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Christmas reads 2021

The year posed questions, and these books answer them

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December 23, 2021

This year, Erika Bachiochi won the dubious honour of being perhaps the first feminist to have been threatened with no-platforming by a conservative association — for being too conservative. In late November, the female board members of New York University’s conservative law association, the Federalist Society, resigned over its decision to invite the feminist legal scholar to speak. In their view, Bachiochi’s campaigning work against abortion renders her beyond the pale.

America’s abortion debate has always been fraught, but this past year it has been particularly eventful. Whether the introduction of “heartbeat rule” restrictions in Texas, a challenge to those restrictions by The Satanic Temple, or the recent Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case challenging the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks, it’s been a bumper time for heated debates about the morality, legality and broader social implications of allowing women to terminate pregnancy.

Bachiochi and her opponents are speaking from either side of what is perhaps feminism’s central question: how to balance individual freedom against our human obligation to dependents. It’s a debate Bachiochi traces back to the very dawn of modernity, in The Rights Of Woman: Reclaiming A Lost Vision. Her title is a homage to her subject Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is widely viewed as the first proto-feminist text of the modern age.

The ‘pop’ history of liberal feminism tends to start with the campaign for suffrage, and tells a linear story of progress toward autonomy for both men and women, on exactly the same terms. Wollstonecraft is consistently claimed for this camp, as a foremother of modern feminism. But Bachiochi, in her book, sets out to reclaim Wollstonecraft from the progressives.

Wollstonecraft’s 18th-century world vibrated with new thinking on reason and individual liberty, which was driving revolutionary ferment in France and America. But, Bachiochi points out, these debates also wrestled with an intractable fact: autonomy is a more straightforward proposition for men than women. Women, in Wollstonecraft’s day, had little control over their fertility, save by practising sexual abstinence. Babies and children take a lot of looking after. How, then, were ideals of individual liberty to be balanced with the evidently asymmetrical burdens of human reproduction?

The godfather of modern liberalism, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, solved the question of sex asymmetry in Emile (1762) by excluding women. Only men were eligible for autonomous liberal subjecthood, while women should be educated to serve as pleasing, compliant and fertile support humans.

Wollstonecraft demurred, as well she might. But she didn’t do so by arguing that men and women were indistinguishable. For if this idea remains contentious today, amid bitter political rows over male-bodied trans athletes in women’s sport, it was self-evidently absurd in an age without reliable birth control and heavily powered by manual labour. Rather, she acknowledged men and women’s asymmetrical physiology, especially where reproduction is concerned.

For most women, she argued, motherhood and family life are both ennobling in themselves and compatible with other activities in the wider world. Wollstonecraft blamed untrammelled male libido for many woes, stating that “the grand source of many of the… evils that torment mankind, as well as of the vices and follies that degrade and destroy women” was down to “want of male chastity”.

But while Wollstonecraft saw the sexes as physiologically different, she saw that we share a common dignity and personhood. Both sexes also share a capacity for reason, virtue and human excellence. Confining women to the simpering supporting-cast role proposed by Rousseau was therefore both unjust and foolish.

Instead, she argued, girls should be educated alongside boys and to the same rigorous standard. Both sexes should treat family life as the central ground for the cultivation of virtue. It generated “duties which give birth to affections that are the surest preservatives against vice” — ones that demanded “exertion and self-denial”. It was thus, she thought, particularly beneficial for men, curbing libertine or selfish urges in favour of “a sober manliness of thought, and orderly behaviour”.

In Bachiochi’s book, we see Wollstonecraft’s legacy percolate through the 19th-century American women’s movement — in which the tension between individualism and life in common hums. On one side, liberal voices such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that marriage should be reframed as a contract, to make it easier for abused women to escape oppressive husbands. Others more committed to the notion of marriage as covenant argued that this would in practice mainly liberate men to abandon their wives and children.

The solution, the latter suggested, wasn’t more individualism but better-behaved men. Drawing on Wollstonecraft’s call for a common sexual standard, applicable to both men and women, 19th-century feminists proposed resolving the sex asymmetry via “voluntary motherhood”. Even within a marriage, this group declared, men should remain sexually continent except where a woman was willing to become pregnant. And this discipline, they thought, would be especially beneficial to the cultivation of male virtue, as well as mutual conjugal respect and the responsible exercise of patriarchal authority.

Demanding more of men was a far surer means to improving women’s lot, they insisted, than technologies to manage fertility. “Voluntary motherhood” advocates worried that far from protecting women, contraceptive technologies would make it more difficult for women to refuse unwanted sexual contact, liberating men to exploit and even rape women without fear of practical consequences.

These bleak misgivings turned out to be prescient. As the writer Virginia Ironside wrote recently of her own youth in the Sixties: Armed with the pill, and with every man knowing you were armed with the pill, pregnancy was no longer a reason to say ‘no’ to sex. And men exploited this mercilessly.” And, Bachiochi argues, women consenting to unwanted sex was not the only downside of the pill.

Contraception may have reduced the rate of accidental pregnancy as a total proportion of casual sex, but the existence of contraception so radically changed social norms that much more casual sex took place. And contraception was only mostly effective – so the absolute number of accidental pregnancies went up. This in turn drove feminist demands for legal abortion — a practice Wollstonecraft, and most 19th-century feminists, viewed as abhorrent and indistinguishable from infanticide.

And as feminist campaigns to legalise abortion gathered steam, their arguments turned chiefly on personal autonomy. Betty Friedan argued in 1967 that a woman’s “right to control her reproductive process” was core to the “personhood and dignity of woman”. The feminist jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg went further, saying that the right to terminate a pregnancy was key to affording women “equal citizenship status”.

But this had repercussions for how our societies make sense of motherhood. In effect, Bachiochi argues, making “equal citizenship status” contingent on the power to end a pregnancy entrenched in law a Hobbesian view of the “state of nature”: a vision of “radically autonomous and self-interested male and female individuals”. Indeed, I’ve written on several occasions about the liberal world’s blind spots concerning motherhood, dependency and care. But on abortion, I’ve always been in the “safe, legal and rare” camp. So I found this book challenging, for Bachiochi makes a persuasive case that as long as we uphold women’s right to end a pregnancy, we conclusively favour the Hobbesian vision of selfhood over one that makes room for dependency and care.

As the pro-life feminist Clair de Jong put it in 1978, “Accepting the ‘necessity’ of abortion is accepting that pregnant women and mothers are unable to function as persons in this society”. US President Joe Biden’s recent description of mothers as “locked out of the workforce” by caregiving responsibilities is typical. Mothers are, in effect, illegible to the prevailing conception of personhood — which is based on market participation — except when we detach ourselves from caregiving, which is seen largely as an obstacle to that participation, and therefore to self-realisation.

An unborn child is absolutely dependent on its mother, and she cannot be replaced. Within an atomised understanding of what humans are, we have no way of weighing competing interests in such a context. And if personhood relies on us having absolute autonomy over our bodies, we must begrudge any claim, however slight, of a dependent baby still contained in that body — lest its rights-bearing nature conflict with ours.

Polls consistently show us to be ambivalent on this question, across both sexes. More women than men believe life begins at conception, while in this 2017 poll, 41% of UK women supported reducing the gestation limit to 12 weeks or lower, compared to 24% of men.

We can only resolve this via positions most people find intuitively repellent, such as the claim that signs of trying to avoid pain aren’t evidence of life. Or even, as the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Peter Singer argues in Practical Ethics, that because “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time,” therefore “they are not persons”. If you’d told me, when I was grieving a pregnancy loss, that I was mourning “little more than cells and electrical activity“ I’d have punched you. And yet we nod along to this idea in other contexts, where doing so supports women’s bodily autonomy.

The atomised vision of personhood is nigh-on unchallenged today. So, many decades into the victory of autonomy over dependence, in the name of feminism, it’s easier to see why even Right-wing young women were unwilling to hear Bachiochi’s arguments. The Right may speak more warmly than the Left about family life, but while we grant personhood and citizenship on the basis of bodily autonomy, what sane woman would seek to deny those goods to her own sex?

Yet abortion rights cut to the heart of yet more contentious issues on the feminist Left. Here, bitter debates rage between those who denounce the marketisation of women’s bodies, for example in surrogacy or the sex industry, and those who defend such practices as potentially empowering and limited only by the need for individual consent. But most feminists on either side of even these fierce disagreements are unanimous on the need to protect a woman’s right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy.

Bachiochi, though, makes an uncomfortable argument that cuts across both these positions. Nothing, she suggests, could more viscerally epitomise the conflict between the individualistic logic of the market, and a more communitarian one that values and centres dependency and care, than the question of abortion. A women’s movement that “regards abortion rights as equal citizenship rights”, Bachiochi suggests, has already conceded nearly the entire battle on valuing dependency: it has “surrendered, once and for all, to the logic of that market”.

And this means, in effect, that the central political demand of feminism is for women’s rights to enter a “marketplace” of notionally free, unencumbered individuals on the same terms as men. To compete in the workplace without asymmetrical reproductive handicaps; to live without strings. In other words, to be functionally indistinguishable from the most Hobbesian vision of men at their most radically rootless.

And from this vantage-point, even those feminists who resist the claim that “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman” find their proposition fatally undermined if they support abortion. For if Bachiochi is right, then they are defending the distinction between the sexes while fiercely committed to the medical intervention most critical to collapsing the distinction between the sexes. Can we really protest the degradation of feminism into a campaign to free us from our biology, while digging our heels in to defend a vision of personhood that rests on exactly that? For 21st-century feminism, the question of choice poses some difficult choices.

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