24).

Equity feminists recommend strategies for success for women in education and employment as alternatives to state regulation. In male dominated fields, for example, equity feminists recommend that women mentor one another, or organize supportive associations, making use of the techniques of 1960's feminism like consciousness-raising (Taylor 1992, 100–101). In What You Can Do About Sexual Harassment When You Don't Want to Call the Cops, Joan Kennedy Taylor argues that women can avoid sexual harassment or lessen its impact if they learn to diffuse conflicts with men and understand the role of sexual banter in male culture (Taylor 1999). Equity feminists also recommend that women make full use of their right to contract by turning their preferences—for example the preference for being paid and/or promoted on the basis of one's job performance and not on the basis of sexual favors—into rights through contract (Epstein 2002, 40; Taylor 1992, 169).

Some equity feminists stress that women need not give up their gender difference to benefit from their freedom (Lehrman 1997, 198). As Karen Lehrman writes, “completing the feminist revolution… primarily involves [women] completing their own personal evolutions” (35). Lehrman quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton:“the strongest reason for giving woman a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage of custom, dependence, superstition …is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life” (Lehrman 1997, 201). An important part of this individual life, on Lehrman's view, is navigating among sexual difference and sameness in the personal construction of a satisfying life.

2.2.3 Socially Conservative Equity Feminism

Some equity feminists are socially conservative (Morse 2001; Sommers 2000). To be sure, equity feminism as described here is a form of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. As such it involves the claim that traditional values should not be imposed on citizens by the state. For example, the state should not tax citizens to support institutions that promote traditional values, nor should the criminal or civil law create incentives for adherence to such values. But some equity feminists hold that it is best when citizens voluntarily adhere to traditional values. They hold that widespread voluntary adherence to traditional values is conducive to well-being in society because traditional values make possible the reproduction of independent and “self-restraining citizens” which are “the basis of free institutions, both economic and political” (Morse 2001, 161).

Socially conservative equity feminists do not take the classical liberal or libertarian theory of the limits of state power to imply endorsement of a libertine cultural ethos. So, for example, while socially conservative equity feminists hold that the state should not force citizens to accept traditional family forms (because individuals have a right against such coercive interference), they hold that society should strongly discourage disfavored ways of life and encourage favored ones through noncoercive, nonstate means. Socially conservative equity feminists hold that when feminism strays from its political role of assuring equal rights and ventures into women's personal lives it tends to discourage in women the kinds of delayed gratification and self-sacrifice on which vital social institutions, like the family, depend (Morse 2001, 133).

To be sure, there are political conservatives who take equity feminism's claim that women and men should be treated the same by the law as a rule of thumb. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is an example of such a political conservative (Fox-Genovese 1991; 1996). The difference between political conservatives who embrace the equity feminist account of women's equality and socially conservative equity feminists is that the former endorse the use of state power to promote traditional values while the latter do not. Also, socially conservative equity feminists hold that individuals' political rights derive from their status as self-owners (Morse 2001, 57) while political conservatives hold that citizens' political rights derive from their status as members of communities (Fox-Genovese 1991, 9). In contemporary popular political discourse it is often hard to distinguish these two, as they are in political coalition. To appeal to both libertarian and socially conservative constituencies, on occasion theorists help themselves to a bit of both traditions. For example, Jennifer Roback Morse identifies herself as a libertarian: “When the topic is the proper relationship between the individual and the state, libertarianism is pretty much the right path” (Morse 2001, 4). She tells us that “the moral and ethical system underlying the polity must be secured outside the political process itself” (124). But she also makes the un-libertarian and politically conservative recommendation that the state should intervene in personal relationships by making it “costly to divorce” (164, see also 104, 111).

2.3 Cultural Libertarian Feminism

Cultural libertarianism is a form of classical liberalism or libertarianism that is “concerned about constraints on individual freedom from government as well as from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions-the same civil institutions that conservatives see as necessary for ordered liberty to thrive”(Young 2007). Cultural libertarian feminism holds that these institutions reflect the patriarchal nature of society and are oppressive of women. Thus cultural libertarian feminism recognizes sources of women's oppression other than the state (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources). As Charles Johnson and Roderick Long put it, patriarchal culture and the state are “interlocking systems of oppression” (Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources), both of which should be opposed by feminists. They explain: “There is nothing inconsistent or un-libertarian in holding that women's choices under patriarchal social structures can be sufficiently ‘voluntary,’ in the libertarian sense, to be entitled to immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the same time being sufficiently ‘involuntary,’ in a broader sense, to be recognized as morally problematic and as a legitimate target of social activism” (Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources).

Calling this view “anarchist feminism,” Sharon Presley writes: “What the anarchist feminists are calling for is a radical restructuring of society, both in its public and private institutions” (Presley 2000). Such feminists hold that much of the oppression women currently suffer is noncoercive, however. Laws against prostitution are coercive—the state can put a violator in jail or force her to pay a fine. But on the cultural libertarian feminist view, much of the pressure to conform to gender roles is not coercive. Noncoercive oppression can be resisted, although it is often not easy to do so. Cultural libertarian feminists hold that noncoercive oppression should not be remedied by the state (see also Tomasi 2009). As Presley and Kinsky explain, on the cultural libertarian view, to try to remedy the noncoercive oppression of women with coercive state action “just changes the sort of oppression, not the fact” (Presley and Kinsky 1991, 78). This oppression should be opposed by a nonviolent movement for feminist social change.

Cultural libertarian feminists target the patriarchal culture by, for example, developing in individuals (especially women) the ability to be independent. This involves enabling individuals to resist authority and think for themselves (Presley 2001). Cultural libertarian feminists also recommend the development of more deeply consensual relationships and institutions (Heckert 2004—see Other Internet Resources), relationships and institutions in which there is an equality of authority (Long 2001—see Other Internet Resources). While some equity feminists (see section 1.2) would applaud this work, they would call it “personal,” reserving the term “political” for the work of securing for women their right against coercive interference. Equity feminist Wendy McElroy writes: “I understand that there is a cultural form of feminism and many women would still fight for improved prestige or status, and I wouldn't criticis[e] them for doing so. It just wouldn't grip me. Guess I'm a political animal after all”(McElroy 1998c). But cultural libertarian feminists consider this work to be an integral part of a larger political struggle for women's freedom.

2.4 Sources

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists understand themselves as heirs to the first generation of feminist political philosophers, for example Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and John Stuart Mill (Taylor 1992, 25–39); the first generation of feminist political reformers in the United States, for example the abolitionist feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimke (McElroy 2002, 6–7); and the tradition of 19th century anarchist feminism, including figures such as Voltairine de Cleyre (McElroy 2002, 8; Presley 2000; Presley and Sartwell 2005). Equity feminists stress the extent to which these early thinkers and activists identify women's liberation with equal respect for women's right against coercive interference (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 1–2). Cultural libertarian feminists emphasize the extent to which these thinkers and activists challenged both coercive state power and the patriarchal culture (Presley 2000; Johnson and Long 2005—see Other Internet Resources).

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminists hold that “the very arguments that rightly led to the legal reforms affecting the status of women during the 19th century militate against the demands for reform from the late 20th century women's movement” (Epstein 2002, 30). That is, they hold that the defense of equal rights and independence for women promulgated by these early feminists is incompatible with the tendency of the contemporary women's movement to call on the state to improve the lives of women.

2.5 Anti-Discrimination Law and Preferential Treatment

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism requires same treatment of women and men under just law. This means that sex discrimination by the state, for example when the state functions as an employer, is impermissible (Block 1991, 102; Epstein 2002, 34; Warnick 2003, 1608). But classical-liberal or libertarian feminists oppose laws that prohibit discrimination against women by nonstate actors, for example in employment, education, public accommodations, or associations (McElroy 1991a, 22–23; Epstein 1992). They hold that the interaction of citizens should be subject to state control only to the extent necessary to protect citizens' right against coercive interference. Businesses violate citizens' right against coercive interference if they steal from their customers or employees; associations violate it if they extort their members; colleges violate it if they kidnap students. But businesses do not violate this right if they refuse to do business with women, pay women less for the same work, or create a working environment that is hostile to them because of their sex. Private educational institutions do not violate this right if they refuse to educate girls or women, offer them an inferior education, or create a learning environment that is hostile to them because of their sex. Business and professional associations do not violate this right if they refuse to admit women as members or make them feel unwelcome because of their sex.

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism, as described here, clearly implies rejection of legal prohibition of private discrimination in employment, education, public accommodations, and associations. But in the literature one finds a range of views. Some categorically reject any legal protection against private discrimination (Taylor 1992, 62). Others accept basic protections such as those afforded in U.S. law by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972; but reject more robust protections, such as non-remedial affirmative action or comparable worth (Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 179; see also 107–108).

Classical-liberal or libertarian feminism holds that private businesses, educational institutions, and associations are free to give or withhold preferential treatment to women. But the state may not treat women preferentially because the state must treat citizens the same regardless of sex. Nor may the state require that private businesses, educational institutions, or associations treat women preferentially. This is because, on the equity feminist view, failure to treat women preferentially is not a violation of anyone's right against coercive interference. Examples of preferential treatment under the law, which classical-liberal or libertarian feminists oppose, include affirmative action in employment and education (Lehrman 1997, 25), comparable worth (Paul 1989), and advantages for women in the legal treatment of custody and domestic violence (Simon 2002).

While equity feminists resist state remedies for private discrimination against women, they also hold that such discrimination is not currently a serious problem in countries like the United States (see section 1.2.1). In addition, they argue, “even where discrimination may exist, we find little, if any, evidence that expanded government intervention would serve any useful purpose”(Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 1999, xii), and speculate that freer markets would make whatever discrimination currently takes place even more rare (McElroy 2002a, 187).

2.6 Justification

Why should individuals be treated as self-owners? Much of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature, especially the equity feminist literature, is written for public policy and popular audiences. Thus more attention is paid to implications and policy applications than to philosophical justification. Several justifications are mentioned in the literature. Kirp, Yudoff, and Franks, for example, refer to Kant's categorical imperative and claim that treating individuals as self-owners is what is meant by treating individuals as ends in themselves ((Kirp et al. 1986, 13–14). Wendy McElroy grounds her thought in the natural law tradition (McElroy 1998b). Some imply a perfectionist justification according to which the perfection of the human being requires being treated as a self-owner (Presley 2001).

By far the most common argument in the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist literature is consequentialist. The argument says that the political arrangements recommended by classical-liberalism or libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives, will provide women with more of what is good for them: for example safety, income and wealth, choices, and options. Liberalizing guns laws will make women safer (Stevens, et al. 2002); legalizing prostitution and porn will improve the lives of women in those trades (Almodovar 2002; Strossen 2000) and open opportunities for others; freer markets will root out discrimination against women and stimulate the proliferation of amenities essential to working women, like daycare centers (Epstein 2002, 33; Paul 2002, 208–209; Stolba and Furchtgott-Roth 2001, 124, 180; Conway 1998). Indeed, some argue that liberalizing the market will release such an “explosion of prosperity” that women will not need help from a welfare state (Long 1997—see Other Internet Resources).

2.7 Criticism

Some critics take aim at the consequentialist argument offered in support of classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. The consequentialist argument says that the political arrangements recommended by classical-liberalism or libertarianism, as compared with the alternatives, will provide women with more of what is good for them. Following Ashlie Warnick, we can distinguish the claim that particular liberty-restricting policies are bad for women (and that some liberty-enhancing policies are good for women) from the claim that all liberty-restricting policies harm women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be better for women overall (Warnick 2003). It is surely possible to cite liberty-restricting policies that are bad for women—laws limiting women's employment options—and thus to cite liberty-enhancing policies that are good for women—not having such laws. But it is also possible to cite liberty-restricting policies that are good for women—for example the legal prohibition against sex discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations (which classical-liberal or libertarian feminists recommend dismantling (see section 2.5)). Of course, if sex discrimination is rare, as some classical-liberal or libertarian feminists contend (see section 2.2.1), laws prohibiting it will not produce much benefit. But, as liberal feminists Deborah Rhode and Ann Cudd argue sex discrimination is all too common (Rhode 1997, 156; Cudd 2006, 140–142). Think also of the classical-liberal or libertarian feminist recommendation that women and men be treated exactly the same by the state (see sections 2.1 and 2.5). While different treatment can stigmatize and entrench stereotypes, same treatment can disadvantage women if they are not similarly situated to men—which, arguably, is the case (Minow 1990). So the larger case—that all liberty-restricting policies harm women, or that a minimal state (or no state) would be better for women overall—has not been made convincingly (Warnick 2003). Another concern about the larger case is that much of the support offered is speculative, for example Roderick Long's assertion that “the explosion of prosperity that a libertarian society would see would go a long way toward providing women with an economic safety net more effective than any government welfare program” (Long 1997—see Other Internet Resources).

In addition to the consequentialist argument, classical-liberal or libertarian feminists offer an argument from principle. According to this argument, regardless of the consequences, women and men should be treated as self-owners with rights to property justly acquired and to freedom from coercive interference because this is what they deserve as ends in themselves, or because this is what moral insight teaches, or because this is what their perfection requires (see section 2.6). In short, the claim is that the dignity of women and men depends on their being treated as self-owners.

Critics urge us to consider that all human beings are utterly dependent on the care of others for many years at the start of life; many come to need the care of others due to temporary or permanent disability later in life; and many require care as they become infirm at the end of life. Those who provide care for those who cannot care for themselves will also find themselves dependent on others for material support. These are enduring features of any human community. Thus all individuals have a high priority interest in receiving care when it is needed (Kittay 1999; Nussbaum 2000). As liberal feminist Susan Okin argues, a theory that ignores this interest must assume that there is a “realm of private life in which the reproductive and nurturant needs of human beings are taken care of” (Okin 1989, 75). This assumption hides the fact that it is women who typically satisfy this interest, and do so often without pay and at great sacrifice to themselves. This renders classical-liberalism or libertarianism, including its feminist versions, blind to the nature of obligations to, and entitlements of, children and others who require care. In addition, because caring labor is hidden from view, it becomes impossible to evaluate the justice of the arrangements under which the interest in receiving care is commonly satisfied. This suggests that freedom from coercive interference fails to capture what human dignity requires. At the very least, that dignity requires the right to care when one is unable to care for oneself and the right to a share of resources if one is charged with providing care for those who require it.

In a related criticism, Okin argues that classical-liberal or libertarian views are self-refuting. If individuals have a right to control their bodies and own the fruits of their labor, then women—who presumably make children from resources that have been given to them freely or were bought by them—own their children (Nozick 1974; Okin 1989, 80, 81; see also Jeske 1996; and Andersson 2007). But if women own their children, and everyone begins as a child, then no one owns herself (Okin 1989, 85).

Jennifer Roback Morse, herself a classical-liberal or libertarian feminist, concedes: “I think it is well to admit… that our inattention to family life and community responsibility has left libertarians open to the charge that we do not care very much about these matters” (Morse 2001, 28).

Liberal criticism of the argument from principle begins by noting that the liberties championed by classical-liberals and libertarians are valuable because of what they make it possible for individuals to be and do. But it is not liberties alone which facilitate our being and doing what we value. We require also, at least, adequate material resources, genuine opportunities, and standing as an equal in society (Rawls 1971; Rawls 1993). What is needed is a basic structure of society, including property rules, that secures these. Thus freedom from coercive interference fails to capture what human dignity requires.

Critics have also taken aim at the treatment of oppression in classical-liberal or libertarian feminism. Recall that equity feminism holds that women are oppressed when the state fails to protect them, as a group, from sustained and systematic rights violations. Recall also that for equity feminists the only rights that create coercible duties are the rights to justly acquired property and freedom from coercive interference. Equity feminists argue that, in western countries like the United States, women are not oppressed because the state protects these rights of women. It should be conceded that much violence against women which was, in the past, tolerated or condoned is now unambiguously prohibited. But, critics contend, violence against women remains all too common in western countries, and thus it is premature to suggest that women are not oppressed, that is, are not effectively protected against sustained and systematic rights violations (Rhode 1997, 120; see also Cudd 2006, 93ff).

As we have seen, cultural libertarian feminists criticize equity feminism for ignoring significant, though perhaps more subtle, constraints on women's individual freedom that stem “from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions” (Young 2007). Cultural libertarian feminists recommend social activism, not state power, as a remedy for this oppression. Liberal feminists disagree, arguing that state power is legitimately used to ensure the fair value of women's liberties and opportunities. Think here, for example, of the liberal feminist claim that workplaces should be structured by law so that care-givers are not disadvantaged, given the “traditionalist familial, religious and community” pressure on women to assume caregiving responsibilities for dependent family members (see section 1.1.4). Think also of the liberal feminist claim that the education of girls must ensure the development of their autonomy (see section 1.1.4).

As we have seen, while cultural libertarian feminists are culturally liberal, some classical-liberal feminists are culturally conservative. They content that classical-liberalism or libertarianism must call for voluntary adherence to traditional morality because that morality is necessary for the reproduction of citizens capable of independence and self-restraint. Critics respond that the traditional morality championed by cultural conservatives disadvantages women and girls in myriad ways. Think here, for example, of how the traditional nuclear family places on women a disproportionate and disadvantaging share of the burdens of reproduction (Okin 1989). Socially conservative equity feminists are untroubled by this disadvantage as long as it is voluntarily chosen. Some nonliberal feminists argue that the fact that a political philosophy grounded in the value of voluntary choice is compatible with traditions and institutions that disadvantage women shows that feminism should not be so grounded (Jaggar 1983, 194; Yuracko 2003, 25–26). Liberal feminists embrace the value of voluntary choice for feminism, but argue that women often cannot exercise it, because sexist socialization and a homogeneous culture render them incapable of critically assessing their preferences and imagining life otherwise (Meyers 2004; Cornell 1998; Cudd 2006). Indeed, if critical thinking is necessary for freedom but corrosive of tradition, cultural conservatives must be wary of freedom. Thus there is a tension within culturally conservative equity feminism between the emphasis on voluntariness and the value of tradition. (For related criticism, see Loudermilk 2004, 149–172).

To summarize, critics suggest that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism is not adequately supported by a consequentialist case; fails to recognize our obligations to those who cannot care for themselves; hides from view the way in which the work of care is distributed in society; denies that state power should be used to ensure equality of opportunity for women and women's equal standing in society; and (cultural libertarianism excepted) is uncritical of traditional social arrangements that limit and disadvantage women. For reasons such as these, some have argued that classical-liberal or libertarian feminism counts as neither feminist nor liberal (Minnich 1998; see also Freeman 1998).


Liberal Feminism Works

Works Cited

  • Abbey, Ruth (2013). ‘Biography of a Bibliography: Three Decades of Feminist Response to Rawls.‘ In Abbey (2013).
  • ––– (2011). The Return of Feminist Liberalism. Montreal & Kingston: Mcgill-Queens University Press.
  • ––– (2007). ‘Back Toward a Comprehensive Liberalism? Justice as Fairness, Gender and Families.‘ Political Theory 35: 5–28.
  • Abbey, Ruth (ed.) (2013). Feminist Interpretations of Rawls. College Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Alstott, Linda (2004). No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Anderson, Elizabeth (2009). ‘Toward a Non-Ideal, Relational Methodology for Political Philosophy: Comments on Schwarzman's Challenging Liberalism.‘ Hypatia 24: 130–145.
  • Antony, Louise and Charlotte Witt (eds.) (1993). A Mind of One's Own. Oxford: Westview.
  • Baehr, Amy R. (2013). ‘Liberal Feminism: Comprehensive and Political.‘ In Abbey (2013).
  • ––– (2008). ‘Perfectionism, Feminism, and Public Reason.’ Law and Philosophy 27: 193–222.
  • ––– (2004). ‘Feminist Politics and Feminist Pluralism: Can We Do Feminist Political Theory without Theories of Gender?’ Journal of Political Philosophy 12: 411–436.
  • ––– (1996). ‘Towards a New Feminist Liberalism: Okin, Rawls, and Habermas.’ Hypatia 11: 49–66. Reprinted in The Philosophy of Rawls: A Collection of Essays, vol. 3 Henry S. Richardson and Paul J. Weithman, eds. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999): 295–312.
  • Baehr, Amy R. (ed.) (2004). Varieties of Feminist Liberalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Barclay, Linda (2013). ‘Liberal Daddy Quotas: Why Men Should Take Care of the Children, and How Liberals Can Get Them to Do It.’ Hypatia 28:163–178.
  • Benhabib, Seyla (1992). Situating the Self. New York: Routledge.
  • Bhandary, Asha (2010). ‘Dependency in Justice: Can Rawlsian Liberalism Accommodate Kittay's Dependency Critique? ’ Hypatia 25: 140–156.

Image: “Gov. Sarah Palin in Dover, NH” by Roger H. Goun via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Despite a brief reality show and tabloid-making children, Sarah Palin has been keeping a relatively low profile in the political arena since her 2008 Republican vice president ticket. But her reemergence in January alongside Republican front-runner Donald Trump has brought her back onto the political stage as a prominent female figure.

Palin has undoubtedly had her fair share of headlines and quotable moments when speaking on domestic and international policies, and it is certain that her media presence during the 2016 race will provide the same. Yet it is her advocating for “conservative feminism” rather than  typical Republican policy that has brought up a less publicized discussion on what it means to be a feminist within the broader feminist community.

“Conservative feminism” (which has also been called “Sarah Palin Feminism,” “Tea-Party Feminism,” and “Pro-Life Feminism”) was carved out of “second-wave” feminism to refer to those who believe in upholding the social structure of traditional “family values” and anti-abortion laws. For most proponents of the feminist movement, the notion that someone could be anti-abortion yet still label themselves as a “feminist” is an oxymoron.

Palin is perhaps the most public of figures that has latched onto this “conservative feminist” ideology and brought it into mainstream American society. Her promotion of what she calls an “emerging, conservative feminist identity” has given many conservative women the opportunity to claim the “F-word” as their own when they otherwise would have never dared to before. Under the guise that this “new feminism” allows women to raise children and lead fulfilling professional lives, Palin has, in a sense, broadened the scope of feminism, but not without skepticism.

There are many ways in which Palin’s logic is erroneous, namely in her claims that pro-choice advocates undermine a woman’s ability to have a successful professional and family life. In her book “America by Heart,” Palin claims that the second-wave feminists of Gloria Steinem’s ideologies are obsessed with rape and domestic abuse. She counters this by asserting that this “new” feminism should teach women to be “capable” and “strong,” seeming to associate assault with weakness.

As a liberal feminist, I am a strong proponent of the liberal agenda: pro-choice, economic equality, independence, planned parenthood, etc. My visceral reaction upon even hearing the title of “Pro-Life Feminism” made me cringe, doubting there could be any reconciliation between these diametrically opposed ideologies. There is a major problem, however, in my denying the overall legitimacy of conservative feminism as a movement: I was unintentionally limiting the already increasingly narrow definition of what it means to be a “true feminist,” and this is particularly problematic.

To be clear, in absolutely no way do I believe that we should maintain anti-abortion laws in order to refrain from undermining the encompassing nature of the feminist movement. I can’t really find any point for agreement on most of Palin’s seemingly contradictory arguments. That being said, if Sarah Palin wants to endorse herself as a feminist, then by all means she needs no approval to be one.

If feminism, in its most popular summation, is the equality of men and women, then doesn’t the broadest sense of the word come down to a matter of women making their own unabridged choices? Does Sarah Palin, in wanting to pursue and promote a different course of womanhood, not have a right to do so? Her opinions are clearly disagreeable to most, but they also make me question how far the “feminist” label can be stretched.

I’m also not saying we all should rally behind “Sarah Palin Feminism,” nor do I think that “Sarah Palin Feminists” feel that we should either. The debate surrounding the legitimacy of conservative feminism has mainly consisted of an endless circle of relentless devil’s advocates poking holes in the theories of a concept that has no universal definition. We may not think that conservative feminism has a place in politics, but maybe it’s okay for all self-identified feminists have their own definition of what it means to empower women.

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