Provide an overview of the feminist perspective on welfare provision Essay

Provide an overview of the feminist perspective on welfare provision. What reforms are suggested as necessary to social welfare law by such analysis?

All nations that accept responsibility for the maintenance of the welfare of their citizens may be correctly labelled ‘welfare states’. Welfare state has been taken to variously mean a set of key welfare institutions, a type of society that emphasises collectivist provision. Welfare states share certain common characteristics. All definitions agree that a welfare state must at least provide for the ‘basic, necessities’ (Gooding & Mitchell 2000) of living. Thus, it is generally accepted that it is the role of the welfare state to provide adequate resources to ensure all can afford to eat, and have access welfare services such as education, healthcare and housing which are considered absolutely necessary.

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The resurgence of women’s liberation movement came in the 1960’s and questioned the traditional understanding of the welfare state and its assumptions regarding women. This essay will address the feminist approaches to the welfare state highlighting their differences, and will incorporate criticisms of their views. It will then put forward reforms which have been highlighted through the work of feminists.

Feminism, by definition is a ‘social movement’, which works towards removing any form of discrimination against gender inequality.(Edley N& Wetherell M 1995) Feminists view the world as being unequal due to the many circumstances which women have experienced. They put forward not only there views but also examples of how women have been degraded and oppressed by the society, hence their aim is to eradicate the common traditional philosophy of men being superior to women.

There are several elements of Feminism; the main ones being Liberal Feminism, Radical feminism and Socialist Feminism. Liberal feminists argue that women are born with the same natural abilities as men but believe that they are subordinated to the welfare state and controlled socially through its institutions. Radical feminist’s challenge this view and argue that women are biologically different. They suggest women are controlled by the welfare state through patriarchy and limited opportunities as child bearers. Socialist feminists perceive women’s problems as being a combination of male domination and class exploitation and understood the end of capitalism as being influential in achieving gender equality. Rowbotham argues that the idea of patriarchy is inflexible, unlike the concept of Marxism, which is more adaptable and results in the eradication of hierarchy. The inequalities of power given to the sexes within the capitalist structure of society, is the problem which has been highlighted by Rowbotham. (Rowbotham, 1979).

Feminists as a group attempt to describe women’s oppression and try to explain its causes, its consequences, and prescribe strategies for women’s liberation. They share criticisms of the welfare state and agree that it is patriarchal. United feminists believe in equality and ‘fight’ for women to be treated equally to men. They argue that the welfare state is highly gendered and women are suppressed formally through politics and are agents of the state i.e. M.P’s, and informally through women’s unpaid domestic labour in the home. In 1993, 62% of adults supported by income support were women (cited in Oppenheim, 1993).

The welfare state, introduced in 1945, was a result of the Beveridge report, who suggested the welfare state would be a neutral universal provision for all, benefiting both sexes in a time of devastating poverty and mass unemployment. However he did not acknowledge its inequalities. Feminists argue that there is no equality between men and women; and men to their own advantage, control the welfare state. Beveridge tried hard to incorporate the area of feminism onto his work.

According to a leading women’s activist at the time, Beveridge had ‘gone a long way towards establishing the rights of a married women as a worker and as a partner in the home’ (Fraser, 2000, p, 74), but it was believed that seven out of eight married women would not work, therefore making it difficult to incorporate them into a contributory insurance scheme, insurance benefit was mainly derived through their husbands. ‘The married woman was to be treated as befitted her legal status; as the dependent of a man and as entitled to economic support by him, both for herself and her children’ (Wilson, 1977, p 150).

Additionally, no provision for unsupported mothers was included in the scheme and subsequently most of these women were reliant on supplementary benefits. Therefore, the position of unsupported mothers was unchanged by the report, ‘and they were essentially in the same position they were under the poor laws’ (Wilson, 1977, p 152). Furthermore, Beveridge was concerned with the falling birth rate and therefore anxious to get working/service women back into the home. The family allowance, implemented by the coalition government in 1945, ‘helped to restore the birth-rate by making it possible for parents who desire more children to bring them into the world without damaging the chances of those already born’ (Wilson, 1977, p 151).

Feminists do acknowledge that there have been some gains through the introduction of welfare as access to benefits has slightly improved women’s material position and is the largest employer of women. Despite this, they argue that the welfare state exploits women and they continue to suffer disproportionate rates of poverty. They criticise the welfare state in its expectation that women carry the responsibility for reproduction, which underpinned its ideology that the family is institutionalised, in welfare provision. They believe the welfare state exaggerates the notion of women as representing a cheap and adaptable source of labour, as women usually settle for low paid and part-time work due to the commitments of motherhood.

Feminist’s see the welfare state as contradictory because it confers differential status to mothers and fathers through eligibility to different benefits which they argue reinforces women’s dependency on men, it does not, as Beveridge suggested, provide universal provision for all. Furthermore, they argue that through the National Health Service women’s lives have been medicalised and subjected to control by a male dominated medical profession (cited in Oakley, 1993: 162).

The Liberal feminist perspective is based on issues of equal rights and equal opportunities through the removal of ‘legal discrimination’ against women and removing all barriers which prevent their entry into the public sphere on equal terms with men’ (Foster, 1986: 5-6). They believe that women have been disadvantaged through socialisation. As reproducers and through the mother and carer role, and are marginalised in the market place, thus do not have equal opportunities. Therefore in Liberal feminist thought, the focus on legal and political policies is an attempt to alleviate institutional struggles in the market place. Liberalism therefore, divided into two strands of thought, Classical liberals and Welfare liberals.

In the eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft (1978) argued that women’s opportunities should be determined upon their abilities and skills, not by their gender. She believed simply that ‘since women have equal reasoning powers to men, they should be granted equal rights with men’ (cited in Williams, 1994: 44). Those following in the footsteps of Wollstonecraft view the welfare state as a violation of their natural rights and have fought for the state to protect civil liberties and have adopted an approach to the free-market.

Welfare feminists influenced by writers such as Mill (1954) on the other hand, concentrate on economic justice and suggest redistribution of benefits and opportunities. This is in the belief that it is a social responsibility to provide equal opportunities. (Tong, 1997). This indicates that a just and natural equality will emerge if individuals are left to their own devices. Instead they argue that the state can minimise the role of biology in women’s lives in the belief that women as reproducers may have limited access to the market, but with state intervention rights to contraception, abortion, maternity leave and provision of day care facilities, means women can be free to compete with their skills and abilities. They have called for government intervention in legal services, school loans, low cost housing and aid to families with dependant children, to balance equalities within the market.

The issue of public citizenship and the attainment of equality with men are central to Liberal feminism in the belief that in their nature, women are the same as men and can do as men do if provided with equal access to opportunities. Thus, they argue that in society women, as individuals are free from their oppressive roles. Their basic conception locates human uniqueness as their capacity to rationalise, defining reasoning as their ability to moralise, thus essentially classing individual autonomy and self-fulfilment of prime importance in a just society. Liberal feminists have fought for equality for women, including most famously, the right to vote, freedom of speech, the removal of legal disabilities of married women, and equal rights to education and employment, the prime example being the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act, and contemporary organisations such as the Equal Opportunities Commission are also heavily influenced Liberal Feminist thought.

In a social order dominated by men, Radical feminists such as Firestone (1970) believes that women’s oppression as a class, comes through patriarchy, and their sex is achieved through men’s physical power over women. Millet (1970) argues the male and female relationship is the foundation of all power relationships. Men seek to subordinate women sexually as part of their attempt to be dominant therefore biology plays a key role and suggests their power in society depends on women producing and raising children. Millet believes that men dominate all areas of the state and exercise their power over women through the institutions of the welfare state (cited in Tong, 1997: 95). Radical feminist’s see oppression as being potentially lifted by freedom of choice for women as reproducers, not to be forced by a male dominated medical profession into limited opportunities of reproductive treatment such as contraception, sterilisation, abortion, or repro-aiding technologies.

Radical feminist’s have contributed a detailed understanding of the ways in which men have forced women into oppressive roles and sexual behaviour as their campaigns have revolved around issues of male violence, pornography, rape and battered women and have been responsible for the emergence of refuges and crisis centres for women including Well Women’s clinics, whereby women can gain information and knowledge to assist them in protecting their own welfare. Essentially their aim is to question the concept of natural order and overcome the negative effects that a woman’s biology has throughout her life.

Jagger also contends radical feminist’s proposals for social changes, i.e. woman spaces. She commented ‘even though woman culture is an incredibly supportive environment for women’, Jagger did not believe that ‘it is either the only or necessarily the best means to women’s liberty’ (Jagger, 1983: 286). Jagger suggested that they overestimated the powers of woman culture and questioned whether such women driven institutions would have the ability to stand up against capitalism and would possibly be economically weak, thus unlikely to pose a serious threat to the social system. She goes on to express her concern that ‘Woman culture cannot liberate all women unless it is expansive enough to include those women who believe that at least for them, racism or classiscm are more oppressive than sexism’ (Tong, 1997: 130)

Overall, liberal and radical feminist critiques of the welfare state have made a vital contribution to improving the unequal treatment received by women. In highlighting that the state was far from neutral and often had sexist assumptions which sought to control and dominate women’s lives, their campaigns have led to awareness of these issues and influenced many polices. Legislative measures have tried to redress the balance of inequalities, for example the right to vote, equal education, and equal employment, abortion reform, gay rights and the Sex Discrimination Act.

However both liberal and radical critiques of the Welfare State and women’s subordination are diverse and complex and it could be argued that critic’s such as Jagger accuse liberal feminists of being eager to adopt male values have misunderstood. Liberal feminist’s believe male values are due to socialisation and do not advocate this ideology.

They suggest that women require equal rights and opportunities to male professions to decrease men’s power over women. In opposition to the liberal feminist’s view radical feminists believe that the state can not be neutral as it is used by men, who they propose are biologically determined, to subordinate women through their reproductive roles and have argued for separation of male and female values and glorification of women’s character. But this has been challenged, in the belief that it too could have detrimental effects for women and their welfare by not only perpetuating women’s subordination but lead to deterioration of their character.

Although women are biologically reproducers and possess different hormones it must be argued that men and women are fundamentally born with the same natural abilities. Liberal feminists maintain that everyone begins as a ‘blank slate’ therefore women’s sublimation in society is ascribed to a process of socialisation. One must therefore agree with Jagger in that Radical feminist’s ignore the way in which male power is socially constructed and changes across cultures, also noting Jaggers emphasis that separation from men is not necessarily what all women picture in their visions of equality.

Liberal feminists have been extremely influential by attacking the political foundations upon which society are based. By securing women’s right to vote the problem of patriarchy has been unbalanced and the benefits continue to be obtained, more women in parliament although constrained by a patriarchal domination, the better women stand to benefit from those who have also experienced the subordination of women. Improved policies in equal education has gone a long way to the improved status of women today but unfortunately has not succeeded in cutting across class differences.

In conclusion, although Radical Feminism has made a vital contribution to the improvement to women’s welfare by assigning a positive value to women’s biology, their claims are however unsupported, and their approach has not, like liberal feminism, attempted to attack the root of the cause.

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Millet, K (1970) “sexual politics” Virago Press

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