This New Book Clarifies Today’s Muddled View of What It Means to Be a Woman

Legal scholar Erika Bachiochi’s recent book takes a deep dive into feminist thought in America.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, “Portrait of a Woman” (detail), ca. 1787
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, “Portrait of a Woman” (detail), ca. 1787 (photo: Public Domain)

My eldest daughter turned 14 in July. Since her five older siblings are all boys, I’m seeing the transformation of a daughter from a girl into a young woman for the first time. With so much confusion in our culture about what it means to be a woman, I am petrified. 

Awkwardly I explain the physical changes she is experiencing. Impatiently I observe the emotional rollercoaster she is riding. I lean on the Church, particularly St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, to help me answer tough questions about human sexuality. 

Any discussion I, as a Catholic, have on womanhood also includes the example of the Virgin Mary. In his Marian masterpiece, True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis de Montfort highlights 10 of the most important virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are: deep humility, lively faith, complete obedience, unceasing prayer, constant self-denial, surpassing purity, ardent love, heroic patience, angelic kindness and heavenly wisdom. 

So far, so good.

In four short years, my daughter will be 18. She will be considered an adult in just about all activities, so far as the law is concerned. The legal system will allow her to make her own decisions and protect her from unlawful discrimination. These hard-won freedoms are the fruit of the passionate advocacy of many American feminists who pushed for the recognition of women’s rights. 

I’m frustrated that “women’s rights” today has become code for “reproductive rights,” which is code for unfettered access to and universal acceptance of abortion. How to explain to my daughter that such license has nothing to do with authentic civil liberty for women?

Enter Erika Bachiochi. 

Bachiochi, a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a brilliant legal scholar. Her recent book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, takes a deep dive into feminist thought in America. She gives a gracious nod to feminist icons such as Betty Friedan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for helping end educational and workplace discrimination. And she argues that their entanglement with today’s cult of abortion was a sad departure from a more noble vision of women’s rights. 

By contrast, two other Marys offer a moral, familial and political vision of women’s rights that is desperately needed today. The first is Mary Wollstonecraft, an English philosopher who died at the age of 38 in 1797 shortly after giving birth to her daughter Mary (who as Mary Shelley grew up to write the novel Frankenstein). Wollstonecraft, writes Bachiochi, promoted a moral philosophy that “political freedom and legal equality were not ends in themselves but necessary means to higher human ends: the common pursuit of intellectual and moral excellence.” 

In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft asserted that authentic liberty requires self-mastery and flourishes in relationships of solidarity, mutual respect, trust and collaboration. She was convinced that rights should be grounded in prior duties to God, to family, to self, and to others. In short, as she put it “society can only be happy and free in proportion as it is virtuous.”

The second Mary is Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law emerita at Harvard University, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and later president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the most influential woman in the Vatican. Glendon specializes in the foundations of law and human rights; she is hugely admired and, as Bachiochi points out, an important voice in rescuing today’s women’s movement from the errors of “freedom as its own end.” 

Glendon adds to Wollstonecraft important insights on women’s rights, showing that for the full flourishing and collaboration of women and men, certain cultural preconditions are needed. Parents and the communities that support the family, in particular, must nurture the virtues of sexual integrity, faithful marriage and devoted parenting. And unlike today’s feminist majority, Glendon’s dignitarian feminism does not endorse abortion. 

This term the Supreme Court is set to take another look at its abortion jurisprudence. Scholars like Bachiochi have filed an amicus brief with the court explaining that easy access to abortion has not rendered women freer or more equal. Instead, as she explains in The Rights of Women, “it has distorted the shared responsibilities that adhere in male-female sexual relationships, promoted a view of childbearing as one consumer choice among many, and has greatly contributed to the dim view of caregiving ever since.” 

Whether the Court overrules Roe and its progeny or significantly pulls back on its off-the-rails abortion jurisprudence, one thing is clear: Young women today have the tools to reclaim a lost vision of the rights of women. Society desperately needs this to happen.

Along with the maternal accompaniment of Our Lady, the Wollstonecraft-Glendon understanding of women’s rights — a truly ennobling and liberating and liberating moral vision — reimagines feminism, and Bachiochi’s book brilliantly explains how that understanding evolved. This reimagining is a wonderful resource for my eldest daughter and her three younger sisters as they come of age. And it’s a lesson that I plan on sharing with my six sons, as well.

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