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
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
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.
Wollstonecraft was very critical of this view point. There are perhaps three main elements to her thought.
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!
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:
Margaret Tong said:
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:
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.
Taylor defended the vote on the grounds that:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Taylor proceeded to rebut these criticisms.
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.'
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:
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.
During the twentieth century liberal feminism continued to exist alongside other, more radical forms of 'second wave' feminism.
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.
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.
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.
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.