The Rights of Women
Reclaiming a Lost Vision
422 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 21 b&w illustrations
- Published: July 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200824
- Published: July 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200817
- Published: July 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200800
- ISI Conservative Book of the Year Finalist
- Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award: Women's Studies, Silver Medal
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: Marriage & Family Living, Third Place
Erika Bachiochi offers an original look at the development of feminism in the United States, advancing a vision of rights that rests upon our responsibilities to others.
In The Rights of Women, Erika Bachiochi explores the development of feminist thought in the United States. Inspired by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Bachiochi presents the intellectual history of a lost vision of women’s rights, seamlessly weaving philosophical insight, biographical portraits, and constitutional law to showcase the once predominant view that our rights properly rest upon our concrete responsibilities to God, self, family, and community.
Bachiochi proposes a philosophical and legal framework for rights that builds on the communitarian tradition of feminist thought as seen in the work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Jean Bethke Elshtain. Drawing on the insight of prominent figures such as Sarah Grimké, Frances Willard, Florence Kelley, Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Mary Ann Glendon, this book is unique in its treatment of the moral roots of women’s rights in America and its critique of the movement’s current trajectory. The Rights of Women provides a synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern political insight that locates the family’s vital work at the very center of personal and political self-government. Bachiochi demonstrates that when rights are properly understood as a civil and political apparatus born of the natural duties we owe to one another, they make more visible our personal responsibilities and more viable our common life together.
This smart and sophisticated application of Wollstonecraft’s thought will serve as a guide for how we might better value the culturally essential work of the home and thereby promote authentic personal and political freedom. The Rights of Women will interest students and scholars of political theory, gender and women’s studies, constitutional law, and all readers interested in women’s rights.
1. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Moral Vision
2. Men, Marriage, Law, and Government
3. The Young Republic and the Unequal Virtues of the Agrarian Home
4. Women’s Suffrage, Rational Souls, Sexed Bodies, And the Ties that Bind
5. The Industrial Revolution and the Debate Between Abstract Rights and Concrete Duties
6. The “Feminine Mystique” and Human Work
7. Sex Role Stereotypes and the Successful Quest for Equal Citizenship Status
8. Caring for Dependency in the Logic of the Market
9. Sexual Asymmetry, American Law, and the Call for a Renewed Family Ecology
10. Reimagining Feminism Today in Search of Human Excellence
"Examining Wollstonecraft’s philosophical writings on sex, sexuality, and motherhood—as a lens through which to view the history of feminism in the United States—Bachiochi argues that between the 19th and 21st centuries, too many American women abandoned Wollstonecraftian ideals of virtue and fairness, replacing them with the self-defeating ideology (and various waves) of progressive feminism." —National Review
"The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision . . . portrays women as increasingly disadvantaged by principles that became prominent in the 20th century's conception of liberty. Rather than merely liberating, [Bachiochi] argues, the industrial and sexual revolutions have disrupted longstanding dynamics that allow the sexes to pursue authentic freedom; that is, the freedom to pursue virtue in familial and social relationships." —FoxNews
“Part history, part legal theory, and part political philosophy, The Rights of Women provides a compelling contribution to feminist dialogue, both applauding the gains and critiquing the missteps made during women’s quest for advancement. . . . Bachiochi offers a judicious analysis of women’s history that informs her refreshing portrait of dignitarian feminism.” —Law & Liberty
"Along with the maternal accompaniment of Our Lady, the Wollstonecraft-Glendon understanding of women’s rights—a truly ennobling and liberating moral vision—reimagines feminism, and Bachiochi’s book brilliantly explains how that understanding evolved." —National Catholic Register
"Bachiochi offers us a cohesive historical lens through which to adopt Wollstonecraft’s program of virtue today, even as we already see it bearing fruit in households that we admire. 'Without that intentional human development properly prioritized in the life of the home,' Bachiochi asserts, 'persons (and markets) [will] do little good outside of it.'" —The Interim
"The purpose of freedom is for human flourishing, not flouting the virtues, as this excellent work so clearly demonstrates." —Catholic Medical Quarterly
"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? " —National Catholic Register
"At the heart of Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision is the assertion that human beings are not defined by autonomy but rather by relations of dependency and obligation." —The Catholic World Report
"Bachiochi takes her readers on a thorough and scholarly examination of leading feminist thought as it developed through the past 200-plus years, through the lens of early feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. . . . Let us hope that Bachiochi’s vision is realizable, for it would certainly be the beginning of a more humane world, for both sexes." —The University Bookman
"In Bachiochi’s book, we see Wollstonecraft’s legacy percolate through the 19th-century American women’s movement—in which the tension between individualism and life in common hums." —UnHerd
"Erika Bachiochi, in her book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, offers a memorial to Wollstonecraft, an effort to reclaim the moral vision of this early feminist for our time. . . . I earnestly commend Bachiochi’s book to a wide audience and to feminists of every stripe." —Marginalia
"Rights of Women doesn’t claim to be a conservative book, but it renews a challenge that cuts to the heart of the conservative movement." —The American Conservative
"Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women is the most impressive anti-abortion book to appear in years." —First Things
"Now and then a book comes along that changes the way one thinks about the world. Erika Bachiochi's The Rights of Women is one of these books." —Modern Age
"Women’s (and men’s) freedom is linked to the response to the question, what are freedoms for? According to Bachiochi’s account, freedoms are rooted neither in the market, nor in power clashes or gender antagonism, but in a heritage that celebrates everyday human flourishing." —Church, Communication, and Culture
Rather, the underlying rationale for women’s rights – for civil and political freedom and equality as such – has shifted profoundly. But this shift has occurred subtly and over time, such that many now falsely assume that an unbroken line can be traced from those who today agitate for women’s rights to those who argued that women had the right to do so in the first place.
This shift can be detected in the changed meanings of words used in the mission statement of the Women’s March: words that have long represented American ideals such as “self-determination,” “liberty,” and “dignity,” even “love” (rendered “charity” in 1913) do not mean today what they signified in prior days. Today, these words connote an indeterminacy that would strike prior generations of women’s rights advocates as bereft of noble purpose, and ultimately, dangerous. Self-determination and liberty – for what end? Dignity – according to what measure? Love – as evident in what kinds of acts? The moral vacuity implicit in the present meanings of these age-old terms is something altogether new.
To be sure, the Woman Suffrage Procession in 1913 was itself not morally impeccable, and the women’s suffragist movement as a whole did not perfectly embody the noble ideals they depicted imaginatively that day. Although key leadership had drawn inspiration for their cause from participation in the abolitionist movement, other leaders wished the parade, and the movement too, to be racially segregated. The nation’s original sin had infected its people deeply, and the cause of women’s civil and political freedom and equality was sadly no exception.
Yet, the parade’s ideals, manifest in both word and dress, spoke a paramount truth to the nation and its leaders, the truth that had prevailed – albeit imperfectly – in the nation’s founding era, and then also among the Congress and ratifying states in the decades following the Civil War. The truth was this: the nation was founded upon and is ever measured by the moral proposition that all human beings are of equal dignity and worth.
The women suffragists had argued, like the black suffragists before them, that by excluding women from full participation in civil and political life, the nation was not living up to its own founding principles. More, the suffragists suggested, in the later years of their campaign especially, that by their engagement in the public realm, women would raise the moral tenor of politics and help a still young nation to embrace more faithfully those principles. The rancorous and occasionally violent reaction to the suffragists’ high-minded procession would prove the suffragists right that day. By 2017, one could no longer be so sure.
While much has been gained for women’s rights in the last century, something essential has been lost. It’s worth pondering what that something is, and whether it is worth recovering today.
Mining the intellectual history of the cause of women’s rights can shed light on how a philosophical and political principle – equal citizenship for women – has morphed into something that nearly contradicts its original moral vision, a vision first fully articulated by British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman more than two centuries ago.
For Wollstonecraft, political freedom and legal equality were not ends in themselves but necessary means to higher human ends: the common human pursuit of intellectual and moral excellence.
The political and civil rights Wollstonecraft claimed for women in the late eighteenth century have been over time and with great struggle steadily secured in modern democracies around the world. In the West, however, the ennobling moral vision upon which she built her rights claims has largely been abandoned.
With the stark moral failures of so many of our political, economic, and cultural leaders, the sexual exploitation of women and children through pornography and sex trafficking, the relentless violence that increasingly targets the most vulnerable human beings, the abject poverty of so many even amid ever-growing wealth, and the materialism and consumerism that works to corrupt the soul of the West, Wollstonecraft’s substantive vision is needed now more than ever.
For Wollstonecraft, women’s capacity to reason, and thus to pursue reason to its proper ends – 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. But not just for women: freedom as such was a necessary means to these higher human ends. It was the forgetfulness of these noble ends – on the part of men especially – that facilitated the subjugation and victimization of women, even in their own homes.
A freedom bereft of wisdom and virtue would reduce men to beasts, Wollstonecraft claimed. And this was especially true in intimate relations between men and women, the fertile well-spring of the domestic affections she recognized as the source of every public virtue. Chastity was then not to be abandoned in the pursuit of equality between the sexes, nor was this virtue specially required of women, as was the convention of the day. Rather, it was men who, in pursuing self-serving indulgence without habitual respect for women or a regard for the noble purposes of sex and the goods of shared domestic life, had too often failed to treat women with the dignity they deserved. Women, for their part, had too often acquiesced, fashioning themselves more pleasing to the eyes than strong in the mind. Indeed, the eighteenth-century philosopher identifies want of chastity in men as the single most consequential offense against women. Wollstonecraft’s radical vision of sexual integrity for both sexes – with a view toward virtuous friendships of mutual trust and collaboration – poses an especially striking challenge to a modern-day women’s movement shaped, since the 1970s, by a very different kind of sexual revolution.