Liberal feminism (often interchangeable with humanist feminism has very little relevance today. Times have changed and gender is no longer regarded as the lone oppressive factor for women. With the rise of the theory of intersectionality, movements have broadened their scopes to allow for the inclusion of women of color, queer women, transwomen, and folks outside of the restrictive gender binary. Intersectionality advances the idea that race, class, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression are not mutually exclusive. Intersectionality recognizes how these pertinent and oppressive factors interact and intersect with folk’s experiences and identities.
Liberal feminism has its roots in the earliest U.S. women’s rights movements. Though, during the 19th century, a number of the ideologies from feminists, were considered radical, bordering on ridiculous, in modern times, these thoughts and beliefs would not be categorized as such. Hindsight allows for a closer, more analytical survey of the movements of the past. With a more critical lense, the radicalism can be more appropriately accredited to liberal principles. For instance, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York over the course of two days, July 19th and 20th in 1848. Organized by local Quaker women and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the goal of the pioneering and progressive convention was “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.”
At the convention, E.C. Stanton, along with the Quaker women, brought forward “the Declaration of Sentiments”. The document was primarily authored by Stanton, fashioned to liken the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Therein, these women argued for their equal treatment under the law. Yet, many of the ‘sentiments’ mentioned in the document presume relevance for all women of the time. Take for example: He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns. He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.
These sentiments, though valid when addressing the issues of higher class, white women—like Elizabeth Cady Stanton—fall short in properly addressing the realities of women from divergent backgrounds. Women of color did not enjoy rights as citizens of the United States, nor were they, specifically, Black women, acknowledged as full humans. Furthermore, enslaved Black women could not agonize over property rights and the wages earned from them, as they were property by which a white man or a white woman could measure their wealth. Poor women, or women living in less industrialized areas (such as the South), did not have access to a formal education, college was not an option as too many were deprived of basic education. The omission of women of color’s issues Is no accident, many supporters of women’s rights wanted to tread lightly, as not to ‘poke the bear’ too hard. Despite that many supporters were abolitionists, it did not completely erase deeply embedded societal lessons of racial superiority and inferiority. It would be more fitting to rename movements like these, which do not curve out spaces for all women, which are not intersectional, as white women’s rights.
The chief objective of liberal feminism is to secure gender equality in the public sphere through legal reforms. Contemporarily, that may look like same pay for the same job; accessible education for all; and, improvement of work environments. Matters more private in nature, such as reproductive rights, are also vital issues to liberal feminists, as they can obstruct or impact equality in the public domain. Liberal feminism seeks to attain this equality by appealing to the state, but it is imperative to identify who has created and controlled the state—white men. Therefore, when examining the methodologies of liberal feminists, it is crucial to inquire, to whom are you trying to be equal?
Equal pay, equal treatment in the workplace, equal opportunities to education, and a bettering of working conditions, are all laudable aims. However, it is problematic to frame the obstacle between a woman and goals such as those, as one thing and one thing only: gender inequality. The notion that all women are engaged in the same social battle is preposterous. There are, presently and previously, women who have battled gender inequality in addition to racial inequality in addition to class inequality in addition to heterosexist inequalities, in addition to cissexist inequalities, in addition to ableist inequalities. Removing one barrier does not necessarily remove them all, especially if rhetoric and practice purports that there is only one barrier to begin with. Intersectionality, in contrast, asserts that these numerous factors, together, heavily influence and distinctly shape the discrimination and oppression women can face.
The term “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. The idea of intersectionality, however, was not conceived by Crenshaw. It has been embodied in countless identities throughout history; so, though the terminology was not present, the concept still existed. This can be seen on the occasion of May 29th, 1851 in Akron, Ohio at a women’s convention. There, Sojourner Truth delivered an impromptu but passionate speech, subsequently titled, “Ain’t I A Woman?” Truth is an early example of how intersectional identities affect experiences—she was a former slave (class), she was Black (race), and she was a woman (gender). Her speech allowed for another narrative, one that is equally impacted by gender inequality as it is by racial and class inequalities, to be exposed in mainstream feminist spaces. When she repeatedly asks (and reminds) her audience, “Ain’t I a woman?”, she aims to assert her intersectional experience, though deviant from the white woman’s, as valid and significant.
Truth colloquially dissects the hypocrisy of gender roles. Women are to be “helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.” However, Truth remarks that these gendered actions are not performed for her. She further notes that she doesn’t conform to the perception of women as fragile and weak, but still sternly affirms her womanhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her “Declaration of Sentiments” expressed anger and frustration that children, despite being overwhelmingly raised by their mothers, are under the guardianship of their fathers. What then of the experiences of the enslaved women—whose children belong not them, not to their fathers, but to the slave masters as property? Truth bore thirteen children and saw most of them sold away as someone’s slave, as someone’s property, but her pain was not respected and so, it went unacknowledge. Why? She echoes this sentiment throughout her speech, peppering it with the powerful, titular question, “ain’t I a woman?” Due to her race and her class, Sojourner is not considered a woman by society. This idea should prompt the inquiry, who is considered a woman? And what then, does women’s rights look like if the very concept of a woman is cherry-picked and subjective to a “right” (white) experience?
Intersectionality does not allow a singular experience to dictate or dominate the ideology. It provides a thorough analysis of the ways in which race, class, sexuality, ability, and nationality may affect a woman’s oppression, while also identifying how gender takes various forms in women as well. Most importantly, intersectionality does not aim to reform the institutions in which oppression is systematically perpetuated. For example, in regards to discrimination in the work place, a liberal feminist would see affirmative action as the best defense—the state would compel employers and corporations to include more women in the pool of potential applicants. Yet, this action has been shown to benefit one specific group—white women. An intersectional feminist would see the solution to work place discrimination as reconstructing the capitalist foundations which allow for the monetizing of certain bodies over others. In a world populated by an immeasurable amount of identities, and intersecting factors which affect them, intersectionality leaves no one behind, it does not settle and it does not give in.
Historically, mainstream feminist spaces have been reserved for a particular type of woman: higher class and white. These women in these spaces demanded equality, enfranchisement, and esteem from their (white) male counterparts. Earlier feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton viewed their liberation achievable by way of inclusion, meaning, they would be ‘free’ so long as they were not excluded from law-making, voting, working, etc. These women viewed themselves as more than deserving of equal rights—certainly much more than males of other races, for example. Their legacies exist and persist contemporarily in liberal feminism, defined by its pursuit of reformation of political institutions and public spheres. It considers the foundations of our legal, educational, military, social, and cultural institutions sound; the only issue, in the eyes of liberal feminists, is the lack of women in these institutions—not the intrinsic inequality and intended oppression under which they operate. Where liberal feminism is shallow, intersectionality is deep; where liberal feminism lacks, intersectionality compensates; where liberal feminism seeks to reform, intersectionality seeks to reconstruct.