On gender equality, the pandemic, and liberal feminism

by Gina Schouten on January 12, 2021

I wrote this for Public Ethics, addressing one of the theses from Feminism for the 99%, which claims that “liberal feminism is bankrupt.” That thesis reduces liberal feminism to corporate feminism or lean-in feminism. Against that reduction, I suggest that: “Properly understood, liberal feminism is radically egalitarian feminism—both as feminism and as liberalism. Properly situated, the values it espouses demand structural reform to redress economic disadvantage. That’s why, as a liberal feminist, I agree with the manifesto’s criticism of lean-in feminism.”

I then consider why, if liberal feminism properly understood is radically egalitarian, so many liberal feminist seem to be more focused on the women “breaking the glass ceiling” than on the women left to “clean up the shards.” One part of the answer:

“Liberalism offers a strong evaluative grounding for demands of justice on behalf of women across the social hierarchy—and indeed for demands that that hierarchy be demolished. The social subordination to which we subject the women sweeping up the shards is unjust on grounds of the freedom and equality that liberalism celebrates. Precisely because I think liberal feminism furnishes compelling diagnoses of these injustices and illuminating prescriptions for rectification, it strikes me as important to address the hard cases that it faces. These are cases wherein apparent choice seemingly shields inequity from censure—the cases that have long been regarded…as poison for liberal feminists. Redeeming liberalism’s promise as a radical evaluative framework requires addressing the cases wherein deference to choice appears to be justice-undermining. For liberal feminists, this notably includes cases of apparently voluntary compliance with gender norms, including gender norms about caregiving.”

I conclude that “liberalism can be a tool for building the movement this catastrophic moment demands—and it’s a tool the movement should be slower to cast aside.”