Liberal, Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives on Society: An Introduction

Most Feminists would balk at the idea of generalising Feminist theory into three basic types because part of Feminism is to resist the tendency towards categorising things. Nonetheless, in A Level sociology it’s usual to distinguish between three basic types of Feminism – Liberal, Radical and Marxist, each of which has its own general explanation for sex and gender inequality, and a matched-solution.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal Feminists believe that the main causes of gender inequality are ignorance and socialisation. They do not believe that social institutions are inherently patriarchal. They believe in a “March of Progress” view of gender relations. This means that 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 various legal reforms which promote sexual equality such as the sex discrimination act (1970), the fact that girls now outperform boys in education, the fact that there are now equal amounts of men and women in paid work. Liberal Feminists are especially keen to emphasise the beneficial effects which women going into paid work has had on gender equality – as a result, women are now much more independent than in the past, and women are now the main income earners in 25% of households.

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.

Solutions to remaining gender inequalities

Liberal Feminists do not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure.  The creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act.

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, such as more flexible working hours for mothers, challenging gender stereotypes in subject choice and in children’s’ books.

Liberal Feminist ideas have probably had the most impact on women’s lives

One criticism of the liberal feminist view is that it is ethnocentric – it only really reflects the experiences of white, middle class women.

Marxist Feminism

Marxist Feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression is capitalism. The disadvantaged position of women is seen to be a consequence of the emergence of private property and their lack of ownership of the means of production

From a Marxist Feminist perspective, the traditional nuclear family only came about with capitalism, and the traditional female role of housewife supports capitalism – thus women are double oppressed through the nuclear family and capitalist system. Women’s oppression within the nuclear family supports capitalism in at least three ways:

  1. Women reproduce the labour force – through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and servicing the current workers (their husbands!)
  2. Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, who are exploited and who should be directing that anger towards the Bourgeois
  3. Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – if women’s primary role is domestic, and they are restricted from working, this also means they are in reserve, to be taken on temporarily as necessary by the Bourgeois, making production more flexible.

Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972) argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.

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

One Criticism of Marxist Feminism is that women’s oppression within the family existed before capitalism and in communist societies.

Radical Feminism

 Radical Feminists see society and its institutions as patriarchal – most of which are dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class and women the subject class. Gender inequalities are the result of the oppression of women by men, and it is primarily men who have benefited from the subordination of women. Women are ‘an oppressed group.

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.

 Solutions to gender inequality

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.

 Criticisms of Radical Feminism

  • Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce
  • Too unrealistic – due to heterosexual attraction separatism is unlikely

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.


One response to “Liberal, Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives on Society: An Introduction”

  1. ChrisG

    If I remember correctly, Engels makes it clear in his book, “The State, Private Property and the Family”, that the oppression of women started with the emergence of a class society, that is over 6,000 years before Capitalism. In short, where a minority of the population enjoy privilege and wealth over and above the majority then the mechanism of divide and rule is useful to develop.

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