Is a Feminist Political Liberalism Possible?

By Hartley, Christie; Watson, Lori | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Is a Feminist Political Liberalism Possible?


Hartley, Christie, Watson, Lori, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


IS A DISTINCTLY FEMINIST political liberalism possible? Certainly the answer depends in part on what one means by feminism, as there is substantive disagreement over what feminism is. For our purposes, all we mean by feminism is a view that is, broadly, committed to the following claims: 1) gender inequality exists and is pervasive and 2) we ought to develop principles and policies aimed at eradicating such inequality. In the context of this article, we aim to address whether political liberalism has the resources necessary to recognize the varied forms that sex inequality takes and to produce principles of justice that will eradicate such inequality.

Briefly, political liberalism is the view that modern democratic states are characterized by reasonable pluralism and that the possibility of a just democratic state depends on finding principles of justice and constitutional essentials that can be shared among persons as free and equal citizens. (2) Because citizens accept irreconcilable but reasonable comprehensive doctrines, principles of justice and constitutional essentials must be justifiable in terms of political values and reasons and not depend on the acceptance of a particular comprehensive doctrine. Indeed, many find political liberalism compelling because political liberals accept the fact of deep yet reasonable pluralism and its resulting challenges for democratic states and their citizens.

However, it is precisely political liberalism's regard for a wide range of comprehensive doctrines as reasonable that makes some feminists skeptical of its ability to address sex inequality. Some feminists claim that political liberalism maintains its position as a political liberalism at the expense of securing substantive equality for women or, they argue, that the only way for liberalism to address substantive equality for women is by relying on comprehensive values. (3) Others have suggested that political liberalism can be feminist insofar as particular political conceptions of justice can have substantive feminist content. (4) In answering feminist critics of political liberalism, we aim to show something much more radical: not only is it possible to show political liberalism can be feminist insofar as particular political conceptions of justice can have feminist content, but, also, political liberalism's core commitments actually restrict all reasonable political conceptions of justice to those that secure genuine substantive equality for all, including women (and other marginalized groups). And so, we claim, political liberalism is a feminist liberalism.

To make good on this claim, we consider why some maintain that political liberalism cannot secure substantive equality for women. Then we examine attempts by Sharon Lloyd, Amy Baehr and Martha Nussbaum, respectively, to demonstrate the feminist potential of political liberalism. We claim that insofar as Lloyd and Baehr attempt only to demonstrate that political liberals can accept particular political conceptions of justice that contain substantive feminist content, they miss the full feminist potential of political liberalism as such. And, we claim that, while Nussbaum recognizes that political liberalism's idea of equal citizenship limits the comprehensive doctrines that count as reasonable, she does not address how political liberalism's core ideas constrain all reasonable political conceptions of justice in a way that secures substantive equality for all citizens, which is what we aim to do. We argue that political liberalism's criterion of reciprocity limits reasonable political conceptions of justice to those that eliminate social conditions of domination and subordination relevant to reasonable democratic deliberation among equal citizens and that the criterion of reciprocity requires the social conditions necessary for recognition respect among persons as equal citizens. As a result we claim that the criterion of reciprocity limits reasonable political conceptions of justice to those that provide genuine equality for women along various dimensions of social life central to equal citizenship. …

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Is a Feminist Political Liberalism Possible?
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