INTERVIEW: What Would Founding Feminist Say to Women’s Movement Today?

Published July 22, 2021


[Editor’s Note: Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. She is a legal scholar who specializes in equal protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics. A co-founder of St. Benedict Classical Academy, Bachiochi and her husband are the parents of seven children. Her new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, is now available from Notre Dame University Press. She recently spoke to Crux.]

Crux: People should read the book for the full story, but what’s the short version of the lost vision of the rights of women your book is reclaiming?

BachiochiThe Rights of Women is an intellectual history of a once predominant view among our country’s earliest women’s rights advocates, inspired by British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792: Rights are born of the concrete responsibilities we owe to one another.

We Americans often tend to think of rights as the first reality, that we are fundamentally beings with rights – for example, the right to life, the right to religious liberty, the right to property (perhaps foremost of all!) A better, richer, more philosophically tenable account, which was the one offered by Wollstonecraft, grounds cherished rights in prior duties to God, to family, to self, and to others.

For the great vindicator of the rights of women, our concrete day-to-day responsibilities are the first reality [and] rights are born of, and thus enable us to fulfill, those responsibilities. Fulfilling those responsibilities virtuously, with benevolence toward others, is ultimately, according to Wollstonecraft, what brings about both personal and societal happiness.

Rights also, then, properly act as powerful tools to afford the vulnerable and powerless a claim on those who, in justice, owe them something by virtue of their inherent dignity, their special familial or legal relationship, or some other particular claim. For instance, vulnerable children have a right in justice to that which is due them; parents likewise enjoy the right to carry out their duties to their children. Good societies, ordered to the full flourishing of human beings, properly recognize and protect both.

In the book, I seek to reclaim this early vision of women’s rights that better enables all of us, women, men, and children too, to fulfill our concrete responsibilities to our families, our work, our communities, and God, and thereby build up our common life together.

What do you see as the relationship of ‘the market’ with this vision?

An older account of freedom and rights well understood what the great judge Learned Hand said in his celebrated “Spirit of Liberty” speech in 1944:  Liberty “is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few.”

Or, as Wollstonecraft put it (and as so many of our country’s Founders insisted too): “Society can only be happy and free in proportion as it is virtuous.”

But since Hand’s time, U.S. culture has become more and more defined by an enormous degree of consumer choice, and this has seemed to shape our view of “choice” in other arenas too. The ancient view of freedom, as expounded by Hand and Wollstonecraft and many of our Founders too has been traded in increasingly for the kind of freedom ostensibly delivered the market: the freedom to choose among one’s preferences.

A real woman with myriad needs and desires, a pornographic image, or a sex doll: which will do? The market seems not to take a position: the putatively autonomous consumer is now “free to choose.” Hardly contemplated in this new consumerist approach to freedom is its proper use or end, that most important question of a prior age. Wollstonecraft minced no words for such a view: to extol a freedom without virtue was to reduce men to beasts.

Without a richer account of human freedom, and its proper end, human excellence, the goods of family and community — so necessary for human flourishing — end up being subordinated to the dominant value of choice dictated by the increasingly hegemonic logic of the consumerist market.

Modern feminism, with its focus on market equality as the chief locus of sexual equality, tends then to undermine respect for the culturally-essential work of the family, where all the virtues needed for the good functioning of interpersonal relationships, societies, and markets(!) are instilled. More still, true reciprocity between men and women at home and at work will never be found without refocusing our attention on developing in ourselves and in our children those human excellences that are first learned in the home.

This seems directly related to your concern over population control and, in a related story, the supposed right to abortion.

Right, so too many today falsely assume that an unbroken line can be drawn from those who today agitate for “women’s rights” to those who argued women had the right to agitate in the first place. In fact, even the phrase “women’s rights” has become almost synonymous with abortion rights.

But in a Wollstonecraftian account of rights, it would be philosophically untenable to claim that a mother could enjoy a “right” to end the life of her own child; rather, she enjoys rights to better discharge the special duties of care she owes to that child.

In fact, before the 1960s, those advocating abortion had done so for eugenic and population control reasons, with women’s rights advocates standing historically opposed to the practice, promoting instead an ethic of solidarity, care, and the shared duties of both mothers and fathers.

Again, the relentless quest for abortion rights over the last several decades has placed modern feminism squarely on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood.

When women “need” abortion to participate in economic and social life, as we are told by feminists today, then we’ve capitulated to a vision of economic and social life that views the (mythical) unencumbered autonomous male as normative.

Do you think this has any implications of the coming abortion decision in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Health? I understand you’re working with other scholars on an amicus brief for that case too.

It has become increasingly popular to believe that abortion rights are necessary for women’s equal participation in the public square. Indeed, that view (which had been circulating in academic legal literature in the years after Roe v Wade) even made it into the Supreme Court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Casey plurality argued, in part, that women had come to “rely” upon abortion for their social and economic participation, and so the 1973 decision, even if constitutionally erroneous, had to be affirmed.  The trouble is that the plurality came to this conclusion without a shred of evidence. Indeed, there is still no (non-anecdotal) evidence for this oft-mentioned claim today.

So, yes, fellow legal scholars Teresa Collett, Helen Alvaré, Elizabeth Kirk and I are writing a brief on behalf of pro-life feminist organizations and women scholars and professionals to help the Court to see the errors in this deeply pernicious aspect of Casey’s stare decisis account. (Women with terminal degrees who would like to sign on can contact me at EPPC before July 24.)

Taking in account Dobbs, but also more than just the Supreme Court, what do the insights of your book mean for the future strategy of the pro-life movements?

I’d have to say I’m far more of a theorist than a strategist, but I can share with you my own “conversion” story.

As a pro-choice women’s studies student at Middlebury College in the 1990s, it was the deeply communitarian arguments of the modern heroine of The Rights of Women, Mary Ann Glendon – as well as the joyful witness of then USCCB spokesperson Helen Alvaré —  that caused me to begin to rethink my views. These women scholars, who I am now deeply honored to call mentors and friends, saw the good of mothers and their children as knit deeply together. And they also knew that overturning the lawless 1973 decision of Roe v Wade was but the first step to creating a culture that is truly hospitable to vulnerable and dependent children — and the mothers and fathers responsible for their care.

Thankfully, pro-life strategy since Roe has never been just a legal one. At the grassroots, in families and communities across our country, ordinary Americans are finding ways generously to care for women facing unexpected pregnancies. And they have been doing so for the last fifty years. But we’re also beginning to see more and more pro-life legislators recognize that community support is not enough; if we do not intentionally affirm the essential – and costly – work of the family, our laws will tend to bend ineluctably toward the needs of the unencumbered individual. Children, and the mothers and fathers who do the vital work to care for and nurture them, will continue to lose out.

EPPC Fellow Erika Bachiochi is a legal scholar specializing in Equal Protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, MA, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Her newest book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, was published by Notre Dame University Press in 2021.

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