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Reclaiming Feminism

“Feminism” is a word that often stirs up strong emotional reactions. Some people are strongly for it, and others are strongly opposed. The truth of the matter, though, is that what we associate with feminism today is not what the leaders of the feminist movement envisioned back in the 1800s.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Erika Bachiochi to discuss the true heart of feminism, and how we can work to reclaim the original vision and achieve true equality (spoiler alert, it involves celebrating gender differences instead of denying them).

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Headshot of Erika Bachiochi

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Reclaiming Feminism

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Few people would argue against equal treatment under the law for women, but our guest today argues that today’s form of feminism needs some drastic revision. Erika Bachiochi is a legal scholar specializing in equal protection jurisprudence and feminist legal theory.  A 2018 visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, she’s also a senior fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Her newest book, “The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision,” was named a finalist for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 2022, conservative book of the year. Erika Bachiochi, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Thank you so much for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  I dare say that in some circles, the word “feminism” might be interpreted in a bad way. Do you understand why that is, and should we have that sense of that word?

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Yeah, there’s actually been really good polls recently that have showed that most women do not understand themselves to be feminists, they don’t call themselves feminists.  Yet at the same poll, the vast majority of people, both men and women, just as you said in your introduction, would say that women and men should have equal rights.

So there’s a way in which feminism is a word that people don’t want to associate with, and I think there’s good reason for that in the sense that modern feminism, I think, is really a cause of a lot of our ills in society today, and the way that it’s really taken a pretty false understanding of both equality and freedom, which are really the things I look at, but also with regard to rights as well. And so I think without reclaiming an older understanding of both equality, freedom, and rights, then we’re going to see a lot of reaction against even women’s rights potentially. So we’ve got to really re-ground those on a much better basis.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  The earliest feminist movement you suggest was quite different from today. So tell us how that was different.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  We generally understand the first wave as sort of the Suffragist Movement, which is in the mid-19th century, moving all the way into the early 20th century.  I take that all the way back to sort of the intellectual foundations of that movement in my book, looking at 18th century British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft.  And what you see in their work, I mean, they did all sorts of things. Suffrage was actually sort of a late stage in that work in America, but in the philosophical foundations, what you understand is that equality is certainly not the kind of sameness that we see today.  They very much took sexual difference for granted, and they wanted to put equality on a different basis and that is just the sense that we’re equal, men and women are equal, as the kinds of human beings we are.  For Wollstonecraft, that meant rational creatures, and she saw us as order to excellence. Well, what does that mean? That we basically have the ability or the capacity to develop intellectually and morally into excellent beings, and that moral development was really important, also, to our freedom.  Because for freedom, it wasn’t as we understand today, which is just sort of free to do whatever I want, whatever sort of my lower passions dictate at the moment.  For them, freedom and therefore rights as well, was necessary so that they could carry out their responsibilities to God, to themselves, to their families. And that’s why they wanted things like equal education, so that they could develop morally and intellectually to be the kinds of people who could do good for the wider society, for their own families and all of that. And so it’s an entirely sort of different basis.  Rights, too, are understood as necessary to carry out responsibilities so responsibilities is totally interconnected to rights in a way that we do not see at all today.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Okay.  So we’re going to dig more deeply into a lot of what you just said, but it sounds like you’re suggesting a very basic misunderstanding of how we even define ourselves as independent human beings.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Yeah, that’s right. We’ve had a deep sort of error in our philosophy of what it is to be human, and so we’ve conceived ourselves by following people who are really important in our founding like John Locke but for different reasons. His understanding of the person as really deeply independent just doesn’t really strike us, I think, as true to our experience. We’re deeply interdependent from the time we’re very small, of course, first in our mother’s wombs, but then even as infants and as children and then, of course, if we live long enough into old age but, of course, all the way through every part of our day. So that interdependence was very much understood by Wollstonecraft and these early women’s rights advocates.  Sort of all of their advocacy was really based on like how do we respond to being different, men and women as different, but also deeply interdependent with one another, and really able to collaborate in the home and potentially in other spheres as well. So, yeah, it’s an entirely different basis than the sort of radical autonomy we have today, where everyone is sort of this self-determining, self-creating person, which is really just kind of an illusion if you think about it. 

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  When you’re talking about this radical autonomy and being opposite to those relationships that are so important, I think most of us would agree, are so important in our lives. Talk a little more about why that’s an important part of true feminism.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Yeah, because you have to get who we are as men and women right in terms of our experience of living in the world.  If you start building upon an illusion of who we are, then you’re just not going to come up with the right responses to things. So, I mean, abortion is a really good example of this. So the early American feminists understood themselves to be mothers, not just when the child was born, but also when the child was developing in their womb. And so they understood themselves to have duties just as they did after the child was born, duties when the child was developing. And so they were adamantly against abortion, and so that all changes first with Margaret Sanger but then later with the second wave of feminism towards abortion and this idea that we can sort of be autonomous from the child who’s growing in the womb, sort of like an imitation of a man who can walk away from an unexpected pregnancy, as though women to be equal to men have to be able to do the same sort of thing.  To be equally autonomous, they have to walk away from that pregnancy. Well, what the early women’s rights advocates would have said is that’s a failure. You’ve basically said to be equal you have to be like a man instead of saying to be equal why can’t we just be exactly as we are as women and have societies institutions, politics, economics, the workplace, and all sorts of things, education, orient itself around what actually is, the way women actually are, instead of telling us that we have to change who we are, change our bodies, to sort of fit the norms that men have laid out.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Our bodies are an important part of this conversation, right? That a female’s body is different from a male’s body really does matter.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  A really, really important part is that in the quest for autonomy, we’ve had to obscure from, or abstract from, or sort of forget about the fact that we’re embodied.  And we’re embodied, as we now say, sexually dimorphic, right, we’re two different bodies.  Human beings come as two different bodies, and so what a true sort of understanding of sexual equality, and freedom, and all of that has to do, is really hold in tension what we are as human beings because we have this great nobility and this great complexity.  Right? We’re all human beings, and we share in that human nature that makes us capable of thinking through things, freely choosing, and all of that, but we also come in these two bodies.

And we’re also each individual, and so we have to kind of hold in tension all three of those aspects of us, and our bodies are really important. And if we sort of say in order to be equal, and equal individuals, we have to completely forget that second level, then what ends up happening, and we see this all the time, is that we sort of contemplate that individual as being basically like a man. And the fact is that half of us have very different bodies that are capable of doing the most incredible thing, and that is carrying and nurturing another human being inside of our bodies. And so why not take that really seriously and try to think about how society would be differently organized, potentially, if we took that seriously, rather than saying equal rights means we have a right to end that life within rather than respect the woman who’s carrying that life as well as the life, too.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Talk about how this might affect how women work because I see that a lot with women wanting to be just like men in how they approach their work life as well.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Yeah, that’s right, and this is a really difficult question. I think we actually haven’t made nearly the progress we could have in thinking about workplace flexibility, in thinking about — I mean now we have way more remote work, especially after the pandemic. But I think because we’ve had this sort of reliance on this idea that women should just be like men and should abort if they need to, and all of that, we haven’t become as flexible not only for women but really for families that, you know, a lot of times dads are the ones who want to be having a little bit more flexibility, being able to take time here and there to either support their wives in the home, or support their wives who are working, or just take time off for a sick child or to care for other ailing relatives or whatever. And I think we structured our workplace very much along the lines of this autonomous individual. I think that’s been harmful for everyone, but especially for women.

One of the things that I really advocate for is just that a lot of women would prefer either part-time work or, also, when their children are really young to remain at home with them and really prioritize caregiving. And I always wonder why isn’t it that when a woman decides to come back to look for work and she has that, “gap in her resume,” why isn’t it that she’s asked by an employer, “Tell me about that work that you did and how the virtues, and talents, and gifts, and all of that that you sort of acquired or nurtured during that time could be a benefit to the workplace for the job that you’re applying.” Because certainly everybody knows who’s seen a mother in action or seen a primary caregiver in action is doing all sorts of things, and studies show how important that is for managerial positions and other sorts of things.

So I think we’ve taken this kind of shrunken idea of what kinds of things that parents can do in the workplace, and I think that’s especially true for women.  There are certainly some jobs that are just much better for flexible kinds of work that most women who have children want, and I think it’s good for women to self-select into those areas as much as they can but also push other places to be more hospitable to those who are raising children, especially those who have young children in the home.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  How about some suggestions on your part on ways that we, either as individuals or policymakers, can move toward this type of feminism that you’re discussing.

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  A lot of it is sort of reiterating that we need to be taking the responsibilities of those who care for children in the home really much more serious than we do.  I think as policymakers and just as people sort of thinking about the world, we often think, like, oh, there’s the market, there’s the state, and there’s the individual, and we forget that institution of the family that is doing all the important work that makes every other civic, political, economic, social good possible.  The work that’s done in the family is really, really important work, and a lot of people just don’t have sort of the guidance to do that work well or are really economically having a hard time because they want to have probably the mother at home, or at least home part time, and they’re not able to make that work. And so I’m trying to do my best to shape family policy to think about the principles that we don’t want those who are doing this important work to be disproportionately burdened economically. I mean they shouldn’t be worse off economically than those who are single and able to do things a little bit easier in the world.  These people are sacrificing a lot. and so we really need to think about the ways in which to shape policy better to support that work.

You look back at those 19th-century women’s rights advocates, and they weren’t only advocating for women’s rights in the way that I’ve described it or even we just think about it today in terms of equal opportunity in the workplace, they were also really advocating for mothers to be respected for the work they did as mothers.  And there were some single women, and this, I think, is just really a page we could take out of this book as single women, Jane Addams, who was a Nobel Laureate, who founded Whole House; Florence Kelley, who did incredible work, child labor laws and other types of things. These women, they didn’t have children themselves, but they refer to themselves as public mothers because they understood the work of motherhood is so essential to the nurturance and care of young children, and everybody needs care.  Right?

And so to really sort of understand, once again, how important that work is, and to not only support it economically but for people who have the capacity to use a bully pulpit to really honor that work and that sacrifice that women do.  Sometimes you’ll see stay-at-home dads, but, generally, it’s stay-at-home moms, and not just think that everyone’s supposed to be an equal breadwinner in the workplace and that’s where real equality is.  I call that market equality.  That’s rubbish. It’s great when people go out, and a lot of people need to be in the workplace to support their families but most people are in the workplace in order to support their family.  And the work of their family, the work that they’re doing in the family, they understand to be the most important work they do and that we really need to support that.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Well, talk a little bit about how we can continue to follow your work and, of course, get a copy of your book, “The Rights of Women: Reclaiming A Lost Vision.”

ERIKA BACHIOCHI:  Yes, please do that. You can find that at Amazon or the publisher, Notre Dame Press, and you can find all of my writing at Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Institute there in Washington, DC.  And I would also just really ask listeners to go to a new online journal that I have helped to found out of the Wollstonecraft Project, which is called Fairer Disputations — like fairer sex. is a place where women from the US and the UK are coming together to launch a new feminism that’s based in understanding that sex is real, that sex difference is real, and that that embodiedness of men and women is really important to an understanding of feminism going forward.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS:  Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. Erica Bachiochi, author of the new book, “The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.” Thanks for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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