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Women, Families, and the Ends of Freedom

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

I am grateful to the editors of Law & Liberty for convening this symposium and inviting my response. As an author, one feels she has succeeded in her craft when she is understood, and thankfully, several of the reviewers have understood my project (and its limits) quite well.

From the outset, Elayne Allen gets it just right in her recognition that my task in reconstructing a foundation for women’s rights was to look beyond current political and cultural disputes “to an anthropology built upon sound philosophy.” She also does well to focus in on the central question of the book, tracing how our culture’s valuing of women’s productive work in the agrarian home was lost to a “market-driven valuation” of wage-earning above all else. Liberalism and capitalism conspired here to reward, as she writes so well, “the maximally autonomous, visible, unencumbered, productive individual associated with maleness over the fiscally unproductive caretaker, associated with femaleness.”

My complaint—well articulated by Allen—is not with markets per se, as some other reviewers have suggested, but with the way in which capitalistic ways of thinking about freedom and equality have tended to crowd out and even replace older, and better, understandings of the same. Today personal freedom is too often equated with a kind of consumer choice: as the mere capacity to choose among one’s preferences, with no consideration given to freedom’s proper end.

And so though markets can be efficient mechanisms for allocating resources and the like, markets depend for their success on the culturally essential, character-shaping work that takes place in the family and other non-market spheres of society. If those spheres collapse—spheres that guide both children and adults to use their freedom responsibly—Americans tend to fall back on that ersatz freedom we know best: choosing among consumer goods. Far better to enjoy personal, political, and economic freedoms to order one’s life according to one’s obligations, with those to God and one’s family ordering the rest. 

I agree with Elizabeth Busch’s suggestion that the philosophical foundations Wollstonecraft (and I) employ to ground rights will not be satisfactory to those who are beholden to now faddish gender ideology. But there are prior errors that got us here, and those are the ones I seek to tackle. Indeed, a “dignitarian feminism” that begins by, as she writes, “discerning truths evident in embodied femininity” is necessary today because we’ve grounded rights on a Cartesian anthropology that discounts the importance of the body altogether—and this error at the level of our theory has even greater consequences for women than for men.

After all, when we eclipse the sexed body from view in rights theories built upon the mythical unencumbered autonomous individual of social contract theorists’ imaginings, we are most especially eclipsing from view the feminine vulnerabilities that come with pregnancy and childbearing. As Busch sees, we have a “sterile male model of rights.” And so, once women start claiming their own rights on this inadequate anthropological foundation, the neutralizing of sex differences through birth control and abortion follows in due course. The trans revolution is not far behind.

Rachel Lu is a formidable thinker and her praise—and critique—are most welcome. I am happy to have succeeded, in her mind, in building a “promising foundation” and “starting point” to think more deeply about what she (and Carole Pateman) have called the dilemma of citizenship, even if, in her view, my resolution to the dilemma is not entirely satisfactory. Doing justice to women as rational and political animals as well as potential (and actual) mothers is a complex question both theoretically and practically, and Lu deftly showcases some of that complexity in her review.

Surely, she’s correct that a blueprint for day-to-day living my book is not, but I do think it gives more concrete guidance than she suggests. For it seems to me that were men and women to understand ourselves better as both embodied (and thus hormonally, reproductively, and even neurologically distinctive) and ordered to goodness and truth, we would come to recognize, as Wollstonecraft did, how very important the practice of virtue is from one’s youth.

Growing in virtue is a common human task, but as Aristotelean philosopher Sarah Borden Sharkey writes, “Our differing biological matter offers to us differing influences for the development of our common capacities.” For though virtue looks different in every person—no precise blueprint can map such development with precision—the struggle is a deeply human one and is specified further by the appetitive proclivities that tend to characterize each sex. And so, boys especially need virtuous men, and girls especially need virtuous women to guide them in this struggle, particularly as they work to reach the kind of moral maturity required of motherhood and fatherhood.

Lu is undoubtedly right that the society I envision—one that better honors and supports caregiving in the home—will not convince everyone to embrace this self-sacrificial work, nor will it ever be able to fully compensate those who carry it out. But a shift toward the goods of the family and away from the goods of the market would serve, I think, to reorient our cultural priorities so that the most natural human act of coming together to bear and raise children could truly be its own reward.

In light of my focus on reproductive asymmetry and embodiment throughout the book—with an especially extensive discussion in the book’s conclusion—I’m a bit puzzled by the suggestion of both Lu and Scott Yenor that my affirmation of “caregiving” is “gender-neutral.” Certainly, I think that engaged fatherhood is an answer to many of our current ills, and that such engagement goes well beyond a paycheck to being deeply involved in their children’s lives. More still, domestic prudence often dictates today that the common good of one’s family is served when the mother works outside the home, often part-time, but sometimes even more than (or instead of) the father. And so, in terms of law and policy, just as workplaces ought not discriminate against mothers because they are mothers, fathers ought not be discriminated against for the dedicated time they spend engaged in “caregiving” in the home. Yes, due to their own embodiment, mothers and fathers attend to the needs of their children distinctively, with mothers especially needed in the early years. But, in my experience (as the mother of seven children), static roles are a lesser guide than embodied prudence.      

Friedan’s (Millian) philosophy of “self-actualization” put the second wave of the women’s movement on the wrong path from the start, a path that led ineluctably to abortion.

One might wonder in reading Yenor’s review whether he thinks women should have rights at all. He’s surely correct to imply that in (much) older societies that emphasized duty, women took seriously their roles as wives and mothers; I suspect many husbands and fathers did the same. The trouble is that these premodern societies gave way—for reasons far too many to describe here—to societies, like ours, built upon a foundation of rights. Yenor might want to argue, as many now do, that rights themselves are a poor foundation. But to suggest instead that it is only women’s rights that are problematic, well, that’s a very radical position. 

I take the middle route: both women and men ought to enjoy civil and political rights by virtue of their common human nature as rational creatures, but such rights ought not to be understood as individualistic means for self-expression or “self-actualization” (as per Betty Friedan). Rather, rights for both women and men are properly grounded in their duties to God and others, duties that pre-exist rights and make necessary the right to fulfill them. 

Thus, Yenor’s review suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of my book. Indeed, I agree with him that Friedan’s (Millian) philosophy of “self-actualization” put the second wave of the women’s movement on the wrong path from the start, a path that led ineluctably to abortion. Had he read the text surrounding the sentence he quotes, he would have realized the section was a critique of Friedan, not an affirmation of her view. As I say: “Friedan’s appreciation of self-actualization, reaching one’s potential, developing one’s capacities, or even working with ‘higher purpose’ is morally inadequate without a sense of the proper goal or end of those human capacities.” And then, calling upon Wollstonecraft to correct Friedan, I write:

[A]ccording to Wollstonecraft, the human person’s capacities are only authentically developed (“actualized”) when directed toward his or her proper end as a rational creature. In a word, he or she must in and through his or her work aim to grow in wisdom and virtue. This arduous and daily task is accomplished through fulfilling one’s particular duties in life, ensuring firm principles guide one’s passions, and humbly reorienting oneself when they do not. Ultimately, for Wollstonecraft, one ought to seek to live and work with benevolence, that is, a deep concern for others. So, although Friedan is correct that one cannot live “through others,” one can and should live “for others.” Such benevolence is a great marker of humility, humanity, and maturity.

In the end, then, I do very much blame the “logic of feminism” for the 1970s embrace of sexual liberation, because that feminism was the child of liberal theorists like John Locke and John Stuart Mill. But I do not blame women’s just claims for civil rights for our ills, even when those just claims are defended by quintessential liberal feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is no doubt that I am trying to thread the needle ever so carefully, but I think shoring up rights on the philosophical foundation Wollstonecraft provides helps me do so. Miss how profoundly that foundation differs from later “feminists” (an anachronism when applied to her) and you miss the whole point of the book.

I am grateful to Sarah Skwire for finding an error in my interpretation of a passage in Wollstonecraft’s text. Skwire’s explanation of the actual meaning of the passage is a lovely one and is indeed faithful to Wollstonecraft’s project. But I remain mystified as to why such an error, entirely inconsequential to my argument, would derail the whole project.

Skwire longs for Wollstonecraft the liberal feminist who sought equal education and independence for women. Skwire can find that Wollstonecraft presented in many other books on the eighteenth-century thinker. Entirely missed in those interpretations—most notably since the sexual revolution—is her focus on the culturally-essential goods of family life, goods that are threatened, as she wrote, by the “want of male chastity”—“the “grand source of the many of the physical and moral evils that torment mankind.” Who would have known from reading excerpts of her treatises Wollstonecraft regarded marriage as so essential to personal and societal happiness that the moral corruption of the institution was “more universally injurious to morality than all the other vices of mankind collectively considered”?

My book seeks to fill that void in the scholarship and so tell the whole story, not just the one acceptable to 1970s feminists. And so, yes, over more than forty-five pages of generous quotations, descriptions, and analysis of her thought, I spend far more than other books have on her views about sex, marriage, motherhood, and fatherhood and include some intimate personal details as well. (Contra Skwire, this choice is in no way “gendered”: I mention some intimate details about Rousseau and Mill’s lives as well.)

Skwire has also fallen for the all-too-common view that 19th-century women’s rights advocates rejected birth control and abortion because the technology was just not sophisticated enough yet. But read their own words and you realize that their concern was with the “want of male chastity” that motivated Wollstonecraft too. Better birth control and safer abortion would have enabled men to exercise even greater sexual presumption in marriage and more infidelity and so to attend less to the chastity these women called them too—and that’s exactly, in my view, what has happened since the sexual revolution. But these earlier women’s rights advocates did not want to “control men,” as Yenor writes (and Lu implies). Rather they wished for men to be far more attentive to the asymmetrical realities of sex, and let those realities dictate their behavior. As Wollstonecraft put it: “I do not [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.” And she wished that same self-mastery for men.