Is Liberal Feminism Feminism? No.

As I study radical feminism more and more, I feel increasingly detached from and disgusted with liberal feminism. Herein lies the realm where male entitlement to female bodies and the ongoing objectification of women by men are turned into affirmative acts that progressive men and women can engage in without qualms or regret. To deepen one’s awareness of the role that liberal feminism plays in upholding patriarchy, consider the fact that this “movement” gave rise to the ideology and praxis of self-objectification. Although understood and defined broadly, self-objectification is essentially about women consciously, “independently” deciding to represent their bodies as a site of erotic titillation through corporeal styling or the positioning of the physical form in a manner that draws attention to specific parts (typically the breasts and/or vagina). While many liberal “feminists” have argued that self-objectification is empowering, what the ideology and praxis really demonstrates is that the necrotic project of patriarchy (turning a thinking subject into an inanimate, imitative object) has been completed successfully.

Yet the object-not-subject ideology advanced by liberal feminism is not the only problematic component of this system of thought. Another issue is “body positivity.” In many cases, body positivity is self-objectification and sexualization. Radical feminists can see this when we are exposed to images of women with their legs splayed only to hear “feminists” comment that the visual representation is about a woman “taking control of her sexuality” or “feeling good about her body.” This is clearly nonsense and there appears to be general consensus about it amongst radical feminists. Yet liberal feminism’s ongoing obsession with “body positivity” seems to have gained legitimacy and acceptance as an integral component of the Women’s Movement within dominant discourse. It shouldn’t, and the reason is fairly simple. There is a sometimes subtle, sometimes salient difference between the body-affirming ideas promoted by strong Second Wave Era feminists and the (more often than not) vapid, commercialized, image-based versions of body positivity that are continually linked to liberal feminism. As noted by Double XX Howl in her important essay “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” it was during the feminist revolution of the 1970s that “women learned to say these tabooed words out loud: vagina, clitoris, and cervix” (445).  Articulating the reality of the materiality of the female body was an act of liberation and defiance in a patriarchal world centered around reverence for the phallus in conjunction with the demonization of a woman’s physical form. Evidence of this demonization abounds, but I’ll cite one example to legitimate my claim here. In “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created Female,” Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor point out that “In one not-too-ancient dictionary, “clitoris” was defined as a “rudimentary organ,” while “masculinity” equaled “the Cosmic generative force”…!” (7, 8). They go on to point out that “Freud dismissed the clitoris as an undeveloped masculine organ and defined original libido as male” (8). Second wave feminists (and the radical feminists of today) rejected this male-centered, woman-demonizing ideology by affirming all aspects of the female body as important and desirable while also promoting the development of an autonomous female sexuality in which the phallus has no place.

The body positivity movement advanced by liberal feminism seems less substantive. The dominant discourse within this realm appears to be about affirming the existence and beauty of multiple distinct body types such that neither a “thin” nor “full” frame is ridiculed or condemned. Yet the conversation doesn’t seem to get any deeper. Thus as noted by  Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian, “Liberal feminism as practiced today seems to focus largely on issues of your right not to wear makeup or your right to wear a bikini whatever your size.” I agree with Mahdawi and would go on to argue that if liberal feminists want to claim that their ideology and modality is substantive, the focus needs to shift. Radical, body-affirming feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have already done an exemplary job of demonstrating that the female corporeal form is a political site through which the oppression of women is perpetuated. In their essay “The International Crime of Genital Mutilation,” the writers demonstrate the ongoing attack on female bodies by stating that “Not only have American and European women experienced the psychic clitoridectomy that was legitimized by Freud, but Western nineteenth-century medical texts also proclaim genital mutilation as an accepted treatment for “nymphomania,” “hysteria,” masturbation, and other nonconforming behavior” (318). They globalize the issue of mutilating female bodies by  noting that “…international health authorities find the most extensive evidence of such customs on the African continent and the Arabian peninsula. The majority of mutilations take place without anesthetic at home (in the city or village), but many are now performed in hospitals as approved procedures…” (318). Why aren’t body positive liberal feminists discussing the reality of women all over the world having their clitorises removed? I have my own theory: liberal feminism is not feminism but rather women accepting patriarchal edicts regarding male entitlement to objectify, control, and mutilate female bodies. Thus for liberal feminists to move beyond the “playful,” “fun” rhetoric of self-objectification and into a substantive analysis of how a clitoridectomy reifies male power by keeping female bodies under the control of men would be heresy.

With all of this in mind, I think it’s time for women who fight for women to stop calling liberal feminists feminists. Women who fight for self-objectification while eliding serious issues of the female body such as the erasure or annihilation of the clitoris are not fighting for women. They are fighting for the phallus, or “doing the work of the patriarchy.”

Works Cited

Howl, Double XX. “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” Female Erasure,   ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time  Publishing, 2016, pp. 443-448.

Mahdawi, Arwa. “Kellyanne Conway and liberal feminists: two sides of the same coin.”  The Guardian. 9 December 2016.  feminism-shortfalls-politics-amy-schumer-lena-dunham. Accessed 20 March 2017.

Sjoo, Monica and Barbara Mor. “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created  Female.” Female Erasure, ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time Publishing, 2016, pp. 5-17.

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions. New York: 1995.




Is Liberal Feminism Feminism? No.

6 thoughts on “Is Liberal Feminism Feminism? No.

  1. abutterflysdiary says:

    Great post. Liberal feminism is infuriating really. It is infantilising, patronising and so on: it really is a long list. It thrives because by some pure coincidence it just happens to coincide exactly with what suits men the most. As a result liberal feminists are rewarded by men and face no punishment for their views, and why would they?

    The problem with liberal feminists is not only that they fail to take into account material and structural obstacles that limit women’s choices, it’s that they have no problems attacking women who centre women in their political analyses. They have no problem calling us TERFS, SWERFS, prudes, whorephobes, etc. What kind of “feminist” treats women like this? They don’t, and it’s difficult to disagree with your conclusion.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for reading my work. 🙂

      Of course you are 100% correct regarding the use of terms like TERFs and prudes. These linguistic ploys are all designed to make radical feminists appear narrow-minded, non-tolerant, and nonsexual. None of the accusations are accurate and they just obscure important points that radical feminists have been making for quite some time: the denial of the material reality of the female body as well as its appropriation as always/only a tool for male titillation constitute forms of woman-hating. At core, this woman-hating is about loathing the idea of a woman existing as an autonomous, agentive, and/or authoritative entity in a world where male rule with the auxiliary female presence is currently the dominant discourse. One of patriarchy’s primary goals is to ensure that men can always recruit women to not only occupy this auxiliary position, but train other women to accept this condition as natural or inevitable. This is what liberal feminists do when they accept the synthetic, subordinating understandings of the female body imposed upon women by men.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. abutterflysdiary says:

    I really enjoy your blog, you write clearly and thoughtfully so I should be thanking you for taking the time to write 🙂

    Yes, I think liberal feminism fails on several levels, and it all stems from their basic premise which decontextualises women’s lives. This means there is no systemic oppression and so no way to carry out a rigorous analysis. I just can’t believe they can’t see the weakness in their approach when you consider what women endure: foeticide and infanticide, FGM, sex trafficking, sexual violence, etc. To somehow reduce it to choices, empowerment and agency makes no sense to me. It is perplexing and quite offensive.

    And then there’s the misogyny. It really becomes difficult to call it feminism when women are either reduced to the choices they make as if it’s all taking place in a vacuum, or reduced to stereotypes which means men are included, or abused for centring women. A kind of MRA fronted by women really.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with this 100 percent. I recently read a bit on how African Feminists are boggled by Western libfems desire to claim hypersexualization as feminist. African women are trying to fight for the right to NOT be hypersexualized. And yet liberal Feminists claiming to be intersectional and ready to break down colonialism think this is the best way to go about empowering women. Libfems are beginning to get quite libertarian in how they cannot see how what they consider personal empowerment may in fact, harm women overall, particularly considering the ways in which minority women, especially Asian women, are super hypersexualized as sex objects – which of course is all connected to “massage parlours” and sex tourism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. This is why Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s coining of the term intersectionality was (and remains) immensely important. Liberal feminists who claim inclusivity need to understand the role their own ideological praxis plays in purporting principles of colonization that black feminists are trying to abrade or abolish. In this case, hypersexualization is a mode of colonization through which thinking subjects are reduced to inanimate or robotic-like objects for the purpose of promoting an androcentric, truncated version of female sexuality which ensures male rule over the female body.

      Just as African feminists have questioned the legitimacy of this hypersexualization, women of color in Amerika have called it into question. While completing my master’s thesis, I came across a brilliant essay by lesbian feminist writer and poet Audrey Lorde entitled “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In this brilliant essay, Lorde critiques one of the phallic, colonizing enterprises that most liberal “feminists” accept and promote: pornography. In revealing its inefficacies, Lorde states that “…pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Exactly.

      Your points regarding the importance of examining the issues faced by minority Asian women is well-taken. One great essay which engages this issue is Geraldine Heng’s “A Great Way to Fly”: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.” In this text, Heng talks about Singapore’s exploitation of maids before noting that “More invisibly, but just as exploitatively, state-owned or state-affiliated airline industries throughout Southeast Asia (and South and East Asian countries) routinely sell the sexualized images and personal charm and services of their female flight attendants, in the highly competitive and highly profitable commercial air-travel market, through aggressive global marketing and media advertising, for the profit of the national coffers” (863).

      As a woman of color, I am very receptive to the voices, experiences, and ideological slant of women of color as well as sisters who identify as white.

      Thanks for your comments! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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