Liberal feminism is a branch of feminism that is concerned with the human and civil rights of the individual, believing that both men and women (existing as equal human beings) should have equal rights. In liberal feminist discourse, irrational prejudice and stereotypes about the supposedly natural role of women as wives and mothers account for the unequal position of women in society. (van Zoonen, L., 1994). Historically, feminism can be classified according to three ‘waves’: ‘first wave’ feminism, ‘second-wave’ feminism and ‘third-wave’ feminism.
First-wave feminism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States and Europe (Kroløkke, C., 2005). Whilst not yet an organised movement, it was a chance for women initially wanting equal opportunities such as the right to vote, to argue for these rights. Leading on from the first-wave, second-wave feminism arose in the 1960s-1970s in a post-war society that was also affected by the civil rights movement.
This is where the roots of radical feminism can be traced back to, with women becoming more inspired to actively change their positions in society, arguing for empowerment and fundamental rights for women/certain groups only. Discontented with their lack of social power and political influence in their post-war Western societies, these women began to advocate a solution in the form of work outside the home, as well as greater representation in public institutions (Kroløkke, C., 2005). Liberal feminism is thus optimistic in theory, believing that political action to bring in anti-discriminatory legislation, alongside changes in socialisation and culture, are gradually leading to a society where gender is no longer so divisive and thought of as a cause of prejudice.
From the mid-1990s onward, the feminist movement had undergone another change, with the introduction of the internet and global politics having a large impact on the struggle for gender equality, as feminism began to embrace diversity and how globally, women are affected by the movement in different ways. Throughout all these phases of feminism, liberal thought has had the most substantial impact on how the movement has developed. Earlier on in the first and second waves, there was more of a focus on campaigning for the introduction of laws and policies securing equal opportunities for women, which was at the forefront of liberal feminism. However, although the movement from the third wave onwards has had less of a focus on equality legislation in Western countries (now that in terms of the law, women are mostly equal), liberal feminism still has a huge impact on feminism today due to its links to the media. The movement therefore argues that whilst the media can be a hindrance to women’s liberation (by casting unrealistic expectations onto women), it can also be used as a wide-reaching platform that can influence the minds and opinions of many.
In order for women to become equal to men, liberal feminists argue that gender equality can be achieved through campaigning for changes in the law, as well as cultural change. By using the media to challenge stereotypes (for instance, that women should obtain the role of the housewife, whilst the husband remains the breadwinner of the family), over time, liberal feminists hope that the media’s actions will produce a cultural shift in feminine ideals. Public relations is therefore a great tool in which to do this, as by generating large amounts of publicity for brands that embrace feminist ideals, the general public’s attitudes towards women’s place in society can change, with norms shifting over time, thus allowing women to prosper in certain areas where they previously may have been at a disadvantage (such as being confined to stereotypical ‘female’ roles).
Noteworthy liberal feminists include Mary Wollstonecraf; whose book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792) was the first significant and influential feminist text, and more recently activist and author Betty Friedan. In her famous book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963), Friedan argues that the media serves as a tool of misogyny, explaining how it presents the notion that for women, a life of fulfilment is one where women accept their ‘natural’ role of the common housewife. With an underrepresentation of women in certain roles i.e. typically ‘masculine roles such as lawyers and doctors), scholars such as Friedan argue that the media must do more to challenge gender stereotyping, for instance by reducing the over-sexualisation of women on media platforms and by portraying men in roles such as fathers taking responsibility for domestic tasks.
Immediately controversial at its time of release, Friedan’s landmark release was heavily criticised by the media but seen as a manifesto for change by millions, inspiring many women to adopt a liberal feminist approach towards women’s rights. Although written in the 1960s, many of Friedan’s arguments are still highly relevant and applicable to today’s society.
Friedan exposed the ways in which advertisers, psychiatrists, educators and newspapers “patronised, exploited and manipulated women” (Truth-out, 2013). Just as many other feminists do, Friedan explains how the media set unrealistic goals for women to aspire to achieve, such as being the homemaker, whilst also conforming to stereotypical beauty standards. Marxist/socialist feminists would also argue that women are additionally expected to be able to lend emotional support by absorbing their husbands’ anger; that would otherwise be directed at capitalism due to the alienation and exploitation they suffer at work, when they return home (Ansley, F., 1976). However, the role of the woman as the homemaker is seen as less of a necessity in today’s society, with women arguably being more equal than ever, meaning that society has shifted away from a direct focus on the home, instead focusing on women having to juggle responsibilities such as these, all whilst being constantly attacked for not living up to certain ideals presented by the media.
Feminist author and scholar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie supports the liberal feminism idea of girls being suppressed from being sexually confident in her TED Talk and ook ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ (2014): “We teach girls shame. “Close your legs. Cover yourself.” We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think.” Adichie therefore shows just how unrealistic the expectations are that women have placed upon them, as they are expected to be ashamed of being sexually confident, being scared of the possible backlash they could receive for being proud and confident within themselves. Liberal feminists therefore argue that there must be a change in the media, with more positive role models for young girls in particular, helping them realise their self worth and thus debunking the myth that it is bad for women to have a sense of pride and self-confidence.
Although not too dissimilar from liberal feminism with some of its core beliefs about women’s inferior standing in society, radical feminism (as a school of thought) challenges liberal feminism with its critiques of liberal discourse. Whilst they share the sameinstrumental perspective on the media, perceiving it to be the main institution that conveys “stereotypical, patriarchal and hegemonic values about women and femininity” (van Zoonen, L., 1994), they differ in their approaches to how women should be represented in society. One of the most widely-renown radical feminists is Germaine Greer, whose novel ‘The Female Eunuch’ (1970) polarised audiences (including feminists) for decades. In this book, Greer advocated the radical feminist proposal of separatism, whereby she denounces the stereotypical heterosexual ‘nuclear family’ in favour of an all-female or female-headed household as an alternative. In doing this, women would essentially be ‘set free’ from the confines of the patriarchy, as women’s oppression is seen by radical feminists to be reproduced through sexual and personal relationships. Radical feminists such as Greer, also argue that it is naive for liberal feminists to believe that changes in the law or attitudes will be enough to bring about gender equality, and that instead of men and women being equal, women should “celebrate their being different and to struggle for a social revaluation of femininity” (van Zoonen, L., 1994). In addition to this, they also believe that instead of protesting hopeful campaigns to a male-dominated institution i.e. the government) to pass gender equality legislation falling on deaf ears, sometimes a much more substantial method (such as total revolution/overthrowing of the patriarchy) is needed to completely alleviate women’s current standing. Liberal feminists, however, rebuke the idea of liberal feminism not doing enough to liberate women, arguing that women’s position in society has drastically improved due to changing attitudes amongst the public and because of social reforms (e.g. the Equal Pay Act 1970).
The radical feminist perspective also argues that women are displayed as sex objects in the media to satisfy men’s desires, with women being portrayed, for example, as sex objects, with penetration being the main source of sexual pleasure. For instance, in ‘The Female Eunuch’, Germaine Greer states: “every human body has its optimum weight and contour, which only health and efficiency can establish. Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them.” Radical feminists thus argue against the liberal feminist idea of women being able to proudly display their sexual confidence, believing that it has adverse effects, as it serves only to maintain the patriarchy’s sexual desires, and lower women’s confidence.
Critically acclaimed R&B and Pop singer Beyoncé, generated a massive amount of publicity in 2014 when she sang her hit song ‘Flawless’ at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards (VMAs) against a backdrop with the word ‘FEMINIST’ displayed in a large font behind her. In addition to performing against this backdrop, the song included a speech from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, taken from ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. The excerpt states “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful.
Otherwise, you would threaten the man” (Ngozi Adichie, C., 2014). Adichie demonstrates, therefore, how women are kept in an inferior position because of society’s patriarchal roots which serve to keep men in an elevated position, whilst women are prevented from being given the chance to change this due to the very nature of society placing extensive pressure on women to fit into certain acceptable’ categories, therefore stunting their growth as individuals and collectively, as a group).
For many people, whilst they believe that the sexes should be equal, for them, the word itself connotes anger, extremism and is unlikable. By including Adichie’s definition with the word ‘FEMINIST’ glowing from behind her silhouette – “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” (Ngozi Adichie, C., 2014) – Beyoncé used her platform to finally give millions of people confused about the term, a clear definition of the word. With an audience of 10.1 million cumulative viewers (Wikipedia, 2017), liberal feminists and scholars alike such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie herself would argue that Beyoncé used her platform as a highly-influential woman to proudly self-identify as a feminist. This was still highly controversial at the time, as many people criticised her for being linked to the feminist movement, arguing that musical artists should not involve politics in their music. This declaration arguably was extremely important for the spreading of liberal feminist values, as by dispersing this message to the masses, it forced people to take notice of the fact that women are still; in many ways, unequal in society. By calling for a such a large cultural change on one of the world’s biggest platforms, Beyoncé was able to not only use her performance as a publicity stunt for her own music, but also to educate many others on why it is so important for such influential figures as herself to call on changing society’s socialisation patterns in order to achieve gender equality.
Beyoncé subverts the stereotypical notion of a ‘feminist’, gyrating on stage in a sequined leotard and fishnet stockings, her sexual confidence resonating with a new crowd of younger women who feel more at ease and able to relate to the 21st century ideal of what a feminist is (which, ironically includes women from all walks of life and is not defined by anything other than someone who believes in the social, political and conomical equality of the sexes). Accompanied by an all-female backing band, the singer is the embodiment of what it means to be an iconic, powerful and successful woman, inspiring a legion of other women to also embrace their femininity and rise up in a world arguably still dominated by men.
Many radical feminists, however, criticised Beyoncé, arguing that by claiming to be a feminist on a platform as influential as the MTV VMAs, she was only doing so to generate publicity and word-of-mouth, not trying to seriously bring about a revolutionary change in women’s lives. They view her use of feminism as superficial, arguing that celebrities cannot claim to be spokespeople for political movements as they present an over-simplified message, whilst failing to communicate the complexities attached to the struggle for gender equality. Additionally, radical feminists such as Germaine Greer would argue that pop-stars such as Beyoncé are giving into the patriarchy with the use of overly-sexual innuendoes in their songs, dressing provocatively and performing as part of an area dominated by men.
Therefore, to this perspective, public relations is a tool in which to serve and maintain the interests of the patriarchy, keeping women in a subordinated position all for the entertainment and satisfaction of men.
Right now, liberal feminists would agree that the media serves to maintain prejudices held against women in society by enforcing gender stereotypes, and are therefore against current portrayals of women. However, as an optimistic theory, liberal feminists also maintain hope and believe (with reform) that it can possibly help to bring about equality, with public relations being a significantly essential tool in achieving this. With brands and figures such as Beyoncé, for instance, using the power of PR on an international stage to promote feminist values, the media as a platform is therefore slowly but surely) becoming more of an aid, rather than a hindrance, in women gaining full equality in society.