Secular liberal feminism

The OCR Developments in Christian Theology Religious Studies A2 course includes a study of secular liberal feminism.  There are no named thinkers in the specification, so you will not be asked about the work of any particular person. 

You need to make sure that you know the aims of secular liberal/equality feminists (with particular reference to rights, autonomy and patriarchy).  You also need to be able to discuss theological responses to secular feminist aims (there is a separate web page for this).

This page deals with Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor.  However, there are many other liberal feminists whose views you might like to include.


Liberal or equality feminists want women to have equal rights and equal opportunities with men

Early liberal feminists:

Mary Wollstonecraft:

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) was the daughter of a silk weaver turned (unsuccessful) farmer.  

When she was nineteen she became a companion to Mrs Dawson.  Later, she opened a school in Newington Green with her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood. During her time at the school she wrote a book entitled 'Thoughts on the Education of Daughters'. Later she became a governess in Ireland, however, she found this experience oppressive and returned to London.

Mary was very influenced by the French revolution and defended the principles that the revolutionaries fought for.  In 1790 Edmund Burke had attacked the revolution and defended the British monarchy in a book called 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'.  Wollstonecraft wrote a response to Burke called 'A Vindication of the Rights of Man'.  This was followed in 1972 by 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women' in which she argued that women should also be entitled to the revolutionary principles of liberty (freedom), equality and fraternity (brotherhood).

Wollstonecraft argued that women were entitled to the same rights as men. Her big theme was education.

In the eighteenth century men and women tended to received a different type of education to men.  Working class women were educated primarily for the domestic sphere (e.g. sewing).  Girls were taught basic skills like reading and writing but they were not taught things like science and classics.  Better off women might well receive a wider education than the poor, but their education was designed to make them 'accomplished' wives (think Jane Austen novels).  Music, drawing and embroidery would be expected of them, along with some knowledge of literature and the more fashionable current thought!  Wollstonecraft compared this type of woman to a caged bird - ornamental performers kept for their beauty but trapped by the person who provides for them.

The way women were educated in practice reflected the ideological ideals of the day.  The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had written a book called Emile or On Education.  Rousseau set out his expectations for how men and women should be educated.  He said

'A perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks, and perfection is not susceptible of more or less. In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes.'

Rousseau Emile 

From this we can see that Rousseau held a view rather similar to the traditional Roman Catholic 'equal but different' idea.  For Rousseau, education should be tailored to bring out these differences.

'Thus Rousseau's ideal male student, Emile, studies the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, whereas Rousseau's ideal female student Sophie, dabbles in music, art, fiction, and poetry while refining her home making skills.'

Rosemary Tong Feminist Thought 2009

Wollstonecraft was very critical of this view point.  There are perhaps three main elements to her thought.

  1. Male/female characteristics are not natural - they are created.
  2. The way women are educated is damaging to them (and also, indirectly, to men).
  3. Girls should be educated in the same way as boys.

Further Reading

Quotations taken from the Vindication of the Rights of Women found online here.

Wollstonecraft argued that the differences between men and women were not natural (i.e. not part of the essence of being male or being female).  She thought that they were the product of upbringing. She describes the frivolousness of women as 'the natural effect of ignorance' and then goes on to explain that the type of education women receive is not designed to make them into independent rational thinkers.  They receive only 'a disorderly kind of education' in which 'what they learn is rather by snatches' learning being 'a secondary thing' (i.e. not a primary part of their upbringing).  They do not study anything systematically, but just collect ideas that they are taught to repeat. They are not taught to think!


Consider to what extent this might be held to still be true today!

Instead, women are taught 'from their infancy' that their main aim is to entice a man to marry them.  In pursuit of this objective they develop 'softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety'.  Wollstonecraft suggests that women are kept in a 'state of childhood'  not trusted with serious subjects and are taught to be 'docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else'.

This, Wollstonecraft thinks, is obviously bad for women (they cannot fulfil their potential as rational human beings and are left in a state of 'ignorance and slavish dependence') but it is also bad for men and for society at large.  Women become 'artificial, weak characters' and 'more useless members of society'. Men lack a genuine partner in relationships (Wollstonecraft believed that an educated woman would be a better wife as 'a friend and not a humble dependent').

The solution to the problem, for Wollstonecraft was to 'strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience' by educating girls in the same way as boys.

It is interesting to comment briefly on Wollstonecraft's interpretation of Genesis 2-3. She says that that 'very few...who have bestowed serious thought' on it can take it literally.  All it shows is that men have always tried to justify the subjugation of women by arguing 'that she, as well as the brute creation, was created to do his pleasure.'  In other words, it is a fully human story, written by men, to provide reasons justifying their treatment of women.


To evaluate Wollstonecraft you might like to consider the following questions:

  • Does she ignore biological difference?  Is she right to see men and women as essentially the same and attribute any apparent differences in character to differences in upbringing?

'Repeatedly, Wollstonecraft celebrated reason, usually at the expense of emotion.  As Jane Roland Martin said, "in making her case for the rights of women...[Wollstonecraft] presents us with an ideal of female education that gives pride of place to traits traditionally associated with males at the expense of others traditionally associated with females."  It did not occur to Wollstonecraft to question the value of these traditional male traits.'

Rosemary Tong Feminist Thought 2009

  • Was she guilty of the feminine values fallacy.  I.e. was she right to see 'male' characteristics as supreme?  Was she guilty of just encouraging women to be like men?  Would it be better to encourage women to celebrate what is unique about being female? (See quotation to the right)
  • Was she right to prioritise education?  Consider why education is powerful (can access ideas, think critically, provide skills to enable them to have jobs, worthy of respect etc).  What happens if you just educate women without changing anything else?  Margaret Tong points out that Wollstonecraft was dismissive of both the vote and economic independence.  However, Wollstonecraft did recognise that society itself had to change too as she wrote 'Men and women are educated to a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in...It may then be fairly inferred that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected of education'.
  • Are her ideas still relevant?

Margaret Tong said:

'Despite the limitations of her analysis, Wollstonecraft did present a vision of a woman strong in mind and body, a person not a slave to her passions, her husband or her children...What Wollstonecraft wanted for women is personhood...Rather, she is an "end in herself, a rational agent whose dignity consists in having the capacity for self-determination.'

Rosemary Tong Feminist Thought 2009

Harriet Taylor:

'I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book the book which is to come, to have our two names on the title page. It ought to be so with everything I publish, for the better half of it all is yours, but the book which will contain our best thoughts (The Subjection of Women), if it has only one name to it, that should be yours.'

John Stuart Mill in a letter of 1854 to Harriet.

Harriet Taylor (1807–1858) was a surgeon's daughter and grew up in London.  She married at the age of eighteen to thirty nine year old John Taylor and went on to have three children with him.  In 1830 she met John Stuart Mill and began a close friendship with him.  Mill credited her with contributing to his work and respected her as an intellectual equal.  In 1849 John Taylor died and two years later Harriet married Mill.  Whilst Mill wrote about her in glowing terms:

'...her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in the times when such a carrière was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind.'

Mill Autobiography

See her entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here

Others were not so impressed.  An aquinatance, Thomas Carlyle said that 'She was full of unwise intellect, asking and re-asking stupid questions',  John Stuart Mill's brother George said that 'Mrs. Taylor was a clever and remarkable woman, but nothing like what John took her to be.'

Harriet wrote (or co-wrote with Mill) an essay 'On the Enfranchisement of Women' published in 1851.  In it, she defended a woman's right to the vote and argued that economic independence was the key to the liberation of women.

The vote:

Taylor defended the vote on the grounds that:

  • Equality should be the general principle that people follow unless there is a rational reason to do otherwise ('the presumption ought to be on the side of equality').  There is no rational reason to deny women the vote.
  • Under English law taxation and political representation have gone together.  Yet women pay taxes but don't have the vote.
  • People only object to women voting because it is new.  However, people will get used to new ideas.


Taylor denied that women have a 'proper sphere' and particularly objected to the idea that men should tell women what their proper sphere should be.

'We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion...what is and what is not their "proper sphere".  The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.'

Harriet Taylor On the Enfranchisement of Women

She proceeded to argue that until jobs are equally available to all it is impossible to say what women could or could not do.  She made it clear that jobs should be decided on the basis of ability.

'There need be no fear that a woman will take out of the hands of men any occupation which men perform better than they.  Each individual will prove his or her capacities.'

This shows that she allowed for the possibility that men might do some jobs better than women.  However, she objected to the 'arbitrary limit' which stated what was and was not suited to a woman.  She further argued that when women have been able to take part in traditional 'male' roles, they have excelled.

'Women have shown fitness for the highest social functions, exactly in proportion as they have been admitted to them.'

Having set out her thesis, Harriet set out the counter thesis in good discursive style.  She recognised that people might object to women having jobs on the grounds that:

  1. Jobs are incompatible with motherhood.
  2. It is unwise to add more people to the workforce (wages will go down as there would be a labour surplus)
  3. Women's characters will be hardened.

Taylor proceeded to rebut these criticisms.

Consider: Do you think she is too dismissive of motherhood?

In response to the argument that motherhood is incompatible with having a job she pointed out that you do not need to ban by law something that is already impossible (i.e. if a woman is a mother and cannot take on a job then she won't).  She said 'where the incompatibility is real,  it will take care of itself.'  She emphasised that not all women are mothers, so this argument cannot apply to them.  She refered to the 'large and increasing' portion of the population who were single and said 'There is no inherent reason or necessity that all women should voluntarily choose to devote their lives to one animal function and its consequences.  Numbers of women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them.' 

She also argued that there might be ways around this problem,  For example, reducing child labour.

In reply to the economic point (that it could lead to a fall in wages) she considered the worst case scenario (that the man and the woman together bring home no more than the man on his own used to make).  She said that even if this were the case, the woman would be in a better position than she was in as an unpaid wife.  'How infinitely preferable is it that part of the income should be of the woman's earning, even if the aggregate sum were but little increased by it... a woman who contributes materially to the support of the family, cannot be treated in the same contemptuously tyrannical mamnner as one who, however she may toil as a domestic drudge, is dependent on the man for substance.'  A wage would make the woman independent.  It would mean that she does not need to please her husband out of fear that he might cut off her income if she offend him.  In the extreme cases, she would have the option of leaving a violent relationship.  Economic independence liberates women from requiring men.

Finally, she answered the challenge that work 'hardens' a woman by saying that this argument is outdated.  Jobs in the nineteenth century did not require brute strength. 


Like Wollstonecraft, Taylor thought that women were the intellectual equals of men - provided they are given the opportunity to be.  She said it was not enough to educate women just to make women better companions of men.  (Some education makes them more interesting to talk to!)  For Taylor, education had to equip a woman with the ability to challenge a man, not just entertain him with interesting topics of converstation.  She said that if men have only 'disciples' (i.e. wives who humbly follow them) then their own intellect will 'stagnate' whereas intellectual equality creates true companionship.  Presumably drawing on her own experience with John Stuart Mill, Harriet wrote:

'This inestimable advantage is even now enjoyed, when a strong-minded man and a strong-minded woman are, by rare chance, united: and would be had far oftener, if education took the same pains to form strong-minded women which it takes to prevent them from being formed.' 

For Taylor, 'genuine friendship ... only exists between equals' and the proper education of women would benefit both man and woman.

Taylor addressed the fact that some women did not support the aims of the early liberal feminists.  She summarised the argument thus; 'Women, it is said, do not seek what is called their emancipation.  On the contrary, they generally disown such claims when made in their behalf.'  She said that this attitude resulted from women being brought up to be subservient.  She compares the state of women in Britain who did not want jobs or the vote to 'Asiatic women' who pride themselves in wearing the veil.  Taylor said that 'Custom hardens human beings to any kind of degradation, by deadening the part of their nature that would resist it.'  Consequently, part of the value of educating women is that it makes them more likely to question the values that they have been brought up to accept without question.


Like Wollstonecraft, Taylor could be accused of neglecting what is distinctively feminine in favour of encouraging women to try to be the same as men. Also like Wollstonecraft, she focused her attention on well-off women.

Margaret Tong described Taylor as 'fundamentally a reformer, not a revolutionary' and suggests that her reforms do not go far enough.  

'Taylor did challenge the traditional division of labor within the family, where the man earns the money and the woman manages its use.  But Taylor's challenge to this aspect of the status quo did not go far enough.  For example, it did not occur to her that isf husbands were to parent alongside their wives and if domestic duties were equally divided, then both husbands and wives could work outside the home on a full-time basis, and working wives with children would not have to work a "double day" or hire a "panoply" of female servants to do their housework and childcare".

Suffragists and Suffragettes:

UK Timeline:

1792: Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

1851:  Harriet Taylor's essay 'The Enfranchisement of Women' was published.

1870: The Married Women's Property Act allowed married women to own property.

1903: The Women's Social and Political Union founded by the Pankhursts.

1908&1913: In Hyde Park mass rallies for the vote.

1912: Cat and Mouse Act.

1918: Women over thirty get the right to vote.

1920: The Sex Discrimination Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers.

1923: Matrimonial Causes Act permits divorce on the same terms for men and women.

* 1928: Women get the vote on equal terms to men.

1967: Abortion Act

* 1970: Equal pay Act.

* 1975: Sex Discrimination Act made discrimination at work illegal.  The Employment Protection Act provided statuary maternity leave and protected pregnant workers from the sack.

* 2010: Equality Act

  • In 1818 Jeremy Bentham had advocated female suffrage (the vote) in a book entitled A Plan for Parliamentary Reform.  
  • In 1897 Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage (NUWSS).  The NUWSS campaigned for the vote using peaceful methods and were called suffragists.  They used poster campaigns and wrote articles in support of female suffrage.
  • In 1903 the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst.  They were willing to use violent methods and were called suffragettes.  During 1903-1913 they used civil disobedience, vandalism and arson.
  • These violent actions led to many suffragettes being imprisoned.  In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop went on hunger strike.  The same year, force feeding was introduced for hunger striking prisoners.
  • Forced feedings got bad publicity so in 1913 the Cat and Mouse Act was passed.  This allowed hunger strikers to be released and then rearrested to finish their sentence when they had recovered their strength.
  • The WSPU stopped their violent methods at the outbreak of WWI.

The development of liberal feminism:

During the twentieth century liberal feminism continued to exist alongside other, more radical forms of 'second wave' feminism.

  • During the first and second world wars women moved into the factories and onto the farms to do traditionally male jobs whilst the men were away fighting. Some historians believe that this was significant in demonstrating that women could make a success of these roles when given the opportunity to.
  • Women were given the vote in 1918 (but only if they were married and over thirty).  In 1928 they got the vote on the same terms as men.
  • The divorce law of 1937 contributed removed an element of patriarchy from the UK legal system by allowing women to petition for divorce on the same terms of men.  Up until then, men could get a divorce if their wife committed adultery, but women could not get a divorce if the husband committed adultery unless there were other factors (such as cruelty) involved.
  • The creation of the contraceptive pill and the legalisation of abortion enabled women to control whether or not they wanted to become mothers.  For the first time it was possible for women to be sexually active without fear of the consequences.
  • Up until the equal pay act of 1970 it was legal for women to be paid less than men for doing the same job.  In 1968 the seamstresses at Ford's factory in Dagenham went on strike.  Their jobs were graded a category B jobs (less skilled production jobs) and they were paid 15% less than men with category B jobs.  Other pay-related demonstrations followed and in 1970 the equal pay act was passed.

Women's rights globally:

Many people would argue that today women do have equal rights and equal opportunities within the UK (though others might argue that discrimination still exists, there is still a pay gap and in some women experience a 'glass ceiling' when it comes to promotion).  If we look world-wide we can still find overt examples of patriarchy and in certain places women do not have the chance to vote, be educated or to get a job.

Patriarchal societies:

Read reports on Saudi treatment of women here and here..  Read a BBC news account of what it is like to be a Saudi woman here.

Saudi Arabia is an example of a country which still has a patriarchal society. Women cannot work, travel, study or marry without permission from a male 'guardian' (usually her father or husband).  The prohibition on travelling means that a woman cannot leave Saudi Arabia without her husbands permission. Women cannot vote (although King Abdullah promised in 2011 they would be allowed to vote in municipal elections and even stand for office by 2015) and nor can they drive.  Men and women are expected to remain separate.  Women are expected to cover up and wear the abaya (full body covering) outside the home. Although many women in Saudi Arabia are highly educated, very few (around 10%) have jobs and many people still think that a woman's place is the home.

In recent years there have been campaigns for greater equality.  There have been several high profile civil disobedience campaigns in which women who have gained driving licenses abroad have taken to the road.  


Two thirds of those who are illiterate globally are women.  In some areas there is active hostility towards women's education.  

Read a bbc account of Malala's life here.

One well known case is that of Malala.  Malala lived in the Swat valley in Pakistan and in 2007 the Taliban took control.  In 2008 the local Taliban leader said that girls' education had to stop within a month. Malala (and many of her classmates) were horrified and many planned to defy the ban.

In 2009 Malala was the author of an anonymous blog 'The diary of a Pakistan schoolgirl'.  She also spoke out publicly in favour of educating girls and thus became a well known figure in the area.

In October 2012, after the Pakistan army had regained control of the region from the Taliban, Malala was on her way to school by bus.  A Taliban fighter boarded the bus and shot her in the head.

Malala survived and was flown to England for surgery.  She now lives in Birmingham - as she remains a Taliban target.  In 2013 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Female genital mutilation:

World Health Organisation report on FGM here.

According to the World Health Organisation 125 million women have undergone female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision).  It is a cultural practice in large parts of Africa and some parts of the Middle East.  In Somalia 98% of women have been circumcised.  It is associated with the idea of sexual purity and virginity.

A recent BBC report investigated instances of UK girls taken abroad for FGM. Although this is against UK law, no one has yet been prosecuted for it.  (In France over a hundred people have been convicted.


Rosemary Tong's book 'Feminist Thought' contains a good summary of some of the key challenges to liberal feminism.

However, Susan Wedell has challenged Jaggar and argued that liberal feminists do want their daughters to be rational and autonomous, but they also want their sons to be intuitive and emotionally aware.  I.e. they recognise that to be a fulfilled human involves both. They stressed the rationality and autonomy not because they did not value the emotional and bodily but because they had that already.  In other words, they pursued what they did not yet have.

  • Alison Jaggar has suggested that the liberal feminists mistakenly identified human distinctiveness in the idea of rationality and autonomy.  They automatically assumed that these features represented the pinacle of humanity, and all people should aim to attain them.  This reflects a dualistic world view in which thing associated with mind are thought to be superior to bodily things. However, Jaggar argued that this need not be so.  She suggests that men, being less intimately associated with bodily things like reproduction, devalued them.  Their view became encoded in popular theology/philosophy (think Augustine) and the early liberal feminists did not think to question this.
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain said that liberal feminism made three mistakes:
  1. They assumed women could be like men and ignored genuine biological difference.  Elshtain thought women could not be like men (unless rigorously conditioned into being so).
  2. They assumed women wanted to be like men ignoring the fact that many women would choose to  be wives and mothers.  Liberal feminism devalued motherhood by comparing it unfavourably to a career.
  3. The taught that women should want to be like men when arguably the traditional male role - a slave to his career, never home - is not something to be emulated.
  • Angela Davis has pointed out that liberal feminism is white and middle class.  From the perspective of an impoverished black women the role of being a kept housewife might well look rather attractive.  Liberal feminism is thus too narrow in scope.  Womanism seeks to address the failings of feminism.

Consider what the specific radicals and reconstructionist that you have studied might say (or have said) about the failings of liberal feminism. Use this as a starting point for your own evaluation.

  • More radical feminists and reconstructionist feminists would say that liberal feminism does not go far enough.  Shulamith Firestone believed that true equality would not be obtained just by giving women the vote, economic independence and equal rights.  She thought that the whole structure of the family needed to be overhauled.
  • Some conservative theologians who argue for the 'equal but different' approach would argue that liberal feminism involves rejecting God's plan for women.  They would say that women do not have to be like men and have the same rights as men in order to be equal.  They might say that true equality comes from the complimentarity of the sexes.  In the Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II stressed the dignity of women and supported their opposition of unfair systems.  However, he was concerned that in pursuing these goals women might undergo 'masculisation' and lose their femininity.  In his view this would prevent them from being fulfilled as persons.