Written by: Zolani Nkomo
To better understand the liberal and radical theoretical approaches to feminism, I will compare and contrast the manner in which liberal and Marxist theorists approach feminism. Understanding the challenges faced by women in a male-dominated world, as well as solutions and respective outlooks proposed regarding the attainment of gender parity is important. The first part of this article will draw heavily on a previous article I have written about the theoretical approaches to feminism and it will use the same methods of comparative analysis.
Liberal feminists have the conception that gender discrimination exists because of a continued ignorance and lack of education about gender. How liberals support this claim is by paying close attention to the lack of gender education in our institutions. Furthermore, liberal feminists recognise the progress which females have made in society, especially considering the multi-faceted roles women play and spaces which they occupy.
However, Marxists fail to recognise the progress that females have made in society, or rather choose to attribute it to individual circumstances. Marxists point out the discrepancies when it comes to comparative wages between men and women. Marxists accuse the free market system of purposefully disadvantaging women and finding itself influencing the roles in the household.
What Marxist feminist theories fail to recognise, is the intrusive nature of the gaze into the private sphere. There is a suggestion in the Marxist theory that implies that women are not free individuals who are able to liberate themselves from so-called ‘capitalist oppression’. I will even go as far as to say that radical feminism undermines the individual woman’s power to negotiate and enter into a social or economic contract of her own choosing and consent.
Liberal feminism emphasizes “equal individual rights and liberties for women and men and downplays sexual differences. [L]iberal feminism is the most widely accepted social and political philosophy among feminists. Liberal feminists defend the equal rationality of the sexes and emphasize the importance of structuring social, familial, and sexual roles in ways that promote women’s autonomous self-fulfilment.” (Sample, 2003)
Marxist, or radical feminism, rather seeks to establish the feminine by destroying the patriarch, extenuating the differences so deeply that it leaves no room for reconciliation and ultimately creating an even wider gap between man and woman.
Marxist feminism seems to have a more aggressive position when it comes to gender discrimination and takes into consideration the economic environment which might be patriarchal and hostile to females. Marxists understand that oppression which exists in the household is a legacy of a system which has favoured men at the expense of women. The possible solutions this outlook holds is a social redress in establishing quotas which benefit woman i.e. affirmative action and the redistribution of income and wealth, as a measure of corrective justice.
To the degree that Marxist and socialist feminists believe women’s work shapes women’s thoughts and thus “female nature”, this line of thinking immediately denies the individual an opportunity to identify with her own nature, by believing that capitalism as a medium of exchange robs the female of the intrinsic. I would like to refute such claims that consider a universal female consciousness. There would not be so many different feminisms if we could all subscribe to one.
The liberal paradigm chooses to places emphasis on similarities between men and women instead of their differences. Liberal feminism sees a lot of the differences between sexes as social constructs and would rather promote a single set of androgynous virtues for both men and women.
Even though liberals recognise that social conditioning might influence some of the choices that females choose to make, the liberal paradigm will assume that informed, educated, mentally healthy and competent women of age are “the final judges of their own best interests”, and need not be informed by collective reasoning.
Author: Zolani Nkomo is a second year political sciences (international studies) student at the University of Pretoria.