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The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Book Review)

November 22, 2021
By Miles Smith

Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.

Erika Bachiochi. The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021.

Two marches, just over one hundred years apart, mark the introduction of Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. The first march took place in 1913. Women gathered to make their voices heard in support of federalizing the right of women to vote in general elections. Some states gave women the right to vote in the nineteenth century; Utah allowed women to vote in 1870. Other states lagged behind and by 1913 marchers loudly — and confidently — proclaimed that women’s suffrage represented high ideals like charity, liberty, justice, peace, and hope. The second march occurred in 2017, and, as Bachiochi notes, if there were high ideals present, their impact was lost in the cacophony of explicit-filled, insulting, sensationalist, and sexualized rhetoric that asserted the coming of a generation of so-called nasty women. Bachiochi’s work offers a narrative of how conceptions of women’s rights changed in the late modern era, and what the consequences of those changes means for a substantive vision of women’s rights in modern society.

Bachiochi uses the figure of Mary Wollstonecraft to explain the advent of women’s rights. The British philosopher and writer pioneered the struggle for women’s rights in the United Kingdom but always maintained preeminence of what it was to be a woman in her work. Wollstonecraft, for example, argued that women should be trained for other vocations other than motherhood and that they should be educated with male peers. Her reason was not to desex women but to allow women to achieve intellectual and moral excellence as women. Wollstonecraft’s great gift to women’s rights was her conviction that education provided women the opportunity to pursue true virtue, and not mere power.

Wollstonecraft’s reputation as a revolutionary came from her willingness to rethink societal articulations regarding women’s place and role in society. She was not, however, seeking to overthrow the natural order. She hoped instead to reaffirm it by strengthening the place and station of women. Wollstonecraft believed that in human history, tensions between men and women in the practice of law, certain socio-moral strictures regarding marriage, and state mandated prescriptions on women’s status disordered women’s rightful practice of virtue and often made it difficult for them to get the respect they deserved as women. The origins of the movement for women’s rights in the United States did not lie in eradicating marriage, the place of women in society as women, or even state delineated gender differentiation. American women’s rights movements sought society’s affirmation for women’s important roles maintaining society. 

Industrialization in the United States brought about shifts in how women interacted with vocation in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Employment in capitalistic and industrial enterprises changed how women interacted with and related to the family, but as late as the 1950s early generations of feminist valued and worked to protect marriage and child-bearing. Even Betty Frieden, whose book The Feminine Mystique was lauded by socially progressive intellectuals and politicians, did not argue that women should abandon natural vocations of child-bearing and marriage in order to pursue success in the workplace. Friedan did not want to remove marriage and children from what defined women’s worth; she instead wanted a woman’s worth not to be limited only to her ability to bear children and be a wife. Feminists during the mid-twentieth century sought to broaden the types of jobs open to women and to expand their access. They did not, however, seek to remove natural female vocations from women’s lives. 

Even as women’s roles in non-traditional vocations opened up, tension between natural vocations and new demands of the marketplace forced women to make choices that their male peers might not have to make. Pregnancy and child-bearing placed natural caps on the role women might be able to exert in a male-dominated capitalist workplace. Motherhood in particular became a problem for women’s advancement. Women’s groups responded not by looking for state protection of pregnant women from termination but by creating a legal paradigm whereby women should be judged as equal individuals to men. Women ceased to be women; they became merely equal individuals in the workplace. Whatever legal successes that might have ensured, it decoupled women’s rights from the fundamental markers of womanhood: biological sex and timeless societal function.

The book closes with the author offering a new vision for the rights of women in the twenty-first century. Natural vocations should be seen as just as worthy as work in corporate contexts. What Bachiochi calls the duties of care in particular should be reclaimed by women and celebrated by society for the vital role they play. Despite the variety of forms family takes in the twenty-first century, the embodied realities of human dependency and development remain. Women made important strides in the twentieth century to claim a deserved space in a variety of vocations. In the twenty-first century, however, she should ensure that the natural vocations and fundamental social roles women fill are not lost in the pursuit of mere individual equality. Erika Bachiochi’s book gives the reader an excellent history of the development of women’s rights in the United States, but more importantly, she offers a worthy blueprint of a way forward for Christian conceptions of women’s rights in the twenty-first century.

Miles Smith is a Lecturer in History at Hillsdale College

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