Liberalism is no friend of gender equality

Historically, liberal thought was not aligned with female emancipation or gender equality. The idea that women were inferior to men and needed to be kept in a state of dependency was not a betrayal of liberalism – instead, it was at the heart of liberal thinking.

Milly Williamson
22 October 2014

The issue of gender freedom is one that is often raised when favourably contrasting liberal western societies with other (in particular today, Muslim) parts of the world.  The idea of freedom is fundamental to liberalism’s claims to legitimacy and ideological hegemony. Female emancipation is seen as a great triumph of liberal thought and action – women in western liberal democracies are enfranchised, and are seen to have formal equality under the law in the areas of employment, pay and in control over their bodies.

Women’s emancipation is seen as central to an understanding of modernity, it is seen as a marker of a progressive society, and as such contributes to liberalism’s sense of pre-eminence. However, there are considerable problems with this picture. At the turn of this century, liberal regimes opportunistically laid claim to the idea of female emancipation in order to justify illegal war in Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan, the consequences of which are still reverberating today as the west gears up for another Iraq war, to combat a terrorist movement of its own making.

Just prior to the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the most prominent women in the west leant their voices to the justification of this action on the basis of liberating Afghani women. Both Barbara Bush and Cherie Blair made statements in the media denouncing the burqa as a symbol of the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Soon after, two British cabinet members at the time, Claire Short, International Development Secretary, and Estelle Morris, Education Secretary, echoed these sentiments when they launched a campaign to improve the rights of Afghan women.  But prior to the invasion of Afghanistan, there was very little concern in the west for the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, or its predecessor the Muhajideen, despite the (largely ignored) efforts of the Afghani women’s organization RAWA.

We might ask where the Bush administration’s concern for women’s rights in Afghanistan was when, in May 2001, it gave $43 million to the Taliban regime as part of its “War on Drugs”. It was only after 9/11 that the west became interested in the plight of women under the Taliban. As Annabelle Sreberny (2004) argues, "the burqa was used as part of a Western propaganda campaign" becoming the "synecdoche for fundamentalism, anti-modernism, and suddenly a ruthless pursuit of the terror network behind the September 11 events was transformed into a war of liberation with women as the main victors". And, as Amrit Wilson points out, while the British and American forces were bombing Afghanistan in order to ‘rescue’ women from the Taliban, the British Home Office "routinely tried to send Pakistani women back to villages in those very parts of Pakistan… which had been the support base of the Taliban and were largely under its control".

A closer look at liberalism 'at home', both today, and in its origins, reveals its deep fault lines as a project of human emancipation. Historically, liberal thought was not aligned with female emancipation or gender equality. When Mary Wollstencraft published the Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, the first manifesto of female emancipation, it was well received in revolutionary circles in France, but in England its main detractors were prominent liberal thinkers, including Edmund Burke and the well-known Blue Stocking, Hannah More.

In fact, much of Vindication is a refutation of the views on women espoused by the radical liberal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose traditional views on female inferiority were considered by Wollstonecraft to be a painful betrayal of liberalism. But these traditional ideas that women are inferior to men and to be kept in a state of dependency are not a betrayal of liberalism - instead, they were at the heart of liberal thinking until the 1970s. Before then, women did not have the right to demand equal pay under the law and it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women at work. Up until the late 1950s women could not get a bank loan or a hire-purchase agreement without the signature of a male relation. As Domenico Losurdo (2011) argues, at its height there were three ‘macroscopic exclusions’ in liberal notions of freedom – the oppressed colonial subject and the enslaved African, the exploited worker in the metropolitan centers, and women. Losurdo makes a strong case that the freedom of the liberal property-owning classes in the west actually depended on these exclusions, and one can argue that liberal regimes today continue to depend on the exclusion of subaltern groups from full political participation, as election turnouts in the UK have steadily declined since 1950.

But one of liberalism’s greatly proclaimed achievements is universal suffrage, including women’s suffrage. On this count too liberalism had to be forced to concede the vote in response to mass dissent. In the UK, many suffragettes were imprisoned and then force-fed after going on hunger strike. The vote was only conceded to women in Britain in 1928. In some liberal democracies full female suffrage came even later – France in 1945, Italy in 1946, Switzerland 1972 and Liechtenstein in 1984! The advances in gender equality have been made by challenges to such liberal democracies rather than as an outcome of liberal philosophy or deliberation—liberal thought was forced to adopt the principles of democracy—and at great cost. 

Overcoming the exclusion of women from the liberal sphere of political equality, like the end of slavery in the US, was the outcome not of liberal reform but of violent upheavals. The realisation of women’s political rights was the consequence of struggle which had the violence of the First World War behind it and the revolutionary upheavals of the early twentieth century.

And, as in the cases of class and race, complete gender equality and emancipation have not yet been fully achieved in the liberal west (over a century and half after the bourgeois revolutions that swept away the old order and brought in modern liberal democracies). Full voting rights have not produced female emancipation. Liberal thinking, in equating political freedom with economic or social freedom, disavows the inequality and unfreedom that arises from a lack of social justice. Indeed, the liberal wing of the feminist movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, by adhering to the liberal tenets on the separation of political rights and economic rights, and focusing almost exclusively on the franchise, not only made an appalling historic compromise in supporting the First World War with the promise of the vote, but also wrongly believed that when the vote was obtained, the struggle for equal rights would be won.

This divided the struggle for female suffrage from other feminist struggles, and from those advocating a challenge to the basic social structure and calling for economic and social justice as well as political rights. Almost a century since women won the vote, women still only make up 22% of MPs – a total of 143 out of 650. More than four decades after equal pay was enshrined in law (1970) (a direct result of the women car factory strike in Dagenham rather than benign liberal intervention), women still earn 2/3rds of male earnings, and more than three decades after equal rights legislation on work (1975), discrimination at work is rampant, and women are still predominantly employed in the low paid service sector and social services.

And it is women, particularly working class women and women of colour, who are bearing the brunt of austerity measures, including the attacks on welfare, depressed wages, the  rising cost of living that are designed to cut the size of the national debt following the bail-out of the banks, whose ‘freedom’ from regulation precipitated the financial crash in 2008. Liberalism’s promise of freedom and equality was never intended for the majority, but for the propertied elite, and the advances made by women, workers, and the anti-racist movement have been under sustained attack from our liberal rulers almost from the moment they were won.


This article is part of the Gender and Race strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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