Why Feminism and Liberalism Need Each Other: The Case for Reconciliation

22 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 6 Sep 2010

Date Written: 2010


In the 21st century, both feminism and liberalism are far more influential than they are popular. Reports of the death or terminal condition of each ideology are frequent. No candidate for national office has accepted the “liberal” label since 1988, when that adjective and all it implies helped the Democrats lose the president election. Now, “the traditional media are so petrified of being called ‘liberal’ that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors, while “mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

“While “I am not a feminist” (with or without the “but”) has faded from ordinary discourse, public figures who accept the label self-consciously limit its scope. But, even as “feminist” and “liberal” have become terms of opprobrium, feminist and liberal practice persist. They don’t exactly thrive, and they exclude too many people, but we still have the adversary system of justice, individual rights remain a priority; public accommodations are racially integrated, and gender gaps continue to narrow. The Obama administration is displeased about the leaking of war-related documents, but it hasn’t gone to court the way the Nixon administration did with the Pentagon Papers.

This discontinuity between theory and practice intrigues me because of my intellectual roots in both ideologies. I was raised a liberal, and became a feminist. In the time and place where I grew up, liberalism was the only respectable political philosophy. Words like “conservative,” “Marxist,” or “Communist” were spoken in tones ranging from the derisive to the contemptuous. Nobody found it necessary to defend freedom of expression, the separation of state and religion, the exclusionary rule, or workers’ right to strike; but if you asked, answers were provided. Capital punishment was wrong because people might be convicted in error. Adding the words “under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance sent a hostile message to nonbelievers. Laws that prohibited contraception were as ludicrous as the idea of any duty to obey them. People who disagreed with these positions were considered too stupid to understand. Reason trumped emotion, as far as public policy was concerned. The brain trumped the heart, the gut, the hunch, the instinct, and the inclination.

I learned to perceive the world as the adults around me did. Not all these principles extended to children, but I conceived of adulthood as a stage of life when these rights would be mine, too. But liberal individualism was not all I absorbed. Questions about rights were not the only questions that occurred to me. Why did the boys enter the school at the front door and the girls at the back? When the class was divided into teams, why were the captains always boys and the lieutenants girls? When my parents had dinner guests, why did all the women head for the kitchen while all the men sat in the living room? The responses, verbal and otherwise, to my questions ranged from “When you’re older, you’ll understand,” to Ring Lardner’s “’Shut up,’ he explained.” Some things were not subject to critical scrutiny. Male supremacy trumped reason.

These contradictions may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that I got interested in political theory before I knew what it was. My interest led me to John Stuart Mill in high school, Erich Fromm in college, and David Riesman in graduate school. Mill and Riesman sensitized me to the possibility of liberal theory that did scrutinize and reject male supremacy. But Fromm wrote a book called Man for Himself. In Growing up Absurd, Paul Goodman wrote, “the problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, ‘make something of herself.’ Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act. With this background, it is less important, for instance, what job an average young woman works at till she is married.” When the feminist movement re-emerged in the late 1960s, I jumped in.

Suggested Citation

Baer, Judith A., Why Feminism and Liberalism Need Each Other: The Case for Reconciliation (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1644243

Judith A. Baer (Contact Author)

Texas A&M University ( email )

Langford Building A
798 Ross St.
College Station, TX 77843-3137
United States

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