Reclaiming a Lost Vision for Women

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

Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision is a much needed exploration of the intellectual inconsistencies in the contemporary feminist movement with recommendations for reclaiming a sensible notion of women’s rights. Those familiar with Bachiochi will recognize her arguments for the pro-woman aspects of Catholicism, her rejection of “abortion on demand” as a women’s rights platform, and her compelling legal analyses of equal protection under the law. This book is the culmination of her work of these subjects, following predecessors Jean Bethke Elshtain and Elizabeth Fox Genovese in not merely analyzing philosophies of women’s nature and rights, but in deriving a theory of liberty from them. Bachiochi distinguishes her book from others in her careful and patient analysis of the intellectual underpinnings of the dominant perspectives of women’s rights activists juxtaposed with Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy of rights. Bachiochi shows that women’s rights activists do not all believe the same things and that there are substantial reasons to rethink how one advocates for the rights of women and men in the twenty-first century.

As her subtitle indicates, Bachiochi hopes to reclaim a lost vision, specifically one that is a fusion of Wollstonecraftian ethics, first wave feminist notions of equal rights, and the legal theory of Mary Ann Glendon. She hopes that this return will remind us of the unique role and special joys of child caregiving and rearing, while allowing women who choose to do so to seek professional work outside of the home. This return, she contends, will only happen when the feminist movement disentangles itself from what she considers to be the “excesses of the sexual revolution.” Specifically, women should reject two ideas that have become endemic women’s rights—the male model of equal rights and liberty, including unencumbered sex; and the advocacy for abortion on demand. Once these ideas are rejected, Bachiochi believes, females and males can relearn their mutual responsibilities and women can hope to return to a truly liberating notion of equal rights.

The first four chapters of the book explain how women’s legal and social equality, as understood by Wollstonecraft and first wave women’s advocates, embraced sexual differences and responsibilities. Chapters five to eight discuss how emerging pioneers of the women’s movement after the industrial revolution exchanged Wollstonecraft’s notion of a partnership between the sexes for an “individualistic and abstract notion of rights,” with an equitable distribution of power based upon a male model of fulfillment. Her last two chapters aim to synthesize Mary Ann Glendon’s legal theories with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy to form a civic and family-centered response to the misdirection of contemporary feminism.

Many academics, LBGTQ advocates, and prochoice proponents may be disinclined to explore Bachiochi’s criticisms of contemporary feminism because she adopts a traditional view of nature, sex, and family. However, they ignore her analysis at their own peril. The author demonstrates serious intellectual difficulties with which the women’s movement must grapple. Moreover, they may find in Wollstonecraft support for some of their values, such as voluntary motherhood, engaged fathers, and a partnership between the sexes. 

The Lost Vision

Bachiochi argues that Mary Wollstonecraft’s lost vision can ground the women’s movement on a permanent foundation in truth, nature, and God. The author takes for granted what many academics today do not, that human nature has a permanent status and inherent wisdom. As such, Bachiochi’s and Wollstonecraft’s definition of “nature” and “sex” provide the foundation for their entire morality. Both use the term “sex” to signify the biological differences connected to males’ and females’ respective reproductive functions and relative physical strength. The consequences of sexual intercourse are greater for females than they are for males, since encounters can result in pregnancy. This “sexual asymmetry,” both argue, creates the need for sexual morality to educate the sexes of their mutual responsibility towards one another and to society. For Wollstonecraft and the author, a complementarity between the sexes paves the way for wisdom, virtue (understood as following God’s law), and happiness. 

Women’s suffrage, working and property rights, as well as the freedom to be, or not to be, a mother, Bachiochi argues, are consistent with the recognition of physical differences. The author argues that the early history of the women’s movement expressed in the National Organization for Women’s 1966 vision of an “fully equal partnership of the sexes,” as well as the early arguments of Pauli Murray, Betty Friedan, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, supports a notion of equal rights consistent with Wollstonecraft’s recognition of sexual difference. Bachiochi applauds this “successful quest for equal citizenship status” because it still appreciates the significance of caregiving and childbearing.

Bachoichi then corrects the errors that have relegated the sole responsibility for motherhood and pregnancy to women. Rousseau and Tocqueville, though admiring the distinct attributes of women, viewed domestic responsibility as woman’s alone. John Locke’s “individualistic and abstract notion of rights” and self-ownership failed to provide a complete theory of sexual equality based on mutual responsibility. Specifically, these thinkers incorrectly deduced distinct male and female souls from bodily difference and therefore fail to locate the equality of men and women at the level of the soul. Bachiochi explains in chapter 4:

But if sex differences are understood conceptually to be at the level of the soul (“nature” or “essence”), rather than the body, arguments for the common human dignity and equality of men and women are much more difficult to ground philosophically; it is as though men and women are different species altogether. More still, in this view, one’s distinctive feminine or masculine nature is understood to be so essential as to be determinative of one’s actions (e.g., men always act out of lust), leaving little room for the development of human virtue and thus shaping of one’s own distinctive character.

If male and female souls are different, what binds them together? If they have the same soul, but different predilections, it is clear how they relate. For Bachoichi, Wollstonecraft’s “shared human quest for virtue” unites males and females in an equal partnership that embraces their bodily differences. The attempted equitable division of responsibilities or the balance of power based on individualistic and abstract notions of rights towards which social contract theory leads will always be unfulfilling—to both men and women.

Bachoichi argues that the women’s rights movement lost its way when it divorced itself from its original foundation in permanent truths, such as nature, truth, and God.

When and How Did the Women’s Movement Lose its Way?

Bachoichi argues that the women’s rights movement lost its way when it divorced itself from its original foundation in permanent truths, such as nature, truth, and God. The culprit for this lost vision is faulty reasoning that permeated the sexual liberation movement, specifically in the late 1970s and after. Bachiochi highlights two main errors. The first is in its conceiving abstract rights in isolation from the complementarity of male and female natures. Deeper and more problematic for Bachiochi is the movement’s embrace of abortion on demand, “the sin qua non of women’s freedom and equality.”

The sexual liberation movement undermined itself by adopting a sterile male model of rights and responsibilities and by attempting to neutralize sex differences via the availability of birth control and abortion. Adopting the male norm of sexuality freed males from responsibility as partners and parents. The result was that women bore the sole responsibility for the consequences of sex when pregnancy occurred. Proponents of abortion attempted to alleviate this sexual asymmetry by allowing women (like men) to surrender their responsibilities in regard to sex via abortion. However, access to abortion has only taken more responsibility for pregnancy away from men, as women still have to endure the consequences of abortion itself. For Bachiochi, abortion can never be liberating for a woman because it alienates her from the ultimate purpose of her bodily structure and denies the meaningful partnership between males and females. Thus, the author contends, the demand for abortion on demand is theoretically inconsistent with a full notion of equal rights and participation. Easy access to abortion only allows for a loss of responsibility for the father while holding the mother solely accountable.

Bachoichi also challenges the legal arguments used to support abortion on demand. First, she argues, Roe v. Wade’s constitutional finding was wrongly decided and was decided too quickly to allow for consensus among the public. She is compelled by neither the equal protection nor the privacy defenses of abortion rights. Even these constitutional arguments have morphed into the insistence that abortion rights are necessitated by Roe’s longstanding precedent.

Ultimately, Bachoichi’s fundamental purpose is to demonstrate that the policy of abortion on demand undermines human nature, the separate and distinct male and female natures, and the true meaning of equal rights under the law. Because males and females are biologically distinct in meaningful ways, the attempt by post-“sexual liberation” feminists to neutralize those biological differences through Roe v. Wade, or any other legal means, will never liberate or fulfill women. Such an attempt misunderstands liberty itself, which requires the moderating effect of a permanent ethical grounding.

How to Reclaim Women’s Rights

The author, like Wollstonecraft, aims to present a sensible, persuasive, and manageable notion of rights for women and men. She wants to bring back the romanticized civic and cultural landscape that once characterized the America observed by Tocqueville. Bachiochi turns to Mary Ann Glendon to show that erroneous constitutional arguments for women’s rights are only part of the failure to achieve full and equal partnership between the sexes. Cultivation of habits and practices, as well as supportive institutions and a moral teaching connected to a higher being, males and females can conceive of themselves as equals of soul, rather than autonomous individual bodies. The takeaway is that without some permanent grounding that binds males and females together in a shared purpose, the sexes will continue to be in perpetual state of war and will never be equal in any imagined sense. 

Bachiochi has done a Herculean service of wading through the complex intellectual and legal history of the women’s movement. Moreover, the author should be commended for not merely tearing down faulty arguments, but in also attempting to rebuild a foundation for sex equality. Her book will resonate with individuals seeking to return to traditional notions of family and society. Interestingly, Wollstonecraft’s defense of male chastity and education to moderate male passions is consistent with similar demands of the #MeToo generation. Wollstonecraft’s recommended partnership of males in parental responsibilities may also be more persuasive to twenty-first century men, many of whom have engaged more fully in domestic responsibilities during the pandemic. However, it is still the case that the individualistic notion of rights inherited from Locke leads most males to support more equality in the workforce, but not necessarily when it comes to household tasks.

Bachiochi’s argument will be less palatable to academics and advocates who reject the concepts of nature and sex, or any permanent foundation such as God or truth. The dominant perspective in the academy and the women’s movement is the “blank slate” theory that replaces “sex,” i.e., the physical/biological designations of chromosomes, with the concept of “gender,” which is wholly socially constructed and flexible. Wollstonecraft and Bachiochi also do not explicitly address intersex individuals or those with ambiguous genitalia. Moving forward, it may be increasingly difficult to defend male and female distinctiveness, without having such considerations enveloped into the quest for gender rights. 

Similarly, prochoice individuals will not likely read beyond the author’s rejection of abortion on demand, though these may not be the readers to whom the book is addressed. However, neither Bachiochi, nor Wollstonecraft, seem to oppose abortion needed in cases of life endangerment. And while I might not place abortion on demand as the “sin qua non” of feminism’s misdirection, Bachiochi’s astute question of whether the physical differences between the sexes can or should be neutralized by law is one with which anyone interested in equality of all persons must wrestle.