'There are liberal feminists, socialist feminists and radical feminists, but no conservative feminists.' Discuss.

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‘There are liberal feminists, socialist feminists and radical feminists, but no conservative feminists.’ Discuss.

Although the three main strains of feminism – liberal, socialist and radical – have taken priority in studies of feminism, it must not be forgotten that there are other, less well known strains of feminism which include not only conservative feminism, but also eco-feminism and post-modernist feminism. Liberal feminism is concerned, as liberalism itself is, with the individual: female emancipation, individualism and gender inequality can all be found within this strain. Socialist feminism argues that nothing short of a social revolution can bring about the necessary changes in society and offer women genuine emancipation. They also believe that patriarchy can only be understood in the light of social and economic factors. Radical feminists believe that the personal is the politics: the details of family life should be challenged by political changes. It is a reactionary movement that believes in revolutionary change in society and the raising of consciousness amongst individuals in society.

        Liberal feminism was deeply influenced by the ideas and values of liberalism. The first person to advocate equal rights of men and women was Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1792 book ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’. The philosophical basis for liberal feminism is individualism and the belief that all individuals are of equal moral worth: they are entitled to equal treatment, regardless of sex, race, colour or religion. Liberal feminists express this belief in the demand for equal rights in order that women are able to take an active part in all areas of society. It seeks to open up public life to equal competition between women and men, rather than to challenge the patriarchal structure of society itself. They do not intend to break the divide between the political and the private spheres of life, as they feel that the family life is something over which politics should not have control. However, they have advocated reform insomuch as it establishes equal rights in the public sphere: the right to vote, to education and to pursue a career. Feminists such as Betty Friedan have highlighted what Friedan calls ‘the problem with no name’, by which she meant the sense of despair that many women feel by being confined to a domestic and subordinate existence because they are unable to gain fulfilment thorough a career or through political life. Friedan highlighted this in her 1960s book ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Liberal feminists accept that men and women have different characteristics and therefore assume that a woman’s leaning towards a domestic life is influenced by natural impulses and therefore represents a choice. Friedan again has highlighted the importance of a loving family life as well as broader opportunities for women in public life in her 1983 book ‘The Second Stage’. However, this emphasis upon the central importance of the family in women’s life has been criticised by radical feminists as contributing to a ‘mystique of motherhood’. Liberal feminists have also been criticised by radicals for the limitations on individualism as the basis for gender politics. The patriarchal structure of society cannot be addressed because the individualist perspective draws attention from a patriarchy in which women are subordinated because of their sex. Also, by advocating a ‘personhood’, liberal feminists may be making it harder for women to act collectively. This is why radical feminists advocate a ‘sisterhood’ of all women.

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        Socialist feminism only became prominent in the second half of the twentieth century. Socialist feminists do not believe that omen face political disadvantages that can be remedied by equal rights. Rather, they believe that the inequalities in society are rooted in the social and economic structure itself and that nothing short of a revolution can offer women genuine emancipation. The central theme of socialist feminism is that patriarchy can only be understood in the light of social and economic factors. Engels states that before capitalism, family life had been communists and the ‘mother right’ – the inheritance of property through ...

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