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Study Notes

Feminism and Gender Equality

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

A great many feminists seek some degree of equality between the genders in both the public and private sphere.

This manifests itself in terms of a more equitable representation of men and women within the field of employment and the political process. In the domestic setting, gender equality may be said to occur when men and women take on a shared level of responsibility. Mainstream feminists tend to be highly supportive of gender parity in all its forms. However, there is a subtle distinction to be made here between liberal feminists and socialist feminists.

Liberal feminists firmly believe in equality of opportunity between the genders. For instance, firms should be encouraged to provide child-care facilities and flexible working patterns to assist working parents (particularly mothers). A recent example would be the coalition government’s decision to enable mothers and fathers to share parental leave. It is also worth noting that a broad cross-party consensus exists over the desirability of equal opportunities. For instance, many of the legislative measures instigated by New Labour have been retained by the Tories since they came to office.

From the liberal perspective, equal opportunities ensure that everyone fulfils their potential and thereby lead a life of liberty. To use the language of Berlin (1969), we must experience freedom from gender discrimination to experience genuine liberty. A liberal society is one in which women (and men) express their own personal choices and preferences. Liberal feminism thereby adopts the language of personal choice. Viewed from the prism of liberal feminism, a woman who chooses to stay at home and raise the children is expressing her own manifestation of feminism as much as those women who take on to the role of primary (or sole) breadwinner.

Socialist feminists however take a different approach. As with all ideologies on the left of the political spectrum, the emphasis is upon equality of outcome and the politics of sameness. Socialist feminists are more doctrinaire in their prescription of a society built around a genderless notion of personhood. Their argument rests upon the assumption that both men and women benefit from this approach. In the words of Charles Fourier “the better the treatment of women, the more civilised the society.” Socialist feminists are also more critical of capitalism than liberal feminists, with Kay Banyard noting that “unequal gender relations are intimately connected with capitalism.”

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