A Distorted Feminism

Editor’s Note: This review is part of a symposium on Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

Erika Bachiochi promises to provide a corrective to a modern feminist movement that has lost its way by returning attention to early feminists—particularly to Mary Wollstonecraft. As Bachiochi notes, “Mining the intellectual history of the cause of women’s rights can shed light on how a philosophical and political principle—equal citizenship for women—has morphed into something that nearly contradicts its original moral vision.” A return to the intellectual roots of the feminist movement is a promising project, particularly for those of us who value the 18th century feminist focus on individual liberty and responsibility over the more modern focus on seeking remedies through the state.

Unhappily, Bachiochi’s project seems to become bogged down and distracted by rancor inspired by the 2017 Women’s March and its use of female genitalia as a symbol for their movement, and by modern feminist support for abortion rights. There is more to the modern feminist movement than pussy hats and abortion, but Bachiochi allows her distaste for these aspects to overwhelm her project and its serious and necessary purpose.

Even before these issues begin to overtake the project, however, the first chapter of The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, reveals a possibly more pressing problem with Bachioci’s book—she is not a reliable reader of Wollstonecraft’s 18th century prose.

A Mirror for Our Times

The book’s first chapter is a discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft’s moral vision of a world where men and women meet on equal spiritual terms through the shared attention to familial duties. Bachiochi concludes the chapter by noting that, for Wollstonecraft, achieving this vision requires that men change their focus. She quotes Wollstonecraft as having written: “Till men become attentive to the duty of a father, it is vain to expect women to spend that time in their nursery which [men] choose to spend at their glass.” (Bracketed emendation is Bachiochi’s own.)

Bachiochi interprets Wollstonecraft’s comment as being far from “the last time an advocate for women would point to liquor as what kept a father from the responsibilities of his family.”

Unfortunately, Bachiochi has entirely misread Wollstonecraft’s prose. Taken from her letter to Talleyrand, appended to the beginning of her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft’s full sentence reads:

But, till men become attentive to the duty of a father, it is vain to expect women to spend that time in their nursery which they, “wise in their generation,” choose to spend at their glass; for this exertion of cunning is only an instinct of nature to enable them to obtain indirectly a little of that power of which they are unjustly denied a share; for, if women are not permitted to enjoy legitimate rights, they will render both men and themselves vicious, to obtain illicit privileges.”

Reading the passage in full, it is clear that Bachiochi’s insertion of the word “men” into her quotation from Wollstonecraft is incorrect. Wollstonecraft is speaking entirely about women in this passage. She argues that unless men become attentive to fatherhood, women cannot be expected to pay attention to motherhood. Instead they will spend the time that should be spent with their children “at their glass,”—which is not a reference to a drinking glass but to what was then called a looking glass, a mirror. Beauty, not domesticity, is the only way, Wollstonecraft argues, that women are able to obtain “a little of that power” that is currently denied them. Thus, given no other avenues, they will turn to vices like vanity and sexual immorality in order to achieve some measure of influence by tempting men to abandon their moral principles and give sexually appealing women special privileges.

Bachiochi has evidently misinterpreted Wollstonecraft’s pronouns and misunderstood the common 18th-century usage of “glass” for looking glass. She thus transforms a passage about one of Wollstonecraft’s most frequent topics—the way in which women’s cribbed and confined expectations lead them, and those around them, inextricably to vice—into a temperance lecture.

The error is important for several reasons. First, it indicates that Bachiochi is not a reliable guide through Wollstonecraft’s prose or to the thought it conveys. And it leaves the reader with concerns about Bachiochi’s interpretations of other, less well-known texts. This is not a trivial problem in a book that claims to base its arguments on Wollstonecraft’s, and to use the thinking in other early feminist texts as an antidote to the problems of modern feminism.

The error also raises serious questions, at least for this reader, about Bachiochi’s tendency to allow her concerns and the arguments she wishes to make to become more important than the concerns and arguments of the authors she examines. Rather than reading Wollstonecraft’s prose, or even reading into it, Bachiochi has written her own arguments right over it.

This tendency to allow her arguments rather than her subjects’ arguments to direct the path of her book is a continuing problem.

Feminism, Then and Now

Bachiochi is a prominent pro-life feminist, and for obvious and legitimate reasons of her own, she is concerned about the modern linkage between abortion right and feminism. She is thus very interested in early feminist thinking about sexual morality. And indeed, there is much to be said about the topic. But her unrelieved focus on the topic makes the book an odd one. Referring to Mary Wollstonecraft as “a thirty-two-year-old virgin theorist who had yet to encounter the embrace of a man whom she loved” is an eccentric description at best. At worst, it is an insultingly reductive one, diminishing Wollstonecraft’s life and work to a question of her sexual activity—precisely the sort of gendered trap that her Vindication fights against.

That gendered trap reappears throughout the text as Bachiochi’s concerns about feminism and abortion rights mean the topics of sex and birth control persistently reappear throughout the book, often in peculiar ways. There is an odd ahistoricity to Bachiochi’s attempt to repurpose early feminist support of male and female chastity and of “voluntary motherhood” into an argument for 21st-century feminist support of the rhythm method for birth control to the exclusion of other methods. Available barrier methods of contraception were expensive and unreliable, and primarily were used to prevent disease rather than pregnancy. Historians debate how often herbal abortifacients were used and how reliable they were. Many of the herbs recommended for termination of a pregnancy could result in the termination of the woman’s life as well. Surgical abortions were performed, but, in the centuries before germ theory and reliable sanitation, they were as likely to end in the death of the woman as in the termination of her pregnancy. Although there were other moral and philosophical reasons for women like Wollstonecraft to praise chastity, abstinence, and an early version of the rhythm method, there were pressing practical reasons as well. It is not entirely clear to me that early feminists would have made the same arguments if they had had access to reliable modern birth control methods. Bachiochi does not make the case.

Similarly, Bachiochi’s representation of debates over women’s labor in the marketplace often seems disconnected from the history in which those debates took place. While her account of the clashing opinions of Alice Paul and Florence Kelley over protective legislation limiting the hours a woman could work outside the home is interesting, Bachiochi seems at times to accept uncritically the notion that this type of protective legislation was, in fact, only intended to protect women and children, citing without analysis claims that industrialization produced homes that were “joyless shanties for bolting down food or snatching a little sleep,” and a papal encyclical in support of male workers earning what “was due to them in natural justice.” Left undiscussed are arguments that such laws arose at least as much from a desire to protect masculine work outside the house from competition from lower-priced female laborers and to legally limit women’s work to domestic and maternal labor. It is worth noting that despite the virtuous protective rhetoric in the Muller v. Oregon decision about women’s working hours in commercial laundries, women laboring in domestic service were left untouched by this and other protective legislation. Apparently only laundry done outside the home was dangerous to women and their “maternal vulnerabilities.”

While Bachiochi makes passing note of these concerns, she immediately reverts to characterizing work outside the home (for women) as exploitative, and approvingly quotes Nancy Cott’s description as entry into the labor force as freeing women from the rule of them only to make them “greater slaves to the machines of industry.”

Too often, 21st-century feminism allows those economic concerns to dissolve into arguing about the truth or falsity of the gender wage gap or the pink tax, and ignores far more pressing and far more damaging economic inequities for women such as those written into the tax code, into much occupational licensure, and into unions.

Even if these reasons for protective legislation are set aside for the moment, however, we are left with Bachiochi’s apparent acceptance of the assertion that such laws were necessary because “only by affording parents, and especially mothers, time to love and cherish their young ones could the next generation become mature and independent.” The veiled implication that women who work outside the home cannot love or nurture their children is insulting. (And if Bachiochi is arguing for more fatherly input into child-rearing, why must this be a concern “especially for mothers”?) But worse than insulting, the argument is classist. Women who need to work outside the home to feed their children—and there are many such women, in Wollstonecraft’s time and in our own—are doing the utmost to love and nurture their children by providing food, a roof, and security. “Protective legislation” does nothing but push such families further to the margins.

A Feminist Liberty

The unreliability that plagues her discussions of Wollstonecraft and other early texts did not leave me feeling confident that her modern source material, with which I am less familiar, would be handled any more responsibly. Her reduction of Wollstonecraft’s thought and modern women’s choices to discussions about sexual and reproductive choices continues and is joined by an increasing expression of her contempt for markets and capitalism. Her chapter on “Caring for Dependency in the Logic of the Market,” for example, limits its discussion of dependency to a continuing discussion of abortion rights and birth control, with no attention to vital topics such as day care, parental leave, schooling, flex time, that allow parents to better care for dependents while participating in the market. Her assertion throughout the chapter is that “it may just be that an unmitigated right to abortion serves a profit-driven market above all else.” And while she suggests that work and parenting “need not be a zero-sum game,” her relentless focus on abortion rights and birth control and lack of attention to institutions and legal frameworks means that no real alternatives are posed.

All of this is a shame because, like Bachiochi, I am firmly persuaded that modern feminism needs more Wollstonecraft. Her focus on women’s education as a means to respectable occupations and economic independence serves as a useful reminder that the economic aspects of feminism matter. Too often, 21st-century feminism allows those economic concerns to dissolve into arguing about the truth or falsity of the gender wage gap or the pink tax, and ignores far more pressing and far more damaging economic inequities for women such as those written into the tax code, into much occupational licensure, and into unions.

Bachiochi is also entirely on point with her focus on Wollstonecraft’s arguments that men should take a greater part in “the duty of the father.” I can think of no better time in recent history for the long-standing legitimacy of such arguments to be elevated than a year in which a pandemic has forced the enormous divisions in male and female parenting and domestic responsibilities to the forefront of every conversation.

Wollstonecraft is also an exemplar of a kind of feminism that is not devoted to seeing everything through the lens of woman’s relationship to the state. While I suspect she would have been as pleased as anyone to see women’s suffrage and an increased representation of women in government, the goals of her feminism were not political. She focused, instead, on considering “women in the grand light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties.” That is the lost vision of feminism that I have been waiting for, and that I hoped Bachiochi’s book would revive.