In the latest installment of our Public Discourse interview series, Public Discourse Editor Serena Sigillito talks with legal scholar Erika Bachiochi about the nature of feminism, the metaphysics of sexual difference, the reasons behind falling fertility rates, why we should have more babies in the workplace, the case for federally funded family leave policy, and the beauty of trusting God’s plan for your life. Bachiochi, a frequent contributor to Public Discourse, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project.
Serena Sigillito: The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court sparked lively discussion about faith, fertility, and feminism. You weighed in with an essay that called Barrett “A New Feminist Icon.” Clearly, the starkest divide between the kind of feminism you see in Barrett and that of her predecessor Ruth Bader Ginsburg is their stance on abortion.
How else is this new feminism you advocate different from previous waves? Is it predicated on the idea that men and women are essentially different, and that those differences are not merely socially constructed?
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Erika Bachiochi: Let me start with your second more philosophical query first, and that will begin to shed some light on the prior one. Whether men and women are basically the “same” or “different” is a very old question; it was, after all, one taken up by both Plato and Aristotle. Though neither came to entirely satisfactory conclusions, the way each thought through the question still profitably informs how we ought to think about it today. That is, the question is inescapably a metaphysical one. Unfortunately, we moderns aren’t so comfortable thinking metaphysically anymore.
I think it’s correct to say, with Plato, that men and women are “essentially” the same. After all, they both enjoy the intellectual and moral capacities of the rational being that human beings in their essence are. I’d add to this an insight from the late eighteenth-century philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft: as such, they both enjoy the same human purpose, which in her view (and mine) is to seek happiness through growth in wisdom and virtue. But it’s also correct to say, with Aristotle, that men and women are, as Sister Prudence Allen puts it, significantly different, both when it comes to reproductive capacity, most importantly, but in other, more subtle ways too. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s errors in biology prevented him from seeing that reproductive difference need not, indeed, ought not, entail sexual hierarchy. Rather, our common human nature provides the ground for our fundamental sexual equality.
Catholics like to say men and women are equal and “complementary,” drawing from these distinctive roles in human reproduction. Because we are deeply integrated beings, our sex difference impacts every aspect of the person. Though I hesitate to use the concept “complementarity” myself, as I think today it often tends to obscure more than clarify, the fact that our sex manifests itself in more than just our reproductive organs is born out in the science: though there are notable exceptions, the male and female sex differ at the cellular, hormonal, reproductive, and neurological levels.
And yet, though all women share physiological traits that differentiate them from all men, no two women or two men are exactly alike. Importantly, each man or woman lives out the integrated unity that is his or her sexed body and human soul distinctively. I think this lived reality properly gives rise to a legal one, consistent with current anti-discrimination law: sex differences can be statistically significant (and thus observable across large swaths of men and women), but they ought not legally confine particular individuals to particular social roles or life choices, professionally or personally.
SS: Many socially conservative women share these convictions, but they reject the label “feminist.” Why do you embrace this label, and how do you define it?
EB: Well, in part, because I’m just trying to be a good Catholic! After all, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1995 that it’s up to women to “promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination,’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.” As a one-time pro-choice feminist who was steeped in women’s studies classes and activism at Middlebury College in the mid 1990s, I believe I have a personal responsibility to both listen to and speak with those women who, like me, are drawn to those questions and issues that have a disproportionate impact on women. Reproduction is naturally the touchstone of them all.
From my perspective, the questions of sameness and difference, though foundational in some sense, are actually not all that helpful conceptually in getting at what really divides many women today. We have to drill down deeper still. I think the question that divides us is how we ought to respond to reproductive asymmetry: the reality that though women and men both engage in the same sexual act, it is women who carry disproportionate burdens due to our special role in human reproduction. I suppose what makes one a feminist is the view that this basic inequality at the heart of reproduction is one that deserves, in justice, an affirmative cultural response. We wish not only for maternity to be celebrated for the true privilege it is, which I take to be the traditionalist view. We also wish to see women encouraged and supported in other contributions they make. This requires that the burdens of childbearing ought to be shared not only within the family, but also across the wider society too.
Pro-choicers suppose that the right to abortion supports women in this way, as a kind of response to the inequalities inherent in reproduction. Since men can walk away from an unexpected pregnancy, we are told, sexual equality requires women to be free of the consequences of sex too. Of course, they tend to ignore—by various euphemisms—the fact that in imitating the vaunted autonomy of the child-abandoning man, the aborting woman has to engage in a life-destroying act.
Pro-life feminists believe, in sharp contrast, that abortion is an act of dominance and aggression against the most dependent and vulnerable human beings among us. We also see, as women’s rights advocates before the 1970s saw, that abortion actually exacerbates reproductive asymmetry by freeing men from the consequences of sex and from the duties of care that fathers ought properly to share. More still, as perhaps we’re growing more aware, relying on abortion for women’s equality in our country has disincentivized employers and other public institutions from supporting women who are mothers—and caregiving families more generally—in real and concrete ways.
SS: What philosophical works lay the foundations for the vision of sex and gender that you embrace? If you could recommend one book or essay for every young woman to read on this topic, what would it be?
EB: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is certainly the first I’d mention, though she is deeply misunderstood and her thought is not particularly systematic, so it takes some real study to cull out the genius of her work. (I make such an effort in my forthcoming book from Notre Dame University Press, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.)
I’d also recommend reading everything that Mary Ann Glendon and the late Elizabeth Fox Genovese and Jean Belke Elshtain have written. Glendon, whose Rights Talk had a life-altering impact on me when I read it in college, is the most significant influence on my own thought. Her dignitarian approach is one that, like Wollstonecraft’s, defends the basic dignity of every human being while also promoting the dignity of each person in a higher, older, sense: the common human vocation to live life excellently. This two-fold account of dignity that I believe ought to underlie our understanding of rights is why, at the end of my book, I call for a dignitarian feminism.
On the metaphysical questions involved, I have learned the most from my colleague, Angela Franks, with whom I co-teach a course, Man, Woman, Body, Soul in the Western Tradition. For a lucid representation of her work on these questions, see her short essay “What is a Woman?”
SS: Much of the discussion surrounding gender these days has to do with the rise of transgender ideology. As many authors have pointed out here at Public Discourse, the idea that you can have a male body and a female soul is based upon a mistaken, dualistic vision of the relationship between the body and the soul. Can you explain the right way of thinking about sex differences? Are our souls “male” or “female,” or is sex only a physical attribute?
EB: Yes, I think the fact that we’ve gotten the metaphysical questions wrong in this area since at least Descartes is the cause of all our troubles in thinking about our response to gender dysphoria. To restate my earlier response in your terms here, our souls (in the broad, Aristotelian sense) are not male and female but human; our sex, whether it be male or female, is not a mere physical attribute but an essential property of the person that impacts each integrated body/soul unity that is a man or woman in his or her own unique way.
The conclusion of my own 2016 Public Discourse essay on this question ties the threads we’ve been discussing together. As I wrote there,
Radical feminists should be commended for resisting the trans movement’s current attempts to erase the female body from our law. But a feminism that embraces abortion as its sine qua non must bear part of the blame. It is one thing to claim that traditional gender norms confined women unfairly to roles and traits that denied them the opportunity to use their talents to contribute to the broader community. Few would now disagree with that basic “gender” critique. It is another thing altogether to assert that the equality of the sexes depends on women having the legal authority to destroy the child’s body growing within their own body.
Like the transgender’s attempt to alter his given body to better fit his ailing mind, the abortion activist seeks to distort women’s given bodies to fit into a culture ailing in its hostility to dependent children. For a prior generation of feminists, the biological asymmetry between men and women was a prescription for authentic social change, not a license to distort the wondrous capacity of the female body. Thus, it is no surprise that a society that rejects women’s bodies and the bodies of their vulnerable children would now countenance a distortion in the law so great that it portends the ejection of every body.
SS: You wrote a great essay on the one hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, explaining how women made the moral case for giving women the right to vote. In recent years, a surprising number of young socially conservative women are embracing arguments against women’s suffrage. Part of the appeal seems to be a conviction that voting is overvalued, but a larger part seems to stem from the idea that politics is a messy business, and that women degrade themselves by participating in what should be a man’s game.
Have you encountered this line of thought? How would you respond to it?
EB: I do not think I know a single woman who subscribes to this view. But I do understand the frustration that those who wish to preserve the natural family have with the way rights are understood today. I share that frustration. So, in my work, I have drawn from an older tradition to better understand rights. As Wollstonecraft saw it, civil and political rights ought not be understood as tools of mere self-expression, conjured up and asserted according to human beings’ latest desires. Rather, properly understood, rights are necessary for each man and woman to virtuously fulfill his or her antecedent duties to self, family, society, and God. This was not only Wollstonecraft’s view; it was the one held by the great majority of women’s rights advocates in mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And, as I describe in my essay, it’s the view that carried the day among the women who supported suffrage.
I’d also want strenuously to caution women living in a relatively stable and egalitarian society like ours from taking for granted the privileges we have, and thereby implicitly undervaluing the importance of basic human rights for women, men, and children who live in other, far less stable parts of the world. It strikes me as a kind of Western myopia to discount how life-changing the basic rights women enjoy in this country—to marry freely, and, yes, to work, vote, hold political office—would be to women living in places like Pakistan, where a high court just this week held up the coerced “marriage” of a thirteen year-old Catholic girl and her forty-five year-old abducting “husband.”
SS: In many ways, it seems that second-wave feminism encouraged women to be like men, suppressing their fertility in order to pursue lucrative and prestigious careers. In my experience, millennial women seem to place more emphasis on the importance of choice, affirming that it’s okay to choose to be a stay-at-home mother if that’s what a woman really wants. Yet, at the same time, fertility rates continue to fall at alarming rates.
How do you think Generation Z will approach these questions? How might we encourage more women to embrace motherhood as well as career?
EB: It’s a very difficult and entangled question. Many people have reported that they aren’t having the number of children they’d like because they can’t afford to financially. Surely, assortative mating—where highly educated and highly paid double-income families raise the price on all of life’s necessities (especially housing)—has a good bit to do with the financial crunch single-income families (and especially single mothers) face today. So, too, does our growing tendency to view children as one consumer choice among many, as well as our country’s general inhospitality to family life.
But I think the fertility problems we’re now facing have more causes than self-reported financial constraints, for we don’t see this lack of desire for children among the poor. There is a kind of workism among the professional class which tends to locate one’s identity in work in a quasi-religious way. That’s a real pity, for I (the child of a thrice divorced mother) have found no greater—and unanticipated, I might add—joy than in the family my husband and I have created together.
It seems to me that we’re in a vicious cycle, where young people see few babies around—since there are fewer of them around—and those babies who are cooing (and crying) are tucked neatly away from the public sphere of life. Betty Friedan actually had a solution for a different problem that would help with our current one. She suggested that women in colleges might take their education more seriously if were there a greater “presence of women on [college] campus[es] . . . who have babies and husbands and who are still deeply committed to their own work.”
With some notable exceptions, we still do not encourage babies on campus, or anywhere else for that matter. If there were more women and men with babies at universities and other public settings, perhaps young people would come to see how very natural—and indeed, wonderful!—it is to raise children. But there is real hope in this realm too: the Rework Podcast recently interviewed executives at companies in both the technology and manufacturing sectors who have found ways to allow “babies at work.” As it turns out, these executives report that fellow employees are lining up to take a turn holding the little ones. This is cutting-edge stuff that I really hope we’ll begin to see more of.
I do believe that the single greatest gift my husband and I have given our older children was to welcome an unexpected child into our lives when I was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School. Charlotte, now two, is the very apple of all of our eyes. My thirteen, eleven, and nine-year-old sons have perhaps benefitted the most by her presence, though her sisters may dispute that claim. For those concerned about either “toxic masculinity” or declining interest in motherhood among young women, inviting more of our sons and daughters to experience the unrivaled delight a child brings—as well as the responsibilities she inspires—is my single best recommendation. For this reason and more, I look forward to hearing more soon about Catherine Pakaluk’s important work on women and fertility.
SS: In a recent essay at Slate, Abby Palko wrote that “My Experience as a Working Mother at Notre Dame Was Much Different From Amy Coney Barrett’s.” She recounts the difficulties she faced as a grad student and teacher at Notre Dame, which she says “did not make it possible for me to have a family of the size I wanted.” In her view, the GOP is weaponizing Barrett’s success as a way to avoid having to make real changes, such as providing paid maternity leave. Along similar lines, in an essay at Commonweal titled “What the Church Owes Families,” Annie Selak argues that “Paid family leave would help build a culture of life.”
What do you make of these arguments? Should pro-lifers be prioritizing “pro-natalist” legislation, such as paid maternity leave or a de facto child allowance (in the form of an expanded, refundable child tax credit)?
EB: Honestly, I am very happy to see this public conversation taking place, and across the political divide, so to speak. In Catholic quarters, these discussions have been happening for some time, and it sounds as though some institutions—including Notre Dame, if I understood the Palko essay correctly—are coming around, even if others are in need of more persuasion. Though financial constraints may not be a significant barrier for an institution like Notre Dame, small businesses and other institutions might have a more difficult time funding parental leave. Thus, I think it’s high time our governments found ways to do so. I’m very thankful that effort is now bipartisan, and I hope to see it come to fruition soon.
Nearly fifteen years ago, St. Thomas School of Law professor Elizabeth Schiltz wrote a provocative essay on these very themes that is still very much worth reading now. Her essay, “Motherhood and Mission: What Catholic Laws Schools Could Learn from Harvard About Women,” argues that the Church should be at the very forefront of those institutions that support the unpaid caregiving work women undertake in the family. Schiltz looks especially to Pope John Paul II’s teaching in Laborem Exercens, spelling out the ways in which the pope sought to see a revaluation of care-giving in the home:
First, [the encyclical] calls for economic compensation for this important work, either in the form of a family wage sufficient to support the needs of the entire family, or in the form of financial support for mothers who devote themselves exclusively to their families. Second, it calls for a revaluation of the work of mothers in preserving families, to ensure that women who do not work outside the home are not penalized for dedicating their energy to a function so vital for social development. Third, the Church calls for a restructuring of the workplace to ensure that women are not penalized in the workplace for the work they do within the family.
Schiltz, in this essay, and my EPPC colleague Mary Hasson, in a more celebratory setting, have argued that if the Church really believes women bring to the world a crucial and distinctive perspective from men—a “feminine genius” as John Paul II put it—then Catholic institutions ought to seek women out for leadership positions, whether in law schools or at the highest advisory levels of the institutional Church. Of course, the last decade has seen the institutional Church tap a great number of talented women for important roles, and I have no doubt that it will continue.
But to answer your question most directly, I do believe pro-lifers are right to think creatively not only about the kinds of policies that would support professional women (and men) who seek dedicated time away from work to spend with their families. But even more urgent are the kinds of workplace and legislative policies needed by working class parents, and especially single mothers, who do not tend to enjoy the kind of flexibility professionals often do. And, as we prioritize family-supportive legislation, we ought to ensure such policies do not discriminate against those parents who care (or ask family or friends to care) for their children in their own homes.
Indeed, I believe pro-lifers have the most cogent and coherent reasons for supporting this kind of legislation: the goods of the family and the virtues properly inculcated therein provide the very preconditions for every other public good. But our country’s current inhospitality to family life is not at all surprising, as law and policy over the past several decades have elevated the rights of the unencumbered, autonomous individual above our common and shared responsibilities to the dependent, weak, and vulnerable. Catholics are perhaps in a privileged position, by virtue of the great tradition of social teaching we’ve inherited, to stand up strongly for our common responsibilities to the vulnerable and dependent, and for those who care for them, too.
SS: One of the difficulties with attempts to build an influential coalition of pro-life feminists is that they don’t fit neatly into either party. In the Trump era, the divisions between Democrats and Republicans have become even more bitter. In the wake of the 2016 election, there was a huge wave of political activism among anti-Trump women, particularly in the suburbs. At the same time, the GOP has slowly started to move toward a more pro-family set of economic policies.
Is there room in the Democratic party of 2020 for pro-life feminists? Or will it be possible to build a “conservative feminism” that can overcome widespread perceptions that the party is anti-woman?
EB: These days, I think it’s clear that there’s no room in the Democratic Party for pro-lifers, period. I do think, however, there is a great opening at the state level among those pro-lifers who want to see legislation that attends to both the supply side of the abortion issue (by promoting restrictions of abortion) and the demand side (by promoting woman, child, and family-supportive policies). Perhaps with legislators like Marco Rubio, we might see such an opening at the federal level too. And, thankfully, we now have a Supreme Court that may just be willing to let such “whole life” policies stand.
SS: Thank you for sharing all of these insights with us! In closing, on a more personal note, can you tell us a little bit about your experience of having children while also building a career? What advice would you give to young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
EB: Thank you, Serena, for the wonderful opportunity to think all this through with you. In terms of my own experience, I would point first to the beautiful wisdom shared by the remarkable woman whom you referenced at the beginning of this interview: Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Responding to a similar question, she explained in an interview that she and her husband “had no plan” at the outset of their marriage about how they would negotiate the demands of home and work, but let things “unfold.”
I too have found that to be the single most important element of my own, albeit far more humble, work: trusting that when we intentionally order our loves properly, putting our marriage and our children first, God will employ our gifts and talents for our good, our children’s good, and the good of the world. As Jesse Barrett has shown in his own generous response to his wife’s elevation to the highest court, this attitude of docility concerning these matters ought not be only for women, even though women will undoubtedly continue to want to do a disproportionate share of the caregiving in the home.
A docility to the workings of Providence also means our lives will likely turn out differently than we thought they might. After graduating from law school with my first baby in tow, I fashioned myself a stay-at-home mother, until I truly felt wrenched out of the real work of building a home to respond to the arguments I had encountered in the feminist legal literature. Still just a part-time legal scholar, I deeply relish the work I do in both arenas of my life, and the great support I receive from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Abigail Adams Institute, my benefactors, and my husband and children most of all. I only wish more women had it so good.