If intellectual history teaches us one thing, it is the fact that even if an idea is self-evident nonsense, that is no bar to it being believed by vast numbers of people and even becoming the philosophical foundation for entire civilizations.
Such is the case with Rousseau’s famous claim that man is born free and yet everywhere is in chains. It should be clear to anyone after a moment’s reflection that no one is born free. Indeed, compared to many species—frogs, for example—human beings are born remarkably dependent upon their parents and remain so for an exceptionally long time. Yet the notion that what defines us as human beings is an intrinsic autonomy grips the modern imagination. It is a basic anthropological error, and yet it underlies much of Western social, ethical, and political thought.
In an important book published last year, Carter Snead examined the impact of this error upon issues relating to fertility and end-of-life care. Now Erika Bachiochi—a legal scholar who specializes in Equal Protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics—offers an account of the ways in which this has shaped feminism. And, further, how a revised feminism, rooted in a correct anthropology, might look very different to that espoused by mainstream feminists. The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision is an important book that deserves to be widely read and discussed.
At the heart of Bachiochi’s argument (like that of Snead) is the assertion that human beings are not defined by autonomy but rather by relations of dependency and obligation. That starting point changes everything. Rights are inevitably set within the broader context of obligations, requiring a reorientation of how legal and ethical codes are to be framed. What it means to be human becomes outwardly directed at society, not inwardly directed at immediate personal happiness. And human virtue and flourishing cannot be understood in a purely subjective fashion.
To make such a case would, in itself, be fascinating. But Bachiochi makes this case using an unexpected cast of characters, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not the most obvious sources upon which to draw for a repudiation of modern feminism in favor of a version far more consistent with traditional understandings of virtue and society.
Bachiochi lays much of the foundation for her case in her reading of the work of Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (a play upon which provides Bachiochi with the title of her own book). Wollstonecraft wrote her book in response to Rousseau, whose low view of women, both in theory and in practice, is well-known. In doing so, Wollstonecraft developed an understanding of the sexes which saw a common human nature (and thus a shared dignity) as characterizing men and women. She did not, however, make the classic move, which our advanced technological age is now quite familiar, of thereby minimizing or eliminating sex differences. Men and women have different bodies, and those different bodies point towards different specific roles for each in society. This does not justify the typical ‘public roles for men/domestic roles for women’ distinction against which modern feminism has reacted; rather, Bachiochi uses it to point to the fact that sexed bodies underlie the specific roles of men and women in parenthood.
If a modern feminist responds that Wollstonecraft offers only a specious view of sexual equality, the obvious riposte is that such a conclusion is predicated upon that basic anthropological mistake whereby humans are defined by autonomy rather than obligations. For Wollstonecraft, the domestic arena where husband and wife work together to raise children is both the primary locus of responsibility and the context in which virtues would thereby be cultivated – virtues which would make the parties involved into better members of society as a whole. The direction of selfhood is outward; the self is realized in relationship towards others – spouses, then children, then towards society at large.
Within this context, early feminism did see a place for rights, but rights understood as standing in positive relationship to these social obligations. Rights were to be understood as those legal provision enabling women to fulfill these obligations and to achieve the intellectual and moral excellence that constituted their calling. This is not the rights talk of radical autonomy, nor some socially imposed vision of what women should be; no, it is the legal framework within which women could achieve those things that constituted their purpose.
Bachiochi sees this Wollestonecraftian point as being picked up and developed by the suffragists of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, she argues that it was an important part of the reason for their success among women who were able to move from making the case that women offered important moral leadership within the home to advocating for the positive usefulness of that influence being exerted in the wider public sphere.
Underlying Wollstonecraft’s argument for the rights of women is a crucial connection between soul and body. Wollstonecraft saw the two as distinct (the soul is rational, the body is sexed) and was thus able to both respond to Rousseau (for whom the soul is sexed, and the female soul inferior to the male) and to maintain the importance of sexual difference. It is this delicate balance that was lost by later feminism, a loss which now lies at the root of so many issues in the sexual politics of the present day.
In fact, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that the role of sexed body lies at the heart of the most pressing moral issues regarding personhood that we face today. The myth of individual human autonomy ultimately rests upon the myth of bodily irrelevance. Our body is, after all, precisely that part of our person that is at the center of those relationships of dependency and obligation which truly define the human condition.
Bachiochi makes a compelling case for Wollstonecraft and the feminist thinkers who followed her as having understood this correctly. And she also makes a persuasive case that those feminists who fail to understand this end up with a view of womanhood that has created all manner of problematic ethical thinking, most notably on the matter of abortion.
Bachiochi’s treatment of two figures is of particular interest with regard to this latter point: Betty Friedan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Regarding Friedan, Bachiochi notes a certain inconsistency between argument and rhetoric in her influential book The Feminine Mystique. While proposing policies that should have helped integrate work inside and outside the home, her rhetoric tilted strongly towards a denigration of those women who chose to make the domestic realm their sphere of personal fulfillment. This tilt was merely confirmed in later editions of the work in which post-1967 and NOW’s commitment to overthrowing abortion laws and establishing abortion rights became a priority. One simply cannot prioritize abortion and simultaneously integrate the demands of childrearing and career in a manner which balances the two. Friedan’s change of mind—or perhaps better, change of priority—is probably a testimony to the power of the sociology of knowledge, whereby powerful and influential factions have defined membership of the club in increasingly narrow ways.
Ginsburg is a similar case in point. Her early career was marked by valiant legal activism that sought to dismantle those areas of the law that discriminated between men and women on issues where the biological differences were irrelevant. The later Ginsburg came to see ‘equal citizenship’ as predicated upon the right to abortion. In other words, the law must be made to serve an anthropology of autonomy by enabling women to overcome their bodies. Now, Ginsburg had always been pro-abortion; what changed was the nature of the advocacy in which she engaged as she rose to the highest rank of the legal establishment. Both Friedan and Ginsburg represent the transformation of feminism’s priorities; and in their separate spheres the influential intellectual articulation of those priorities.
Bachiochi’s concluding chapter offers a renewed view of feminism, drawing on Mary Ann Glendon, which seeks to place the telos of the body—male and female—back at the center of an anthropologically grounded social vision, focused on the family and shaped by obligation and dependency. This is, in the truest sense of the word, a reality check, as it reflects the reality of the situation in which real human beings, men and women, actually find themselves. Technology may make the notion of the unencumbered self plausible; the metaverse might claim to make that a reality; and the human desire for self-affirmation might make it attractive; but such a notion of selfhood ultimately is not true, a point made repeatedly in this book.
Only a recapturing of what it means to be a man or a woman, and only a recapturing of the obligations that those realities entail, will offer a path towards the future where the innocent are not slain on the altar of a futile search for autonomous fulfillment that is simply against nature.
Yet herein lies the problem. What Bachiochi points to in modern feminism is ultimately a problem in what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary—that network of intuitions, beliefs, and practices which constitute how we think about what it means to be a human person. This cannot be merely legislated or directly taught, precisely because it involves the imagination. Our problem is that we imagine reality to be different from what it really is. We imagine we are born free and everywhere put in chains. And the egregious errors and policies of, among other things, modern feminism, flow from that.
How we address that is beyond the scope of Bachiochi’s book. It requires a wholesale revolution of the cultural imagination. But she has done us a great service in clarifying precisely what the real problems in modern feminism are, for which we should be truly grateful. More than that, in explicating the views of historic feminists on their own terms, rather than through the lens of post-1967 feminism, she offers us a chance to reimagine what feminism might have been and might well be again—one that sees the obligations and dependencies of our sexed bodies as central to our understanding of what it means to flourish.
And surely the best way to communicate that to the imaginations of the rising generation is to embody it in our own lives. Surely nothing will grip the minds of children more than a home where parents relate to each other and to their children with the kind of mutual care, complementarity, love, and respect that Bachiochi identifies as lying at the heart of an earlier feminist movement that took human reality seriously.
As a personal postscript, many of my students are pro-life women who find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma: can they flourish as women, using their gifts and talents outside the home, and still be pro-life and pro-parenthood? For those women, Bachiochi’s book offers real, substantial hope. It deserves to be widely read, pondered, and discussed.
The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
By Erika Bachiochi
Notre Dame Press, 2021
Paperback/Hardcover, 422 pages
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