Government and Politics



Paul Graham

Paul Graham discusses the differences between liberal feminists and radical feminists and explains why radical feminists criticise liberal feminists.


Although in everyday discussion people tend to treat feminism as a single ideology there are in fact many feminisms. Even the distinction between radical and liberal feminism is not straightforward, as there are several strands of each. However, it does make sense to distinguish between liberals and radicals:

  • liberals begin from the idea that human beings are individuals and that to a significant degree men and women can rise above their sex (or gender)

  • radicals argue that gender relations are fundamental - society is based on patriarchy


Liberal feminism

There are two main types of liberal feminism:

  • libertarianism (or classical liberalism)

  • egalitarian liberalism

Both stress the importance of individual freedom, but libertarians are concerned primarily with removing state coercion, while egalitarians argue that there are material conditions for the enjoyment of freedom, so the state has an important role in redistributing wealth and providing opportunities.



Robert Nozick (1938–2002), one of the best-known libertarian political philosophers, argues that 'individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)'. Some violations of rights might be gender specific. For example, until the 1970s in Britain for a woman to buy property in her own right she had to have a man's signature on the contract. This violates the equal rights of consenting adults to enter into a contract. However, libertarians would also be opposed to the criminalisation of the buying of sex, as has happened in Sweden, on the grounds that it is state interference in the consensual actions of individuals (Box 1).


Egalitarian liberalism

Egalitarian liberals are more sensitive to inequalities arising not just from class but also gender. They argue for policies that provide equal opportunity and a generous 'social minimum' of income. To take the example of university education, most libertarians would have supported campaigns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to lift the bar on women going to university, but would not have supported positive measures to ensure a gender balance, such as equalisation of opportunity.


Equal opportunity goes beyond equal access in that it seeks to ensure that secondary education enables both genders to realise their potential. Egalitarians also recognise that there is a pay gap between men and women, but argue that wealth redistribution and an extensive welfare state are the best ways to close the gap. If parents are given decent child support then women can maintain their careers and are less dependent on men and on traditional sex roles.


The radical feminist critique

Liberal feminists are liberals first and feminists second. Radical feminists on the other hand regard gender as a fundamental aspect of human relations and feminism as a fully-fledged ideology, distinct from liberalism, socialism or conservatism. They have two key concepts:

  • patriarchy

  • the idea that 'the personal is political'



Patriarchy is male rule - literally, 'rule of the father'. Feminists use it as a critique of all aspects of society. So to the criticism that they do not care about class conflict or ethnic conflict or ecological degradation, radical feminists respond that the drive to acquire goods which is at the heart of capitalism or the aggression that drives war are part of a male psyche that literally projects power (the likening of a nuclear missile to a phallus is not meant as a joke). The excitement that (male) political leaders get from building larger, more powerful and more impressive weapons systems is quite literally an expression of male power.


The liberal feminist faith in the state - or for anti-state libertarians, in individual rights - is a form of false consciousness. Liberals cannot see that the state is built on patriarchy. The welfare state might appear to be a good thing, but the same state that funds the health service and schools also builds and threatens to use nuclear weapons. The welfare state is then used to legitimise state power.


Libertarian feminists who are critical of the state, some to the point of being anarchists, are not really free because individual rights are an expression of male power. For libertarians the most fundamental right is the right to private property. This might fit with feminism, in that you start by owning your own body, but self-ownership is, for radical feminists, just a pretext for the acquisition of other things, such as land or the labour of other people.

A libertarian world in which there is no state, or perhaps just a 'minimal state', would be a male world. For example, libertarians reject the imposition of monogamy as an interference in individual freedom and insist that people should be free to enter into polygamous relationships, where a man can have several wives (polygyny) or a woman more than one husband (polyandry). Human experience has shown that polygyny will be much more common than polyandry. Indeed, many radical feminists rejected the 'free love' of the 1960s for precisely this reason: they saw that however progressive a man might appear he is liable to take advantage of any liberalisation of attitudes to sex and relationships.


The personal is political

Whether human relations are based on monogamy or polygamy the intimate relationships between men and women are, for radical feminists, political. Liberal feminism conceals power relations. This can be illustrated in the work of one of the most influential liberal thinkers of the last century, John Rawls (1921–2002).


Rawls is concerned with social justice, but distinguishes the justice we owe to one another as citizens and 'local justice'. Justice demands that wealth be transferred from the rich to the poor but that wealth goes to households and not to individuals. For example, you might get £1,000 a year for each child you have but it is for each family to decide how it is spent. And the state has no role in distributing housework. Who cooks the meals and does the ironing is not a matter of political justice but of local justice. In short, the state conceals oppression. But it is worse: the state actually short changes women, because every child is a potential future worker who will benefit the state. Women - who disproportionately bear the burden of bringing up children - are effectively giving the state, and the capitalist system it supports, unpaid labour.


The personal is political and the political is personal. The role of women - particularly radical feminists - in the anti-war movement is significant (a notable example was the Greenham Common Peace Camp, 1981–2000). While it is questionable whether women are more likely to be victims of war than men - after all, more men tend to die in wars - it is hard to deny that the perpetrators of violence are overwhelmingly male. War is generally a male activity. The fact that at the height of the campaign against nuclear weapons in the 1980s Britain had a powerful female prime minister - Margaret Thatcher - does nothing to undermine the radical feminist argument. While avoiding snide remarks that Thatcher was not really a woman, radical feminists accept that women can be caught up in the male world, and some will adopt apparently male traits.




A central issue for feminists is whether sex (gender) differences are natural. Liberal feminists can avoid this issue because so long as men and women are accorded legal equality, and - for egalitarian liberals - given the material resources to realise their potential, it does not matter whether gender differences have a biological basis. But radical feminists cannot ignore the issue if they are going to make patriarchy the centrepiece of their critique of society.


Radical feminists have to answer the question, where did patriarchy come from? If they adopt a Marxist position and say it is the result of class inequality then the logic is to fight capitalism and not patriarchy. The alternative is some kind of biological - or sociobiological - argument. Dangers lurk for feminists in this direction. Viewed biologically some of the worst aspects of male behaviour might be given a scientific explanation (although not a justification). For example, in 2000 two sociobiologists, R. Thornhill and C. T. Palmer, published a book entitled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. In it, they argued that rape was an 'evolutionary adaptation'. It should be said that many sociobiologists attacked the book. The point, however, is that essentialism might lead people to endorse some aspects of the radical feminist critique, but also think that men cannot help themselves. Of course, if patriarchy is deeply rooted then what is normally defined as rape is part of a continuum in which there is no real consent to have sex.


What is to be done?


A more practical question is this: if radical feminists do not like liberalism what are they going to put in its place? At the most radical end is separatism, which might include the adoption of lesbianism, less as a genetically or biologically influenced drive and more as a social and political statement.


In some ways radical feminists have avoided - or evaded - the big question of how you organise a non-patriarchal society by focusing on smaller-scale resistance. This has taken the form of women's 'consciousness raising', involvement in the anti-war movement, support for victims of domestic violence, campaigning against pornography and prostitution and for women's reproductive rights, and the creation of women-only, small-scale communities. What is absent is a fully developed alternative to liberal democracy.