- Bachiochi calls on feminists to disentangle the sexual revolution from the movement for women’s rights, to reclaim their suspicion of market logic, and to unabashedly prioritize the family in both law and culture. Tweet This
- Bachiochi’s proposition to prioritize the family is unmistakably radical, considering the degree to which the U.S. gives precedence to economic interests and efficiency, and the little ground that public and private powers are willing to cede to the family. Tweet This
- The book’s recounting of the lives and intellectual contributions of Ginsburg and Glendon is among its signal contributions. Tweet This
In her new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Erika Bachiochi proposes that there is a way forward to harmonize marriage, parenting, and the social and economic equality of women—both within the home and in the marketplace. This harmonizing would also serve the needs and flourishing of children, men, and society. Its elements are traced in the work of an 18th century English philosopher, author, and educator—Mary Wollstonecraft—and in the writings of a law professor living in our own time—Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law Emerita at Harvard Law School.
Bachiochi’s proposal will appeal especially to the many women and men who repeatedly tell pollsters how much they want employment policies that respect prior family commitments. Still, this does not guarantee its adoption anytime soon. Bachiochi’s proposition to prioritize the family is unmistakably radical, considering the degree to which the United States gives precedence to economic interests and efficiency, and the little ground that public and private powers are willing to cede to the family. Furthermore, Americans tend to view marriage and parenting choices through the lens of individual autonomy—not as a part of the common good—even as they enjoy and depend upon family life.
Still, Bachiochi’s book is an important and necessary contribution to legal, feminist, and family scholarship. It helps readers overcome “the fallacy of the present”—the notion that a current situation is all there is and all that’s possible—and to grasp instead that there is a feminism worthy of the name that can demand equal rights for women, but simultaneously embrace men, marriage, and children, while resisting both brutal market logic and an overly solipsistic notion of freedom.
The elements of this form of feminism, Bachiochi shows, are present in the prolific writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, in particular through her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Later feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many others developed and debated Wollstonecraft’s leading themes. Even today, many of the leading questions and fault lines within feminism are the product of ongoing disputes about ideas that Wollstonecraft championed.
Mary Wollstonecraft lived in the latter years of the 18th century. As Bachiochi notes, her contributions to the question of women’s rights and the well-being of children and families are often overshadowed by her tragic personal story. But while her life was far from conventional, her contributions are not only historically important and robustly pro-family, but also highly relevant to contemporary dilemmas.
Wollstonecraft proposed what might be called a classical version of human rights: rights as necessary to capacitate human beings to fulfill their duties. She urged that because women, like men, are rational creatures made to know and love God and one another, and to grow in virtue and wisdom, both sexes require education in order to accomplish their purpose. Freedom, for both sexes, is for excellence, not simply a matter of achieving individual autonomy.
As Bachiochi points out, Wollstonecraft plainly ranked parenting—for both women and men—as the top priority, even as she insisted that women belong also in society. Like other feminists of her day, she traced a great deal of individual, familial, and social distress to men’s unchastity. She exhorted husbands and wives to collaborate closely in the work of parenting. Wollstonecraft did not draw a bright line between the family and the social, political, and economic milieux, but contended that political freedom depended on the wisdom and virtue cultivated within families.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, some women’s rights leaders carried forward some of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, while others moved in a different direction. Their quarrels are familiar to us today. Is it more beneficial if law and business acknowledge women’s differences and accommodate or protect women, or should men and women be treated identically? Is work in the home valuable or only wage-labor? Is the market more important than the family, or should it serve the family? Should women’s different roles in pregnancy and parenting be handled by calling men to their parental responsibilities, or offering women the means to avoid children? Is freedom compatible with caring for others, or is it all about autonomy and choice?
According to Bachiochi, later 20th century feminism began with a “thin but decent reprisal” of Wollstonecraft’s vision, but then moved toward the patterns we witness today. Bachiochi associates this shift with feminism’s growing disregard for women’s domestic labors, and its embrace of legal abortion. She characterizes these moves as a reversal of prior feminist commitments to nonviolence, equality of persons, chastity (for both sexes) and family life, and a short-circuiting of the debate about how to harmonize women’s private and public roles. She charges this form of feminism with fostering discrimination against mothers and failing to call men to their responsibilities. Ultimately, she claims, it embraced a notion of freedom associated with the male—freedom “from” domestic and child care responsibilities, in favor of work outside the home. Bachiochi writes that this is the model of feminism embraced by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but resisted by Professor Mary Ann Glendon in favor of a Wollstonecraftian position.
The Rights of Women helps readers overcome “the fallacy of the present”...and to grasp instead that there is a feminism worthy of the name that can demand equal rights for women, but simultaneously embrace men, marriage, and children, while resisting both brutal market logic, and an overly solipsistic notion of freedom.
The book’s recounting of the lives and intellectual contributions of Ginsburg and Glendon is among its signal contributions. Many are familiar with Ginsburg’s legal achievements for women’s rights, and even with her successful, collaborative marriage. She appeared to live Wollstonecraft’s dream of spousal friendship, and mutually supportive parenting, like many academically and financially privileged women of our time.
Fewer are likely familiar with Glendon’s accomplishments, including her remarkable comparative and family law scholarship, and her early work in civil rights. While she eventually enjoyed the spousal support Wollstonecraft championed, it was her experience of single-parenting that ignited her sensitivity to the needs of mothers and their children, and her astute observations about the insensitivity of the state and the market. While Bachiochi ultimately concludes that it is Glendon not Ginsburg who preserves and updates Wollstonecraft’s feminism, her book is noticeably even-handed in its treatment of both women—as is her coverage of Betty Friedan earlier in the book. There is open admiration for what each woman accomplished toward eradicating harmful stereotypes and discrimination respecting women.
Bachiochi is critical, however, of Ginsburg’s libertarian turn. She writes that during her time on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg fully embraced a social contract vision in which only self-interested, autonomous individuals are sufficiently free to determine their life course and enjoy equal citizenship. Thus, Ginsburg’s fervent support for legal abortion as a means to achieve autonomy from the reproductive consequences of sexual intercourse, and from the demands of caregiving.
Bachiochi characterizes Glendon’s vision, on the other hand, as dignitarian and communitarian. Like Wollstonecraft, Glendon accepted human interdependence as a fact of life, and urged public and private actors to frankly acknowledge the gift and the burdens of childrearing, while reconciling these with women’s work outside the home, and calling men to their shared duties. Glendon repeatedly warned that the United States possessed no coherent, family-supporting policy, and took for granted at its peril that virtuous and stable families and self-governing small communities would continue to support its peace and prosperity. Unlike Ginsburg, Glendon viewed abortion as society’s abandonment of women, leaving especially the poorest women without sufficient familial or social support.
Ultimately, Bachiochi calls on feminists to disentangle the sexual revolution from the movement for women’s rights, to reclaim their suspicion of market logic, and to unabashedly prioritize the family in both law and culture. She also revives Wollstonecraft’s call for male chastity and husband-wife collaboration at home. Her final recommendations logically follow this vision. Some are already part of the national discussion: paid family leave, flexible work arrangements, and child tax credits. Others—including a cultural shift toward viewing parenthood as a service to the country on a par with military service, more significant tax and social security incentives and benefits, family impact assessments, support for chastity, and making schools more family-supportive—are more ambitious. Many public institutions remain tied up in knots over questions about “what is a family” and whether marriage and family-life are woman-friendly. Unbounded sexual choice is currently lionized.
Still, Bachiochi’s book touches a nerve and pushes forward the conversations about “what women want,” and what children, families, and society need. Women’s mental and even spiritual struggles with work-family conflict are particularly profound. The struggle goes on in every household with children, as mothers and fathers work to harmonize time, love, and money. These struggles are dramatically underserved by current law and labor practices. Bachiochi’s proposals and her “reclaiming a lost vision” of women’s rights are capable of stirring the pot. They might even bring back into the movement calling itself “feminism” those women who have previously turned their back on it because of its association with individualism, consumerism, abortion, and suspicion of men. Its swelled ranks will be necessary to advance ideas and projects of the scope Bachiochi describes.
Helen Alvare’ is a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law and the author of Putting Children’s Interests First in U.S. Family Law and Policy: With Power Comes Responsibility.