Where Did Contemporary Liberal Feminism Come From - Women's Studies Essay


Where Did Contemporary Liberal Feminism Come From - Women's Studies Essay
The systematic oppression of women, a tacit social dogma inherent in the history of western thought, was dependant upon the continued polarization of two

stratifying spheres; one of women, who were regulated to the “private” sphere of the home and family and secondly, the communal, “social” patriarch which dominated over it. The division of human social life into public and private realms, and the demotion of women into the latter, is a principal source of women’s disadvantaged societal position. Conversely, advocates of the doctrine of separate spheres deem the public domain to be a place where the important business of society is conducted, while its frivolous and trivial pleasures are enjoyed within the private sphere. Hence, the ideology of sanctity and domestic bliss, which encompasses the realm assigned to women, worked to mask and condone male despotism in the home. It is that same ideology which inhibited women from entering into the workforce and becoming productive, competitive participants in the formal labour market. Consequently, this male dominance was reinforced by the nature of production in industrialized societies; however, the boundaries between private and public domains are not as rigid as its dichotomy seems to entail. They vary historically and geographically, indicative of Canada’s social and cultural stratification. The toil involved within the cultivation of new settlements, wherein the family serves as both a social and economic unit, blurred the division between the public and private spheres, both within the homes and within the minds of its residents. Black women specifically tended to work outside the home, due to a product of racism, as their husbands were unable to make enough money to support the family. Despite a respite of women’s active involvement throughout the course of the early 20th century, their achievements far exceeded what the suffragists had once envisaged. However, during the 1950s and 1960s women’s domestic obligations, as well as their self-images, remained practically the same while their activities altered significantly. Not only had they retained their responsibilities for their families, simultaneously their participation in the paid labour force had increased. In part to this the women’s movement of the 1960s gained a new impetus towards social change, one which focused more on the destruction of the patriarchal rule rather than its ratification. Coupled with the adaptation of the feminist doctrine, the Canadian women’s movement of the 1960s resulted in increased legislative representation and a reconfiguration of the family dynamic.

In the 1960s, no one expected the women’s movement to re-emerge. Due to their economic and political stability within a prosperous postwar Canada, women viewed any remaining predicaments they had as temporary disadvantages. Women were increasingly getting the education needed to ensure better-paying work. Consequently, public opinion regarding their right to work and to attain equal pay, which had been legally guaranteed since 1950, began to increase; even in Quebec women had been enfranchised for almost a generation. Even though there were still few women in the federal Parliament, the tradition of having one woman in the cabinet appeared secure, while local politicians like Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton continued to be highly visible and vocal—often objecting to any particular concern for the status of women. When the women’s liberation movement first gained media attention late in the decade, first in France and then the United States, it was “part of a student movement radicalized by racism and imperialism women were to be ‘liberated,’ like minorities and colonial dependencies”. (80) This reincarnation of feminism was merely interpreted as another, relatively insignificant part of an era of activism. In Canada, focus still remained on the problematic conceptualization of a unified linguistic-cultural nation. The question of national unity underscored many of the federal-provincial conferences and royal commissions. Hence, the student revolt was “late and muted and, like it, the ‘new’ women’s movement was seen as an American import”. (80) Despite this, there was general astonishment when feminism proved able to tap massive discontent among even the most privileged of women.

Two sorts of grievances underlined the women’s movement in the 1960s. First, an old set, categorized by its feminist methodologies in earlier eras, which related to the areas where women were regarded as basically the same as men but were treated “in a different, disadvantageous manner, in effect excluded from men’s rights and privileges”. Hence, where the barriers were officially down and women were able to share in ‘male’ pioneered activities, they did it without receiving the compensations men came to expect. Feminists were to identify the underpinning of this construct through the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’: they could work for pay however, it would be less than their male counterparts received and as a result, it became unlikely for them to become successful through their own achievements. The second, new set of grievances related to women’s specific qualities and “characteristics that they had valued and thought society had appreciated insufficiently”. Those who had succeeded in the context of public life discovered that their actions were being governed by a domineering patriarchal construct. Consequently, women had to hide their feminine qualities, neglect or conceal their private lives, “and learn the “conflictual games [that their] mother never taught [them]”. However, women wanted to remain different without being underprivileged. Rather, they wanted recognition for their valuable qualities, along with security from their vulnerabilities in a male-dominated world. Women’s circumstances in relation to the combination of domestic responsibilities and paid labour crystallized the old and the new demands: “they were not compensated for their ‘double shift’ of paid and unpaid work, they were not protected against violence in or out of the home, and their socially valuable tasks of public and private nurturance were unrecognized.” These circumstances created individual dissatisfactions which, despite being felt by the individual, continued to be largely unvoiced. In the collective, the resulting grievances entailed a more enviable societyin which women were treated as equal but also one in which public life had underwent changes due to women’s active role within it. A society in which “women were equally influential would be one that took women’s preferences and experience seriously, and that was transformed by the result”. The fundamental conditions of Canadian women were shared by women throughout the industrialized world. This is indicative of why the revolt of the women students did not in fact subside in the early 1970s like the activities of the male-dominated organizations from which they detached. Moreover, Canada’s newly visible feminist activism inherited not only the current situation, but the goals of its predecessor groups. This occurred in part due to the survival of these constituent groups and their role in constructing a ‘second wave’ of feminism. However, this incarnation was not a ‘rebirth of feminism’. Feminist and women’s groups had not dissipated at the triumphant end of the suffrage campaigns. Rather, throughout the 20th century, women’s movements moved “with their customary energy to make use of the new instruments of influence for which they had fought so hard”. After enfranchisement, despite being engaged in fewer concentrated campaigns and having less exposure, women’s activities never ceased. Consequently, in the 1960s, with the emergence of new factions, the pace quickened and their visibility increased.

Contemporary feminism, an incarnation of the student and civil rights movements of radical protest in the 1960s, was a dynamic, evolving, politically engaged movement. It was instrumental in effecting fundamental change in social practices and institutions. Feminism is “a theoretical project whose purposes are to understand the oppressive social practices that disadvantage women and to think innovatively about women’s possibilities”. Hence, its radicalism is reflective of the fact that it comes to distinction at points of critical change. It both “abets this change and envisages it with an imagination that goes beyond it”. Consequently, there is a close connection between feminist practice, which concentrates its effort on transforming social and material conditions, and feminist theory, which extends out of that practice and notifies it. Theory is “constantly modified by what it proves to be effective in practice, and practice is shaped by theory”. Hence, any separation between theory and practice enables the process of comparative analysis. Consequently, this account of shifting feminist theories within a Canadian context is intended to describe the theoretical framework in which the feminist philosophy has evolved in Canadian society. Feminist theorists begin from the realization that, in the context of a patriarchal society, men and women live different lives and consequently, have different experiences. There is an attempt to understand the power and privilege differential exhibited between men and women. By analyzing its origin, feminists are able to develop strategies to eradicate this paradigm, thus portraying the active nature of feminism itself: “the point of studying the situation of women is to work towards changing it”. However, contemporary feminist theorists differ in their identification of the principal element(s) of women’s oppression, in their designation of fundamental theoretical questions, and in the strategies for change they create and enact. Despite being approached from different vantage points, differing feminist doctrines still shared many core themes. In particular, feminists endeavor to “understand how the social structuring of production, reproduction, sexuality, and socialization, in their shifting manifestation, have determined women’s conditions throughout history and across cultural, and racial barriers”. However, during the 1960s there was a shift in most forms of feminism, one from an earlier view of women as a caste, to an awareness of the differences amongst their individual experiences. The belief that there was a single, essential ‘women’s experience’, from which universal analytical categories can be developed, was abandoned. Differences in class, sexual practice, and race became primary focus for debate. Hence, contemporary feminism faced the task of accounting for significant variations of women and thus, discerning the common threads and themes inherent to these experiences which make them specifically women’s. It became “a matter of developing theoretical tools to understand the samenesses and differences in women’s lives: of acknowledging specificity and commonality”. Three contemporary feminist theories which evolved through the postwar women’s movement were Liberal feminism, Marxist and Socialist feminism, and Radical feminism; all adhere to a similar construct however, their methodologies differ in their execution and consequently demonstrate the feminist doctrine’s adaptation to women’s social, political, and economic progression.

Against the background of classical liberal theory, contemporary liberal feminism is founded on the principle that it is a women’s right to enjoy the freedom and equality of opportunity attained by the autonomous individual. Hence, it is less of a theory of women’s oppression at the hands of patriarchy than it is a theory of human rights. This theory can be seen as the foundation of contemporary feminism, as it represents the overarching discontent which arose in postwar Canada. In the liberal-feminist view, sexual discrimination is unjust primarily because it deprives women of the equal right to pursue their own self-interest. Hence, liberal feminists “deplore the informal discrimination in assumptions, rooted in biological determinism”. It is this discrimination which denies women access to equal participation with men, who have occupations of high social status. Efforts which have aimed to free women from their dependant status, have garnered liberal feminists some exposure. However, by retaining the ideological commitment that political decisions are created within the formal political process, they have been less meticulous than “socialist and radical feminists in their examination of the politics of daily life in the ‘private’ sphere and in their analyses of sexual power and privilege”. Despite a constant demand for women to be included equally within the existing public decision-making structures, liberal feminists still assumed that the structures themselves needed “no modifications beyond those effected by the inclusion of women on an equal basis”. Hence, they inevitably failed to recognize the strength of patriarchal capitalism in regards to its ability to maintain female subjugation. Due to liberal theory being confined to matters of social practice, in which women would have unlimited opportunity, it offers no indication as how access to that construct would be realized. Moreover, as women were expected to lead a double life, domestically and as part of the paid labour force, their autonomy would lead to an abandonment of domestic obligations. Liberal theory thus works with a model of society in which feminist change would simply require men to make more room within existing social structures for their female counterparts. However, due to these constructs being controlled by men, women continued to be governed by its rule. Consequently, another contemporary theory of feminism emerged, one in which responded to the inadequacies contained within the liberalist interpretation; the Marxist and Socialist theory.

Marxist and Socialist feminists, in reaction to the liberal feminist’s doctrine, argued that there was in fact no need for political liberalism unless one can, not only achieve economic means, but also attain the power to enjoy it. Drawing upon a Marxist study of class oppression, social feminists argued that “the capitalist economic system oppresses women as a group, just as it oppresses the working class as a whole”. Within the context of a capitalist patriarch society women are subjected to other forms of oppression. First, women’s work is alienated labour; they own neither the means nor the production of their work. Second, in the labour force, women are commonly in positions which are subordinate to men, whose superiority is not necessarily always apparent. Hence, women are continually alienated from realizing their true potential. Third, women who work as housewives are even more at a disadvantage as they live their lives out of servitude. Consequently, their toil accords no material value and they are continually kept in seclusion from the ‘public’ world. Due to changing climate in postwar Canada, socialist feminists argued that women’s worth is apparent in both the public and private spheres. However, under capitalism, their labor within a domestic context is deemed worthless because it has no monetary exchange value, and “it is invisible in that public space where exchange value is established”. Circumstances such as these, led socialist feminists to promote programs of social changes, ones which would involve alternatives to capitalist modes of production and to the patriarchal construct of the family itself. Radical feminism, a manifestation of this doctrine, agreed with much of the socialist-feminist analysis of women’s disadvantaged social and economic position however, whereas material, social, and economic oppression were primary for socialist feminists, radical feminists believed that the subjugation of women was at the root of all other forms of oppression.

Radical feminism was generated from the disillusionment created out of the politics of the New Left in North America, Britain, and France in the late 1960s. Particularly women in the United States who were advocating for equality during the civil rights movement “found themselves treated as subordinate members of organizations in which they were vigorously active”. Moreover, women realized that they were being exploited as sex objects, subordinates to their male co-workers. Consequently, “sexism, as manifested in patriarchal family arrangements, in gender stereotyping, pornography, wife and child abuse, and rape, became the focus of radical-feminist analysis”. Radical feminists argued that the ‘personal is political’, thereby demonstrating how patriarchal society constructs personal experiences and relations in ways which become disadvantageous to women. During the 1960s, the Canadian government declared that it had no place within the bedrooms of the nation. Even though this was an improvement upon the view that society could deem through legislation what was sexually permissible between adults, it rendered “immune to public intervention such damaging and exploitive practices as rape and sexual abuse within marriage and the family”. These daily activities only served to perpetuate women’s oppression within the home, a place which was protected from political scrutiny by “an ideology of sanctity and privacy where the invisibility of women’s domestic and childrearing labour is maintained”. Prior to radical feminists exposing these problems, domestic violence was regarded as a private matter, one in which the law did not meddle in. Despite an evident systematic difference in power between men and women, one which is defined in part by men’s socially and legally control over women’s labour, it is this ideology that irrevocably places any domestic blame solely on the women. Hence, the radical feminists felt that such power relations needed to be overturned if women’s subjugation were to end. Postwar Canada saw a transition within the feminist doctrine. Despite emerging through different social, political, and economic spheres, contemporary feminism began its rise by inheriting the cause of its prior incarnations, advocating for equal representation and it evolved into a movement intent on developing a separate and self-centered women’s culture.

When examining the changing patterns of Canadian women’s lives, it is imperative to look beyond the choices they made to the laws that, through time, have both constrained and liberated them. Historically, these laws have been created and governed by men, reflecting their assumptions about the ‘natural order’ of society. However, these suppositions began to change within the 20th century, most notably within the context of the welfare state. The welfare state cemented its foundation in Canada in the period following the end of the Second World War. It introduced government legislature into areas such as employment and income security, areas which were previously regarded as outside the scope of public policy. Women came to play a significant role in the welfare state that emerged. Due to its creation, the “boundaries of the public sphere widened and those of the private sphere narrowed”. However, the government appeared ignorant to its overall impact it would have on the lives of women. Consequently, a series of measures were passed to encourage women to continue their domestic responsibilities at home and to raise healthy ‘future workers’ for the rapidly expanding economy. Hence, relief measures were developed to assist needy single mothers, which became part of a universal program of benefits. The family-allowance program, one of the first in the federal government’s package of income-security measures, helped “to set the tone of the welfare state, underscoring the fact that the welfare state was not just a set of services, but also a set of ideas about society, about the family, and about women, who have a centrally important role within the family, as its linchpin”. Canada needed workers to fill the increasing amount of available jobs hence, at this time, women were still encouraged to remain domestic, a concept which echoed in the governments legislation. The language of “social purity and morality, which dominated legislative discussions about women’s roles in the early 1900s, was replaced by language of healthy babies, strong soldiers, and better works”. Consequently, the need for more workers also led to the greater possibility that women themselves could fill those roles. In the egalitarian spirit of the post-war years, the government gradually adopted some equal-rights legislation for its female citizens. Most employees were under provincial jurisdiction hence, there were a series of legislative initiatives, created in the 1950s, which aimed at improving equal opportunity for women at work. In 1951, beginning in Ontario and culminating in Newfoundland in 1971, the provincial governments passed equal-pay legalization, which was generally worded to “guarantee women and men in both public and private sectors the same pay for similar or essentially similar jobs”. However, these initiatives were too weak in their execution to have a desired effect, since the paid labour force was highly segregated by gender and continued to be dominated by men.

In 1954 the federal government attempted to ratify this situation by establishing the Women’s Bureau in the federal Department of Labour. The government knew very little about women in the paid labour force hence, the bureau was “designed to promote a wider understanding of problems preculiar to women workers and the employment of women, to help women make a more effective contribution to the development of Canada”. It played a vital role in preparing the federal equal-pay legistlation which was introduced in 1956. However, the legislation was flawed as it only applied to federal works of businesses, or “corporations performing work on behalf of the government, limiting equal pay to indentical or substantially identical work”. In spite of these limitations, the federal and earlier provincial equal-pay laws were important milestones in the legislative history of women’s rights. Two events in the 1970s furthered this legislative evolution: maternity leave provisions, which became part of the Canada Labour Code, and the Report of the Royal Commission on the status was women was published. Even though the Report was not implemented in its entirety, it still was influential in the development of a new view of women by the Canadian legislatures. With the introduction of maternity-leave provisions, the socially constructed role of the domestic female began to disintegrate. This legislation was significant in that it was national, stating that “the employment cost of child-bearing, although not child care, was a community responsibility rather than an individual woman’s burden”. These early equal-opportunity laws were founded on the philosophy that prejudice against women in the labour force was a human relations problem. This philosophy carried over into the 1970s in the form of government regulated affirmative action programs. These would remove the discrimination factor and increase women’s access to jobs formerly held primarily by men. Today affirmative action has been embraced by both levels of government, as it affirms that women and men should be treated equally. Consequently, it improved women’s access to the public sphere. However, the pace has continued to be quite slow. Women’s concerns continue to be low on the government’s priority list. Throughout this process women have been forced to represent themselves in the patriarchal public sphere, while continuously ensuring that their domestic roles were sustained. Consequently, the dynamic of the family compact, and the role of the mother itself, underwent a drastic transformation.

Understanding the family dynamic and the changes inherent in its representations is fundamental to understanding the position of women in Canada. Three essential changes that have occurred in the Canadian family since the post-war era were the decrease in family size and the increase in marital dissolution through divorce, an increase in labour-force participation of married women and mothers and separation. These “trends are not independent of one another, but intertwined, and have been accompanied by large scale socio-economic changes”. The post-war years produced a group of disgruntled and aggravated full-time mothers, who followed social expectations but felt unrewarded and subdued. Moreover, the cost of raising a family proved too difficult for single mothers. The convergence of women’s growing dissatisfaction with their socially prescribed roles and economic problems resulted in low levels of childbearing. The declining birth rate and the emergence of smaller families was often argued to be the result of women’s enhanced reproductive choice. However, some women have decided to postpone or opt out of childbearing, many “continued to face unwanted pregnancy, most notable the poor, young, immigrant, differently abled, and physically and mentally abused women”. Women’s changing work-force patterns brought about and accompanied changes in the family structure. The increased work-force contribution of married women both “reinforced and undermined the idea that marriage may be women’s best economic option”. Moreover, the notion of marriage itself also led to a shift in the family dynamic. During the post-war era women were, by law, under the control of their husbands and families. Consequently, their options and rights were limited and any money earned was considered to be their husbands’. However, the more women decided to work outside the household, the consideration of their earnings and property came into question. While women continually search for and find work, coupled with the possibility of their husbands’ unemployment, the traditional roles within the family inherently change. Moreover, women’s increased participation in the work-force also highlighted the notion of child care. Child care was considered the private responsibility of the individual family. Hence, the Canadian family was viewed as self-contained, responsibly for itself and its children. Inadequat child-care facilities presuppose that it is the mother’s responsibility to care completely for he own children. Ireccovably, many women were forced with the untenable position of having to choose a family or a career, but not both. It was not until the creation of adequate child-care facilities through the legislative process during the 1960s and 1970s that this pressure was somewhat alleviated. Last, the increased rates of marital dissolution created a fundamental change within the Canadian family, one which accounts for the dramatic increase in single-parent families. The increased divorce rates were often equated with an escalation of marital unhappiness, placing blame on women’s evolving roles within the public sphere. However, through divorce, women became evermore disadvantaged at the hands of a patriarchal society. They had a lower probability than divorced men of remarrying. Furthermore, the women had the responsibility for the children of the dissolved marriage, which had an affect on their prospects of remarriage. The most profound difference between the divorce experience of men and women was concentrated in their altered financial circumstances. Fewer than 5% of women received alimony after their divorce. Due to childcare responsibilities, “limited daycare facilties, limited job opportunities and, a;; too often , inadequate or non-existent child support, divorced women often found themselves among the ranks of the poor”. Hence, the government introduced divorce reforms which intended to make divorce more equitable and fair. However, although it seemed egalitarian, it still overlooked women’s real wage and job prospects, as well as the requirement and expense of continued child care. Despite these ratifications the role of the mother continues to be one which requires an adherence to patriarchal rule, one which is appears intent on maintaining its power structure at the hands of women’s continued efforts.

In part, the women’s movement of the 1960s strove to create social awareness and representation amongst the legislative government. The evolution of the feminist doctrine awarded the women’s movement to attack their social restrictions through a variety of different social, economic, and political facets. Since the postwar era women have undertaken an active assault on patriarchal rule. By means of its own structures, women were able to infiltrate and implement change within a male dominated public sphere. Fixes assumptions about female nature have only had negative affects on women, ones which emerged in all aspects of their lives, influencing their physical, psychological, and social well-being. Despite women’s new found complacency, there continues to be a tangible and psychological barrier which separates men and women. Even as women claim the right and display their capacity to participate in the public domain, “the ideology of the sanctity if the private domain is constantly re-invoked to thwart their efforts and restrict their freedom”. The success of the 1960s movement in spawning a new generation of feminist theorists indicates that the impetus behind social, political, and economic equality will endure until its efforts come to fruition.

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