Is there a feminist case for virtue?

I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.

Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairs that what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.

I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.

Another recent read, Susan Faludi’s superb 2010 essay American Electra, discusses the matricidal streak in the feminist movement. Faludi argues that what she calls this ‘persistent barrenness’ (in other words the repeated rejection by successive ‘waves’ of whatever their foremothers valued) has its roots in the 1920s. At this point, following the suffragists’ success in attaining votes for women, a movement that had sought political change with and in the name of its daughters fragmented from a more matrilineal approach toward an individualist, consumer one based on rejecting maternal heritage:

The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother. The forces arrayed against the mother were many. Some of her antagonists would be presented as allies, sympathetic “experts” who knew better than she did how to do her job. Mothers, the new and reigning “behavioralist” psychologists held, knew nothing about “scientific” child rearing and would do irreparable harm to children if they followed their own instincts instead of the male authorities.

To this end, mothers’ homespun skills were cast out in favour of ‘experts’, and crafts in favour of a newly consumerist expert-led womanhood. Faludi quotes sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who reported how daughters “fresh from domestic science in school” now “ridicule the mothers’ inherited rule-of-thumb practices as ‘old fashioned.’”

A glance around Mumsnet discussions on unwanted advice from one’s own mother says we’re still living in that world. Putting together Faludi’s connection of consumer society with that ‘matricidal’ streak in feminism, and my own exploration of the relationships between economic transition and the emergence of ‘women’s rights’ as such, I was thrilled to speak this week with Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and director of the Abigail Adams Insitute’s Wollstonecraft Project, about how on earth she found time to write a scholarly pro-family re-reading of Wollstonecraft while caring for seven children.

“That is maybe the question”, she told me. Her approach, I gather, was first having a very supportive husband, plus ensuring her children didn’t expect her to entertain them: “I’d be around, but reading”. But while she acknowledges that Wollstonecraft’s own life didn’t match the ideals she set out, Bachiochi tells me she wanted to write this book partly because “I actually have the family life Wollstonecraft describes”.

Bachiochi’s recent The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy seeks to recoup Mary Wollstonecraft from her current role in the pantheon as proto-liberal, for a more Aristotelian understanding of human excellence as rooted in our common experience of rationality and our obligation to order that to the good.

Wollstonecraft, as Bachiochi characterises her, wasn’t interested in a conception of humans with rights in some abstract sense, but in a more grounded, relational one: we have rights in order to do the right thing – which for her was centred around family life.

Bachiochi sets out the way Wollstonecraft challenged Rousseau’s vision of the ideal liberal subject, who was a male one possessing male virtues. Women, he thought, were fundamentally different, had their own set of virtues, and were (or should be) oriented toward pleasing men as well as manipulating them toward moral improvement by offering or withholding sex.

Wollstonecraft disagreed. “Wollstonecraft thought virtue was human, and God’s attributes reflected in humans,” Bachiochi explains. “You can only judge virtue by understanding the attributes of God, and it makes no sense to say they’re specific to sex.” But what about sex roles, then? “Different lives may mean different manifestations of virtue and these may be sexed; but virtue means using reason in principle to master one’s appetites. And that’s applicable to both sexes in pursuit of their duties.”

Wollstonecraft, she tells me, also saw how harmful Rousseau’s notion of sexed souls was for women, once you put it together with his idea that passion, not reason, should lead. “If we allow passions to direct, and we agree with Rousseau that men are more libidinous, then an ideology of passion means freedom mostly for men.”

Looking around, it’s clear who won. It wasn’t Wollstonecraft. One thing that intrigues me about this debate is the way it’s reproduced even among those who see themselves as fiercely anti-feminist: see for example the neoreactionary writer ‘Zero HP Lovecraft’ here expressing a very Rousseauian vision of proper relations between the sexes:Zero HP Lovecraft (HAVER OF VITAL MAGNETISM) @0x49fa98@JamesMaddenUWU @russiancosmist @The_WGD If your wife “thinks for herself” – that ain’t yo wife, that’s yo husbandAugust 23rd 202110 Retweets172 Likes

Much of what we understand as liberal feminism today consists, essentially, of women rejecting this contemptuously-framed role as second fiddle to the active, passionate, political man, and seeking to join men on the same terms. (The perennial question of who looks after the babies while we’re all smashing glass ceilings then spawns its own set of bitter debates).

In any case, Rousseau’s fantasy of a passive, second-order feminine Other to act as foil for his idealised, atomised, individuated liberal subject, is close to the beating heart of liberal modernity. And inasmuch as liberal feminism accepts these premises, and sees female humans as of a different metaphysical nature to male ones, it’s bound to reproduce its contempt for care and marginalisation of mothers.

Contrasting The Rights of Woman with my other two August reads, The Right To Sex and The Transgender Issue, it’s clear that the latter two argue from and within the matricidal tradition that’s descended from these early debates over sex roles, that took place in another immense economic transition. Srinivasan manages to write a whole book about sex without more than a passing mention of love, biology or children – all topics with more than a passing connection to the subject, or so you’d think. And Faye has argued convincingly for trans activism as the legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism’s intermittent trans-humanist fantasies of using technology to liberate women permanently from the need to be mothers.

As presented by Bachiochi, Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of women’s rights wasn’t rooted in repudiation of the obligations and bonds that come with motherhood, in pursuit of pure atomised selfhood, but rather conceived of as one-half of a common human enterprise centred in family life.

As such it’s clear that Erika Bachiochi offers a radical challenge to modes of feminism that have become entrenched orthodoxy. She mounts a defence of common life that centres motherhood to an extent even I, a purported ‘reactionary feminist’, find challenging. That is, she situates the most profound marginalisation of mothers in the drive – led by feminists seeking freedom on equal Rousseauesque terms with men – for abortion rights.

Abortion, Bachiochi argues, has resulted not in greater freedom or equality but more ‘sexual risk-taking’ that largely benefits men, even as it places the women’s movement ‘on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood’.

This is a difficult and emotive subject, and one I approach with some caution. So for now I’ll just say that we continue our steady advance into the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’, a worldview that sees us all – and women especially – as endlessly malleable flesh, and human fertility largely as a biotech market ripe for opening up. And in the light of these changes, it’s possible – though I reserve judgement still – that we may yet find ourselves needing to argue, for women’s sake, against a medical practice that in an earlier socioeconomic context seemed unambiguously to be in women’s interests.

In any case, Bachiochi makes a spirited feminist case against abortion, in the interests of re-situating mothers and motherhood in the women’s movement. And while I have a great deal more thinking to do before I commit myself either way on this topic, as a reader it was a blessed relief to step from the arid, disembodied, amoral circumlocutions of The Right To Sex to Bachiochi’s warm, woman-centred moral clarity.

Two books, then, feted in the mainstream, in different ways pursue the ever-more-disembodied vision of human selfhood first envisioned by Rousseau: a vision that structurally marginalises care, women and motherhood and takes entry into the market and public life plus the medical interruption of pregnancy as core political aims. This tradition has, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned as its logical daughter a ‘transfeminism’ that unmoors ‘womanhood’ from bodies altogether, in the name of self-realisation and individual freedom.

A third, considerably more marginal book argues the case instead for an engaged, relational understanding of women’s rights and interests, centred in a common human pursuit of excellence and rooted in virtue the obligations of family life – to the extent of challenging our contemporary view of abortion as a feminist ‘right’ as inimical to that pursuit of virtue.

This right here is the emerging terrain of feminist debate in the early twenty-first century. Are we still killing our mothers? What if any are the links between matricide and feticide? Is there a feminist case for virtue? I’m going to leave this open, as this post is now long enough, but this is challenging terrain and merits a great deal more thought.