Published July 14, 2021
In January, just over one hundred years after women gained the right to vote, Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the first female vice president of the United States. Though I disagree deeply with our vice president’s politics, it was remarkable to witness a woman accomplish something that not all that long ago would have been unimaginable.
Thanks to momentous shifts over the last century, women in the United States today find themselves in a far more advantageous social position than they were in 1920 in crucial and indisputable ways, not least of which is the right to cast a ballot for themselves. Even so, significant discontent persists among American women. Perhaps a new mother wishes to stay home with her children full-time, but family finances and the high cost of living make it impossible. Perhaps an older mother hopes to work outside the home while balancing marriage and family and seeks a part-time arrangement that would make it possible to succeed at both, but the lack of flexible work opportunities makes it too difficult.
As suggested by the last decade’s national debate over whether women can “have it all”—and intensified by the recent wave of #MeToo stories exposing a dysfunctional sexual culture plagued by miscommunication and even violence—the sense remains across the political spectrum that, despite all the advancements of the last century, the modern American woman continues to struggle.
Perhaps surprisingly, this sense of dissatisfaction seems strongest and most pervasive among progressive feminists, even though they’ve achieved so many of their goals for remaking society. These are the members of the so-called third wave of the feminist movement, which began with the fight for women’s suffrage, took a turn with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and then intertwined itself with the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, with significant ramifications. Why is it that the very women who appear to have attained so much of what they demanded—the widespread loosening of sexual mores, legalized no-fault divorce, easy access to various methods of contraception, and abortion on demand—appear also to be the least satisfied with the status quo?
In her new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, legal scholar Erika Bachiochi (my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center) outlines her case for why modern feminists remain disappointed. In her view, the movement has betrayed the fundamental vision of its forebears by making abortion a crucial component of the quest for female equality.
A Deep Contradiction
The book centers around an argument that Bachiochi has made convincingly many times before, in a body of work that coherently outlines what she terms the “deep contradiction” between authentic pro-woman sentiment and abortion. But she makes her fullest case in this book, showcasing in particular the work of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft as a guide for the modern reader who wants to understand what a flourishing feminism might look like.
Bachiochi writes that the trouble with the modern women’s movement is not to be found in its 1960s and ’70s critique of anti-woman discrimination, a critique with which she seems to sympathize. “The trouble with the movement today lies, rather, in its near abandonment of Wollstonecraft’s original moral vision,” she writes, “one that championed women’s rights so that women, with men, could virtuously fulfill their familial and social duties.” Using Wollstonecraft’s thought as a model vision for equality between men and women, Bachiochi puts her finger on just where things went wrong, arguing that contemporary feminism has failed to advance the equality and rights of women because the movement rejected early feminist thought and began to deny the importance of morality, especially in the realm of sexuality.
According to Wollstonecraft, advancements in female equality and opportunity would require emphasizing growth in virtue, a goal she set for both men and women. Far from decrying sexual ethics as a stumbling block to female happiness, the early feminists believed that virtue in this realm, among others, was the key to achieving true equality between the sexes. Men would rise to the level of what women demanded, they argued, and they urged women and men to pursue integrity and knowledge in service of their social and familial duties.
Bachiochi homes in on this thread, contrasting that focus on virtue with the modern feminist movement’s insistence on sexual license as a precondition for female freedom and fulfillment. Rather than acknowledging the value of self-possession and familial responsibility, today’s women’s rights activists tend to focus primarily on female autonomy and pleasure, relying on abortion in particular to render sex seemingly consequence-free. To hear them describe it, achieving female equality requires enabling women to engage in sexual relationships and walk away from the consequences in the same way that men are able to do.
It’s a theme Bachiochi features often in her other work and extensively throughout the book: Justice requires a social response to the fact of reproductive asymmetry, but it is profoundly anti-woman to address that asymmetry, as progressive feminists do, by treating women’s bodies as if they should function like those of men, which in the end leaves the burden of reproduction solely on women.
Though most feminists today fail either to realize or to acknowledge it, their allegiance to elective abortion makes female equality contingent on treating a woman’s body as if it should operate like that of a man, a view that fails to advance equality and in fact further empowers male predation. As Bachiochi points out, legal abortion makes pregnancy even more of a “female problem” than it otherwise would be. If a pregnant woman chooses to continue carrying her unborn child against the wishes of the child’s father, she is left on her own to deal with the consequences—because, after all, she could’ve chosen abortion.
Feminism and the Sexual Revolution
Bachiochi’s book is well-served by her familiarity with Wollstonecraft, though readers looking for insight into how early feminist thought bears on modern debates will want to focus on the second half of the book. With chapters on Betty Friedan and second-wave feminism, dependence and the market economy, and the legal implications of sexual asymmetry, Bachiochi is at her best, offering readers a compelling look at relevant history and a more robust feminist vision that could aid us today.
A time or two, Bachiochi writes that the cause of women’s rights can succeed only if it is disentangled from “the excesses of the sexual revolution.” I’d quibble with this phrase, only because what Bachiochi herself identifies as the problem is really the raison d’être of that revolution: a commitment to sexual license, undergirded by elective abortion available throughout pregnancy. It is not in its excesses but rather in its very logic that the sexual revolution poisoned the well of female empowerment and equality between the sexes.
To be fair, Bachiochi knows this well. She argues that feminists departed from Wollstonecraft’s moral vision, to their detriment, when they “wholeheartedly embraced abortion as a remedy . . . as the sine qua non of women’s freedom and equality.” The fruits of this failure are evident everywhere in the political agenda and rhetoric of today’s feminist leaders.
Confronted by the fact that so many American women remain unhappy, despite the victories of the second-wave feminists, the cry of the third-wave feminist has been: Give us more! No-fault divorce and a steep rise in extramarital sex haven’t enabled workplace success or satisfying casual sexual experiences? Perhaps, they argue, that’s because our government wasn’t built with female pleasure as its goal. Choosing abortion seems to make plenty of women unhappy? Perhaps that’s because we have yet to erase the social stigma around having an abortion. Easily accessible contraception and abortion on demand haven’t solved the dilemma of female unhappiness? Perhaps that’s because neither is yet fully funded by the government.
In short, second-wave feminists demanded complete sexual autonomy and, despite receiving what they asked for, found several decades later that their success had not increased female fulfillment. In demanding an end to traditional, lifelong marriage bonds and the creation of a political regime that empowers women to enter and exit sexual relationships in the same way as men—destroying the consequences with the help of abortion—feminists have created a situation that requires dissatisfied women to turn to the government for support. Rather than question the premise of sexual autonomy as true freedom, the modern women’s movement holds on to the misguided hope that some mix of new and better government programs will solve women’s problems.
Into this sad state of affairs, Bachiochi injects some much-needed sense and inspiration. “We are now told that freedom and equality ought to include that act that tears at the first bond of human affection, between a mother and her unborn child,” she writes in her introduction, a moving summation of the clarity she offers throughout. How can we expect women to flourish when our society embraces the lie that female equality requires pitting the pregnant mother against her vulnerable child?
With this book, Bachiochi has presented a compelling counterargument to the prevailing narrative, depicting a notion of female equality and happiness that embraces a woman’s capacity for childbearing, encouraging sexual virtue and strong marriages as an antidote to the inequalities and injustices that abortion can never hope to solve.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.