Mary Wollstonecraft once asked, “If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”
Her insight is a simple republican one: human freedom entails protection from arbitrary interference. A capable, rational person should not be subject to the arbitrary will of another. The encouragement of dependence where there should be none is not only bad for the dependent, but also for the one exercising the arbitrary power. Wollstonecraft particularizes this concept of human freedom and dependence to the case of women and men. There is nothing about men, by virtue of their maleness, that makes them better able to determine right or wrong. The demand that women must be dependent on men for guidance or direction is not legitimate, nor is it reflective of natural justice. There is nothing about “maleness” that makes it the model for human freedom. In my view, women become dependent once again if we accept that, in order to be free and self-directing, we have to be like men.
Wollstonecraft’s insight crossed my mind when I read the recent words of Chelsea Clinton:
if you care about social justice or economic justice, agency—you have to care about this. It is not a disconnected fact—to address this t-shirt of 1973—that American women entering the labor force from 1973 to 2009 added three and a half trillion dollars to our economy. Right? The net, new entrance of women—that is not disconnected from the fact that Roe became the law of the land in January of 1973.
Note that Clinton links the ability to be child-free not only to economic justice, but also to social justice—that is to actualizing forms of freedom and self-direction that compose the social and political experience of freedom, outside the strictly economic realm. While economic freedom and production do not compose the whole of free human activity, they play a role in human freedom and self-direction, and for Clinton, the price of women’s freedom is an imitation of the male experience of reproduction.
Aside from the obvious problem of justifying the cost of human life in terms of GDP, Clinton’s remarks reflect a subtler difficulty. Unwittingly, Clinton, like many traditionalists, concedes that women’s fertility is a defect that restrains them from entering the public realm. If Clinton is right, as a woman, I must be able to control my fertility in order to participate in the workforce and in the political sphere. This is a sacrifice that men are never asked to make, and that social and economic structures never demand of them. By solidifying the tie between public freedom, economic production, and the male experience of reproduction, she makes women dependent again—dependent on the normativity of male experience for social and political freedom.
The inequality and dependence don’t stop there. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves,” Wollstonecraft wrote. But does having power over myself also mean having power over the child I carry in my womb? If becoming like men means being able to terminate the life of an unborn child, we not only accept that maleness is the normative form of human freedom, we transfer the burden of our unjust submission to a defenseless individual—an unborn child.
Women in Western Thought
For many centuries, the Christian tradition and much of the western canon failed to view women as beings who might inhabit roles in the public world as self-directing and rational adults. Instead, women were confined to the private realm. American women have only possessed the right to vote—a right that recognizes a person’s equality and capability of self-direction—for 100 years. When trying to secure our livelihood, we were not protected from being fired due to pregnancy until 1978. We could not apply for a line of credit until 1974. Marital rape was not officially recognized as a crime in all fifty states until 1993. Influenced by the English common law, our sexual assault laws required signs of physical resistance to prosecute rape.
Historically, Western culture’s fallacies about women have tended to fall in one of three categories. The first questions our capacity for rationality. The second mistakenly attributes our purpose, motives, and identity to our reproductive capacity. The third attributes chaos and disorder to women as an archetype, and structure and form to men as an archetype. Consequently, the key to the stability of civilization is the benevolent rule of men.
The Christian tradition has been particularly problematic regarding women’s equality and capacity for rationality. I do agree that Christian traditions’ insights about human dignity form the best undergirding for feminism. However, the Christian thinkers who contributed most to Western civilization held deeply deleterious opinions of women. “Women,” Augustine claims, “are certainly made in the image of God insofar as they belong to the human race.” However, it is only the case that
the woman together with her husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God; but as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one (On The Trinity 12.7.10).
Aquinas, synthesizing Aristotle with the Christian tradition, affirms that while women are certainly made in God’s image, we are in our “individual nature . . . defective and misbegotten” and are “naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates” (ST Ia q.92).
Christianity and Feminism
While the resources for women’s equality and their freedom from sexual domination can be found in the Western tradition, women like Wollstonecraft had to fully demonstrate what equality between men and women would look like. Montesquieu and Tocqueville, for example, observed that arbitrary rule over a slave naturally corrupts the slave master, making him unfit for citizenship. Wollstonecraft extends this insight to men and women. “Virtue,” she writes, “can only flourish among equals.”
The opening up of the public sphere to women, the political enfranchisement of adult women, and the passage of laws against marital rape and non-physical forms of sexual coercion are due in large part to Western feminism’s insights and activism. Western feminism has laid a foundation for explaining how leadership and judgment in public and private life are not the virtues of one sex, but rather virtues that are possible for humans generally, regardless of sex.
Thankfully, recent additions to the Christian tradition display a more balanced view of femininity and human freedom than one finds in Augustine or Aquinas. I focus here on the question of professions because this is where most of Clinton’s claim about reproductive rights is focused, not because labor in professions is the only kind of labor most befitting human dignity. In his Letter to Women, Pope John Paul II writes:
Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.
And in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis states that, while men and women are different in many ways, “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories.” Women are as capable of human leadership as men.
Edith Stein addresses the question of professions most succinctly in The Ethos of Women’s Professions: “Every profession in which woman’s soul comes into its own and which can be formed by woman’s soul is an authentic woman’s profession.” For Stein, this might include every human activity, because women are not only women, we are also humans.
The Shortcomings of Contemporary Feminism
Feminist thought and feminist activism are essential for challenging the presumptions the West once possessed about women, even if feminism itself is best undergirded by Christian insights about human nature and human dignity. However, contemporary feminism has not been able to provide a rationale for women’s freedom and equality that embraces our reproductive capacity.
This is a capacity, I note, on which the entire human race is dependent. Identifying abortion with women’s freedom is conceding the idea that male biology and male experience are the paramount ideal for human experience. We are faced with a maxim also faced by women in more traditional societies: the belief that the ability to create and foster life is incompatible with other forms of human actualization, such as the capacity for public deliberation about the common good, the sustained development of a craft over time, or the pursuit of a profession that uses one’s gifts to improve oneself and the community.
Instead of accepting that the potential for pregnancy is a part of the female experience and expecting that men play a greater role in the daily work of childrearing, abortion advocates believe controlling our fertility includes deciding to end the lives of our unborn children. They see this as an essential part of what it means to have freedom and parity.
Consequently, the Democratic party is becoming more radical in its endorsement of abortion rights and has signaled that it is moving toward more unrestricted access of abortion procedures. In 2016, the Democratic Party added a plank on the repeal of the Hyde Amendment to their platform. In a town hall with Democratic primary candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Sanders declined to endorse any abortion restrictions, claiming that “I am very strongly pro-choice. That is a decision to be made by the woman, her physician, and her family.” Hillary Clinton responded that abortion is “not much of a right if it is totally limited and constrained,” though she added that she is on record for late-term abortion regulation with exceptions for the mother’s life and health.
The radicalization of the Democratic Party parallels the movement of scholarship away from the question of viability and toward the question of the moral status of the unborn and newly born. For example, a 2012 peer-reviewed article justifies the death of newborns when a “problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth.” Likewise, David De Grazia argues “the harm of death for an infant seems intermediate between the harm of death for a person and the loss of value of someone’s never coming into existence.”
Popular discourse reflects this trend as well. In a 2014 New Republic article, Rebecca Traister argues:
during pregnancy, should some medical, economic, or emotional circumstance have caused my fate to be weighed against that of my baby, I believe that my rights, my health, my consciousness, and my obligations to others—including to my toddler daughter—outweigh the rights of the unborn human inside me.
Altogether, the defense of abortion rights no longer centers around justifying that a fetus is not a human life. Rather, abortion rights advocates now consider the fetus human, but argue that the humanity of the fetus somehow matters less.
The Price of Women’s Freedom?
In this context, Clinton’s bold identification of women’s freedom with the sixty million abortions that have occurred since Roe v. Wade makes more sense. So do its troubling dimensions. Virtue can only flourish among equals. Yet women’s freedom is increasingly being articulated in terms that rely on the inequality between women and unborn (and newborn) humans. As Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Wollstonecraft, and contemporary theorists of non-domination show us, when the price of one’s freedom is the ability to arbitrarily interfere in the lives of other humans, the practice of one’s freedom becomes bound up with the practice of tyranny.
Any serious critique of abortion must acknowledge what Clinton and other abortion advocates do not: freedom does not require women to become like men. The price of freedom should not force us to change something essential about ourselves and our capacities. Freedom in this light is a counterfeit. For this reason, we cannot accept any account of our freedom that makes terminating the lives of our children essential to our capacity for self-rule and self-direction. But we must also acknowledge what Clinton and others like her point out: women’s economic, political, and social security cannot be endangered when we become pregnant. Women cannot be seen as inferior beings with lesser moral or political status.