Erika BachiochiOct 12, 2021
The Rights of Women
Reclaiming a Lost Vision
Notre Dame University Press 2021
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was one of the most important moral philosophers and political theorists ever. Her writings on liberty and equality have been embraced by thinkers both in her own day and since her early death. Lionized by feminists and demonized by others as dangerous and a loose woman to boot, Wollstonecraft produced a small but powerful, persuasive corpus.
But a major aspect of Wollstonecraft’s thought is far less well known—perhaps because it is not about what we all want and assume is our due. True, she was interested in rights. But in her 2021 book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Notre Dame UP, 2021), Erika Bachiochi shows that Wollstonecraft wrote extensively about duties and responsibilities.
Further, unlike advocates of free love in later centuries or the champions of the Sexual Revolution, Wollstonecraft, living as she did in a period when rakes abounded and women died often in childbirth, wrote about chastity and the need for men to behave responsibly and become faithful husbands and loving fathers. Bachiochi expands our understanding of Wollstonecraft and makes her a far more complex thinker than the one-dimensional woman portrayed in feminist lore.
Importantly, this book is not only about Wollstonecraft. It also traces how feminism lost touch with the needs of mothers as it became centered on providing as much access to abortion as possible and to equality in the workplace at the expense of a more holistic view of the needs of women of many stripes.
Bachiochi makes a convincing case that the relentless focus of influential figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg on abortion “rights” and advancing the interests of mostly professional women ended up privileging men (and, increasingly, corporations, who prefer workers unencumbered by families) in that abortion and contraception freed men of any need to refrain from irresponsible sexual conduct.
Every feminist—every person, really, should read this book because it contrasts the neglected moral vision of Wollstonecraft with the morally compromising Ginsburgian position of predicating the equality of women upon unfettered access to abortion. Bachiochi shows that many women’s rights activists and theoreticians up until very recent decades opposed both contraception and abortion on the grounds that both ultimately ended up devaluing the role of women as mothers and caregivers generally and made becoming pregnant seem careless and not something to be celebrated.
A major strength of Bachiochi’s book is her examination of the work of the legal scholar and human rights expert, Mary Ann Glendon. Glendon has magisterially documented how Ginsburg and her compatriots stripped feminism of its previous foci on the ethic of caregiving and the value to society of hearth and home. Glendon points out that much of modern feminism has left women with rights but little else in terms of practical or moral support if they happen to be poor or not, say, Supreme Court justices.
Bachiochi concludes her book with policy prescriptions for a feminism that is more humane and more representative of the needs of all women and not solely career-obsessed ones. Moreover, the book is not just about women but, in the vein of Wollstonecraft herself, about how men and women can work in whatever sphere to create a society where all can flourish and, another important consideration for Wollstonecraft, excel intellectually and morally.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.