‘Liberal’ Feminism

Part Two: Strategies for Change

1. ‘Liberal’ Feminism

So what methods need to be employed in order to achieve women’s liberation? Throughout the history of the struggle for women’s rights, different analyses of the causes of women’s oppression have given rise to differing strategies for change. In what is often referred to as the ‘first wave of feminism’, initiated by women from the middle class and the growing capitalist class in the mid-19th century, the main emphasis was placed on securing change through legal reform. They challenged the ruling ideology, backed up by law, which decreed that there should be separate spheres for men and women and that married women were the property of their husbands. They fought for the right to have control over their own earnings and property, to have custody of their children after divorce and for divorce to be made more accessible. They also campaigned for higher education and for the professions to be opened up to women and, of course, for the right to vote. In general, although some were sympathetic to the plight of working-class women, their main concern was achieving equal rights with men of their own class within the existing economic and social framework.

The idea that discrimination can be eliminated and that women can obtain equality through gradual, incremental reforms within the confines of capitalism has been a constant theme in the struggle for women’s rights and continues to hold sway today. Equality can be achieved, it is argued, through promoting legislation which eliminates discrimination and ensures equal opportunities, through educating, raising awareness and challenging prejudice, and promoting women into positions of power and influence.

Women on top

Even after years of important legal and social gains for women it is certainly still the case today that the main levers of power and control in society are in the hands of men. Women still constitute a minority in most national parliaments and on the governing bodies of global institutions like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Photo opportunities reveal a sea of men in uniform suits interspersed with just the occasional woman. In the boardrooms of the major international companies and financial institutions it is still men who predominate.

In such a male-dominated world it is hardly surprising that securing important positions for women has become a key demand of many of those who want to achieve equality. For some, this is because they view women’s natures, whether biologically or socially constructed, as different from or superior to those of men. Women are considered less aggressive and less confrontational. If there were more women global leaders, it is claimed, there would be less war and violence in the world.

For others, it is not women’s nature that is the key but the fact that individual women will, they believe, act in the interest of their sex as a whole once they are in influential positions, in the same way that men appear to do today.

Where women have managed to achieve ‘high office’, however, this has not necessarily been the case. Notoriously, Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. In the 11 years that she held this post she presided over a vicious programme of neo-liberal attacks which had terrible repercussions for the working class in general and for millions of working-class women of her ‘own sex’ in particular. Public-sector jobs were slashed, nurseries and other services closed down and single parents vilified.

It is true that Thatcher was a particularly ‘aggressive’ and ‘confrontational’ politician who never claimed to be a promoter of women’s rights. But it is not the individual nature of the person in power or their sex which is important – what matters is which class interests they represent. There are undoubtedly female chief executives and managers of companies who would consider themselves ‘feminists’. But at the end of the day, private companies exist to make a profit and when those profits are threatened the capitalist ‘market’ compels them to take whatever measures are necessary, however ruthless, in order to survive. If that means sacking workers or driving down their wages and conditions they will attempt to do so, regardless of whether those workers are male or female.

Similarly, female capitalist politicians who are elected on a platform of defending women’s rights are ultimately in government to defend the interests of the capitalist class. While they may introduce some legislative changes which favour women in general, in areas such as domestic violence for example, at the same time the capitalists demand from their political representatives economic and social policies which attack the jobs and services which working-class, and many middle-class women rely on. Real and lasting change for those women would only be possible if the capitalist system as a whole was challenged, which these capitalist feminist politicians are unprepared to do.

‘Post’-feminism

In the 1990s a number of ‘post-feminists’ declared that equality for women was just around the corner. Women had gained a whole host of reforms which meant that there were no longer any legal obstacles holding them back. Girls were outperforming boys in school, women were breaking into the professions and increasingly assuming positions of power and authority. The main barrier to women’s equality was not the economic and social system or the ‘patriarchy’ but the attitude of women themselves. For too long, they argued, feminism had portrayed women as ‘victims’. In order to become ‘empowered’ women needed to shake off the mantle of ‘victimhood’ and grasp the new opportunities which were opening up for them.1

With their emphasis on individual self-improvement rather than collective struggle, these ideas mirrored those of the neo-liberal governments in Britain and the US in particular, which stressed the need for individuals to take more responsibility for their own actions and lives. The dominant ideology stressed that if women were not successful then it was because of their own individual inadequacies rather than those of the capitalist system. Women needed to change themselves rather than change society.

There was a limited attempt by some ‘old feminists’ to challenge the ‘new feminist’ ideas which were gaining ground, particularly in the media. In her book, The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer relentlessly catalogued the discrimination and oppression which women continue to suffer.2 But hers was a one-sided analysis, with little acknowledgement of the enormous economic and social changes which had taken place since the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

‘Post-feminist’ ideas are partly based on material reality. Women have achieved many gains in their struggle for equal rights and discrimination is formally prohibited in most advanced capitalist countries. Social attitudes towards the role of women in society have been transformed in a relatively short period of time, with most people now accepting, for example, that women should work outside the home. Relationships between men and women have not been immune to these changes and it is undoubtedly the case that a layer of women feel more ‘empowered’ both economically and sexually. Many women, especially those who are young and well educated, feel that they are just as good if not better than men. While they are often aware of the wider inequalities which still exist in society, they remain confident that they will succeed as individuals.

Some will. But for most working-class women, however determined they might be, the struggle for self-improvement is constantly restricted by the barrier of economic and material inequalities which are an integral part of capitalism. The working-class woman who cannot afford to pay for childcare usually has no choice but to reluctantly take a low status, low-paid, part-time job. The lone parent who wants to go to university to improve her ‘life chances’ is held back by cutbacks in student grants, hikes in tuition fees and crèche closures.

As the gap between rich and poor internationally has grown ever wider, a gulf has also opened up between those women who have managed to climb the economic ladder, if not to the top then at least towards the higher rungs, and those women who still remain near or at the bottom. But, of course, even those women who do manage to take advantage of economic and social changes to improve their own situation are still subject to the wider sexual and cultural oppression which all women face.

Socialist transformation

Underpinned by inequality, exploitation and oppression, capitalism is incapable of bringing about the liberation of women. While it is possible to fight for and win some improvements in women’s’ lives, the underlying crisis of the capitalist system means that those gains are limited and constantly under attack. Real liberation, therefore, cannot be achieved through a gradual, piecemeal transformation of the current system but requires a revolutionary change in the way that society is organised and structured. Because of the double oppression which they experience under capitalism, both as women and as workers, working-class women have a particular interest in changing society. But by eliminating all inequalities of wealth, power and authority socialism would lay the basis for the liberation of all women.

Footnotes: 

1 Naomi Wolf, op. cit.

2 Doubleday, 1999

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