Liberal feminism, also called mainstream feminism,[lower-alpha 1] is a main branch of feminism defined by its focus on achieving gender equality through political and legal reform within the framework of liberal democracy and informed by a human rights perspective. It is often considered culturally progressive and economically center-right to center-left. As the oldest of the "Big Three" schools of feminist thought, liberal feminism has its roots in 19th century first-wave feminism seeking recognition of women as equal citizens, focusing particularly on women's suffrage and access to education, the effort associated with 19th century liberalism and progressivism. Liberal feminism "works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure." Liberal feminism places great emphasis on the public world, especially laws, political institutions, education and working life, and considers the denial of equal legal and political rights as the main obstacle to equality. As such liberal feminists have worked to bring women into the political mainstream. Liberal feminism is inclusive and socially progressive, while broadly supporting existing institutions of power in liberal democratic societies, and is associated with centrism and reformism. Liberal feminism tends to be adopted by white middle-class women who do not disagree with the current social structure; Zhang and Rios found that liberal feminism with its focus on equality is viewed as the dominant and "default" form of feminism. Liberal feminism actively supports men's involvement in feminism and both women and men have always been active participants in the movement; progressive men had an important role alongside women in the struggle for equal political rights since the movement was launched in the 19th century.
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Historically, liberal feminism largely grew out of and was often associated with social liberalism; the modern liberal feminist tradition notably includes both social liberal and social democratic streams, as well as many often diverging schools of thought such as equality feminism, social feminism, care-ethical liberal feminism, equity feminism, difference feminism, conservative liberal feminism, and liberal socialist feminism. Some forms of modern liberal feminism have been described as neoliberal feminism or "boardroom feminism". Liberal feminism is often closely associated with liberal internationalism. In many countries, particularly in the West but also in a number of secular states in the developing world, liberal feminism is associated with the concept of state feminism, and liberal feminism emphasizes constructive cooperation with the government and involvement in parliamentary and legislative processes to pursue reforms. Liberal feminism is also called "mainstream feminism", "reformist feminism", "egalitarian feminism", or historically "bourgeois feminism" (or bourgeois-liberal feminism), among other names. As one of the "Big Three" schools of feminist thought, liberal feminism is often contrasted with socialist/Marxist feminism and radical feminism, but in contrast to them, liberal feminism seeks gradual social progress and equality on the basis of liberal democracy rather than a revolution or radical reordering of society. Liberal feminism and mainstream feminism are very broad terms, frequently taken to encompass all feminism that is not radical or revolutionary socialist/Marxist and that instead pursues equality through political, legal, and social reform within a liberal democratic framework. As such, liberal feminists may subscribe to a range of different feminist beliefs and political ideologies within the democratic spectrum from the centre-left to the centre-right.
Inherently pragmatic in orientation, liberal feminists have emphasized building far-reaching support for feminist causes among both women and men, and among the political centre, the government and legislatures. In the 21st century, liberal feminism has taken a turn toward an intersectional understanding of gender equality, and modern liberal feminists support LGBT rights as a core feminist issue. Liberal feminists typically support laws and regulations that promote gender equality and ban practices that are discriminatory towards women; mainstream liberal feminists, particularly those of a social democratic bent, often support social measures to reduce material inequality within a liberal democratic framework. While rooted in first-wave feminism and traditionally focused on political and legal reform, the broader liberal feminist tradition may include parts of subsequent waves of feminism, especially third-wave feminism and fourth-wave feminism. The sunflower and the color gold, taken to represent enlightenment, became widely used symbols of mainstream liberal feminism and women's suffrage from the 1860s, originally in the United States and later also in parts of Europe.