Lauren Fitzharris, Pierce Marra, and Vivian Niemi
Different from pre-existing feminist branches like anarcha and radical feminism, liberal feminism focuses on less extreme approaches to reform leaving room for future adaptations to politics and everyday living. Liberal feminism sets itself apart from the other feminist ideologies with its yearning for “political and legal reform within the framework of a liberal democracy and informed by a human-rights perspective” (Wikipedia 2023). Liberal feminism’s infrastructure was designed to be malleable as women gained political and personal autonomy overtime, consequently establishing it as one of the most recognized forms of feminism today (Baehr 2021).
Liberal feminism began to take shape in the late 1700s as women began to advocate for individual liberty. Founding figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, and Judith Sargent Murray advocated for female political inclusion with hopes to reduce discrimination towards women and therefore increase women’s rights. It was early liberal feminists that began drawing parallels between sex discrimination and race discrimination, such as John Stuart Mill, one of the first documented men to be interpreted as a liberal feminist. Mill advocated for equal rights for both sexes under law. In his book The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that without equal rights, women do not have the opportunity to be sufficient in marriages, society, or academia.
Three centuries later, modern liberal feminists like Vice President Kamala Harris, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Malala Yousafzai are still advocating for equal rights today. With the right to vote now in American women’s hands, many liberal feminists have swung their focus to other political reforms like the right to abortion, equal pay, and the general escape from gender norms while maintaining an emphasis on legal and social reform rather than total radical anarchy. Instead of demanding complete abolishment of the patriarchy, liberal feminists look to build an equal society, one legal reform at a time.
Protestors call for unification in the sex work industry at a 2019 rally, aiming to strengthen and protect the industry.
Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP, 2019
Historically, liberal feminism was spearheaded by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As a U.S. Supreme Court justice, RBG had access to create political reforms in order to advocate for the feminist movement. In 1972, eleven years before she became a justice, Ginsburg founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which prioritized correcting injustice on the basis of sex (American Civil Liberties Union 2007). One of the most significant cases that the Women’s Rights Project worked with was Reed v. Reed, a case that addressed a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment— in this case, the automatic preference of men over women (Wikipedia 2023). Divorcees Salley and Cecil Reed met in court to decide who was to gain the estate of their late son and dispute the Idaho code stating that men were preferred over women in this situation. The case reached the Supreme Court, its fate being that the code was unconstitutional and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Today, liberal feminists are still fighting with the U.S. government to achieve equal rights for women. Most recently, liberal feminists were united in the wake of the shocking overturn of Roe V. Wade. On June 24th, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overruled the bill, thus placing women’s reproductive rights in the hands of individual states. This power change has left “22 million women of reproductive age” without access to a safe abortion (Damante & Jones 2023). This injustice has led present day liberal feminists to unite in order to protest for corrective legal action and women’s rights in general.
This unison provides confidence in the future of liberal feminism. Many women are realizing the most effective route to change, no matter how long it takes, is through legal reform supported by the United States government. Liberal feminism was designed for anyone who believes that women should have equal personal and political autonomy protected by law no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, or religion.
Pro-choice rally in the streets of New York City, 2022.
Photo Credits: Desiree Rios, NYT, 2022
Baehr, Amy R. 2021. “Liberal Feminism.” Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2021. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-liberal/#ClasLibeFemi.
Damante, Becca, and Kierra Jones. 2023. “A Year after the Supreme Court Overturned Roe v. Wade, Trends in State Abortion Laws Have Emerged.” Center for American Progress. June 15, 2023. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/a-year-after-the-supreme-court-overturned-roe-v-wade-trends-in-state-abortion-laws-have-emerged/.
“FAQs: The ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Women’s History Month.” 2007. American Civil Liberties Union. 2007. https://www.aclu.org/documents/faqs-aclu-womens-rights-project-and-womens-history-month#:~:text=The%20ACLU%27s%20Women%27s%20Rights%20Project.
Grant, Melissa Gira. 2019. “Liberal Feminism Has a Sex Work Problem.” The New Republic. October 24, 2019. https://newrepublic.com/article/155481/liberal-feminism-sex-work-problem.
Hopkins, Sarah. 2013. “‘It’s Time for One of Us’: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of ‘It’s Time for One of Us’: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s First Term in Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s First Term in Congress.” https://openworks.wooster.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12013&context=independentstudy.
“Thousands Protest End of Constitutional Right to Abortion.” The New York Times, June 24, 2022, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/06/24/us/roe-wade-abortion-supreme-court.
Lazo, Azad. 2022. “The Story of Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Equal Right to Education.” Culture Project for Art, Feminism and Gender. March 19, 2022. https://cultureproject.org.uk/the-story-of-malala-the-girl-who-stood-up-for-equal-right-to-education-2/#:~:text=After%20campaigning%20for%20changes%20within.
“Liberal Feminism.” 2023. Wikipedia. September 22, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_feminism#:~:text=to%20gender%20feminism.-.
Parveen, Sadie. 2021. “The Feminist Case against Kamala Harris.” Sunstroke Magazine. May 22, 2021. https://www.sunstrokemagazine.com/archive/2021/5/22/the-feminist-case-against-kamala-harris.
“Reed v. Reed.” 2023. Wikipedia. September 13, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_v._Reed#:~:text=In%20Reed%20v.