The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
by Erika Bachiochi.
Notre Dame Press, 2021.
Paperback, 422 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Nicole M. King

In 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, some half a million women descended upon Washington for the now infamous “Women’s March.” The women gathered to protest the incoming President’s presumed views on race, gender, LGBTQ rights, immigration, healthcare, and the list goes on. But the most glaring issue of the day—the one depicted on the majority of the handheld cardboard signs, and also in the pink “pussy hat” that many of the women wore—was so-called reproductive rights. The slogans on the signs were varied in their messaging and vulgarity, but the theme was the same: “Hands off my body!” “My body, my rights!” “Bans off my body.” “Protect safe, legal abortion.”

In the introduction to The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Ethics and Public Policy Center Fellow Erika Bachiochi contrasts these self-proclaimed “nasty women” to those of an earlier march. In March 1913, on the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, thousands of female marchers descended upon Washington to demand women’s suffrage. At one point during the parade, costumed actors represented Charity, Liberty, Justice, Peace, and Hope. The parade program called these “ideals toward which both men and women have been struggling through the ages and toward which, in co-operation and equality, they will continue to strive.” These suffragettes wanted the vote, but only toward a particular end. They believed that by achieving the vote, they would be better positioned to advocate for virtue in both the domestic and national sphere. They would be better able to access education, hold property rights, and maintain a position of equal standing and importance in their marriages—and thus be better positioned to raise their children and encourage a virtuous society. These women didn’t seek the “right” to do whatever they wanted; they sought the right to make their corners of the world better.

“Certainly much has been gained for women’s rights in the last century,” continues Bachiochi, “but something essential has been lost. It’s worth pondering what that something is, and whether it is worth recovering today.” In The Rights of Women, Bachiochi takes her readers on a thorough and scholarly examination of leading feminist thought as it developed through the past 200-plus years, through the lens of early feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. The thesis of her book is that of Wollstonecraft’s “moral vision,” that rights emanate from duties and exist so that mankind might better pursue virtue. The singular focus of the modern women’s rights movement on abortion does a great disservice to women themselves, and is an aberration from the arguments of the earliest feminists.

Bachiochi begins by outlining the work of Wollstonecraft herself. Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 in London to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft. She was the second of seven children, and although her life was comfortable enough to begin, her father eventually squandered the family’s income and became abusive. She struck on out her own at the age of 19, and began to write, work, and manage her own affairs. “When she wrote the Rights of Women,” Bachiochi explains, “Wollstonecraft was a thirty-two-year-old virgin theorist who had yet to encounter the embrace of a man whom she loved.” Indeed, one wonders if and how her most important work would have differed had she experienced that embrace, for a short time later she became the mistress of American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, who eventually impregnated and then abandoned her in France amid the Revolution while he returned to other ventures (and other women) in America. By all accounts Wollstonecraft became depressed and desperate, though she continued to write.

Her second major relationship was with the anarchist William Godwin in England. The two married after Wollstonecraft became pregnant with their daughter (the renowned novelist Mary Shelley); their relationship appears to have been happy, though brief. Mary Wollstonecraft died of infection mere days after delivering her second child. A grief-struck Godwin, thinking it his duty to memorialize his wife, published his Memoir shortly after her death. The book was an unfortunately detailed (in Bachiochi’s view) and not always accurate depiction of Wollstonecraft’s life, including her supposed love affairs and suicide attempts. For the next 200 years, Wollstonecraft’s philosophical views failed to overcome the scandal of her personal life, and only recently has her impact upon modern feminist thought been fully studied and appreciated.

But Bachiochi spends relatively little time on the details of Wollstonecraft’s personal life; her focus is the author’s thought. Wollstonecraft’s most important work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, “is scarcely about rights at all,” writes Bachiochi, but rather,

Wollstonecraft’s political argument … was most centrally concerned with the advance of intellectual and moral virtue, an advance [she] believed would be enabled by a universal share in liberty and equality among all men and women. “Unless virtue be nursed by liberty, it will never attain due strength,” she writes in The Rights of Woman. Human beings’ progress in virtue—not their attainment of property, wealth, or status—would guarantee personal, familiar, and societal happiness.

The duty of each individual was to “use one’s own reason to submit to the ‘unerring reason’ of God.” Reason existed to direct mankind to virtue. Freedom without reason, without virtue, was slavery. Without reason, mankind’s baser instincts would tear down society. Wollstonecraft pointed to Rousseau as the author of a “gendered theory of virtue.” Man was to pursue virtue, woman was to feel, and together, they made up a perfect whole. Wollstonecraft countered that women, too, were created to pursue intellectual and moral excellence. Denying women the ability to pursue excellence was to render them weak and servile, and thus to disable the whole race of mankind.

Yet, in sharp distinction to Betty Friedan and some more modern feminist thinkers, Wollstonecraft did not argue that women seek personal satisfaction or career advancement above all else. Rather, both women and men develop their capacities to reason and grow in virtue first and foremost by fulfilling the particular duties associated with their station in life. “For married women with children,” she writes, “motherhood ranked first.” Wollstonecraft didn’t seek to limit women to their roles as mothers; but she did emphasize that it was the most important role. The thing that differed her markedly from others, however, is that she emphasized the same was true for fathers. Their most important duty was the upbringing of their children. In other words, caretaking was the most important duty for mothers and fathers alike. The family must come first.

In the pre-Industrial Revolution world, such a focus on caretaking was more natural. Bachiochi spends one chapter on the early American agrarian home, emphasizing the supreme role that caretaking took for both men and women. Married women may have been legally subordinate to their husbands, but the distinction hardly mattered. The “productivity of the homestead involved a common and collaborative family enterprise, with little leisure to discuss the propriety of gender roles or marital rights. Necessity reigned supreme.” The family was a deeply interconnected and independent unit, and the importance women played in everyday functioning was simply an undebatable fact. The Founders based their government upon this model of an independent family.

A more abstract, individualistic, Lockean view of rights sprang up in tandem with the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in human history, men and women left the homes, in droves, to serve other men (yes, men) in the pursuit of money (itself an abstraction). From this new development came the necessity of discussing labor laws, and the innate biological differences, the “inherent asymmetry,” between men’s and women’s bodies when it comes to childbirth and caretaking. Was women’s capacity for motherhood something more akin to a disability, which kept her from work? Should it be protected as such? What happened when the children were small? What should happen?

Indeed, it is that very capacity for childbirth that eventually became (and still is) the root of the problem in a modern understanding of women’s rights, as Bachiochi rightly points out. The modern market economy is simply not favorable to motherhood, which takes a woman away from work for some months or years, alters her physically in such a way that may make her usual work more difficult or even impossible (as during pregnancy), and may distract her mind from her market duties. Indeed, capitalism, as currently practiced, doesn’t really have a place for caretaking.

The Wollstonecraftian solution to the inherent asymmetry between men’s and women’s bodies was for both women and men to practice chastity, periodic abstinence for the sake of child spacing. Only through this practice might both men’s and women’s bodies and rights be respected, as well as the potential for new life and the sanctity of the family. The modern feminist solution, of course, is abortion. This would seem odd—indeed tragic—to early feminist thinkers, who fiercely opposed abortion and even contraception as injurious to both sexes. So how did abortion come to be the one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of male and female asymmetry? Bachiochi spends a large portion of her book tracing exactly this development, from the anti-abortion sentiments of Mary Wollstonecraft, through the suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to the “second wave” feminists like Betty Friedan, and finally to the wildly pro-abortion second woman on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As Bachiochi summarizes,

In the Sanger-Friedan vision, women could now subject their reproductive capacity (and, if that didn’t work, their developing unborn child) to external techno-pharmacological control.… If (private) women were going to assume all the responsibilities of (public) men, their shared parental responsibility for children would be assumed once again by women alone, but now in the most private—and desperate—of acts. Thus was announced the new answer to the perennial question of how to respond to men’s and women’s reproductive asymmetry.

The new solution, in other words, was to make women’s bodies like men’s, and dispose of the child’s body altogether. A more anti-woman solution cannot be imagined, but somehow the modern feminist movement cannot (or will not) see the matter this way.

The results of this catastrophic shift cannot be overestimated. Women are now left, as Bachiochi summarizes, “alone with their choices.” Men have been entirely freed of the consequences of their actions. And children have been reduced to commodities, welcome when they are “wanted” and discarded when not. (And increasingly, frightening and unnatural sci-fi-esque solutions are on the table as well, in the form of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, three-person created babies, transplanted uteruses, and freezers full of permanently in limbo human embryos whose parents decided not to implant them.) Our national morality, and the state of our discourse, has also suffered. Women are praised for acting like men, having sex as often as men, climbing the corporate ladder at a similar pace, and so on. Our groundbreaking advances in female education, it seems, have come at the dear cost of discarding characteristics and duties that have historically been regarded as distinctly female. As Bachiochi writes, “Taken to their limit as the freedom of the autonomous will, or the mere power to choose, abstract rights tend to eat away at the very conditions that make their exercise worthwhile—and humane.”

Bachiochi does not end here, but rather points a way forward. She proposes to reimagine a feminism that exists “in pursuit of human excellence,” like that of Mary Wollstonecraft, and points out that the family is the place where the traditional virtues and freedoms have been taught and defended. She calls on employers to ensure workplace flexibility for both men and women alike, and on governments to protect parents in their role as employees and place adequate value on their work in the home. Specific policies she endorses are a more generous child tax credit or an even more generous European-style allowance. (She praises the Hungarians here for their pro-natalist and pro-family policies.) She also advocates for caregiver retraining programs, which would operate under the assumption that the skills inherent to caregiving are widely useful and transferable. Finally, she advocates for the strengthening of programs that support families in their crucial tasks, such as schools, which serve both to educate children (theoretically toward responsible living and civic engagement) and also to bring together a whole community of parents.

In other words, she calls for a more humane capitalism. Is it possible? In some ways, it seems doubtful. A capitalistic market is inherently focused on what makes the most money, what produces the highest yield. And yet, if recent events surrounding the pandemic are any indication, Bachiochi may be on to something. For the first time, many mothers and fathers found themselves working from home, and supervising their children’s education to a much higher degree. And many found, to their surprise, that they liked it. Only a minority of Americans still report the desire to return to the workplace full time, while most instead prefer the closeness to their families and increased control over their personal lives. Workplace flexibility is on the rise, as is homeschooling. The people that make up the market are longing for something different.

Let us hope that Bachiochi’s vision is realizable, for it would certainly be the beginning of a more humane world, for both sexes.  

Nicole M. King is managing editor of The Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy, and hails from Rockford, Illinois.