Pro-lifers in Washington for the March for Life had an opportunity to hear Erika Bachiochi speak about her latest book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision published in 2021 by the University of Notre Dame Press. She spoke twice: the evening before the March, together with Christine Emba and Destiny Herndon De La Rosa, on “Reframing Agency: Feminist Perspectives” at the National Press Club, and the day after, on “Dobbs and Competing Visions of Women’s Rights” at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life at Georgetown University.
Most pro-lifers know that, in sharp contrast to the “feminist” movement of the 1960s and 70s, the historical founders of Anglo-American feminism were decisively pro-life, considering abortion a frontal assault on women and their children. Bachiochi has done yeoman’s work in recovering that history, starting with England’s Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 18th century and moving to 19th century Americans like Sarah Grimké, Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Key to Bachiochi’s writing is the concept of “sexual asymmetry,” i.e., while men and women may engage in the same sexual act, women are far more deeply implicated in its outcome and consequences. The contemporary feminist response to that asymmetry is to claim this is why women need abortion. It is one of the postulates the Casey Court invoked when declining to reverse Roe (“The Roe rule’s limitation on state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail”–505 U.S. 833 at 856) and, which Bachiochi cited, was uncritically adopted in the Dobbs dissent. It is the ostensible justification for Fortune 500 companies liberally funding abortions for female employees, though one ought not to be so gauche as to ask whether their solicitude for “choice” is matched by proportionately generous benefits to women who keep their children.
This model presupposes a throwaway culture: the “solution” to the asymmetry of men being able to abandon their offspring is for women to be able to abort them. But, as Bachiochi notes, the “first wave” feminists considered this approach not to be a “solution” but, rather, a perpetuation of the problem. The “solution” is not a procedure or pill that eliminates the consequences for women but a moral revolution that demands men elevate their standards. As Bachiochi points out, the early feminists were classical in their philosophy: While they may have been women of the Enlightenment or immediate post-Enlightenment eras, their philosophy was antique. What counted for human good and prospering was not (pace Locke et al.) “property,” i.e., things, but virtue, i.e., a qualities of a person.
At the same time, as Bachiochi notes, these early feminists did not buy into the isolated individualism that pure social contractarianism fostered or bluntly advocated. The possibility that a woman could become a mother did not represent for those early feminists an anthropological flaw that abortion fixes. Rather, that possibility exposes the flaw in a philosophical anthropology which denies natural human community (at its most basic level, that of mother-and-child), pretending all human relationships are contingent, purely voluntary, and—at root—lesser or greater handicaps to “liberty” and “freedom.” Like their classical attachment to virtue, it also seems the early feminists were attached to classical communitarianism, perhaps not necessarily because they were closet Aristotelians theoretically professing “all men are political [i.e., communal] animals” as much as overt practical mothers who raised their own communities called “families.”
If we need any proof of this inversion of values, Bachiochi provides evidence in the form of a quotation from Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. Abortionists have always preferred to traffic in euphemism. The notorious 19th century abortionist “Madame Restell”—the business name of Ann Lohman (whom researcher Marvin Olasky noted took up that nom because it suggested a veneer of French sexual sophistication)—was also called a “woman doctor.” Here’s how Blackwell devastates that quack: “… ‘a female physician,’ a term exclusively applied at that time to those women who carried on their vile occupation . . . . It was an utter degradation of what might and should have become a noble profession for women.” For Blackwell, a female physician was a healer, not a killer.
Bachiochi’s work provides valuable intellectual foundations for recovering a lost current in feminist thought, one that recognizes that women and their children are not competitors and certainly not enemies. At the same time, she recognizes that we are in a war for the minds of those children and, in her conversation, offered some eminently sound advice: talk to your kids about sex before the culture has the chance. You lay the foundations. Put the culture on defense: force them to attempt to refute you, not you try to displace their toxins.
The reversal of Roe constitutionally was a stellar achievement but—to borrow Churchill, the fight may not be so much “the beginning of the end [as] … it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” A vicious fight for the culture will be joined, perhaps for as long as Roe survived, until the vision Jeanne Mancini voiced at the March for life—that “abortion is unthinkable”—is realized. In that task, it is vital that radical “feminism” not be allowed to monopolize the narrative about how womanhood and motherhood should intersect for women to be “liberated.” Happily, there are legacy resources in vintage feminism to change that narrative. Kudos to Erika Bachiochi for recovering them.
John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.