Feminism is controversial, even among women themselves. Recent surveys have found that most young women in the US do not identify as feminists. Similar results were found in the UK. In Denmark, only one in six identify as feminist. Feminism has a bad reputation and not without reason. Many feminist talking points are misleading at best. Some have also accused feminism of actively contributing to the marginalization of male victims. Extremist man-hating feminists also tend to receive a lot of media attention and influence how people perceive the movement.
Many critics of feminism have valid points. However, I believe that the movement has a place in modern societies and that liberally minded people should not dismiss it so easily. In this essay, I attempt to defend liberal feminism, which is individualistic and based on the idea that women should be viewed as autonomous moral agents.
Traditionalist Arguments Against Feminism
Some traditionalists view the emancipation of women as a negative for society. They claim that feminism has destroyed the family and has led to an epidemic of single-motherhood, which has been linked to various social ills. It’s certainly not impossible that female empowerment has contributed to such problems. I discuss that possibility here. However, even if it has caused some harm, traditionalists should also consider the ways in which feminism has benefited society as a whole. Gender equality boosts economic growth and leads to better development outcomes. Attempting to remove women from the workforce would probably have detrimental effects on the economy. Even Saudi Arabia attempts to improve women’s freedoms partially for economic reasons.
Extreme traditionalists also fail to consider the specific material conditions that led to female empowerment in the first place. When many people worked on farms, having many children to help with the agricultural work was beneficial. Nowadays, most people live in urban areas, have access to birth control and don’t need as many children for economic reasons. Women are now much more liberated from the restraints of pregnancy because of technological advancements like the birth control pill, and because of the changes in the economy. There are fewer incentives to keep women inside the house. Returning to the gender norms of the past would be largely pointless, since the material conditions are so different now, and such a return would probably be impossible without implementing extremely authoritarian measures.
Men’s Rights Activists and Opposition to Feminism
Some men’s rights activists have criticized feminism and have claimed that feminists marginalize men in various ways. For example, some people who have attempted to address the issue of domestic violence against men say they have encountered hostility and threats from radical feminists. Sociologist Murray Straus argues that it is partly because of attempts to defend feminist theory that evidence of domestic violence against men is often ignored by academics. According to feminist theory, domestic violence is the result of patriarchal male power: cases of female-on-male or female-on-female domestic violence don’t fit neatly into that paradigm and are therefore often ignored or not taken seriously enough. In some cases, feminists have also opposed making rape laws gender neutral, even though that could help male victims. Certain feminist activists have also tried to shut down events and speeches by men’s advocates or by people who question certain feminist assumptions.
Feminism should be challenged and debated just like any other idea and using threats or thuggery to shut down events by MRAs should be condemned as an attack on freedom of speech. Many criticisms of feminism by MRAs are not without merit. However, MRAs and feminists do not necessarily have opposing goals. Many MRAs believe in gender equality just as feminists do: it could be beneficial to build bridges between the two groups. Feminism is not a monolithic movement. Liberal, individualist feminists have often condemned the extremism of illiberal feminists and feminism as a whole has helped loosen gender roles for men. Instead of demonizing each other, perhaps feminists and MRAs should seek common ground to advance their shared goals.
Why Feminism, Not Humanism
Many egalitarians reject feminism in favor of humanism or egalitarianism. Humanism is a philosophical doctrine which emphasizes the value of human beings. It does not address gender inequalities or attempt to create a theory of gender the way feminism does. Feminist theory might be flawed in various ways—for example, many theorists ignore biological and evolutionary explanations of psychological sex differences. However, no evolutionary psychologist or biologist would deny the influence of socialization and right now there is no sociological theory of gender more compelling than feminism. Feminist theory is useful in examining the social learning of gender and movements like egalitarianism and humanism provide no substitute for that.
Is Feminism Still Needed in Western Societies?
Some people acknowledge the positive effects of feminism—such as liberating people from rigid gender roles and helping economies grow by empowering working women—but believe that feminism’s job is done, at least in the west. However, gender discrimination still exists in western societies. Even if we accept that there are biological reasons why women and men tend to prefer different jobs and social roles, that doesn’t mean that biases and prejudices don’t exist or that they cannot be combated. The recent attempt to ban abortion in Alabama shows how fragile certain rights that we take for granted really are and why a movement that protects female bodily autonomy is still relevant.
Feminism has overall been a force for good in western society and any liberal-minded person should appreciate the liberation from the rigid gender roles that limited both men and women that it has brought. Despite that, it remains controversial largely because of some radical and illiberal elements. To combat this, we need a feminism based on liberal values, which promotes freedom of speech and the moral worth of the individual.