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Liberal feminism asserts the equality of men and women through political and legal reform. It is an individualistic form of feminism and theory, which focuses on women’s ability to show and maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. Liberal feminism looks at the personal interactions of men and women as the starting ground from which to transform society into a more gender-equitable place.

Liberal feminism tends to have a neutral vision towards different gender; it requires women to mold themselves to fit a citizenship that it perceived to have already been constructed in the welfare of certain men. Frequent criticisms of liberal feminism that suggest it overemphasizes equality, causing it to fail as a response to development of women’s citizenship. According to liberal feminists, all women are capable of asserting their ability to achieve equality, therefore it is possible for change to happen without altering the structure of society. Issues important to liberal feminists include reproductive rights and abortion access, sexual harassment, voting, education, fair compensation for work, affordable childcare, affordable health care, and bringing to light the frequency of sexual and domestic violence against women.[1] Susan Wendell, who is not a liberal feminist herself, proclaimed that contemporary liberal feminism is "committed to major economic re-organization and considerable redistribution of wealth, since one of the modern political goals most closely associated with liberal feminism is equality of opportunity which would undoubtedly require and lead to both." [2]

Liberal feminists generally work for the eradication of institutional bias and the implementation of better laws. In the United States, liberal feminists have historically worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment or Constitutional Equity Amendment, in the hopes it will ensure that men and women are treated as equals under the democratic laws that also influence important spheres of women's lives, including reproduction, work and equal pay issues.

Feminist writers associated with this tradition are amongst others Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill; second-wave feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; and the Third Wave feminist Rebecca Walker.

Mary Wollstonecraft has been very influential in her writings as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman commented on society's view of the woman and encouraged women to use their voices in making decisions separate from decisions previously made for her. Woolstonecraft "denied that women are, by nature, more pleasure seeking and pleasure giving than men. She reasoned that if they were confined to the same cages that trap women, men would develop the same flawed characters. What Wollstonecraft most wanted for women was personhood." [3]

John Stuart Mill believed that men are not intellectually above women and much of his research centered on the idea that women, in fact, are superior in knowledge than men. Mill frequently spoke of this imbalance and wondered if women were able to feel the same "genuine unselfishness" that men did in providing for their families. This unselfishness Mill advocated is the one "that motivates people to take into account the good of society as well as the good of the individual person or small family unit. [4]


Liberal feminist organizational goals

United States

Organizations and their issues

The largest liberal feminist organization in the United States is the National Organization for Women (NOW).[citation needed] Their priority issues are[5]:

  • Constitutional Equality Amendment
  • Reproductive issues and abortion access
  • Ending violence against women
  • Combating racism
  • Gay and lesbian rights
  • Economic justice
Also important
  • Immigration
  • Promotion of nominating judges with feminist viewpoints
  • Legislation
  • Legal recognition of same-sex marriages
  • Media activism
  • Mothers' economic Rights
  • Working for peace; opposition to conflicts such as the Iraq War
  • Social Security
  • Supreme Court
  • Title IX/Education
  • Welfare
  • Workplace discrimination
  • Women in the Military
  • Young feminist programs

Support for the ERA and the CEA

Some American liberal feminists believe that equality in pay, job opportunities, political structure, social security and education needs to be guaranteed by U.S. Constitution.

History of the ERA:
Three years after women won the right to vote, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress by Senator Curtis and Representative Anthony, both Republicans. It was authored by Alice Paul, head of the National Women's Party, who led the suffrage campaign. Anthony was the nephew of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Through the efforts of Alice Paul, the Amendment was introduced into each session of Congress. But it was buried in committee in both Houses of Congress. In 1946, it was narrowly defeated by the full Senate, 38-35. In February 1970 twenty NOW leaders disrupted the hearings of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, demanding the ERA be heard by the full Congress. In May of that year, the Senate Subcommittee began hearings on the ERA under Senator Birch Bayh. In June, the ERA finally left the House Judiciary Committee due to a discharge petition filed by Representative Martha Griffiths. In March 1972, the ERA was approved by the full Senate without changes — 84-8. Senator Sam Ervin and Representative Emanuel Celler succeeded in setting an arbitrary time limit of seven years for ratification. The ERA went to individual states to be ratified by the state legislatures.

In 2008, the ERA was stopped three states short of ratification. The state legislatures that were most hostile to the ERA were Utah, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Oklahoma.[citation needed] The National Organization for Women believes that the single most obvious problem in passing the ERA was the gender and racial imbalance in the legislatures. More than 2/3 of the women and all of the African Americans in state legislatures voted for the ERA, but less than 50% of the white men in the targeted legislatures cast pro-ERA votes in 1982.[6]

The CEA:
The Constitution Equality Amendment (CEA) was rolled out in 1995 by American Women's Organizations. The CEA incorporated all of the concerns that have arose out of a two year study by NOW and other groups of the ERA which reviewed the history of the amendment from 1923 until the present. The items that were included in the CEA which were missing in the ERA include:

  • Women and men shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place and entity subject to its jurisdiction;
  • rights without discrimination on account of sex, race, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, national origin, color or indigence;
  • prohibits pregnancy discrimination and guarantees the absolute right of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions including the termination of pregnancy;

People of interest

18th century

19th century



United States


The goal of liberal feminism in the United States was embodied in the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was never ratified. It said, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” – Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics, Second Edition


Critics of liberal feminism argue that its individualist assumptions make it difficult to see the ways in which they argue that underlying social structures and values disadvantage women. They argue that even if women are no longer dependent upon individual men, they are still dependent upon a patriarchal state. These critics believe that institutional changes like the introduction of women's suffrage are insufficient to emancipate women.[7]

Other critics such as black feminists and postcolonial feminists assert that mainstream liberal feminism reflects only the values of middle-class white women and has largely ignored women of different races, cultures or classes.[8]


  1. ^ hooks, bell. "Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center" Cambridge, MA: South End Press 1984
  2. ^ Wendell, Susan. "A (Qualified) Defense of Liberal Feminism," Hypatia 2, no. 2 (summer 1987): 65-94.
  3. ^ Tong, Rosemarie. "Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction" Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press 2009.
  4. ^ Tong, Rosemarie. "Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction" Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press 2009.
  5. ^ NOW Key Issues
  6. ^ Chronology of the Equal Rights Amendment, 1923-1996
  7. ^ Bryson, V. (1999): Feminist Debates: Issues of Theory and Political Practise (Basingstoke: Macmillan) pp.14-15
  8. ^ Mills, S. (1998): "Postcolonial Feminist Theory" in S. Jackson and J. Jones eds., Contemporary Feminist Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) pp.98-112

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