Last Updated on June 30, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Liberal, Radical and Marxist and Feminism are the three main types of feminism, with different explanations for sex and gender inequalities and related strategies for social change.
This distinction between the three main types of feminism is common in A-level sociology and first year degree social studies, and it is also usual to add a fourth type which is postmodern (also known as difference) feminism.
Most contemporary feminists would balk at the idea of generalising Feminist theory into three (or four) basic types because part of Feminism is to resist the tendency towards categorising things, but for the purposes of A-level sociology, these three/ four are types what you need to know!
Liberal, Radical and Marxist Feminism: Simplified
- Liberal Feminism – aims to achieve gender equality between men and women through social policy reforms, within the system.
- Marxist Feminism – argues capitalism structures patriarchy, bringing down capitalism is the main goal.
- Radical Feminism – patriarchy exists in all institutions. All women share common interests against all men, brining down patriarchy is the goal.
There follows below more detailed accounts of each of these three feminist theories with links as appropriate.
You might also like this summary post on FOUR types of feminism (including difference/ postmodern feminism) which bullet points the information below.
Liberal Feminism is the original form of Feminist theorising and activism, dating back to the time of Mary Wollonstonecraft.
The central aim of liberal feminism is to improve and defend women’s rights through identifying inequalities between men and women and reforming these inequalities.
Liberal Feminists believe that the main causes of gender inequality are ignorance and socialisation. They do not believe that social institutions are inherently patriarchal and believe in a “March of Progress” view of gender relations. They believe that men and women are gradually becoming more equal over time and that this trend will continue.
As evidence liberal feminists point to legal reforms they have campaigned for which have successfully promoted equality such as winning the vote for women and the sex discrimination act (1970).
Liberal Feminists are especially keen to emphasise the beneficial effects which women going into paid work has had on gender equality over the last 50 years especially: the pay gap is nearly 0 for women and men aged between 18-34 and dual earner households are now the main type of household in the UK and this is correlated with increased gender equality in other sectors of social life such as education and the family.
Within education, boys used to outperform girls, but now girls outperform boys in nearly every subject and at every level of education and within the family, evidence shows men are doing a greater share of domestic labour (housework, childcare), decision making is becoming more equal and that male and female children are socialised in a much more similar manner with similar aspirations.
Liberal feminists are the most likely to prefer positivist, statistical methods and have a tendency to measure progress towards gender equality using quantitative indicators such as the pay gap between men and women, educational achievement gaps and the proportions of men and women in parliament.
Liberal Feminists believe research can be value free and freed from malestream bias with sufficient care.
Solutions to remaining gender inequalities
Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure.
Greater equality for women is to be achieved through reform of the mainstream liberal democratic capitalist order and reform is mostly sort through official, legal means, especially through campaigning for equality legislation.
Examples of the reformist political campaigns that liberal feminists have focused on include:
- Winning voting rights for women.
- Equal pay legislation
- Increasing financial independence for women.
- Cultural changes which promote mutual respect.
Thus from a liberal feminist perspective, all the major barriers to gender equality have been broken down over the last century and since women now have equal opportunities to enter the workforce and politics, we have effectively achieved legal gender equality in the UK and there is very little else that needs to be done.
Only relatively minor changes need to be made to advance gender equality further, it’s a matter of tweaking social policy rather than radical and drastic systemic level changes.
We find Liberal Feminism embedded in mainstream political institutions such as the Equal Pay Commission and a major current focus of contemporary liberal feminism is the ‘glass ceiling’ as legislation hasn’t yet effectively narrowed the promotion prospects or differences in pay and bonuses between men and women at the higher end of professional life.
Evaluations of Liberal Feminism
On a positive note, Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives. It is hard to deny that gender equality has improved in many countries through reform rather than the more radical changes Marxist and Radical feminists argue we need.
One easy criticism of the liberal feminist view is that it is ethnocentric – it only really reflects the experiences of white, middle class women.
Liberal feminism tends to treat gender differences as sex differences. Liberal feminists campaign for equal rights between biologically female women and biologically male men, it has little or no interest in campaigning for greater gender equality in the broader sense of equality for people across sexualities or sexual identities. It focuses on biological sex, not issues of gay or trans equalities.
Liberal Feminism uncritically accepts male-centred constructions of the existing social order including definitions of what it means to be a human being. It accepts deeply held malestream concepts and divisions such as male/ female and sex/ gender divides, something which postmodernist feminists in particular object to.
Marxist Feminism connects Marxist notions of the relations of production to social relations of biological reproduction, focusing on the way childbirth and child care have economic ramifications.
Marxist Feminists see the exploitative social relations of production as the main focus. Capitalism subordinates and exploits both the working classes and all women, both upper and lower class females.
The most exploited group is working class women who are exploited by the whole of the ruling class and working class men and a working class housewife’s work is exploited by both her husband and the broader forces of the capitalist economy.
In the mid twentieth century women were relatively marginalised from the public sphere (work and politics) and relatively confined to the private world of domestic work. Under capitalism the type of labour associated with the domestic sphere such as cooking, cleaning and tidying was not recognised as work at all, leading to the widespread view that women were merely consumers, dependent on the income from the ‘real work’ of their husbands.
A main focus for marxist feminists in the 1970s was ‘housework’ which was seen as the intersection of class and gender based modes of exploitation.
Housework was not regarded as real work, and thus unpaid, because of the structure of the capitalist system. It was primarily women who did this work for free, never pausing to think that they might even be paid for it. While male breadwinners benefited directly from the free labour of their female partners, the main beneficiary was the capitalist economy: women provided for the domestic needs of men so they could keep serving the needs of the system through doing paid work.
Essentially capitalism required that all women be put into the housewife role and be exploited, but this was disguised by an ideology that saw housework as naturally women’s work.
For further information see the marxist feminist perspective on the family.
The increasing amount of women going into work is not interpreted as liberation from ‘domestic tyranny’ by Marxist feminists, but rather capitalism seeking out cheaper forms of labour to exploit.
Women are often found in low-paid, low-skilled, part-time, insecure work and the existence of a class of all women who are disadvantaged is a structural necessity for capitalism, so the relative disadvantages women face at work compared to men can’t be solved by legislation as liberal feminists claim.
Marxist Feminism: Key thinker
Fran Ansley (1972) argued women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argued women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experienced at work and women were the victims of this, including domestic violence. She famously coined the phrase ‘women as the takers of shit’ to describe their domestic roles.
(The Roots of Marxist Feminism)
Marxist (or more broadly socialist) feminism can trace its roots back to the late nineteenth century and has had a complex relationship to communist and socialist movements over the last century and a half.
Engel’s (1978/ 1884) pioneering work is the starting point for further attempts to formulate a materialist feminism that sought to apply Marxist concepts to understand the nature of sex and gender based exploitation.
Engels initially argued that throughout history women have been both economically and politically subordinated by men. Successive modes of production have been structured to control women in terms of their work and their reproductive capacities. Women have been exploited differently to men because of their capacity to give birth.
Marxist Feminism – solutions to gender Inequality
For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic – We need to tackle Capitalism to tackle Patriarchy. Softer solutions include paying women for childcare and housework – thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s work, stronger solutions include the abolition of Capitalism and the ushering in of Communism.
They are more sensitive to differences between women who belong to the ruling class and proletarian families. Marxist Feminists believe that there is considerable scope for co-operation between working class women and men and that both can work together.
Marxist feminism is too narrowly focused on issues of the economy and work and downplays issues which are not economic in nature.
Marxist feminism is reductionist in that it subordinates gender exploitation to economic exploitation within capitalism. One obvious criticism of this idea is that women’s oppression within the family existed before capitalism and in communist societies.
Postmodernist feminists argue that there are more complex issues feminism needs to deal with surrounding gender and culture which Marxist feminists dismiss as just ideologies of capitalism.
Radical Feminism began to be influential in the late 1970s and argued that the focus of feminism should be on patriarchy, defined as a social order wholly and primarily structured around the interests of males.
For radical feminists patriarchy runs through multiple social institutions simultaneously: from politics through work, education and the family.
Patriarchy was seen to have its root in both physical and symbolic violence against women. Domestic violence was seen not as an accident arising from the dispositions of particular men, but a structural feature of the current family set up, and pornography was seen as a symbolic expression of a society centred around control of and hatred of women.
In essence many marxist concepts were reworked by radical feminists: social structural explanations, ideology and highlighting the hidden nature of oppression.
Against Liberal Feminists they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.
Rape, violence and pornography are also methods through which men have secured and maintained their power over women. (Andrea Dworkin, 1981). For evidence of this, Radical Feminists point to the ‘dark side of family life’ – According to the British Crime Survey domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men..
Rosemarie Tong (1998) distinguishes between two groups of radical feminist:
- Radical-libertarian feminists believe that it is both possible and desirable for gender differences to be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced, and aim for a state of androgyny in which men and women are not significantly different.
- Radical-cultural feminists believe in the superiority of the feminine. According to Tong radical cultural feminists celebrate characteristics associated with femininity such as emotion, and are hostile to those characteristics associated with masculinity such as hierarchy.
Key Thinker: Kate millet
Kate Millet’s sexual politics (1) is one of the most famous works of this period in which she analysed the existence of patriarchy in eight different ways:
- sociological (social, such as in the family)
- Economic and educational
- Force (violence)
- Myth and religion
Radical Feminism: Solutions to gender inequality
Radical Feminists argued there was a universal sisterhood of all women because women had common interests against all men and engaged in consciousness raising so that individual women could see how patriarchy really worked.
Radical Feminists see the traditional nuclear family as particularly patriarchal, and advocate its abolition and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations.
The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and matrifocal (female centred) households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Radical feminists have often been actively involved in setting up and running refuges for women who are the victims of male violence.
Evaluations of Radical Feminism
It Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce.
The power of men is overstated primarily because of a failure to recognise differences in power between men, for example class based differences.
They failed to recognise the role of money in some forms of exploitation: pornography for example.
Postmodern Feminists criticise the idea that there is a universal sisterhood of all women with shared interests.
Signposting and Related Posts
I usually teach this as part of my introductory block in the very first two weeks of A-level sociology.
Students should read this introduction to Feminism post first of all.
Inglis, D (2015) An Invitation to Social Theory
Kate Millet (1969) Sexual Politics