Last Updated on June 28, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Liberal Feminists argue there is nothing inherently wrong with the traditional nuclear family or the public-private divide between work and politics on the one hand private family life life on the other.
While liberal feminists are keen to see greater equality in the private, domestic sphere they believe that feminists should mainly focus on campaigning for social polices which promote equality in the workplace and other areas of the public sphere because greater equality within the family is something that can be achieved through empowering women in politics and work.
The more political and economic freedom women have, they more power they have in domestic life to demand that men pull their weight or to simply leave unequal relationships if they so choose and go it alone, or find a better partner.
This fits in the with liberalist idea that family life is private: political campaigns focus on public life and then then largely leave it up to women to make what choices are best for them in their private, family lives. Liberal feminist campaigns focus on social polices and legal frameworks which give women the freedom to make those choices.
Jennifer Somerville: Feminism and the Family
Jennifer Somerville (2000) (1) suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change. She can thus be characterised as a liberal feminist, although she herself does not use this term.
To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether to marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.
The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (in which both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.
Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.
However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.
Somerville argues that many young women feel some sense of grievance about inequalities in their domestic lives but do not feel entirely sympathetic towards the feminist movement more generally, and so there is little support for some of the more radical political agendas of radical and marxist feminists.
Liberal Feminist Polices for Improving family life
Feminists should focus on policies which will encourage greater equality in work which should help women demand and cajole men into doing their fair share of housework and childcare.
One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.
Three types of social policy which can help working parents include:
- encouraging employers to have more flexible working hours, allowing mothers and fathers more freedom to choose the days they work and the times they start and finish work.
- Policies which encourage equal sharing of maternity and paternity leave, such as the recent shared parental leave act (2015)
- Policies which provide more free childcare for younger children, such a the government recently brining in care for children as young as 9 months (from 2024).
The final two policies are summarised in this post on social policy and the family.
Liberal Feminists also support the monitoring of the promotion and pay of women in higher level professional careers because this is where the gender pay gap is largest.
Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family
Support for Liberal Feminism
There is more support for gradual changes such as making small adjustments to social policy compared to more radical solutions suggested by radical feminists, thus liberal feminist strategies are more practical and have more chance of succeeding.
There does seem to be a correlation between women’s empowerment in public and working life and greater gender equality at home. More specifically, some recent research (link forthcoming) has found that more flexible working arrangements lead to men doing a more fair share of the housework.
Support for traditional gender roles is declining: a relatively recent edition of the British Social Attitudes Survey measured support for traditional gender roles and found that in 2017 only 9% of people surveyed believed women should be the primary child carers and housewives, down from 42% (!) in 1984.
Dual earner households are the norm in 2022
- 50% of couples consisted of both men and women working full time
- The man worked full time and the woman worked full time in 44% of couples
- The woman worked full time and the man worked part time in only 3% couples.
However In 2012 the percentage of female full-time, male part-time couples was 2.6%, so the main change has been a shift from male-full time to female part-time couples towards both partners working full-time. What we are NOT seeing is a shift towards females in the main breadwinner role.
Criticisms of Liberal Feminism
The shift to working from home during the Pandemic, and more generally has resulted in women doing a greater share of the domestic work, while flexible working hours at work (where men and women still go out to paid work but can pick their start and end times) results in domestic work at home being shared more equally.
This kind of supports Liberal Feminism because it suggests when men and women retreat more into the domestic sphere, more inequality is the result, but if they spend more time in the public sphere (at work) with more flexibility, then more equality at home is the result.
Radical Feminists argue that liberal feminism fails to recognize the extent that women are still unequal to men in domestic life. Despite progress towards gender equality in the workplace it is mainly mothers that lose out compared to fathers when children come along which criticises the Liberal Feminist view that focussing on the public sphere is sufficient to bring about equality in domestic life.
Radical Feminists also criticise liberal feminists for focusing mainly on heterosexual relationships and limiting their analysis to s*x differences between biological males and females.
A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family – A Summary
- Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.
- Solutions to Inequality – Increase female empowerment in the public sphere through reformist social policies designed to make working hours more flexible, shared parental leave and more free child care.
- Criticisms – 100 years of gradual reform and women still do more housework! It also only looks at heterosexual relationships.
Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)
(1) Sommerville, J (2000) Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and USA.
Haralambos and Holborn – Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition
An article from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2014) – Women put at particular disadvantage by the requirement to work full time
Workingmums.co.uk – A site which works with policy makers and employers to encourage more flexible working hours
Liberal Feminism is one of three main perspectives on the family, within the A-level sociology families and households topic. For a briefer summary of this perspective on the family, along with Marxist and Radical and Feminism, please click here.