The Burden and the Gift
An interview with Erika Bachiochi on "The Rights of Women"
nb: This is a long interview, which we did by email so I didn’t edit much. I explicitly encouraged Bachiochi to skip questions as desired; I cut one question from this post because I don’t think either of us really connected with it, and left in one she skipped because, well, I thought skipping it was a kind of answer! I’ve put some points that I found especially striking in bold, as kind of handholds for you guys—those are my selections and not Erika’s. Enjoy, and if this intrigued you, take a look at her book.
I learned a lot from The Rights of Women—it opened new angles on aspects of feminist history that I thought I already knew fairly well. It also has some memorable and resonant ways of framing what you’re proposing, the underlying “lost vision” of rights: the “right to care”; the idea that the “asymmetry” between motherhood and fatherhood offers “both the burden and the gift”; women’s rights as the rights we need in order to grow in wisdom and live out our duties well. Women have the right to independence of mind and economic independence because we have equal dignity and capacities, and so that we may educate ourselves and our children.
ET: One of the tensions in the book, I think, comes directly from the elegant parallel you draw between two thinkers, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Ann Glendon. They both share this vision of rights as part of a society ordered toward virtue, ordered toward the excellence of all its members. And they both share the experience of single motherhood, as the result of an early relationship that didn’t last. [Bachiochi inserted a wry note here to the effect that I’m euphemizing “men who abandoned them with their children”!] So they’re very aware of the reality of folly and frailty, the way our own choices and/or others’ may leave us with lives that don’t conform to our high ideals; and yet as a chronic screwup myself, I was sort of disappointed that their response seemed to be a more strident reiteration of those ideals. There’s an astringency in the emphasis on virtue, virtue, virtue: Just be better!
I guess I wondered whether their visions of the rights of high-minded, self-controlled women lacked a certain chastened quality—an acknowledgment that most of politics is about dealing with people who won’t just be better, because they disagree with us about what “better” is or because their circumstances constrain them or because, you know, we just don’t want to.
What are our duties to those we fail to persuade, and to everybody in their inevitable failure to live up to our high ideals?
BACHIOCHI: You’re right to note that both Wollstonecraft and Glendon share high ideals and a deep appreciation of human frailty. Living in -- and theorizing about -- that existential human tension is one of the main reasons I so appreciate them. And so, yes, there is (in Wollstonecraft very explicitly) an iteration and reiteration of ideals, and of virtue, to account for and to live as the human beings we actually are. But as such, let me complicate the sense, I think, you have about the astringent quality of virtue. Because, of course, neither Wollstonecraft nor Glendon are Stoics; they do not see virtue as its own end. Rather, they both adhere to Christian accounts of virtue as the means to personal, societal, and ultimately, eternal happiness, with the virtue of humility at the very core. There is the deep recognition in both that we all need grace and forgiveness and as I write, “assistance, understanding, and often, a fresh start to begin again” (284). Once one comes to recognize this as an (the?) existentially human tension -- between the greatness to which we are called and the baseness into which we so often fall -- the only alternatives is to live in that tension or to despair. Practicing the virtues, with humility as queen, is to live in the tension. Failing, and beginning again, is an integral part of the whole thing.
Wollstonecraft wrote movingly about both human excellence and human frailty, and experienced in her own life its tensions (and despair too). But let me point your readers to one particularly helpful passage in which she draws together a humble recognition of who we human beings are with an account of our common humanity. We ought better to understand others’ frailties -- and their need for mutual concern and benevolence -- because we experience them too: “I . . . have vices, hid, perhaps, from human eye, that bend me to the dust before God, and loudly tell me, when all is mute, that we are formed of the same earth, and breathe the same element. Humanity thus rises naturally out of humility, and twists the cords of love that in various convolutions entangle the heart.”
In our time, I don’t know that our political trouble is so much a failure to successfully persuade as it is to make the effort at true persuasion, which (etymologically) is to convince another through sweet reason. This presupposes, at the very least, a kind of civic friendship. We rarely persuade any, after all, with the sheer force of argumentative logic, or less still, shouts and insult. True persuasion comes by attracting another to our way of living in, and of seeing the world, and so first, we must share with them a good common to us both. It may well be -- indeed, this is often the case, in my experience -- that the good common to both is something of what we’ve just mentioned: that we, human beings, by our very nature, seek to do the good (even if our full accounts of the good differ, for now) but are always and everywhere rent by human frailty. Living as fallible human beings who seek the good together is perhaps the first step to true persuasion. We are very, very far from that today. Seeking and offering forgiveness and reparation (which presumes, of course, some shared good we have failed to attain) is just part of the warp and woof of life, but something our politics -- both left and right -- has entirely forgotten.
ET: You argue that all people are called to virtue; the ways men and women live out the virtues often differ because of the physical realities of (especially) motherhood vs. fatherhood, but there aren’t specifically “masculine virtues” or “feminine virtues.” How do contemporary discussions of masculinity and femininity tend to go wrong? And why do we keep resorting to these (imho!) Procrustean terms—what are we really trying to talk about?
BACHIOCHI: In the intensive summer seminar I teach, we spend an afternoon discussing Rousseau’s account of Sophy’s education together with Wollstonecraft’s response to the same. Students are particularly fascinated by this late 18th century debate because it maps on to many of the debates we are having about masculinity and femininity today. Rousseau, of course, held a deeply gendered account of the virtues (with docile and chaste females meant to please - and tame - virile men). Wollstonecraft, in sharp contrast, believed both men and women are called to all of the virtues (as an imitation of the goodness of the one God), even as our distinctive bodies mediate how we live out the virtues. (“Chastity, modesty, public spirit, and all the noble train of virtues, on which social virtue and happiness are built, should be understood and cultivated by all mankind, or they will be cultivated to little effect.”)
How do I think we’ve gone wrong in our discussions about all this today? Because we have forgotten that quintessentially human tension I just mentioned: we have no account of 1) virtue, the good to which we are all called, and 2) vice or sin, the falling away from that good. And so, in a very Hobbesian move, we increasingly conflate our lower appetites and our propensity to vice or sin (our fallen state) with who we are, rather than understanding ourselves as created good, fallen, and in need of the virtues and grace to flourish.
So, let’s separate these aspects of who we are out: to my mind, men and women contend with very distinctive temptations to vice or sin, given our distinctive bodies and the hormones that flow through them. So, for instance, men are more prone -- due (in part) to testosterone and the reproductive capacity to sire children outside of themselves -- to physical aggression and greater sexual risk-taking. But they also have the capacity (and, to be truly human, the need) to acquire virtuous self-mastery (e.g., gentleness and chastity) and to practice engaged fatherhood (when they do sire a child). Indeed, men of virtue (“gentlemen”) discipline (and employ!) their penchant for risk-taking for the sake of others.
Women are more prone -- due (in part) to unique feminine hormones and their distinctive reproductive capacity -- to empathizing with and pleasing others, even at the risk of undermining the truth or their own good (from having casual sex they don’t want, to thinking every disagreement is an HR problem, to not asking for raises). But women also have the capacity (and, to be truly human, the need) to be just and courageous, to discipline their penchant for empathy for the sake of the truth.
Do the virtues of gentleness and chastity or courage and justice manifest themselves differently in men and women? Yes -- and in each man and woman, depending on temperament, talents, and the circumstances of their lives (e.g, in the Catholic world, see these different manifestations in Therese of Lisieux and Joan of Arc, and St. Ignatius and St. Francis). If virtue is the excellence of the soul, and each human soul is uniquely commensurated (or adapted) to its sexed body, there exists a beautiful array of what it looks like to be a virtuous woman or a virtuous man in the world. But when the two sexes are vicious, we tend to see deep gender stereotypes emerge.
I write more about this here.
ET: I was fascinated by the description of the “voluntary motherhood” movement in First Wave (19th-century) feminism, which promoted periodic abstinence or, more bluntly, self-restraint by men as a way of preventing unwanted pregnancy. You write that the movement explicitly rejected the forms of contraception available at that time, viewing them as tools for men’s sexual exploitation of women.
What’s so striking to me about this movement is that it suggests not only a road not taken for feminism, which you explore in the book, but a road not taken for what we might call sexual moralism or sexual conservatism. I can think of specific friends whose lives would have been changed immensely for the better if their education in Natural Family Planning had emphasized that the man is expected to restrain himself when the woman is not ready for pregnancy—that the purposes of NFP include developing (in your words) “in men a sense of self-governance and in women a sense of sovereignty over their bodies.” Imagine if, when you heard that a “chastity speaker” was coming to your high school, you anticipated a talk about cultivating humility and respect before your spouse, with the central problem imagined not as promiscuity but as violation.
Do you focus on feminism here because you think it will be easier to try the road not taken from the feminist side than from this more “conservative” side? How would Wollstonecraft’s and Glendon’s vision demand changes from what we now call “Christian conservatism”?
BACHIOCHI: I’m not sure that I understand Christian conservatism well enough to speak to it. I do think if contraception is employed by Protestants who read male headship as a kind of literal ownership of the other’s body (there is Scripture that can be read this way, I suppose), then there is a great risk of sexual degradation for women (and men!) in those relationships. To quote Sarah Grimke, one of the most articulate 19th century proponents of “voluntary motherhood”: “O! how many women who have entered the marriage relation in all purity and innocence, expecting to realize in it the completion of their own halfness, the rounding out of their own being, the blending of their holiest instincts with those of a kindred spirit, have too soon discovered that they were . . . chattels personal to be used and abused at the will of a master. . . . How many so called wives, rise in the morning oppressed with a sense of degradation from the fact that their chastity has been violated, their holiest instincts disregarded . . . and that, too, a thousand times harder to bear, because so called husband has been the perpetrator of the unnatural crime.” I fear that there are still women -- in notionally Christian marriages -- who wake up feeling this way.
By contrast, my sense is that many Catholics who practice NFP understand deeply the schooling of desires that periodic abstinence requires of women and perhaps especially men. JPII’s language of the gift of self and the sense of reverence for the other is very much part of how Catholics since his pontificate are formed to think about sex, or that’s how I’ve experienced it, at least. It’s been a great source of healing for me. I do think there are a handful of male Catholic speakers (especially those who have struggled with porn) who commend chastity within marriage as a route to deeper respect and more tenderness for their wives.
ET: The book focuses on women as mothers and spouses, and in fact makes marriage and parenthood central to its vision of the good life for everyone. This seems to me not quite in keeping with the Christian vision of life, in which various forms of celibacy are at least as desirable as marriage. I would argue that some of our problems today are caused by the loss of a diverse ecology of vocations, which can offer support for families and paths of love for those who (for whatever reason) don’t themselves marry. Lol I suspect you’d agree with that, so I’ll make a more pointed critique: Families can be sources of social division. “We just want the best for our children” can be deployed to justify unequal school funding, to reject public housing, even to disfavor religious minorities. Defending one’s own family can become defending against other families.
What’s necessary for the family to become a site of community-building, not resource-hoarding? And is there a social or political, not only spiritual, loss when a society lacks a vision of celibacy as an arena of love?
BACHIOCHI: Yes! And I so appreciate your voice in this arena. This is an incredibly insightful question. Before I try to answer it, though, I do want to defend myself with just a word from Wollstonecraft who, against the conventions of her time, praises the single life: “Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men. I say the same of women.” And also to say (for your readers) that the book also focuses on men as fathers and spouses! But you are right that marriage and parenthood are the great goods that are lifted up in the book. (Of course, even those with single vocations benefit from being raised by good parents!)
But what to do about parents that think only about the good of their own children? I think a commitment to tithing is an antidote to that. I remember once explaining tithing to my eldest child (who was then four and is now a philosophy student at Notre Dame), and she responded: “So when Daddy gets paid [I was not working much then], that money is for both our family and the poor?” That’s a good insight to instill in children early on! I also deeply admire those families who make a commitment to serving the poor together. Basically, there has to be a sense in word and deed that as individual persons and as a family, we don’t exist for ourselves but for the good of others. That’s Christianity 101.
ET: I was struck by the fact that when you start mapping out a path ahead, in the final chapters, you speak more about institutional barriers than about individual virtue—and you praise several projects, like the Family and Medical Leave Act and a Canadian-style child benefit, supported by Democrats and progressives. There are a couple ways of asking this question (which I know Ezra Klein also raised): Do you perceive a split where Republican abortion policy is better but Democratic family-support policies are better? Does the presence of pro-family policies on the Democratic side suggest that the connection between abortion and individualism or pro-corporate ideology doesn’t work quite the way your book’s narrative suggests that it should?
BACHIOCHI: As I write in the book, I think both sides tend to put individuals and markets ahead of the needs of dependents and the goods of family life. So, as Ezra even admitted in our conversation, work-family supports pushed by Democrats aren’t intended to help reduce abortion (and, lo and behold, blue states have the highest abortion rates); they are intended to help get women back to work as quickly as possible (because this is, by and large, how they tend to think about “gender equality”). I write about a better way forward in this piece which I’d commend to your readers, with some excellent responses here.
ET: Is there anybody out there that a resurrected (American) Mary Wollstonecraft could happily vote for, and what would her biggest criticism be of that person?
BACHIOCHI: No idea! Probably skip this one!
ET: [a bunch of questions which Bachiochi wisely boiled down to “what’s the best question you’ve gotten”]
BACHIOCHI: The single best response to my book (from a pro-choice feminist professor) is that men are not capable of sexual integrity and commitment and that’s why the 1970s feminists came along in the first place. I’d like very much to prove this response wrong -- and in my personal life know scores of men who live lives of deep integrity and family commitment -- but increasingly the manosphere does not have me hopeful. Then again, we women have loads of work on the virtue front as well if we are to ever to, as Wollstonecraft urged, “reform ourselves” so we can go on to “reform the world.”
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Mary Wollstonecraft girls’ school plaque photographed by Spudgun67, via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons license.