Feminism as an organized political ideology has come a long way from its early days. Mary Wollstonecraft in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792) argued that women should be entitled to the same rights as men on the grounds that ‘human beings’. Feminism through its four waves has grown to bring more and more people under its fold through the recognition of intersectionality in the third wave and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ community in the fourth wave. Yet the fundamental difference between liberal and radical feminism remains important for anyone willing to explore feminism.
Liberal Feminism is the earliest form of feminism with Mary Wollstonecraft as its earliest proponent. It is philosophically based on the ideas of individualism, the belief that the human individual is all-important and therefore that all individuals are of equal moral worth and are entitled to equal treatment regardless of their sex, race, colour, creed or religion. The demand for equal rights lies at the core of liberal feminism. The Suffragette Movement in the 19th and early 20th century was based on the ideas of liberal feminism and the conviction that female emancipation would be brought about once women enjoyed equal voting rights.
Liberal Feminism is reformist that is it seeks to reform the current structure to make it more equitable rather than to challenge what many other (radical) feminists see as the patriarchal structure of the society itself. In particular, liberal feminism does not seek to abolish the distinction between personal and political. They believe that opening up public life to equal completion between men and women is important by ensuring equal political rights such as the right to education, right to vote, right to pursue a career, etc. However liberal feminist doesn’t focus much on the personal spheres such as sexual division of labour, etc.
Liberal feminists succumb to biological determinism which is the idea that men and women are biologically different and women are biologically more suitable for certain responsibilities as child-rearing, taking care of the house, etc. Liberal feminism has often been accused of being privileged white feminism since only women that are educationally and socially well off can take advantage of a wider education and career opportunities. Thus it fails to address the problem of working-class women, black women and women in the developing world. Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ marked the start of second-wave feminism. Although Betty Friedan is a liberal feminist icon, second-wave feminism came to be largely dominated by radical feminists.
The central feature of radical feminism is the belief that sexual oppression is the most fundamental feature of society and that other forms of injustice- class, exploitation, racial hatred and so on- are merely secondary (Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies). Radical feminists insist on highlighting the role of patriarchy in sexual oppression of women. They seek to abolish the entire structure of patriarchy. Pioneer radical feminists have been Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch, 1970), Kate Millet (Sexual Politics, 1970), Andrea Dworkin, Catherine Mackinnon, etc.
The major achievement of radical feminism is the ‘Personal is Political’ Movement which brought issues related to women’s bodies and personal lives such as abortion and divorce into the political sphere and demanded to be legislated upon. Roe v Wade, a major Supreme Court judgment in the United States which gave women the right to abortion was a step in reducing the sexual control that men have on women. The idea of sexual control is of centrality in radical feminism. Susan Brownmiller’s ‘Against Our Will’ (1975) emphasizes that men dominate women through a process of physical and sexual abuse. Men have created an ‘ideology of rape’ which ‘amounts to a constant process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’. Brownmiller argued that men rape because they can, because they have the ‘biological capacity to rape’ and that even men who do not rape nevertheless benefit from the fear and anxiety that rape provokes in all women. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon provided a similar critique of pornography which they believe is “the graphic sexual explicit subordination of women through picture and words”. It constitutes violence against women and perpetuates rape culture.
In conclusion, liberal and radical feminism remain two extremely polar yet equally intrinsic schools of thought within feminism and both find equal number of followers even today when feminism has branched out into socialist feminism, black feminism, intersectional feminism, eco feminism, postmodern feminism, etc.