The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
Sexual Reform, Not Sexual Revolution
The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
By Erika Bachiochi
(University of Notre Dame Press, 2021)
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. It isn’t that her project is revolutionary or cutting-edge; instead, she offers a deeply conservative vision for the rejuvenation of culture. Yet because of its commonsense approach to sex, marriage, and family, this book is unusual. Bachiochi addresses men and women alike, urging them to invest in the soul-making work of marriage, childrearing, and family life.
It’s difficult to describe her approach as feminist, at least in the context of most modern-day feminism. Mainstream feminism demands the right to abortion so that women can engage “equally” with men in the realms of sex and commerce. Bachiochi, by contrast, argues that abortion does not equalize men and women but actually advantages men, particularly those libertine men who want to maximize their chances at sexual access, variety, and freedom. This disadvantages women, who sense that they must participate in “hook-up culture” or be ignored. And it shifts the burden of pregnancy and childrearing onto women alone, because abortion “frees” a woman to choose whether or not she bears a child. If she continues an unplanned pregnancy—well, she had the option not to, so why should any man feel responsible?
Ultimately, however, the sexual free-for-all made possible by abortion (and perhaps also contraception) harms both men and women. It has turned sex into a kind of sport, detached from its natural consequences of pregnancy, childbirth, and (one hopes) family life. While men, and particularly young men, may initially see low-cost sex as a good, Bachiochi argues that in the long run they do not profit from what the sociologist Mark Regnerus has called “cheap sex.”
Our most important work, maintains Bachiochi, is to grow “in wisdom and virtue” through “sustained intellectual and moral formation” that is “circumscribed by one’s familial and social obligations.” The path to happiness lies in finding and accepting one’s station and its duties. Happiness is not merely the pursuit of pleasure or the satisfaction of desires—sexual or otherwise. The commands of the passions, Bachiochi writes, channeling Plato and Aristotle, “tend to be relentless and all-encompassing, the very adverse of liberation.”
At the heart of her vision is the idea that human flourishing consists in our more-or-less unchosen familial relationships. In these, both men and women have opportunities to grow in virtue and excellence by caring for others and tempering their own desires. This is directly opposed to the radically individualist idea, so prevalent in contemporary life, that greater freedom yields greater happiness. The truth is probably just the opposite: self-creation ex nihilo is impossible, and to attempt it is to court unhappiness.
We find our deepest meaning not alone but in relationships with others; we are weighed down by other people—spouses, parents, siblings, children, and friends—and they by us. Cheap sex, freedom from obligation, greater autonomy: all these things may be superficially attractive but do not ultimately satisfy. In the words of Milan Kundera, “the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
Bachiochi states explicitly that the inspiration for her vision comes, at least in part, from the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century writer and philosopher most famous for her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There Wollstonecraft advances the classical and Christian idea that life is, indeed, a kind of self-making. This self-making is not the project of post-modernity that “tries on” different identities; rather, it is the continuous progress of pursuing “intellectual and moral virtue,” for men and women alike. It is a lifelong intellectual and moral endeavor, one often undertaken under the guidance of religious belief or with philosophical insight. In this, women and men are more alike than different: all human beings are capable of great goodness (or great evil) as well as of remarkable brilliance (and utter stupidity).
Yet Wollstonecraft and Bachiochi do not see men and women as simply alike or interchangeable. We are, of course, alike in some ways and different in others. We are alike in being rational creatures and in having some measure of liberty to determine the course of our lives. We all desire to care for others and to do meaningful work, both inside and outside the household. But these desires may well have different intensities and inflection points. A woman’s desire to nurture her young children may preclude her from fully pursuing her intellectual or professional interests, at least for a time. And a man’s hope of distinguishing himself in war or politics may well be quite intense and may draw him away from his family for long periods. Such different proclivities are not, I think, merely “socially constructed” but reflect longstanding general differences between men and women—with, of course, the required caveat that these proclivities do not reflect every man’s or woman’s desires.
An insight shared by Wollstonecraft and Bachiochi is that the pursuit of moral and intellectual virtue is a task for both sexes, and that this task ought to be understood somewhat differently than it often is. In Wollstonecraft’s day, for instance, women’s virtue was understood mostly in sexual terms: chastity and virginity prior to marriage were commonly considered the most important aspects of female morality. And women’s excellence, likewise, was understood in terms of polished manners and physical and sexual desirability. But these attributes, good as far as they go, fail to take account of what might become of a woman, and her children, after marriage. Had women attended to intellectual concerns? To the other moral virtues, like temperance and courage and generosity? If not, how would they be able to raise good children? More often than not, women who were raised only to be attractive adornments to their husbands found themselves unsatisfied as they aged and their children grew up and left home. It is not so different today.
Similarly, Wollstonecraft thought that while men had pursued excellence outside the home, they had not paid enough attention to their own families, and they had especially not valued the “female” virtue of chastity. She therefore called men to be chaste, to marry and respect the women with whom they had sexual relations, and to invest fully in the children their union produced. The ideal marriage is one of companionate friendship, with both partners obligated to each other and their children, while simultaneously pursuing virtue and excellence individually and as a unit.
A tendency of conservatives—now and perhaps always—is to bemoan the present state of things, finding our ancestral ways more virtuous, more inspiring, and often simply better. But here is one arena in which the present gets quite a bit right, at least for those of us who have some measure of education and social privilege. (Marriage—or the lack of it—among the lower middle class and poor is another question altogether.) When I survey the marriages that are forming in my community and among my students, I often recognize the image of the flourishing family that Bachiochi and Wollstonecraft have described. The young husband and wife see each other as equals and friends and as potential parents. Often they are unsure of who will be the breadwinner in the family, and they know that this may vary over the course of a long marriage. Above all, they desire to live as a unit (the proverbial “one flesh”) in which each person is valued for his or her talents and excellences while simultaneously learning self-abnegation, generosity, and patience. They are not duped by the suggestion that marriage must be a “fifty-fifty contract,” nor do they think that adopting the revanchist, role-playing sexism of the “tradwife” movement could alleviate the difficulties of marriage in the contemporary world.
I have barely begun to touch on the riches contained this book, which includes not just a vision of marriage and family life but also a serious investigation into the history of American feminism from its origins to the present day. Additionally, Bachiochi offers a critique of the excesses of modern capitalism, an analysis of anti-discrimination law, and a review of the work of the legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon. All of these treatments are enlightening and important, but the book’s moral center is its vision for what marriage and family life might be.
At the outset of this review I claimed that Bachiochi’s book may change the way we think about the world. It could do so not because it offers some kind of new solution to the problem of work-life balance or an innovative approach to marriage. Bachiochi simply and soberly restates a truth that so many of us know deep down: that the “work” of love, marriage, childrearing, and caring for our elders is far more important than the “work” we do in our careers, and this is true not just for women but for men too. Professional work is far from meaningless, to be sure; our bodies, talents, and intellects are given to us to use well. But, with few exceptions, the world as a “vale of soul-making” is mostly about the care we give to others and the care they take of us.
Elizabeth Corey is an associate professor of political science and the director of the Honors Program at Baylor University.
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