The Big Three
Learn about the main feminist schools of thought.
January 6, 2022
There are many different branches of feminist movements and ideologies, but the three main schools of thought are liberal feminism, radical feminism, and Marxist feminism.
Liberal feminism, also commonly known as mainstream feminism, aims to fight gender discrimination through political and legal means within a liberal democracy by providing women opportunities that men have.
Liberal feminism has its roots in the 19th -20th centuries’ political movement first-wave feminism. The Seneca Falls convention of 1848 was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to draft The Declaration of Sentiments, a remodeled version of the Declaration of Independence with the inclusion of women’s equality. This convention kickstarted a movement that primarily fought for equal education, property, and voting rights. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed granting women the right to vote. However it is crucial to note that in practice, these rights were not extended to black women.
Now more commonly called mainstream or ‘white’ feminism, liberal feminism can be identified as more individualistic feminism. In one of my previous posts “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, Revisited” I wrote about Sandberg’s inaccessible girl boss feminism that caters to upper class white women. She climbs the corporate ladder to power made possible by utilizing the patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. Liberal feminism doesn’t seek to dismantle oppressive structures but to either work within these systems–an option only available to women with existing privileges–or apply minor reform to the system; neither solutions get to the root of gender inequality. Mainstream feminism typically lacks the the impact of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, ability, culture, religion, and general intersectionality.
Some key liberal feminists are Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Naomi Wolf, and Betty Friedan.
Radical feminism aims to dismantle the patriarchy not through only political and legal reform like liberal feminism, but by challenging social roles and institutional structures. Whereas liberal feminism focuses on distributing power equally among women and men, radical feminism focuses on dismantling the patriarchy through restructuring society.
With its roots in 1960s political movements such as second-wave feminism, the anti-war, and New Left movements, the branch of radical feminism was formed. At this point, women had gained most rights that first-wave feminists fought for and focused on issues such as restructuring traditional gender roles, reproductive rights, seeing rape as an expression of patriarchal power as opposed to seeking sex, and re-evaluating sex work as economic and sexual oppression.
Radical feminism focuses heavily on reproductive ability, and how women with that ability suffer under the patriarchy. There are disagreements in the radical feminist community as some support the transgender rights while others do not. Branching off from radical feminism, TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism) deem the existence of trans women as the embodiment of patriarchal gender norms, claiming that trans women are “biologically men” and are a threat to the safety and spaces of women; TERF ideology has a complete disregard to the autonomy of trans people. Their extremely transphobic views have caused some members to disassociate from the radical feminist community. Radical feminism also lacks in intersectionality because it views gender as the primary form of oppression for women.
Some key radical feminist groups are Redstockings and New York Radical Women.
Marxist feminism examines the exploitation of women under the critical lens of Marxist theory, specifically the effects of capitalism on labor and productivity. Marxist feminists believe that the dismantling of capitalism brings about the liberation of women.
Women were excluded from productive labor, and their unproductive labor within the household and reproductive labor remained uncompensated. Some Marxist feminists, such as Charlotte Gilman and the organization International Wages for Housework Campaign, advocated for women’s housework and reproductive labor to be compensated.
In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis discusses how women are exploited through “domestic slavery” through the socialization of housework and gendered labor. Other Marxist feminists have focused on how the gendered division of labor works to oppress women globally in garment, agriculture, domestic, and other industries.
Some key Marxist feminists are women of color Angela Davis, Chizuko Ueno, Claudia Jones, and Anuradha Ghandy.
Liberal, radical, and Marxist feminism represent varying ideologies and are still developing and changing with society. While it is impossible to group all feminists into one umbrella, it will be important for the women in each to find commonality in their womanhood, to maintain solidarity in the fight for equality.
About the Author
Hi! I'm Hughlyn and I come from Hong Kong. I'm a 17-year-old junior at Hotchkiss School. I have been a feminist since middle school and conceptualized gender inequality. I'm part of Bluestockings, the gender equality club at school, and last summer I attended the Women in Leadership program at Brown University. As a teenage Asian girl, there are many topics that I feel "typical" feminist spaces don't discuss and I created this blog as an intersectional and safe area to talk about feminism and other random topics.
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(2) Burns, Katelyn. “TERFs: The Rise of ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists,’ Explained.” Vox, 5 Sept. 2019, www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/5/20840101/terfs-radical-feminists-gender-critical.
(3) Grady, Constance. “The Waves of Feminism, and Why People Keep Fighting over Them, Explained.” Vox, 20 July 2018, www.vox.com/2018/3/20/16955588/feminism-waves-explained-first-second-third-fourth.
(4) Lewis, Jone. “What Is Radical Feminism?” ThoughtCo, 25 Nov. 2020, www.thoughtco.com/what-is-radical-feminism-3528997.
(5) “Liberal Feminism.” Wikipedia, 2 Jan. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_feminism#:%7E:text=Liberal%20feminism%2C%20also%20called%20mainstream,the%20framework%20of%20liberal%20democracy.
(6) “Marxist Feminism.” Wikipedia, 26 Dec. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist_feminism#Wages_for_Housework.
(7) “Radical Feminism.” Wikipedia, 27 Sept. 2001, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_feminism#:%7E:text=Radical%20feminism%20is%20a%20perspective,%2C%20class%2C%20and%20sexual%20orientation.