“Women’s rights" is a contentious term and issue that means different things to liberals and conservatives. The progressive left argues that women have historically been disadvantaged on account of their sex, and embrace women's rights as a critical agenda that is part of aspiring for equality and a truly democratic society. Social conservatives, however, typically see progressives’ calls for women’s rights as an attempt to undo what they see as critical societal roles and structures that protect, encourage, and cherish women’s natural roles as keepers of homes, families, and communities.
In the progressive view of women’s rights — often known as feminism — women are harmed by traditional gender roles and are oppressed by cultural attitudes that prevent them from freely making their own choices. They argue that a reorganization of society is necessary to eliminate the patriarchy and gender stereotypes.
In this view, women’s freedom to make decisions should be respected and supported, and women should not be pressured into traditionally feminine roles, behavior, or ways of being. Personal choice is upheld as the paramount metric, and any barriers to women’s right to choose the best course of their lives ought to be critically examined and dismantled. In this vein, progressives typically believe that sexual liberation and access to abortion is needed for women’s health and well-being. They believe it is critical to dismantle patriarchy, which they see as a social system in which men hold unjust power over women. They believe men have privileges over women that cause women’s exploitation and oppression, and see male dominance in the realms of business, politics, moral authority, and control of property as unjust and creating an unfair and harmful environment for women. Progressive feminists also believe there should be no barriers on the basis of gender alone permitted under the law, championing the need for the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for American citizens on the basis of sex. They see gender as a civil rights issue akin to the rights of former slaves, Native Americans, and other groups historically oppressed.
Social conservatives and traditionalists, on the other hand, have a different view of women’s rights. While most conservatives tend to agree that women ought to be treated equally under the law and have the same opportunities as men, conservatives believe that traditional female roles were for women’s benefit and not harm.
They believe that it is natural and fulfilling for women to focus primarily on the home, community, children and caregiving, and that patriarchy historically protected women from the pressures and stresses of having to engage in the realms of business and politics. In this view, patriarchy is a system that naturally arises amid the reality of biological differences between men and women, and tasks men to protect and care for women. Religious conservatives typically say men and women are equal but different; therefore patriarchy is not oppressive but protective — it tasks men with bearing certain priorities in society, such as building wealth and maintaining civilizational infrastructure, while women are protected physically and emotionally from certain priorities or burdens as they raise children and/or nurture community and social life. Conservatives believe that permissive sexual liberation and abortion harms women psychologically and emotionally rather than liberating or empowering them. From this vantage point, feminism has devalued feminine roles and behavior that are essential foundations to a flourishing human life and that are of the highest dignity. Traditionalists see feminism as undermining natural relationships between men and women that are important for the strength of families and society.
Conservatives often dispute feminist claims that there is systemic discrimination against women in the modern day, and argue that any differences in male/female outcomes today tend to be the result of individual choices. For instance, some dispute the claim that the gender pay gap is the result of sexism, arguing that differences are the result of the aggregated effects of an individual’s decisions. Thus, any legislation looking to force equal outcomes would actually create systemic discrimination against men. Progressive feminists, on the other hand, argue that the gender pay gap is often the result of sexism, and that gender wage differentials are directly attributable to a population’s cultural beliefs and attitudes toward women, arguing that attitudes of male superiority, beliefs that women are not entitled to equality in education or that they do not contribute equally to the workforce, drive such inequalities.