Published on July 15, 2021
This essay is an excerpt from The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Erika Bachiochi © 2021 University of Notre Dame Press, released today.
In its inception in the 19th century, the early American women’s movement worked hard to resist the powerful draw of market values in the personal lives of men, women and children. These women recognized early on that the most good, true and beautiful things in life would never be counted in the growing industrial economy nor valued by a wage.
They foresaw clearly that the character-shaping, solidarity-building work they did with their husbands, raising up new generations of Americans in the virtues of collaboration, reciprocity, trust and concern for others, could be undermined by the materialistic tendencies of the new commercial economy, even as these virtues make such an economy viable and sustainable in the first place. Through their political advocacy for joint property ownership, workers’ rights, suffrage and more, these women sought to elevate legally and politically the essential work of the home: that person-oriented island in a market-driven sea.
In the last half century, that traditional resistance to the encroaching logic of the consumeristic market has withered, and more often than not feminism too has ceded to its worldview. Today, mainstream feminism promotes a view of freedom as autonomous choice, manifest most plainly in the popular abortion-rights slogan “right to choose.” Parenthood is increasingly viewed as one lifestyle choice among many, and for mothers an “opportunity cost” at that. The value of children (and other dependents) are too often subject, like other “trade-offs” in the marketplace, to individual (or social) “cost-benefit” analysis.
The women’s movement of the last 50 years has made extraordinary gains, not the least of which is the recognition of women as individual persons equal under the law. The myriad and diverse capacities, interests and abilities of women, especially as opportunities have become increasingly available to them, know no end. The modern-day women’s movement can be credited with at last putting to rest the ways in which women’s unequal legal status in the family and in society had subordinated women unjustly for too long.
But the feminist movement today has been slower to recognize that abstract rights only take women so far. Taken to their limit as the mere power to choose, abstract rights tend to eat away at the very conditions that make their exercise worthwhile—and humane. Other evaluative considerations, especially our shared responsibilities to the vulnerable and dependent, are subordinated to the duly unencumbered, autonomous self so prized in the “good life” of our late modern capitalist society. And that consuming, choosing, disembodied self makes no room for the concrete asymmetries inherent in sexual intercourse and reproduction, and in caregiving too. The deck is stacked today against pregnant women and caregiving families: the very people to whom future generations will owe their existence and well-being.
Without a substantive account of human freedom, and its proper end, human excellence, the essential human goods of children, family and community, so necessary for authentic human flourishing, are subordinated to the dominant value of choice dictated by the logic of the market. We’re left with a culture that aggrandizes consumerism, workaholism and the relentless quest for power, wealth and pleasure. And though this new American way of life may appear to benefit the rich, well-educated and otherwise privileged, none of this bodes well for children and other vulnerable populations.
Women’s rights are no different; without an account of what freedom is for, feminism ends up appropriating a market orientation too. Individual choice is to be maximized without an obvious limiting principle and without due consideration of the apparent goods that are being chosen. As a consequence, the modern-day feminist movement on the whole has difficulty condemning epidemic pornography, the sexual mutilation of children at the behest of a cultish gender ideology and other forms of sexual exploitation (from “sex work” to now normative casual sex). It insists on retaining “consent” as the highest value in the sexual context, even as asymmetrical power disparities rightly put this concept into question in other areas, and as increasing numbers of ordinary women lament today’s male-oriented sexual norms.
In the now-dominant logic of the market, marriage, children and caregiving—human goods that have been affirmed and celebrated throughout human history—are treated as merely individual preferences with substantial financial consequences. Rendered private goods mediated by private choices, the inherently public nature of these goods, and the communal and political responsibilities they entail, is widely forgotten. The wealthy are scarcely affected by such cultural amnesia, as many persist in living out relatively family-centered lives, but the poor are shorn of that essential familial and communal substructure upon which they might find their own footing and rise above their circumstances.
It is no surprise that as law and policy over the past several decades have elevated the rights of the isolated, unencumbered, autonomous individual above our common and shared responsibilities to the dependent, weak and vulnerable, our workplaces have not grown much more hospitable to those who care for such persons. Nor has the community at large found ways to support this most essential work.
The feminists of the 1970s believed free and easy access to abortion would empower women to achieve unsurpassed levels of autonomy, enabling them to take full advantage of the new freedoms and opportunities available to them. But perhaps easy abortion access in the United States has allowed women to be taken advantage of more fully in the workplace and in the bedroom instead.
Rather than making room for dependents and the asymmetrical duties of care that inhere in both sex and caregiving, we have sought to remake women (and men) in the exalted image of the ever-competitive, rights-bearing, unencumbered, pleasure-maximizing, autonomous individual of Thomas Hobbes’ imaginings. And we now see in concrete, especially among the most disadvantaged among us, what this vaunted abstraction tends to deliver: mothers and other caregivers who must fend for themselves, and sex that is reduced to sport.
Of course, it is possible that a real advance occurred around the mid-1970s, and that earlier ways of thinking about freedom and its responsibilities should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Women are obviously better off today—pussy hats and all. All that remains lacking is their greater access to power. It’s more likely, in my view, that older conceptions of freedom have simply been forgotten or have been discarded unfairly along with contemporaneous historical ideas and practices that modern-day feminists rightly have judged unjust. But historical insights need not be appropriated with all the coincident conditions that accompanied them historically. Wisdom can transcend time and place, and serve as a course correction, if we allow it to do so.
It would surely be difficult for feminist advocates of the 1970s to reimagine a women’s movement without abortion rights at its very center. Those feminists remember a time when women were regarded as designed solely for domestic life, when women’s opinions were undervalued and when mothers were seen as more capable and essential to their children’s upbringing than were fathers. For 1970s feminists, restrictions upon abortion seem to betray precisely that vision of women, one that unfairly confines women solely to maternity, with no respect for their contributions beyond.
But for those of us who grew up with the antidiscrimination gains of the 1970s securely in place, there is no question that women are as capable of educational and professional achievement as men. The questions now are why the essential work of caring for dependents—still undertaken disproportionately by women—is not as valued and supported as it should be, and why poor women, especially, continue to be bereft of the paternal support both they and their children so heartily need. These are the questions a renewed women’s movement must work to address. And rethinking the country’s reliance on abortion as a privileged response to sexual asymmetry would be a good place to start.
At this time in our nation’s history, when the consumerist approach to freedom tends to dominate our cultural sensibilities, when the quest for autonomy is elevated over the familial and communal preconditions of every freedom we might enjoy, when our capacity to raise up moral leaders has been compromised, it is time once again to remind our nation of its most basic moral proposition. All human beings are created with equal dignity and worth. But such dignity finds its true nobility when, as earlier women’s rights advocates well understood, each of us is encouraged and empowered by our families and our communities to seek moral excellence in all we do.
Today, perhaps more than ever before, that noble vision recommends itself to us anew.
Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute where she directs the Wollstonecraft Project.