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Liberal Feminism: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:49 Theory
  • 2:18 Relation to the Civil…
  • 3:37 Criticism of Liberal Feminism
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson takes a look at liberal feminism and how it approaches the fight for equality between men and women. Through words and pictures, you'll put yourself in the shoes of people seeking change, and explore what you would do if your rights were in jeopardy.

Definition

Liberal feminism is a particular approach to achieving equality between men and women that emphasizes the power of an individual person to alter discriminatory practices against women. For example, pretend it's 1913, and you're walking from New York City to Washington, DC, a hike over 200 miles, because you believe in women's suffrage, or a woman's right to vote.

Over 100 years ago, participants in the Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913 took a liberal feminist approach by using their democratic right to protest to promote women's rights. And it worked! In 1920, the U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

Theory

Liberal feminism aims for individuals to use their own abilities and the democratic process to help women and men become more equal in the eyes of the law, in society and in the workplace. By organizing women into larger groups that can speak at a higher level, lobbying legislators and raising awareness of issues, liberal feminists use available resources and tools to advocate for change. As such, they stand in contrast to Marxist or socialist feminists who believe the democratic process itself needs to be changed.

For instance, what would you do if someone at work repeatedly made inappropriate remarks to you or your coworkers? Would you speak with your supervisor? Would you file a complaint with the company's human resources department? If the company did not comply with harassment laws, would you seek legal representation or speak out publicly against the company's lack of compliance?

If you'd been in the workforce prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you might have sought out other people in your community who had experienced the same thing or voted for someone supporting legislation to prevent sexual harassment. Or, perhaps you would have kept working for the same company, hoping for a promotion and the authority to change its corporate culture over time.

The actions we've just discussed demonstrate the liberal feminist approach of working within the democratic system to improve conditions.

Relation to the Civil Rights Movement

Now, imagine you're in a bus in 1963, traveling from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, DC, to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a historic event and site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. You travel this distance in spite of the potential for violence from white segregationists. You believe you have an opportunity to make your life better by adding your voice to the larger group.

As a form of political protest and consciousness raising, the civil rights movement of the 1960s inspired the liberal feminist movement. The term consciousness raising refers to the sharing of personal experiences and information among people in a particular group.

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