A Critical Review : Post-Colonial Critics on Liberal Feminism

By : Raditya Putranti Darningtyas
Department of International Relations
Universitas Gadjah Mada
Gender and Politics 
Midterm Assignment

During the past few decades, feminist theory with its multiple branches has attempted massive deconstruction and attacks against several established notions in social science including order in society, ideology, and culture. At the heart of these attacks lay protest against distribution of power that have, by tradition, favored men at the expense of women. From the furious assertion that rape and other type of sexual harassment should not be tolerated as mere consequences of unfortunate episode, to the complex theories of postmodernism that discards the very concept of differences as inherently oppressive, these protests have provoked many challenges to all traditional conception of order as inherently androcentric. At its first emergence in the 19th and early 20th century, first wave feminism mainly focused on gaining political rights for women although some other also campaigned for sexual and reproductive rights. The suffragettes and suffragists were campaigning for women’s votes, demanding equal contract, marriage, parenting and property rights for women. However, many weaknesses have presented itself within Liberal Feminism framework that leads this strand of feminism to its failure in accommodating the interest of intersectional women in their endeavor toward equality. Several others also criticized Liberal Feminism as European centric and too white centric, neglecting the oppressive natures of inherited power-knowledge relationship within the creation of feminist theories. This critical review will examine several critics of Liberal Feminism and identify the common threads that tie these authors together as post-colonialist feminist theorists.
Liberal Feminism
Liberal feminism held important role in 1960s and 70s women’s liberation movement in western countries like United States and Britain although it had also been expressed much earlier by writers such as Marry Wollstonecraft in Vindication of the Rights of Woman.[1] Liberals hold a view of human nature which stresses the capacity of human beings for rational thoughts. It is this capability to reason and rationalize which gives rise to the ideas that human beings have innate rights. Liberals support the right of individuals to seek fulfillment and pursue their own interest providing that in doing so they respect other’s rights.[2] Rights were often denied to women on the ground that they are ‘irrational’ beings so making them less than fully human. The argument that women naturally differ from men was used to justify unequal treatment to women. Feminist at that time then argued for women’s equality on the grounds that women, like men, were rational beings capable of making their own decision and determining their own best interest. During that time, feminist used what were essentially liberal arguments to challenge the unequal treatment presented to women.
Wollstonecraft also argued that the realization of genuine equality entailed the provision of equal access to education and economic opportunity for women. Women historically had been confined to domestic service in their own home, limiting their opportunity in exercising their intellectual abilities or developing other skills unrelated to domestic works. Liberal feminism is particularly driven by emancipatory vision to highlight inequalities faced by women, and address these through legal and political reform.[3] Liberal feminist writing, therefore, draws attention to the various forms of oppression which women around the world are subject to, and seeks change through the removal of legal obstacles to gender equality.[4] The liberal feminist normative vision of the emancipation of women is thus one which is assumed to be both possible and universally applicable[5], making liberal feminist scholarship and liberal feminist activism are closely related to each other.
            Post-Colonial Feminism
            Postcolonialists argue that western academia, while making it as if disinterested in imperialism, conspires in perpetuating racist structures and relations.[6] Although the question of who or what is “postcolonial” is an increasingly complex one with the existence of cross-border migration, “postcolonial” may refer to men and women from various backgrounds.[7] While rejecting the “narrative of the oppressed” which has dominated western writing on the subaltern,[8] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that western scholars, who neglect non-western subjects, avoid their responsibility to the disempowered. The main goal of post-colonialism is facilitating progression past the legacy of colonialism and it offers variety of strategies in achieving this. One of them involves the opening of space for the disenfranchised ‘other’ to speak. Other historian Chakrabarty challenges Eurocentric view of history by highlighting the way European historical texts continue to be glorified as the foundations of modern political thoughts, while non-European texts are seen as historical relics.[9] This dominant Eurocentric historical narratives support racist power structures by measuring the progress of other cultures in terms of their “distance” from Western modernity. This includes liberal feminist theories that is developed under European hegemony and written in the perspective of the colonizer, neglecting the existence of other narratives in the colonized world. Post Colonialist Feminism then emerged mainly to criticize the Eurocentric nature of liberal feminism. 
One of the main criticisms to have arisen from post-colonial writers is that the appropriation of women of color’s experiences by liberal feminist writers, and therefore by the liberal feminist movement in what is called as “discursive colonization”.[10] There are several examples that were used by post-colonial writers in their work; Ania Loomba focuses on paternalistic patterns amongst westerners writing about Indian women that have carried over from the imperial age[11], while Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar criticizes the way cross-cultural studies employ black women’s experiences for “exotic comparison”.[12] However, post-colonial writers come to an agreement that when authentic experiences of women of color are featured in the work of liberal feminist, it is not for their benefit.[13]
When we take a look deeper within this discursive colonization, there is a problem of misrepresentation of women of color that tends to be portrayed as monolithic and as victims.[14] Most liberal feminist wrote about women of color by homogenizing the experiences of vast groups of women, vaguely categorizing them as “Women of the Middle East” or “Women of Africa” in poor methodologies. Radcliffe accuses this approach as erasing stories of those who resist oppression. The narratives of “Third World Women” portray women of color as victims as well as the privileged recipient of first world concern.[15] This also includes the exclusion of women with diverse identity from mainstream feminist discourse. This exclusion severely undermines the self-representation by postcolonial women because of potential inaccuracy of someone else’s account and the problem of women of color who must constantly highlight their exclusion, rather than being able to fully participate in liberal feminist discourse.[16]
Another criticism of liberal feminism has something to do with the inability of western authors to recognize that oppression of women may differ according to class, race, religion and ethnicity. The liberal feminist normative vision of the emancipation of women is one which is assumed to be both possible and universally applicable.[17] This problem emerges from the essentialist claim that female oppression is universal.[18]  Women of color must create what is called as “schizophrenic split” in themselves between their identity as a woman and their race or ethnicity in order to relate to the liberal feminist ideology.[19] Moreover, this “white egocentricity” as mentioned by Spelman[20] leads to misunderstanding of the kind of liberation that is being sought after by women of color.  The massive generalization of women’s experience by liberal feminist writers has undermined many aspects unique to the experience of women who don’t relate with the experience of white females living in a developed country. Racism and sexism are not separate forms of oppression for women of color thus making the statement, “we are all women” insufficient in most cases.[21]
            The last thread which has arisen from many postcolonial critics is related to the lack of awareness of the impact that a theory has on those who are theorized about.[22] Critical theorist, Robert Cox, notably wrote that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose”[23] He establishes an important relationship between theory and theorist by arguing that a theory can never be objective. In liberal feminist writings there is a lack of self-consciousness about the ability of academic circles in discouraging women’s movements in third world countries.[24] The western biased found in liberal feminism often times directly clashing with non-western values, leading liberal feminism to its failure in gaining support from women in non-western countries because people simply see feminism as another form of western imposition. For example, liberal feminist theory often disregards Islamic teachings as oppressive religion and regard Moslem women as its victims. This may translates into reckless condemnation of hijab and other religious practices deemed sacred by its believers. This condemnation is seen as an attack toward the sanctity of Islam by most of Moslem women and resulting in them rejecting feminism altogether. The rejection of feminism from non-western women becomes a loss for not only liberal feminist activist but also feminism as a whole, making the needs to provide specific empowerment for specific identity of women more urgent if feminism both as an ideology and movement still wants to thrive in gaining more supporters.

Cox, R. (1981). Social Forces, States and World Order. Millennium. Vol. 10, No. 2.
Fuss, D. (1989). Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. London, Routledge.
Hutchings, K. (2007). Feminist Ethics and Political Violence. International Politics. Vol. 44
Lugones, M. and Spelman, E. (1983). Have we got a theory for you! Feminist theory, cultural imperialism and the demand for “the woman’s voice”. Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 6, No. 6.
Mohanram (1999). Black Body: Women, Colonialism and Space. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
Mohanty, C. (1988). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. Feminist Review. No. 30.
Radcliffe, S. (1994). (Representing) Post-Colonial Women: Authority, Difference and Feminisms. Area. Vol. 26, No. 1.
Spelman, E. (2006). Gender & Race: The Ampersand Problem in Feminist Thought. In: Morgan, S. ed. The Feminist History Reader. Oxon, Routledge. pp. 273-283.
Spivak, G. (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak? In: Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. ed., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke, Macmillan Education.
Spivak, G. (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
Steans, Jill. (1998). Gender and International Relations: An Introduction. Oxford, Polity Press
Tickner, J. A. and Sjoberg, L. (2007). Feminism. In: Dunne, T. et al eds. International Relations Theories. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Tong, R. (1998). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Oxford, Westview Press

[1] Tong 1998: 15-23.
[2] Steans 1998 : 16
[3] Tickner and Sjoberg 2007 : 188
[4] Ibid, p. 188
[5] Hutchings 2007 : 92-93
[6] Spivak 1999 : 208
[7] Mohanram 1999:  179
[8] Spivak 1988 : 61
[9] Ibid 1999 : 5-6
[10] Mohanty 1988 : 61
[11] Mohanty 2006 : 315
[12] Ibid 2006 : 287
[13] Radcliffe 1994 : 28
[14] Mohanty 1988 : 65-66, Radcliffe 1994 :  26,  Spivak,1988 : 84
[15] Radcliffe 1994 : 26
[16] Ibid 1994 : 27
[17] Hutchings 2007 : 92-93
[18] Fuss 1989 : 2
[19] Lugones and Spelman 1983 : 576
[20] Spelman 2006 : 274
[21] Ibid 2006 : 277-278
[22] Lugones and Spelman 1983 : 579,  Mohanty 1988 :  62; Spivak, 1988, p. 91)
[23] Cox 1981 : 128
[24] Mohanty 1988 : 62

**Image's credit goes to the creator of God is a Feminist, Sarah Maple 


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