One of the questions of this podcast has been: How do we begin to rethink feminism — given the fact that, in the current era, so many women are so unhappy? A group of powerhouse writers and thinkers gathered at Harvard last month to contemplate that very question. My guest on the podcast this week moderated that panel, which, one could argue, marked a major turning point in feminist thought.
Erika Bachiochi is an American legal scholar and author, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She’s also the founder and director of the Wollstonecraft Project at the Abigail Adams Institute, which publishes a new online journal, Fairer Disputations. Her latest book is The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Erika, welcome to Lean Out.
EB: Thanks so much for having me.
TH: You moderated the Rethinking Feminism panel at Harvard last week. This was a panel I thought was so exciting, I actually booked a flight to Boston to come down. I couldn't, in the end, because I had the flu. But I did want to have you on the show so we could discuss this momentous occasion. I do think it was a timely panel, one that is cementing a moment in feminist history. You had Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Christine Emba, author of Rethinking Sex, and Mary Harrington, author of Feminism Against Progress, all of whom have actually been on this podcast as well. In her opening remarks on the panel, Christine Emba posed a question, “What did the feminist movement aim to achieve — and what did it actually get? Why is there such a delta between what I think was the original vision and where we are now?” To start today, Erika, why is this such an urgent question in feminism at the current moment?
EB: In my book, The Rights of Women, I trace the cause of women's rights from the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft through a lot of legal history. What I claim and argue in that book is that we first understood rights as necessary for fulfilling responsibilities, and so the relational or interdependent nature that we have as human beings was very much at the forefront of that vision. I think what happened is that there was a devolution, or a wrong turn — most of us are marking it at the pill, which Mary, of course, calls the first transhumanist intervention — I think in the way that those kinds of responsibilities were eclipsed. Our family responsibilities were eclipsed, and the elevation of a male normative frame, both in how women engage in sex, how they work, those kinds of things, were elevated by that Second Wave of feminism. I think there are some great things in the Second Wave of feminism, including anti-discrimination laws that were some important correctives in our legal history. But I think for sure that there's been a way in which women's bodies, women's distinctive and really civilizationally important capacity for childbearing and desire — especially in caregiving in earlier years, especially, through nursing, et cetera — has really been discounted in modern feminism.
We've had this idea that tech can intervene and make us all equal through the pill and abortion. My argument is basically that, at the very outset of the women's rights movement, there was a desire to respond to the asymmetries between the sexes through moral claims about, say, male chastity, or social and legal interventions — property ownership, contract, entering into the professions, those kind of things — but with Margaret Sanger, there was a real shift to seeing that the problem was the female body and that we needed a technological intervention.
We're seeing the fallout from that now, I think. Because we haven't taken women's distinctive bodies and, really, needs and interests as seriously, and there's going to be a backlash for women who see that a lot of people are miserable right now and that it's really hard to raise children right now, and that the workplace doesn't really accommodate those kinds of responsibilities very well right now.
There's a bunch of us who are coming from different perspectives and different angles, but are starting to want to push back on this kind of hegemony, I would say, in modern feminism today.
TH: Louise Perry, who has written this radical critique of the sexual revolution, in her opening remarks for this panel, she noted that one of the things that she got the most flak for on Twitter was a chapter [title], “Men and Women are Different.” In your view, what does it mean that this has become such a contentious statement to make?
EB: I think that there's real historical reasons for the reticence among feminists — in a recent article in First Things called “Sex-Realist Feminism,” I trace it back to Aristotle — but I think you see that in our early history, too, that women's reproductive capacity really excluded them from the professions, from co-equal education, those kind of things. They were just seen as destined for the work of the home, all of which I think is great work, but they were really excluded from participating otherwise.
Feminism has been reticent to really acknowledge sexual difference for all those reasons. The thing is that, to my mind, as a legal scholar, sex discrimination law takes care of that. We don't really have to worry about that too much. And so why not acknowledge the way in which the sexes are different today? I don't think we have as much to fear as people worry about. I really trust our capacity to ensure that women won't be hurt by taking those differences seriously.
Louise and I come from different perspectives. She works in evolutionary psychology and biology, and I think her case in that book is incredible, is very, very good, and solid. I guess because I'm a lawyer, I want to make that appeal first, that we do have to look at why it was that people were worried and that's the response that people are having. But I do think even someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg was very open about the fact that of course there are sex differences. Not only physical, but potentially psychological, in the way that we react to things, in the things we care about, in our agreeability versus aggressiveness — all those kinds of things. Her point was: What does that mean for how I respond to the individual litigant in front of me?
That's what I would say. I think Louise is really good to talk about how — it's like Aristotle saw that, for the most part, these things are true, but that sometimes you'll have outliers. I think being responsive and respectful of those outliers are important. But we can't have those outliers silence the rest of human nature, and all of the ways in which men and women are quite different.
TH: Another point I wanted to touch on from the panel: Mary Harrington, in her remarks, and in her work, she talks about how the current liberal feminist thinking — the idea of using tech to free us from the constraints of our bodies — mainly serves the interest of a certain class of women. Elite, economically privileged, knowledge workers. And that the downside of this kind of radical cultural change are unevenly distributed, impacting working-class women a lot. She said at that panel, “Not every woman can live in the dematerialized world of information and ideas.” What are your thoughts on the class inequality aspect around this whole conversation?
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