A Lost Feminist Vision? The Case of Mary Wollstonecraft

Emily Dumler-Winckler on Erika Bachiochi

The Rights of Women
Erika Bachiochi, The Rights of Women. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. Pp. 402. Hardcover $125.00, Paperback $35.00.

In March of 2018, two artists and their models were unveiled as finalists for the honorary statue of Mary Wollstonecraft to be installed in North London. The alternatives could hardly have been more disparate: Maggie Hambling’s model, an abstract silvery form crowned with a nude “everywoman” meant to stand for liberty as freedom from constraint; and Martin Jenning’s model, a heroic depiction of Wollstonecraft confined to eighteenth-century corsets and garb, a relic of the past. Never mind that nudity and nostalgia represent, in visual form, the philosophical alternatives Wollstonecraft refused. The committee commissioned Maggie Hambling’s ten-foot figurative sculpture.

In November 2020, the sculpture was installed in a park in Newington Green, NorthLondon. Many were overjoyed and incredulous that it has taken two-and quarter centuries to erect a sculpture in Wollstonecraft’s honor. Meanwhile, Twitter erupted with a firestorm of feminist joy, incredulity, and snark about the statue itself.

Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. Sculpted by British artist Maggi Hambling.

The feminist debates about how best to memorialize Wollstonecraft are reminiscent of the Revolution debates of the 1790s, which Wollstonecraft helped to ignite. Yet, the two models and subsequent disputes resemble the philosophical views that she refused: the more conservative and traditionalist garb of Edmund Burke and the ancien régime, on the one hand, and the revolutionary Jacobins who would strip France of all such garb, on the other. Wollstonecraft adapted Burke’s metaphor of the wardrobe of a moral imagination in order to tailor, redesign, discard, and supplement garb in the inherited wardrobe. She did not wish to discard the virtues that sustain the common life of families, social institutions, or political economies. But she did reject so-called sexed virtues, altering what counts as virtuous and its implications for gender norms and educational, legal, political, and economic reform and revolution.

Erika Bachiochi, in her book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, offers a memorial to Wollstonecraft, an effort to reclaim the moral vision of this early feminist for our time. Wollstonecraft is most famous for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). As Bachiochi’s title suggests, she wants to reclaim for contemporary feminists the vision that she finds in Wollstonecraft’s landmark text. Tracing the intellectual roots of the women’s movement in the U.S. to the English feminist, she catalogues the legal, economic, and social gains of the movement through the first half of the twentieth century.

Despite the celebration of such advances, Bachiochi’s story is one of decline, of the eventual loss and even contradiction of what she takes to be Wollstonecraft’s moral vision. The sexual revolution of the 1970s and Roe vs. Wade are central to the declension narrative. Unlike their predecessors, the story goes, these feminists adopted libertarian views of autonomy, choice, rights, and liberty. That is, they understood liberty as freedom from constraint, moral obligations, and duties. They may still talk of love and charity but they do not, perhaps cannot, say what this means or entails. If Bachiochi is roundly and even rightly critical of libertarian elements in contemporary feminism, elements reflected in Hambling’s design, her own monument tends toward the other end of the spectrum, espousing a conservativism much closer to Jenning’s model.

Wollstonecraft would likely be thrilled that the feminist movement has developed through its various waves to encompass such a range of views and commitments. Conformity was never her aim. Feminism today is marked not only by conservatives and liberals (the binary at the heart of Bachiochi’s book), but also by Black, Marxist, postcolonial, decolonial, care, queer, TERF, TIRF, and intersectional feminists of various stripes. Still, I will suggest, Wollstonecraft appears an unlikely heroine for Bachiochi’s aims.

Women’s rights hold a certain pride of place in the U.S. cultural wars today. All wars have a history. Bachiochi wants to orient the reader to the history and landscape of these wars and the battlefield of U.S. legal theory. But she is no neutral party. She also seeks to enlist new recruits. Legendary heroes, heroines, and myths often play a central role in recruitment efforts. Bachiochi claims Wollstonecraft for the cause. To this end, the book begins by acquainting readers with Wollstonecraft’s moral vision of human nature, virtues, and ends. For those who have never heard of Wollstonecraft, much less read her work, Bachiochi’s introduction is fitting. It remedies our collective amnesia. For readers of Wollstonecraft who have ignored the central role of religion and the virtues, it serves as an important corrective. As Bachiochi notes, for Wollstonecraft women’s rights were never an end in themselves. The ends rather include “freedom for excellence,” freedom for virtues, human flourishing, and common goods. This vision of freedom shaped the women’s movement in the young U.S. republic. Fearing that this moral vision is all but lost among contemporary feminists, Bachiochi provides a heroine and her vision as corrective. That Wollstonecraft is already iconic among Bachiochi’s more progressive cultural-war opponents, does not deter.

Bachiochi serves as an arbiter for the culture wars when she notes the deficiencies on the so-called right and left. Both sides err insofar as they assume an autonomous, independent individual qua consumer as the bearer of rights and a libertarian notion of freedom. Both sides fail insofar as they discount the importance of familial dependence and caregiving. For all their merits, rights to workplace equality and universal pre-schools, for instance, are no help to parents who prefer to care for young infants in the home, rather than outsourcing care. Many will agree with Bachiochi’s arguments about the limits of capitalist markets and workplace equality, if not her claims about their causal and conceptual relations to abortion rights. But Bachiochi seeks not to mediate so much as to convert.

Why then does Wollstonecraft appear to be an unlikely heroine for Bachiochi’s position and narrative? Bachiochi unapologetically enlists what she calls the eighteenth-century feminist’s “radical vision of sexual integrity” for her twenty-first century antiabortion, pro-natural fertility, heterosexual, and nuclear family-centered cause. Yet, we might ask: what is in such an appeal? Is Wollstonecraft justly conscripted for each of these causes? Scholars often turn to figures of the past and their texts in an attempt to correct misinterpretations or interpret them on their own terms, as far as possible. Bachiochi’s first two chapters are devoted to interpreting Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman. Scholars might also turn to such figures and texts in an effort to bring the author’s insights to bear on questions they did not or could not have asked in the same way in their own time, questions of import for our own time. Bachiochi employs this method throughout the rest of the book. Yet, the lines between the two modes of analysis often blur and the latter inform the former.

As for the interpretation, Bachiochi’s reading of Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Men seems to be overdetermined by her commitments to an admittedly Catholic and conservative vision of the heterosexual, nuclear family, and the prolife agenda as defined by the political Right over the past half century. While the first chapter provides an excellent overview of Wollstonecraft’s central moral commitments in the Rights of Women, the second gives the virtue of chastity a somewhat exaggerated pride of place. Granted, Wollstonecraft does argue that men should cultivate chastity every bit as much as women and blames licentious men for corrupting the institution of marriage and all manner of social evils. Yet, in Bachiochi’s treatment chastity appears amplified and disconnected from the larger social, political, and economic concerns at the heart of the work. As she admits, the English feminist lamented that women’s virtue and reputation was often confined to questions of chastity and the other spurious cardinal “virtues of the sex.” But for Wollstonecraft, the main problem was not only confining chastity to women. She primarily criticized cultural norms that made sexuality the central feature of a virtuous reputation and failed to distinguish reputation from virtue. This conflation of reputation, sexuality, and morality undermines ethical formation. Ultimately, she worried about over-emphasizing chastity for women and under-emphasizing chastity for men for the same reasons: the detrimental moral as well as social, political, and economic effects for women.

Bachiochi’s emphasis on chastity prior to and within marriage as well as on the institution of marriage itself, appears even more overstated if one considers Wollstonecraft’s other works and their biographical context. The posthumous memoir by her adoring husband, William Godwin, unwittingly scandalized many readers for precisely the reasons Wollstonecraft had denounced the centrality of chastity in the first place. The sources of scandal were sexual and gendered: her bid for a platonic ménage à trois with the Fuselis, conceiving both of her daughters outside of wedlock only to be abandoned by the father of the first, and helping her sister to escape from an abusive husband, which facilitated the death of her newborn. As Bachiochi observes, there is a danger in letting Wollstonecraft’s biography distract from her written contributions. Still, her work—including early and late novels, educational and travel literature, a Female Reader, political treatises, review essays for the Analytic Review, and a history of the French Revolution—is best understood in relation to her association with the radical dissenting community, her own radical life, and her revolutionary times. It is true, as Bachiochi argues, that Wollstonecraft defends women’s rights for the sake of virtue or human excellence. Still, the radical feminist serves as an unlikely heroine for the particular vision of excellence commended in this book.

To assess the constructive argument of the book, two questions seem crucial: first, has Wollstonecraft’s moral vision of justice, socio-political reform, and excellence been lost? And, regardless, what might it mean to reclaim or extend it today? Bachiochi’s argument that feminists have replaced Wollstonecraft’s vision of freedom for moral excellence with libertarian autonomy appears limited. There’s certainly some truth to this claim. But many feminists would tell a more nuanced story about the diversity of goods, aims, and ends that the modern feminist movement seeks, and the various visions of excellence within the movement. Indeed, feminist care ethicists like Eva Feder Kittay, from whom Bachiochi draws support, have long challenged such libertarian strands. Bachiochi worries that the woman’s movement and to some extent modernity as a whole lack a language to celebrate faithful heterosexual marriages, sexual integrity, or devoted parenting as “manifestations of human excellence that cohere with human flourishing.” But it is not clear, to this reader, that this worry is justified.

Many feminists would not object to the celebration of ethical excellence, though they might object to the narrowness of Bachiohi’s particular vision of human excellence. Feminists have celebrated the love and devotion found in same-sex partnerships and marriages, the courage of single mothers who make a way out of no way, the churches that welcome and support families of various types, and the communities that find ways to care for the poor and exploited while seeking more just social arrangements. Arguably, the women’s movement has not so much lost Wollstonecraft’s vision of moral excellence as extended it by continuing to expand the forms of excellence that might be socially recognizable today.  Bachiochi’s effort to reclaim Wollstonecraft’s moral vision, however narrowly conceived, is laudable even if less has been lost than she imagines.

Still, the second question remains. What would it mean, in Bachiochi’s view, to reclaim this vision and is Wollstonecraft justly enlisted in these particular causes today? Given what we know now, how might Wollstonecraft think about questions of workplace equality, social support for families, universal preschool, sex, sexuality, marriage, and specifically contraception and abortion? Given the sea changes in gender theory, social norms, laws, technology, and economics since her time—including but not limited to the normalization and legalization of same sex marriage, the advances in contraception, early detection, and technologies of abortion and fertility, not to mention late-capitalist economies and labor markets—what causes might she endorse or condemn and how would we know? Put differently, what practices, institutions, laws, and technologies would Wollstonecraft condone or condemn to support human excellence and flourishing today?

The attempt to say how Wollstonecraft’s work bears on the complexities of contemporary questions is somewhat fraught though not doomed. Wollstonecraft’s views and prescriptions regarding such matters were inescapably shaped by the contingencies of her own historical context. Nonetheless, certain of her commitments may serve as a guide. Wollstonecraft’s arguments for rights had freedom of conscience and the cultivation of virtues such as justice, courage, and wisdom as their end. Yet, she was keenly aware that such virtues are exercised amid unjust relations and systems, amid sexual asymmetries and their attendant injustices, amid “wrongs,” that plague women of every station and particularly the poor and enslaved. For these reasons, it seems odd to enlist her definitively on either side of the contemporary polarized and polarizing debates about women’s right to a safe abortion or a fetus’s right to life.

We have good reason to believe that Wollstonecraft would still commend the same human or cardinal and theological virtues today. After all, these are enduring features of human excellence, even if the exercise of such virtues is less a matter of prescription than practical judgments, practices, and habits. We may also safely assume that her impassioned quest for justice and her opposition to domination, exploitation, and the abuse of power in all its forms would continue to animate her commitments today with respect to labor, immigration, prison reform or abolition, slavery, trafficking, and equity for women. Unlike Bachiochi, I am not convinced that Wollstonecraft would endorse the movement for voluntary motherhood or natural family planning as practices of self-mastery over and against twentieth-century contraceptive methods. It is not clear to me that Wollstonecraft would agree, as Bachiochi claims, that access to safe abortions has either relieved men of the mutual responsibilities of sex, upended mutual duties to care for children, diminished caregiving generally, or led to the sexually predatory behavior exposed and denounced by the #MeToo movement.

Long before Roe v. Wade, Wollstonecraft knew all too well the detriments of an abusive father, the abandonment of her lover and the father of their child, and the sexual asymmetries in caregiving born by women generally. It is likely that Wollstonecraft would refuse, as she did in her own time, the options enshrined by the culture war camps—pro-life or pro-choice—neither of which capture the complexity of women’s lives, options, or ethical commitments. Conceivably, she would advocate for social policies that support women, children, and families, biological and adopted alike, aware that such policies help to make abortions rarer, while not denying the importance of making abortions safe, legal, accessible, and affordable for those most in need.

Wollstonecraft was a consummate pragmatist, not in the sense that she abandoned ideals, but because she held that ethical ideals are embodied by moral exemplars who manage to cultivate the virtues amid systemic and relational injustices. For this reason, I suspect that she would accentuate the need for the moral education or formation of all citizens, and yet insist that we need to trust women to discern with others what is best for themselves, their families, and the communities they inhabit. She was no libertarian, but she was also wary of entrusting the state with additional regulatory powers, particularly over the poor, women, and the enslaved.

It is worth naming one final danger in this way of narrating the rise and fall of the women’s movement. Like other nostalgic efforts to make America great again, Bachiochi tends to romanticize American life and the women’s movement prior to the turning point of the sexual revolution. She admits that racist views persisted among some of the early suffragists and that the want of social support always asymmetrically burdens the poor. But the fact that racial injustice beset the movement from the beginning, including its scope and aims, does not affect the narrative of ascent and decline. The inference seems to be that the sexual revolution poses a greater danger to the ideals and aims of Wollstonecraft’s moral vision than racial and class based injustices. But that would represent an significant departure from Wollstonecraft’s ethical vision. Indeed, Wollstonecraft adamantly opposed systemic social, political, and economic injustices related to class, race, and gender, and grasped, at least in part, what we might now call their intersectional relations. She understood, that is, the ways that all manner of domination, exploitation, and oppression thwart human excellence and flourishing. For these reasons, insofar as the feminist movement remains excessively white and bourgeois her ethical vision is indeed worth reclaiming today.

I earnestly commend Bachiochi’s book to a wide audience and to feminists of every stripe, not least because the women’s and LGBTQAI+ movements may yet inhabit a broad tent. Doing so requires that we listen in good faith to one another and seek to understand the various concerns that animate a range of causes. Coalitional work across partisan or ideological lines will depend on finding shared aims and common ground without resolving all other disputes in advance. Bachiochi’s book provides hope that this work remains possible even in our deeply divided time. If her memorial to Wollstonecraft resembles Jenning’s model more so than Hambling’s, we are better off with both than none at all. Moreover, all memorials are born of love and so seek to represent the beauty of the life and work they memorialize. This is certainly true of The Rights of Women.

Emily Dumler-Winckler, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Constructive Theology at Saint Louis University.She is the author of the forthcoming book Modern Virtue: Mary Wollstonecraft and a Tradition of Dissent (Oxford University Press, June 2022.) Twitter: @edumlerw.