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.”

 

{ 12 comments }

1

John Quiggin 01.12.21 at 6:58 pm

Thanks for this, Gina. It would be helpful, to me at least, if you could say a bit more about what you mean by “liberal”. The meaning in the US is very different from that in Europe, which carries over to neoliberalism.

2

LFC 01.12.21 at 11:21 pm

JQ @1

Obviously, Gina Schouten can and will answer for herself, but I believe she’s using “liberalism” in the political-philosophy sense of a perspective committed to, among other things, “equal concern and respect for each individual” (to quote from the piece), rather than in either the U.S. sense of “somewhere left of center but not too” or the European sense of “generally supportive of ‘free’ markets and deregulation, and opposed to ‘excessive’ govt intervention etc.”

I base this conclusion on what seems, on a quick reading, to be the piece’s argument, and also on the fact that she’s a philosopher (by academic training and credentials), and teaches in a philosophy department.

That all said, what liberalism (in the political-philosophy sense) “properly understood” does or doesn’t imply about various issues is often somewhat debatable. However, since I don’t know much of anything about the discussions among feminists which the piece addresses, I won’t say much about that. Except to observe that probably, yes, one can reasonably call oneself a “liberal feminist” and want to get rid of “CEOs and corner offices” (well, corner offices, at any rate, for sure), and also want to focus on the plight of poor and minority women whom the pandemic, as the piece points out, has disproportionately hurt.

3

Gina Schouten 01.12.21 at 11:27 pm

Thanks, John. I’m using the term “liberalism” fairly broadly, so that libertarianism and neoliberalism aren’t excluded from the camp of liberalism on definition, but the version of liberalism I’m interested in defending is a version of what I think often gets called “high liberalism,” and more specifically a version of high liberalism based in a robust notion of equal respect and reciprocity among citizens construed as free and equal. My sense is that lots of criticisms of liberalism are presented as if they undermine the most fundamental commitments of liberalism, thus undermining all variants of liberalism. But the actual criticisms seem to target only versions of liberalism that, e.g., are compatible with extreme economic inequality, or that take basic liberties to encompass robust economic liberties, or that construe liberty in a formal, lack-of-state-incursion sense. Since those seem to me versions of liberalism that don’t fully realize liberal values properly understood–versions subject to internal critique–arguments that only apply to those versions seem not rightly understood as arguments establishing that liberalism as such is bankrupt.

4

CHETAN R MURTHY 01.13.21 at 1:08 am

I certainly agree with everything Dr. Schouten writes. It seems like some of what she notes is …. well, pretty easy to explain:

That thesis reduces liberal feminism to corporate feminism or lean-in feminism.

One says to oneself that (to paraphrase LBJ) If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored woman, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

We can’t have women rising up by their talents, after all.

Perhaps if we’re so worried about the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, maybe the solution is confiscatory steeply progressive taxation of income, wealth, inheritance, and not to specifically get all bent-out-of-shape about Sheryl Sandberg [when we sure don’t equally bent-out-of-shape about the many thousands of men who get rich or remain rich]. That the latter (“horrors, a woman got ahead”) is such a bugbear is really telling.

5

Gareth Wilson 01.13.21 at 5:13 am

“Except to observe that probably, yes, one can reasonably call oneself a “liberal feminist” and want to get rid of “CEOs and corner offices” (well, corner offices, at any rate, for sure),”

I liked How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying too, but maybe some more up-to-date metaphors are in order.

6

Jai Hoffnung 01.13.21 at 9:40 am

Hello, thank you for your attention to these important and highly controversial topics. An issue on gender equality is really serious, I am now actively studying this theme in various materials on useful resources for my future dissertation, I recommend you link in my profile, look at this collection about gender equality, there are collected examples of the disclosure of the topic in various countries, fields of activity, in history and short and informative materials with various deepening in interesting questions on this theme, go right now and know more.

7

engels 01.13.21 at 11:37 am

Hello, thank you for your attention to these important and highly controversial topics. An issue on gender equality is really serious, I am now actively studying this theme in various materials on useful resources for my future dissertation, I recommend you link in my profile, look at this collection about gender equality, there are collected examples of the disclosure of the topic in various countries, fields of activity, in history and short and informative materials with various deepening in interesting questions on this theme, go right now and know more.

This is an essay mill, for anyone who was pondering clicking.

8

LFC 01.13.21 at 1:39 pm

@ Gareth Wilson

That sentence of mine comes across as a little flippant, which is not what I intended. I don’t see anything esp wrong with the metaphors (actually they’re not metaphors at all), but if you don’t like them you should take it up with the piece’s author (preferably having taken the time to read it first).

9

engels 01.13.21 at 2:29 pm

My two cents:
1 capitalism: an economic system based on formal equality and private property
2 liberalism: political ideology motivated by defence and maintenance of that system (different variants having different emphases and strategies)
3 “high liberalism”: sublimated form of 2 in denial of its origins in 2 and 1

10

J-D 01.13.21 at 9:53 pm

Spam dumped! Clean-up on aisle six!

11

Gareth Wilson 01.14.21 at 1:53 am

I guess “corner office” is a synecdoche rather than a metaphor. If it helps, Mark Zuckerberg claims to not have an office at all. As for the main topic, if feminists have to be anti-capitalist, all capitalists will be anti-feminist.

12

Kiwanda 01.15.21 at 12:26 am

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.”

Because liberal feminism regards the world from the perspective of a (traditionally) masculine value system? Where what matters is jobs and money, and childcare is regarded as secondary, if not shitwork? It is certainly true that jobs and money are needed for independence and freedom, but, those who take care of their kids get to spend time with them, something that many people enjoy.

For liberal feminists, this notably includes cases of apparently voluntary compliance with gender norms, including gender norms about caregiving.

Indeed, there’d be less need for women to “clean up the shards” if, plainly put, men did more childcare. The gender pay gap would be smaller, if men did more childcare. Men might even enjoy it, if they did more childcare. So, why don’t men do more childcare? There are many suggested explanations, and the truth is probably some combination of them. The most popular hypothesis is “men are unfeeling selfish assholes”. I’m not sure that’s the whole story.

Comments on this entry are closed.