“Women” in Liberal Feminism


Course: Feminist Theories

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and a gender theorist. She wrote an essay called Subject of sex/gender/desire in 2005 where she raises the point for the politics as well as the representation of “women” in feminist theories. In other words, we can say that her text requires a great attention also because she questions the subject of feminism, “women”. I intent to incorporate her theory of the “women” as a subject of feminist theory for comprehending the “women” in liberal feminism. She is deconstructionist as she criticizes the binary oppositions of having one of two genders. She does not choose between “nurture” and “nature”. She also talks about the “performative speech acts”. If I call an object a “chair” but there is nothing that constitutes or makes a chair, “chair”. But when I say something is “chair”, I start treating it as a chair. I will sit on it or whatever. So that is how, “Performative speech” acts.

Butler wrote a complete section on “women” as the subject of feminism where she says that feminist theory has thought “women” is already an given identity. The issues or the rights that the feminist have been demanding for quite a long time, does itself create the “subject” within and through various discourses. “Women” becomes the “subject” of these discourses. When it comes to representation of a “woman”, “women” are either misrepresented or not represented at all.

She is Foucauldian. She agrees with the idea that juridical system of power produces the subjects through limitations, prohibition, regulation and all. For instance, suppose there is law which says that 50 percent seats are reserved for the “women” in Indian constitution. So “women” becomes the subject of the law which works in a way to produce a particular kind of women which represents a particular kind of women.

According to her, the subject formation is very crucial for the politics and even for the feminist theorists. The “subject” is an ultimate candidate of representation. “Women” as a subject is not stable because it constitutes various categories of “women”. In feminist theory, there may not be a proper subject which can stand “before the law”. The word “women” does include multiple identities. It does not have a single signifier. She explains it through the book called ‘Am I That Name’ by Denise Riley. This book does talk about the multiple signifiers of a name. For example if I say that one is a “woman”, so it means all are not but one is. So the term does not provide the details. Gender has not been always remained constituted in the history. Gender does intersect with racial, caste, class, ethnic, sexual, religion, nationality that constitutes one’s identities. Gender is always related to politics and culture. This has been assumed that there is universal patriarchy, but it is not the case. For instance, the position of “women” in Africa is different from the position of “India”. Then she questions whether there is any commonality among “women” that exists as oppression? Do “women” have a bond by virtue of their oppression alone? And many other questions she brings up though this text.

Further, I would like to structure this paper in two respective heads in a broader manner. The title of first head would be the concept of liberalism. Under the head of the concept of liberalism, there will be other subheads liberal Political theory, liberal feminism and women’s nature, and problems or the ideas for the further discussion and second head has been titled as “women” as the subject of liberal feminism.


Liberalism has a closed relation with the capitalism. During the mid 17th century in England, the new bourgeois man revolted against the absolute authority of monarchy and then the new bourgeois woman rebelled against the male authorities over them. This was the time when new bourgeois women claimed for the extension of egalitarianism for them. They demanded for the democracy and for the political rights which will ensure the equality for the women.

The fundamental conception of liberal political theory is based on the human being as a rational being. Classical liberal theorists believed in dualism of human body and human mind. However, the contemporary liberal theorists pushed themselves to the idea which Alison M Jaggar calls “normative dualism”. The “normative dualism” gives more priority to the “mental” capacity and denies to recognize “physical” capacity since, according to them, only “mental” capacity can be rational. Further, they define the rationality can only be seen as an individual’s property rather than of group since an individual is the primary unit of being rational rather than the group. The individual’s desire, needs, capabilities are seen or considered independent from the social group. However, we need to question how does the construction of an individual take place. What are the factors that shape an individual as a rational human being? Can an individual in vacuum be a rational being? And finally, they assumed that at least all the men possess the capacity of being rational.

How does the liberal define the human capacity to reason? On this, there are several versions of it. Some make the ground for comprehending rationality on the basis of morality and prudential aspects. Some of them emphasize on one of them or to the other. All individuals are capable enough to recognize their own desires. However, their desire will be considered valid only when it is based either on morality or on values. Therefore, in this sense, an individual’s desire to be addicted of alcohol would not be taken as “valid” desire but the unlimited accumulation would be understood as “valid” desire in terms of rationality. Liberals legitimize the claim to acquire the “primary social goods”. According to Rawls, a rational individual would try to make balance in getting a larger share against the smallest share. There is also an assumption that people has a tendency to maximize their self-interest is itself a part of universal egoism. As “egoism” is the universal tendency of an individual. Locke in his argument justifies “the restriction of full civil rights to men of property.”

There is the line which would define the rationality as John Stuart Mill emphasizes that educated person has more capacity of being rational than an uneducated person. That is why, there should be more influence of them in different spaces since they are more eligible to be rational.

  1. Liberal Political Theory

The fundamental principle of liberalism is based “on the assumption that all individuals have an equal potentiality for reason.” (P.g. no. 33). “Those who emphasize the moral aspect of reason stress the value of individual autonomy; that is, they value reliance on individual judgment, uncoerced and unindoctrinated, rather than on established authority in determining matters of truth and morality. Those liberal theorists who emphasize the instrumental aspect of reason stress the value of individual self-fulfilment and the importance of each individual’s being able to pursue her or his own self-interest as he or she defines it. Whether autonomy or self-fulfillment is the primary emphasis, liberalism’s belief in the ultimate worth of the individual as expressed in political egalitarianism: if individuals have intrinsic and ultimate value, then their dignity must be reflected in political institutions that do not subordinate any individual to the will or judgement of another. Compared with medieval political philosophy, which interpreted the social hierarchy as the god-given natural order, this basic egalitarianism in liberal theory was extremely radical.” (p.g. no. 33)

Liberals value to individual dignity, equality, autonomy and self-fulfillment as the most basic characteristics. For liberals, a good society should respect an individual’s autonomy and self-fulfillment. A good society should provide an individual a space for his/her thought without other’s interference. It is state’s responsibility to protect the rights as well as the property of an individual. Liberals also draw a line between public and private. The state does not have the right to intervene into the private realm of an individual. An individual should have a right to uphold as much as property as he wants. However, contemporary liberals have recognized that the inequality in wealth may affect the other rights and opportunities. It can influence or effect the rights of the others.

The concept of liberalism raised with the idea of capitalism. It actually worked in the favor of capitalist class. However, few liberalists were in favor of socialism but their utopian of socialism was different from Marxist socialism. “Unlike Marxism, liberalism views the state as a politically neutral instrument whose function is to guarantee to all individuals an equal opportunity for moral development and self-fulfillment.” Democratic country provides the equal rights to all individuals irrespective of their sex, race, caste, creed and so on.

  1. Liberal Feminism and women’s nature

Liberal Feminist fought for the equal rights for women such as women’s right to own property and right to vote in the 19th century. In the later century, they claimed for the equal opportunities for employment, access to the professional and job- training programs, basic educational opportunity, pregnancy benefits for the female workers, maternity leaves and the establishment of childcares. “The denial that women can be fully rational agents has a long history in philosophical writing. Aristotle believed that “the woman has [a deliberative faculty] but it is without authority”. Consequently, “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled.” Thinkers of the Middle Ages agreed with the Greeks that God made woman to be a helper in procreation for man because “woman’s power of reasoning is less than a man’s.” Modern philosophers, including many liberals, have held substantially the same view. Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel all doubted that women were fully rational.” Hegel, for instance, believes that women’s deficiency in the “universal faculty” was such as to render women as different from men as plants were different from animals. This was the philosophical tradition that had to be challenged by feminists who shared the characteristic liberal belief that individuals are entitled to political rights only in virtue of their capacity for reason”. (p.g. 36)

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft argued forcefully that women had the potential for full rationality and consequently were as capable as men of complete moral responsibility. The fact that women did not always realize this potentiality was due to the fact that they were deprived of education and confined to the domestic sphere.” (p.g. 36). Liberal feminists agree with all the other liberals that rationality is essential unit than the physical capacity of human being. It does not matter anyone’s physical appearance and physical structure. They have argued that there has been less opportunities for women to develop full rationality.

Contemporary liberals do not claim that the rationality would define the quantity of being human being. Liberal feminists consider that women has “the capacity for reason in women as a group is developed to a level well above the minimum required for the assignment of full human rights”. (p.g. 38). According to them, education is the most fundamental requirement of one’s being rational and only through the education, the difference between the men and women will also diminish or will disappear. They also look forward to an androgynous society where there may be physiologically differences of “masculine” or “feminine” behavior in men and women. However, there should not be defined gender roles. Every individual should be given all the chances/ opportunities such as education that would be able them to develop his/ her qualities according to their interests. Androgynous approach can lead to breaking of the roles assigned according to “sex”.

  1. Problems and ideas for further discussion:

  • Liberalism forms a platform for the development of capitalism. It also legitimizes the idea of unequal distribution of resources by calling it the accumulation of “primary social goods” such as the owning of property. The entire idea of liberal theorists totally constructs a hierarchical structure in the society by saying rational and physical, educated and uneducated to define the rational human being. Contemporary liberal theorists produce hegemony of critical thinking over the critical practice. They do give priority to the concept of “rational” and does not emphasize on “physicality”. However, one needs to understand how the division can happen between the two. Can the “rationality” and “physicality” exist away from each other?
  • Liberal theorists stress more on the individualism rather than the social group. They do talk about the rational capacity of an individual. But how does that rational thinking take place in an individual thought process? Doesn’t the dialectical struggle between an individual and the social group create an individual as a rational human being? how does an individual be taken as rational being separate from the social group?
  • Mary Gibson correctly raises the point that the liberal conception of rationality does not condemn the master-slave, unequal, exploitative society.


  • Liberal feminists definitely raised relevant issues for equality for women through voting rights, right to property, maternity leave, access to the professional and job- training programs, basic educational opportunity, pregnancy benefits for the female workers. They also underlined the point that the women also have the capability to be fully rational. According to them, women have not got the opportunities to be rational since they have not got the opportunity to be educated and also have been domesticated. The problem is that they totally discount the “physical” work or labor from its very base and look towards the rationality by making the education as a fundamental thing. Here, the question arise is that what constitute the “education”? Since the “physical work can also be considered a part of education. In that sense, perhaps the education about which liberals talk about is one particular kind of education which itself would feed up to the capitalism and through which only few individual can be considered as rational. This may be the reason that liberals do not give any preference to the social group. Their whole focus is on the individual’s desire, needs, capacities and interest. Through using the capitalist approach for their development, liberals in a way divides the society into two different segments.
  • They completely create a base to be rational is that of education. But at the same time, they completely denounce the idea of domesticity which can also be taken as rational task as well as not giving any importance to the domestic work task at home. According to them, women are lesser because they have not those opportunities that men have. And women have been domesticated. They entirely negate the domestic work.



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