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In Defense of Liberal Feminism

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.

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26 comments

  1. This is quite possibly the most reasonable and level headed piece on feminism I have ever read in my life and I have a degree in sociology and women’s history so Ive done a lot of reading on the subject. Much appreciation to this woman!

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  2. I am perfectly happy with the existence of Feminism as a political movement with the goal of advancing the interests of women.People should generally be free to form associations to further own interests. What I struggle with is that Feminism often tries to present itself as a movement for “equality” or “fighting sex discrimination” and that just isn’t the case, except in the areas where women are perceived as disadvantaged. No feminists are arguing for longer prison sentences for women, or more funding to increase male life expectancy, or changing teaching methods to benefit boys at the expense of girls.

  3. “However, gender discrimination still exists in western societies.”

    Link goes to PNAS article from 2012: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.”

    Here’s another PNAS article you might be interested in from 2015:
    “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.”
    https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/04/08/1418878112

    Not quite so subtle!

    Women are doing better than men in most ways in contemporary western society (higher academic achievement, longer lives, lower homelessness and incarceration, lower suicide), and still benefit from affirmative action, female-specific scholarships, grants, etc. In fields and occupations where men outperform women, evidence indicates it’s either because women aren’t as interested in these fields and/or are physically less capable.

    Feminism is also not going to convince pro-lifers, half of whom are women, that fetuses aren’t human, which is why they oppose abortion, not because they want to oppress women.

    The only area in which I could see feminism being necessary in contemporary society is in the prevention of men from eradicating women’s sports.

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  4. I’m not sure if this law has been given a name, but it’s good to see that ‘The comments beneath any article on feminism are proof of why feminism is needed’ still applies.
    Having said that, I think to set up feminism and humanism is oppositional terms misses the point.
    Just as with anti racism, the question is not whether it’s needed or if the very idea of it is valid but what you’re basing it on.
    It’s entirely possible, and I’d argue most 1st & 2nd wave feminist ideas were rooted in humanism in its broadest terms.
    It’s is however completely in opposition to a feminism that’s rooted in group identity + power.
    It’s entirely possible to be a humanist and a feminist. Clearly the most vocal and visible branch of feminism aren’t anymore, but that’s because they sit on the other side of the humanist v identity + power fault line. The people on the non humanist side sit there as well in regards race, sexuality etc not merely in relation to their feminism.

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    1. “I’m not sure if this law has been given a name, but it’s good to see that ‘The comments beneath any article on feminism are proof of why feminism is needed’ still applies.”

      Where?

    2. It is called the Kafkatrap: ‘the fact you disagree with me only proves how important my opinion is and how wrong you are’.

      1. As someone who’s vocally opposed to the pernicious non sense that is insectional feminism as practice, this has nothing to do with views or arguments but that rather comically bitter MRA saddos who pile in with bile beneath any article on feminism with incoherent screeds that are really little more than thinly veiled misogyny. Just because much of what passes for feminism these days is at best idiotic at worst poisonous it just mean some of the most vocal opponents are misogynists.

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  5. I don’t like feminists. I prefer real women. Women who can stand up for themselves or make us stand up for them and they never claim we are oppressors.

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  6. “… we need a feminism based on liberal values, which promotes freedom of speech and the moral worth of the individual …”

    We also need a feminism that champions the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. We haven’t seen that.

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    1. To be fair, it’s possibly simply because the more moderate feminists don’t make as much noise as their more toxic sisters.

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  7. Feminism has no set creed. Theris no official feminist organisation so what constitutes a feminist is unclear however the overwhelming number who describe themselves as feminists share a number of negatice characeteristics:

    Most feminists are deeply sexist. Almost all regard men as the source of many if not most of the worlds problems and inherently less trustworthy and deserving of less support than women. Campaigns are exclusively for women’s issues and any campaign to address men’s issues is seen as diverting resources away from women and to be opposed.

    Modern feminists encourage women to view themselves as helpless victims. In doing so they damage and limit women’s lives.

    Feminism promotes and incorporates a theory of gender which is contrafactual. This has led to widespread if not dominant beliefs about gender which are contradicted by masses of evidence from many different branches of science. These false beleifs cause damage to young people and policy decisions which do not make sense.

    Feminists promote the denigration and demonisation of men and in doing so damage men and the relationships between men and women.

    Feminists actively campaign to remove resources away from men in need, examples are violence, domestic violence, health, education, penal policy.

    Feninists actively campaign to remove the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial from men.

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  8. Even though the article mentions egalitarianism a few times, it makes no effort to defend feminism against it.
    Even the comparison to humanism is uncovincing. Why do we need a “theory of gender” so badly that we must accept a flawed, biased theory as a placeholder? Social scientists sometimes forget that they are taking pictures of a moving train. Incomplete theories about something which undergoes continuous, fundamental changes are of little value. Research about gender, ethnicity or race in particular is bound to be poisoned by politics and ideology.

    And sorry, but residual amounts of discrimination are not reason enough to keep dragging this derailed train along. Many people externalize their issues or victimize themselves. Someone will always see discrimination somewhere.
    The main issue with so-called social justice warriors is their solutionism.

    Overall the article reads like those arguing for the role of Christianity, or religion in general, in modern times. Like sure, believe whatever you want, just don’t be mad at others for not taking you seriously.

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  9. The generalizations cited (“feminism has destroyed…”, “[feminism is] a force for good”) have no intrinsic value but depend entirely on how, in that context, you define the amorphous term, “feminism.” In the age of identity politics, the term may be tainted beyond repair (hence the huge gap between those who favor gender equality and those who identify as feminists). The “humanists” or “egalitarians” in your schema may be in the best position to address persistent gender inequities, as they draw upon our shared humanness and call on all people to join together to address them, whereas today’s “feminists” too often draw battle lines between genders.

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  10. ‘There is no sociological theory of gender more compellling than feminism.’ I beg your pardon? In the same article the author suggests there are lots of different theories calling itself feminism, so what is ‘the’ feminist theory of gender? Not much good, what I have seen of it.
    Also the reasons why we shouldn’t replace feminism with egalitarianism altogether are not compellling at all. It hops much too quick over thousands of different critical articles and videos about feminism, and suggests much too easy small radical groups are to blame for feminism’s bad reputation. No, I’m sorry, we can find the ‘bad’ feminism in the Guardian, NYT, HuffPost, BBC. And goodmenproject is not exactly the medium proving feminists help men’s rights, it is all about ‘men will be happy if they just shake off their toxic masculinity’. What is Areo trying to do? Building bridges is allright, but not at the cost of lowering your level.

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    1. Does the MRM attempt to provide a coherent sociological framework for the examination of gender? I don’t think it does. They do point out some areas where men are disadvantaged but they lack any coherent theory about why that is or why gender roles are the way they are. Even when they provide theory, they usually resort to biological explanations like “men just evolved to be that way” which might as well be partially true but it ignores the theory of social learning. Feminism is an attempt at providing a sociological framework.

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      1. So feminism is just a framework trying to explain something? Just an ideology? Probably wrong? Probably totally hateful? Probably there is not a “male” sociological framework because most people understood – except feminists – that dividing people in good and evil or in better and worse is just discrimination, racism, fascism? Feminism is most probably just a small correction to humanism but cannot claim in any way the importance humanism has for humanity. Feminism will always be little sister to humanism.

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        1. It’s fascinanting when someone reads a totally acceptable, well-argumented and honest article about feminism and keeps on with the rant “feminism is ‘totally hateful'”. Some people should try to understand what they are reading before commenting.

          Sure there are hateful feminists, but to deny the relevance of feminism throughout history (and also today) focusing only on the nonsense-driven radicals? That’s jsut not rational.

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      2. You clearly know nothing about the MRM and that alone is a reason why you shouldn’t have written this article. Warren Farrell bv has written a lot about why men have the position they have. Karen Straughan has theorised about evolutionary psychologoly, but not as simplistic as you put it. Diana Davison has a lot of thoughts about sexuality. Etc.
        On the other hand, sometimes are ideas that are NOT within a framework clearer than those within, and that is what a lot of other people are producing.

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      3. Nice, balanced article, it is calming to read this kind of thing from a female academic.

        “they usually resort to biological explanations …partially true but it ignores the theory of social learning”

        Does it? Noting that we are making the broadest of generalizations, I find that most MRM types would say that differences in male and female roles are almost entirely rooted in biology and that any functioning society will of necessity teach these facts to the next generation. It is quite true that cultures accrete no end of apparently superficial baggage around biological reality. Some of this stuff merely adds cultural color, some is a pointless nuisance and some is actively dysfunctional, no doubt. It is understandable that feminists might want to very carefully deconstruct some of this, but please ladies, be very, very careful. In particular, please do not replace long established cultural practice and mythology with a new mythology that says that the entire function of society has been to oppress women simply for the pleasure that men get from oppressing women for it’s own sake. This is the foundational narrative of 3d wave feminism and it is not only profoundly wrong, it is a gross slander and a huge barrier to gender harmony since it casts men and women as eternal enemies. I hope that one day we have 4th wave feminism that will get past victimhood and start to see men and women as they really are.

      4. The probem is that feminism does not provide a coherent sociologial framework for the examination of gender. It provides one which has inherent self contradictions and is completely at odds from medical, biological and psychological research findings.

        Why on earth should MRM or feminism provide a coherent sociological framework for the examination of gender in any case? Knowledge and theories about gender and society are inputs to political movements not outputs.

        1. “Knowledge and theories about gender and society are inputs to political movements not outputs.”

          That is such a strange thing to say that I hardly know how to respond. Is it not the job of scholars to study mankind and develop theories about how we work? Do we not have thousands of such theories? Are not all religions based on some theory about how humans got to be how they are? Doesn’t every political movement base itself on some narrative about humanity and what’s wrong with it and how the movement will put everything right? What political movement does not do this? These narratives are not ‘inputs’ to political movements they are the foundations for them and the political movements spend as much time developing these theories as they do coming up with agendas based on them. The entire agenda of feminism is based on the Grand Narrative of Wiminz Oppression by The Patriarchy. Take away the Narrative and what’s left? No framework, no structure, no movement.

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