In 1983, Alison Jaggar published Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. Her analysis was not completely new; the varieties of feminism had begun to differentiate as early as the 1960s. Jaggar's contribution was clarifying, extending and solidifying the various definitions, which are still often used today.
Liberal feminism's primary goal is gender equality in the public sphere -- equal access to education, equal pay, ending job sex segregation, better working conditions -- won primarily through legal changes. Private sphere issues are of concern mainly as they influence or impede equality in the public sphere. Gaining access to and being paid and promoted equally in traditionally male-dominated occupations is an important goal. What do women want? Liberal feminism answers: mostly, what men want: to get an education, to make a decent living, to provide for one's family.
What she described as liberal feminism is theory and work that focuses more on issues like equality in the workplace, in education, in political rights. Where liberal feminism looks at issues in the private sphere, it tends to be in terms of equality: how does that private life impede or enhance public equality. Thus, liberal feminists also tend to support marriage as an equal partnership, and more male involvement in child care. Abortion and other reproductive rights have to do with control of one's life choices and autonomy. Ending domestic violence and sexual harassment have to do with removing obstacles to women achieving on an equal level with men.
Liberal feminism tends to rely on the state and political rights to gain equality -- to see the state as the protector of individual rights. Liberal feminism, for example, supports affirmative action legislation requiring employers and educational institutions to make special attempts to include women in the pool of applicants, on the assumption that past and current discrimination may simply overlook many qualified women applicants.
The Equal Rights Amendment was a key goal for many years of liberal feminists, from the original women's suffrage proponents who moved to advocating a federal equality amendment, to many of the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s in organizations including the National Organization for Women. The text of the Equal Rights Amendment, as passed by Congress and sent to the states in the 1970s, is classical liberal feminism:
"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
While not denying that there may be biologically-based differences between men and women, liberal feminism cannot see that these are adequate justification for inequality, such as the wage gap between men and women.
Critics of liberal feminism point to a lack of critique of basic gender relationships, a focus on state action which links women's interests to those of the powerful, a lack of class or race analysis, and a lack of analysis of ways in which women are different from men. Critics often accuse liberal feminism of judging women and their success by male standards.
In more recent years, liberal feminism has sometimes been conflated with a kind of libertarian feminism, sometimes called equity feminism or individual feminism. Individual feminism often opposes legislative or state action, preferring to emphasize developing the skills and abilities of women to compete better in the world as it is. This feminism opposes laws that give either men or women advantages and privileges.
A few key resources:
- Alison M. Jaggar. Feminist Politics and Human Nature.
- Drucilla Cornell. At the Heart of Freedom: Feminism, Sex, and Equality.
- Josephine Donovan. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism.
- Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism.
- Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique.
- Catharine MacKinnon. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.
- John Stuart Mill. The Subjection of Women.
- Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.