“When I was at Middlebury, I was a women’s studies student and called myself a socialist feminist. So, I very much fit in with Middlebury’s politics at that point,” recalls Erika Bachiochi. She is today a Catholic legal scholar, author of a new book entitled The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Vision, and holder of fellowships at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, Mass., where she is founder and director of the Wollstonecraft Project.  

A book boldly entitled The Rights of Women projects a certain radicalness—evoking perhaps Delacroix’s painting of Liberty, a woman holding aloft the flag of revolution, leading the people onwards towards the barricades. But Bachiochi’s book might be seen as a kinder, gentler manifesto on the rights of women, with rights grounded in virtues and obligations. She takes her cue from the 18th century English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which came out in 1792. In Bachiochi’s view, too much attention has been paid to Wollstonecraft’s unconventional private life, marriage to the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, and her role as the mother of Mary Shelley, wife of the poet and author of Frankenstein. For Bachiochi, Wollstonecraft was a serious moral and political philosopher in her own right, and one whose thought is worth reclaiming today.

“A key thread that runs through my book is that we’ve abandoned the way the early women’s rights advocates—first, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft—thought about rights,” Bachiochi tells IWF. “Rights were always seen in relation to obligations, indeed, rights were necessary to carry out obligations. We as Americans have a Lockean conception of rights. Locke’s philosophy is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the concept of consent of the governed, for example. Obviously Locke’s influence is very important. But Locke’s understanding of rights is based on his mythical state of nature in which human beings are equally independent and autonomous. It’s difficult to make room for women in that conception of rights – though liberal feminists have tried (and failed in my view)– because women are so obviously interdependent—but then again, so are men, right?

Starting in the 1970s, the feminist movement began to reject a holistic, responsibilities-based approach to rights, Bachiochi argues.

“When you look back at Wollstonecraft, she is really arguing with thinkers like Locke and Rousseau and their faulty state of nature theories. Wollstonecraft wants to go back to an older understanding of the human person as necessarily interdependent and necessarily obligated to others.” This concept of rights grounded in obligations can be glimpsed, Bachiochi argues, in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, the manifesto of the first women’s rights convention in the United States, which took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.

“Like Wollstonecraft, the Seneca Falls Declaration looks back to older human ideals, bringing forward the view that women have rights because of their common capacities with men and their common responsibilities as human beings. I have the right to a coequal education with men, and entry into the professions, because first I have responsibilities. I have the responsibility to strive, as Wollstonecraft would put it, to live life excellently, pursuing the human ends of virtue and wisdom. I do this, first and foremost, by carrying out my duties to my family, God and others. Wollstonecraft saw men and women as equal in this regard.” 

Starting in the 1970s, the feminist movement began to reject a holistic, responsibilities-based approach to rights. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which came out in 1963, was a key milestone in the journey away from the Wollstonecraft brand of feminism, even as Friedan captured some of Wollstonecraft’s themes. “Friedan is an interesting figure,” says Bachiochi, a slim, angular woman with casually-styled long dark hair and an engaging smile. “She and civil rights attorney Pauli Murray coauthored the original statement for the National Organization for Women. It includes a lot of talk about responsibilities. It says that we need to be shaping social institutions so women can participate in the public sphere without conflict with their responsibilities as wives and mothers, as homemakers even. They even talked about men and women as partners. It is nice, rich language.

Back at Middlebury, she was about to experience yet another transformation, this one not initially welcome either.

“But the trouble with Friedan is that she ultimately views self-actualization as the highest end of human beings, and so she never gets to the idea of virtue, which calls us to something higher than self. Yes, she wants women to be excellent. She talks about pioneer women, for example, who were doing economically important things as agrarian housewives. Yet, in The Feminine Mystique, Friedan sees work in the marketplace as more important than work in the home. She has pejorative words about homemakers—she calls them parasites.

“I use Wollstonecraft’s thought to correct Friedan,” Bachiochi continues. “I correct her by saying that actually it’s the market that’s parasitic on the work of the home; it’s not the work of the home that’s parasitic on the market. We need robust families that are inculcating virtues in order for people to be fair-minded and trustworthy in the marketplace. There are all sorts of virtues one learns (or should) in the home that underpin our political, cultural, civic, and economic institutions. That’s what I think Friedan missed. She sees the telos of human beings in terms of self-actualization instead of something higher: acting for the good of others and the good of all.”

Bachiochi has set for herself nothing short of the task of reclaiming for feminism the earlier view of rights and obligations that she finds enshrined in the philosophy of Wollstonecraft. She would like to see high ideals and elevated discourse restored to a movement which she believes has trafficked in vulgarity and sexualized, degrading views of both men and women, epitomized in the “pussy hat,” in the 2017 Women’s March. It was a striking contrast to the 1913 Women’s March, which also took place in Washington but featured allegorical floats, bands and idealistic suffragettes given to high-minded discourse. The cause of women’s rights, Bachiochi is arguing, can do better—again. If you are reading this profile, it’s a safe bet that you will be pleased to know that Bachiochi regards IWV’s “Women’s Bill of Rights,” which recognizes inherent biological differences between women and men, as a step in the right direction. In signing IWV’s “Women’s Bill of Rights,” she wrote, “That this particular Women’s Bill of Rights is necessary in 2022 would be shocking to women’s rights advocates throughout U.S. history. But know well: whatever their other intramural disputes, this well-drafted statement would have been easy to sign — as it should be for each and every advocate of women and girls today.”

Bachiochi regards IWV’s “Women’s Bill of Rights,” which recognizes inherent biological differences between women and men, as a step in the right direction.

Bachiochi was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, the daughter of a woman who would go on to divorce three times. Erika and her mother and brother moved to Maine, after her mother’s second marriage. After “tumultuous” teen-aged years, when she lost two friends to suicide, Erika graduated from the Camden-Rockport High School and then enrolled in Middlebury College, the private liberal arts college in Vermont. “While I was at Middlebury,” Erika recalls, “I started to experience a real change in how I saw the world. It was slow but took place during those last two years of college. I started to question the linkage between the quest for women’s equality and freedom with the sexual revolution. I began to question the idea of free sex and whether sex was ever free for women. After all, there are all sorts of asymmetries when it comes to sex. Men and women engage in the same act, but only women can potentially get pregnant. Women are the ones who have estrogen – the love, connection hormone – blasting through their bodies. Men are the ones who have testosterone blasting through their bodies, giving way to stronger libidos and more interest in low-commitment, low-cost sex. I started to see that the sexual revolution was kind of built for undisciplined male sexuality. That realization became something of a theme for me.”

At the same time, her ideas about politics and economics were also undergoing a sea change. A semester at American University in Washington—known as “the Washington semester”—accelerated this change. Bachiochi was also interning at a think tank called the American Institute for Full Employment, and there she met Chuck Hobbs, who had served as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan. “Being at Middlebury and being a big Bernie Sanders fan at that point, I had no idea that there were conservatives who wanted to think seriously about ways to help the poor,” Bachiochi remembers. “I opened my mind to a whole other political party and another way of thinking about poverty relief and welfare.”

Back at Middlebury, Bachiochi was about to experience yet another transformation, this one not initially welcome either. “I got back to campus,” she says, “and it was a crazy time in my life because of the intellectual upheaval in so many arenas. I met some Catholics on campus who were studying philosophy. I too had become interested in philosophy and had enrolled in a couple of classes. I had been very anti-Catholic as a feminist even though I had been baptized a Catholic as an infant. I did not intend to but, as many Catholics do, I read myself into the Church, or back into the Church. I had already questioned the sexual revolution and had already had a change of heart on abortion. So I was in a good position to see the coherence of Catholic teaching, that the whole beautiful array just makes sense.” She dropped sociology and women’s studies, switching her major to political science and focused on political philosophy. 

She then decided to pursue a master’s degree in theology at Boston College. It was while she was studying at Boston College that she met the Catholic legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law, emerita, at Harvard University, and former Ambassador to the Vatican, who would become an important mentor. Bachiochi herself has published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Christian Bioethics (Oxford University), The New York Times, The Atlantic, First Things, CNN.com, National Review Online, National Affairs, Claremont Review of Books, SCOTUSblog, and Public Discourse. She lives outside Boston with her husband, a tech entrepreneur. They have seven children, ranging in age from twenty years old to four years old. The youngest is a daughter, who was something of a surprise. “I became a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School once my sixth child, a son, had started school. I had begun research for my book, and then our youngest daughter arrived. Thankfully, I’ve had tons of help from friends, and my husband is, well, a man among men, with a strong dedication to our family. I’ve always been very happy to work part-time, but I’ve been able do more professionally now that all my kids are in school.”

The Rights of Women, which came out last year, was so important that Law & Liberty devoted an entire symposium to it, exploring how a more coherent view of women’s rights might be restored by, as Bachiochi hopes, “reclaiming a lost vision” that can be found in Mary Wollstonecraft and other thinkers. Yuval Levin, who provided a blurb for the book, notes that while it tells the depressing story of the decline of movement feminism, it offers “a way to recapture the ideal of dignity that gives meaning to equality by grasping that the ultimate purpose of human freedom is human flourishing and excellence.” The Intercollegiate Studies Institute named the book one the best conservative books in 2022. 

We often complain that feminism has been hijacked, but maybe it’s time to start plotting to reclaim feminism, and, if so, this recovered women’s studies major is just the woman for the job.