Reclaiming Authentic Feminism: How the Culture Can Foster True Equality

BOOK PICK: Erika Bachiochi’s work is a call to reimagine feminism. What if men and women pursued equality, not as self-destructive license, but as freedom for the sake of human excellence?

‘The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision’ issues a clarion call.
‘The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision’ issues a clarion call. (photo: University of Notre Dame Press)


Reclaiming a Lost Vision

By Erika Bachiochi

University of Notre Dame Press, 2021

422 pages, $35

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In The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Erika Bachiochi issues a ringing call to correct the course of modern feminism, which has for decades pursued a philosophical, legal and moral suicide mission. Through the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Bachiochi proposes a dynamic way forward for rebuilding the women’s movement.

Feminism, in order to combat an increasingly anti-woman social climate, must first rediscover its origins in the communitarian philosophical tradition. To that end, Bachiochi goes back to the beginnings of modernity to recover the foundations of modern feminism. Beginning “with Mary Wollstonecraft’s moral, familial, and political vision” and “culminating in the landmark sex-discrimination legislation and high court rulings of the 1970s,” she presents an intellectual history of the feminist movement. 


Equal in Dignity

For Wollstonecraft, whose writings influenced each of the first-wave feminists, there was no doubt that women shared with men a human intellect and will. “For Wollstonecraft, women’s capacity to reason, and thus to pursue reason to its proper ends, namely, virtue (imitation of divine perfection) and wisdom (imitation of divine reason), was the very foundation for women’s just claims to political freedom and equality.” Distinctive to Wollstonecraft among her contemporaries, however, was her stress on “the importance of equal civil and political rights for men and women in private and public life.” For society to flourish, men must accept their responsibility in the domestic sphere, while women must not abandon the public square.

Therefore, Wollstonecraft called on both men and women to pursue wisdom and virtue, without which there is no true freedom. Intellectual and moral virtues are best pursued in the intimate social structure of the family, which is equally dependent on the cheerful fulfillment of duties of both a father and mother. Bachiochi contends that Wollstonecraft’s thought is equally necessary for the renewal of contemporary American society: “A recovery of Wollstonecraft’s thought today can reclaim the view, shared by Tocqueville too, that the cultivation of virtue within the life of the home serves as an essential precondition for liberty and republican government.”

In the 180 years following Wollstonecraft, feminist efforts “not only acknowledged and celebrated embodied sexual differences and the responsibilities they entailed, but also argued that these ought not to disparage women’s distinctive contributions or confine women to maternity alone.” Throughout the first seven chapters, Bachiochi presents ample and detailed evidence of the virtue-based political philosophy of the early feminists as well as their success in the public square.

In 1850, for example, representatives at the First National Women’s Rights Convention called for equal property rights for husbands and wives who, they argued, depend equally on each other in safeguarding the goods of the home. “Just as homebound wives were economically dependent on their husbands to bring home the new currency, wage-earning husbands were economically dependent on their wives to maintain and grow the family household. Husband and wife still built up their family assets together. … The resolution passed precisely because it reflected the reality of the radical interdependence of the spousal relationship.” 

First-wave feminists believed that changes to the law should not abrogate reality, but, rather, reform the law to better reflect the reality that both men and women, in their sexual asymmetry, contribute to the total flourishing of the family and society. Early feminists rejected the idea that women are only equal when they are at liberty to conform themselves to a man’s world. Rather, women are equal when both men and women acknowledge and enshrine in the law their deep gratitude and need for one another.


Succumbing to the Sexual Revolution

In the “second wave” of the women’s movement, however, beginning with Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, the conflation of equality with equal pay began to suffocate the original philosophical underpinnings of the women’s movement. “This move, where modern feminism joins market forces to subordinate the family to the workplace — unintended perhaps by Friedan but accomplished nonetheless — sets second-wave feminism on the wrong rail from the start.”

In spite of this deformity, second-wave feminism did enjoy certain successes in its “quest for equal citizenship status.” Great strides were made between the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the landmark United States v. Virginia (1966) Supreme Court case, in which Ruth Bader Ginsberg articulated “her signature anti-sex stereotyping rationale” in the majority opinion. “Generalizations,” she wrote, “about the way women are, estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” 

But cases that focus on women as citizens, Bachiochi notes, are “the easy cases.” Enlisting the aid of Mary Ann Glendon, Bachiochi then turns to “the far more difficult legal task of treating women and men equally under the law while giving due accord to their biological and reproductive differences.” As the courts upheld women’s rights as citizens, the sexual revolution and population-control movement were dismantling women’s role as mothers. Indeed, Ginsberg herself, “as both the rightly celebrated protagonist of the Supreme Court’s sex-discrimination jurisprudence of the 1970s and then … the Court’s fiercest defender of abortion rights,” personifies in many ways a feminism that ultimately failed to “give due accord” to sexual differences between men and women. 

Far from celebrating the unique role women play in society, second-wave feminism created a world in which women must accommodate their bodies to “fit the ideal unencumbered (male) worker.” Betty Friedan’s and Margaret Sanger’s combined vision encouraged women to “subject their reproductive capacity (and, if that didn’t work, their developing unborn child) to external techno-pharmacological control, not only to cabin dreaded population growth and to enjoy the new sexual expression trumpeted in the latest women’s magazines, but also to find their place in the male-dominated workforce. 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.”


Authentic Feminism

In her final chapters, Bachiochi articulates a positive vision for women and men today. Inspired by Wollstonecraft but in direct response to the failures of second-wave feminism, this vision combats “negative cultural messages about dependency and caregiving” that places “the self at the center of our moral universe.” Authentic feminism, she posits, seeks a freedom to pursue human excellence that “makes for a flourishing life.”

Bachiochi concludes with a riveting discussion of the connection between authentic freedom and reproductive justice. “An authentic reproductive justice … would not only ask expectant mothers, in ordinary circumstances, to offer their developing unborn children due care. For pregnant and childbearing mothers to receive in justice the abundant care and support they need, fathers must take up their shared duties of care toward both mother and child too.”

Bachiochi’s work is a call to reimagine feminism. What if men and women pursued equality, not as self-destructive license, but as freedom for the sake of human excellence? How would such a philosophical shift alter societal support for “the duties of care of mothers and fathers in the family, upon which every other public good rests”? 

The Rights of Women is an essential addition to the libraries of serious scholars of political science, women’s rights and duties, and the history of philosophy. It is also a challenging and important read for Catholic families, parents and college students seeking a way to promote the equal dignity and complementarity of men and women.