Erika Bachiochi is a legal scholar specializing in Equal Protection jurisprudence, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching, and sexual ethics. She speaks widely on abortion, sexual economics, the impact of the new sexual norms on women and the poor, care ethics, and authentic reproductive justice. She recently took the time to talk with us about her eagerly anticipated book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (July 2021). The book is part of the Catholic Ideas for a Secular World series.
When did you first get the idea to write The Rights of Women?
After I’d written an article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy on the ubiquity of equality arguments for abortion rights in academic legal literature, I thought it would be really interesting to explore the rights theories that animated different conceptions of women’s constitutional equality.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
The initial idea was to compare the competing feminisms of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon. But as I read and reread the earliest arguments for women’s rights (having first encountered them as a women’s studies student twenty-five years ago), I began to see a thread emerge from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman up through our country’s early women’s rights advocates to someone like Glendon. And on the other side, the line seemed clearly to stretch from John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women, up through the 1970s feminists, to Ginsburg. And so the book developed significantly from there.
What did you learn while writing it?
It was most fascinating to enter into the burgeoning new world of secondary literature concerning the moral and political thought of Mary Wollstonecraft. There certainly are internal debates about her thought but the overall theme—with which I most heartily agree—is that she has much to teach us now, more than two hundred years later.
What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them today?
The feminist and sexual revolutions of the 1970s have reshaped Western society in fundamental ways, transforming how most of us live, love, and work today. A political commentator might say that political fault lines have emerged in our country depending on what one thinks of these revolutions a half century ago. This is the “culture war.” But I think the story is actually far more complicated.
Recovering the intellectual history of the cause of women’s rights—from the late eighteenth century onward—can help us discern where authentic advances have been made for women (and men and children too), and where course corrections are most urgently needed.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
Mary Ann Glendon has been, bar none, the single greatest influence on my work. I’d also want to mention college professors Paul Nelson and Murray Dry, as well as Fr. Ernest Fortin from my time in graduate school at Boston College. The Catholic social tradition—first mediated through Glendon but then more directly—has also had a profound impact on my thought.
On a personal level, there are far too many influences to name, especially given my rather difficult childhood. Suffice it to say, I was loved back to emotional and spiritual health by many. But I suppose it is my children who have had the deepest influence on me. One by one they’ve grown my heart and opened me to graces I never could have imagined.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?
The advice I was given early on was just right so I’ll pass it along: think of each chapter as an article unto itself. This keeps one from getting overwhelmed by the size of the project as a whole, and keeps one focused on the task at hand: this chapter. Outlining in detail was also enormously helpful for me. It enabled me to think all the way through each argument I was making to be sure it would “write,” as we lawyers say.
Who would you like to read The Rights of Women and why?
I think the book will interest those curious about women’s history and women’s rights. But I also hope it is read by those who care more generally about the future of our country and the real imperative we have today to encourage and support the culturally-essential work of caregiving in the home.