An offshoot of political liberal thought, liberal feminism extended to women Locke and Rousseau's conception of the autonomous individual worthy of social, economic and political equality by virtue of humanity. Whereas liberalists in the 17th century believed that superior economic and political status should not determine social status, abolishing the patriarchy between monarch and subject, on the micro-level they did not push that same ideology within the household between man and wife. By the 18th and 19th centuries, individuals such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill introduced the liberal feminist approach.
Wollstonecraft attributed industrialization to the discontent of women in the 18th century. Prior to industrialization, men and women were preoccupied with supporting their families in positions that were both in and close to home. When factories began to open and jobs moved outside the home, men ventured out to make a living, and middle-class and affluent women were left at home with little to do but dote on their husbands, children and each other and were discouraged from developing their capacity of reason.
Wollstonecraft maintained that the emotionally driven women in this period were the product of their social construct, emphasizing that men in the same position would be driven to the same level of slavery to their emotions. To discourage this, Wollstonecraft suggested that women be educated to hone their rationality and independence. She argued that where a woman with no education is likely to shirk her domestic duties, one that is educated will be all the more committed since education would allow her to understand the significance of these tasks, and this autonomy would drive her. However, Wollstonecraft did not emphasize political and economic independence.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal feminists focused exclusively on rights: the right to vote, own property, education and employment to an equal degree as their male counterparts. Taylor and Mill emphasized these rights, on top of education, as the only means for women to gain full freedom. Later in life, after the death of Taylor's husband, Taylor and Mill wed and together developed their theories further, though on many issues they disagreed. Where Taylor thought that given the choice between career and home, many women would choose career, Mill maintained that most would still prefer the domestic realm.
When certain demands for rights came to fruition, such as the 19th Amendment, liberal feminism began slowly to dissipate. It was later revived in the 1960s, with the formation of women's rights groups such as the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) that pushed for economic and political rights. In direct contrast to this, radical feminists focused less on rights and more on reconstructing the identity of women. Betty Freidan, author of The Feminine Mystique and first president of NOW, fought vehemently toward implementation of the antidiscrimination act against women that was being stalled by the judicial system. Other areas of protest included paid maternity leave, the availability of child care centers to everyone and legal abortion.
The liberal feminist movement has been criticized by many for its radical views. Jean Bethke Elshtain, an American political philosopher, accused the movement of oversimplifying the differences of men and women and overemphasizing the nurture component while downplaying the nature element. Second, she argued that motherhood is more than a career; it is an identity. Furthermore, she stated that encouraging women to adopt masculine traits and to consider them as the ideal traits rids the world of some of the best human characteristics such as openness, warmth, nurturing and sensitivity, traits that are considered feminine.
Liberal feminism has also been accused of catering exclusively to middle-class, white women who grew bored of their mundane, yet comfortable, lifestyles as housewives. Liberal feminists concede this to be true, though they point out the many minority representatives that have worked in conjunction with the women's rights groups.
Liberal feminism is aimed at breaking down gender roles, ridding society of gender discrimination and distinguishing between socially constructed gender and biological sex. Some liberal feminists promote the adoption of androgyny, others call for monoandrogyny that incorporates the best of female and male attributes and some endorse personalities of polyandrogyny.
Despite the criticism and cultural backlash, due to the liberal feminist movement, women today have the right to vote, the right to equal education and the right to equal employment opportunities.