Two modes of argumentation have been used on behalf of women’s emancipation in Western societies. Arguments in what would be called the “relational” feminist tradition maintain the doctrine of “equality in difference”, or equity as distinct from equality. They point that biological distinction between the sexes result in a necessary sexual division of labour in the family and throughout society and that women’s procreative labour is currently undervalued by society, to the disadvantage of women. By contrast, the individualist
feminist tradition emphasizes individual human rights and celebrates women’s quest for personal autonomy, while down-playing the importance of gender roles and minimizing discussion of child bearing and its attendant responsibilities.
Before the nineteenth century, these views co-existed within the feminist movement, often within the writing of the same individual. Between 1890 and 1920, however, relational feminism, which had been the dominant strain in feminist thought, and which still predominates among European and non-Western feminists, lost ground in England and the United States. Because the concept of individual rights was already well established in the Anglo-Saxon legal and political tradition, individualistic feminism came to predominate in English-speaking countries. At the same time, the goals of the two approaches began to seem increasingly irreconcilable. Individualist feminists began to advocate a totally gender-blind system with equal rights for all. Relational feminists, while agreeing that equal educational and economic opportunities outside the home should be available for all women, continued to emphasize women’s special contributions to society as homemakers and mothers; they demanded special treatment for women, including protective legislation for women workers, state-sponsored maternity benefits and compensation for housework. Relational arguments have a major pitfall: because they underline women’s physiological and psychological distinctiveness, they are often appropriated by political adversaries and used to endorse male privilege. But the individualist approach by attacking gender roles, denying the significance of physiological difference, and condemning existing familial institutions as hopelessly patriarchal, has often simply treated as irrelevant the family roles denying to many women. If the individualist framework, with its claim for women’s autonomy, could be harmonized with the family-oriented concerns of relational feminists, a more fruitful model for contemporary feminist politics could emerge.
Why does the author talk of the concepts of individual rights in the Anglo-Saxon legal and political traditions?