The Rights of Women:
Reclaiming a Lost Vision
by erika bachiochi
notre dame, 422 pages, $35
In 1891, Charlotte Perkins Gilman announced the extinction of the Angel in the House. Gilman, author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was one of many feminist writers who had struggled to eradicate this image of meekness and domesticity, which defined what it meant to be a respectable woman in the nineteenth century. The Angel in the House flourished in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as production moved from household and farm to factory and city. While women in the laboring classes went to work their shifts, the Angel remained in her middle-class home. Her influence suffused the domestic sphere, elevating her husband, who was degraded by commerce and base instinct. Her purity was guaranteed by her lack of agency. He was worldly, she was otherworldly. He worshipped her, she submitted to him.
Today the Angel in the House has no distinguished defenders. The idea that men and women should inhabit separate spheres runs counter to the demands of professional-class womanhood. Yet the Angel in the House continues to enjoy a ghostly afterlife, lending her support to movements that do not recognize their reliance on her. In debates over abortion, #MeToo, and campus rape, activists on both the left and the right understate women’s agency in order to uphold an image of respectable femininity. The Angel in the House may be dead, but she is not gone.
The Angel in the House received her name from the title of a poem by Coventry Patmore. Appearing in installments between 1854 and 1862, the poem became an international sensation, selling more than a quarter of a million copies. It drew sharp distinctions between men and women, in order to justify a sexual hierarchy. In Patmore’s telling, women are “marr’d less than man by mortal fall.” As morally superior beings, they enjoy an easy spiritual life. “She succeeds with cloudless brow,” Patmore writes, while man “fails, in spite of prayer and vow.” All but unstained by original sin, the Angel in the House was a democratized version of the Virgin Mary, an immaculate and interceding mother.
It was unthinkable to fault such a creature. “Blame her not,” Patmore wrote, “Nor ever say . . . aught / Against that perfectness.” If the woman did fall into error, the gallant man, “though from blemish clear,” would claim the fault as his own. Patmore’s exalted view of female virtue was of course patronizing. Because the Angel was immune to temptation, she was incapable of moral heroism. As one character puts it:
But I, myself, I never could
See what’s in women’s being good;
For all their goodness is to do
Just what their nature tells them to.
Now, when a man would do what’s right,
He has to try with all his might.
Patmore’s ideal of womanhood was anti-egalitarian. Stressing the differences between men and women made it seem natural that the sexes should occupy separate spheres. Woman’s moral elevation compensated for and justified her practical subordination, on the theory that such fine creatures should be protected from rough commerce. These notions fit well with Patmore’s broader political vision, which celebrated religious authority and social hierarchy. One of his bitterest poems, “1867,” decried the extension of the franchise to working men.
And yet, the Angel in the House represented a creative response to changing conditions. No less than the spinning jenny and the steam engine, the Angel was a product of the Industrial Revolution. It had not been possible to regard the home as a refuge from commercial life until industrialization moved production out of the household. The idea that women should be above worldly concerns seemed plausible only because a rising middle class could afford domestic staff. The Angel in the House enjoyed such wide and abiding appeal, far beyond those who read Patmore’s poem, because it corresponded to the concrete realities of a changing world.
However deluded Patmore may now appear, he at least never suggested that his ideal could be reconciled with a politics of equality. The same cannot be said of those who now invoke his notions of feminine impeccability while professing egalitarian philosophies.
Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women is the most impressive anti-abortion book to appear in years, both for its genuine insights and for the clarity and forthrightness with which it advances certain mistaken assumptions. Bachiochi is sometimes described as a conservative, but as a young woman she volunteered for Bernie Sanders, and her book criticizes the free market as well as the killing of the unborn. Bachiochi celebrates many of the achievements of feminism up to and including the antidiscrimination measures of the sixties and seventies. But she believes that feminism has gone astray in its embrace of abortion and contraception and its denigration of chastity. Bachiochi argues that the deregulation of sex has empowered men and harmed women. A thoroughgoing feminism, she believes, would reject abortion and contraception and require men to live continently.
Bachiochi deserves credit for showing that business interests are not always on the side of virtue and good order. In one especially compelling chapter, she revisits the Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v. New York (1905), which struck down laws that limited the number of hours bakers could work. The Court deemed these labor protections unconstitutional infringements on citizens’ Fourteenth Amendment rights, raising the hopes of feminists who wished to overturn restrictions on women’s participation in the workforce. This alignment placed “equal rights advocates firmly on the side of business interests,” Bachiochi notes, and not for the last time.
Yet Bachiochi’s book partakes of one major defect of social conservatism, which it shares with the contemporary left: a sentimental valorization of women, made possible by an unbalanced picture of men. Much of Bachiochi’s argument derives from her reading of an unexpected figure: Mary Wollstonecraft, familiarly associated with Enlightenment liberalism and even sexual libertinism. In Bachiochi’s telling, Wollstonecraft emerges as a champion of chastity as well as a scourge of men.
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published at the end of the eighteenth century, is a diffuse work, but one of its recurring claims is that female weakness and depravity “branch out of one grand cause—want of chastity in men.” Wollstonecraft argues that men are “more under the influence of their appetites than women” and that “their appetites are more depraved.” They are the ones who seek sex, so they are to blame when a woman aborts or abandons her child. “The little respect paid to chastity in the male world,” Wollstonecraft concludes, “is . . . the grand source of many of the physical and moral evils that torment mankind.”
Drawing on Wollstonecraft, Bachiochi vindicates women by incriminating men. She argues that easy access to abortion creates the kind of permissive sexual culture desired by men, the negative effects of which “redound disproportionately to women.” In this sense, men are the grand source of the evil of abortion. In an interview with the New York Times, Bachiochi observes, “It sounds like I’m just blaming men. But men have blasts of testosterone beating through them.” Bachiochi concludes that men’s “efforts at self-mastery are more laborious.”
It’s hard to disagree when Bachiochi expatiates on the depravity of men. Like most stereotypes, those she invokes are grounded in fact. Yet while saying something true, Bachiochi perpetrates a larger falsehood. She speaks of the faults of one sex but not those of the other, in a manner that suggests only one half of the human race was subject to the Fall. She describes men realistically in order to treat women sentimentally.
If women had no base motives, they would be less subject to those of men. Bachiochi is right that men who want sex without consequence benefit from abortion. But she downplays female libido to the point of denying it. More fatally, she fails to account for the fact that women benefit in material ways from abortion rights. Bachiochi writes that Roe v. Wade “liberat[ed] men, but never women, from the consequences of sex.” That is a partial account at best. As countless feminists have pointed out, abortion backstops and guarantees women’s ability to participate in the labor force. It permits women to enjoy sexual relationships while pursuing professional careers. Many women desire both these things. Not unreasonably, they want to be responsible. And they believe that abortion can be a responsible choice.
Bachiochi’s book expresses a view typical of the pro-life movement, which consistently downplays women’s agency in seeking abortion. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson, progressives have worried that women will be subjected to criminal penalties for seeking abortions. Pro-life groups, in an impressively unified response, have rejected this possibility. A letter from more than seventy pro-life leaders issued in the run-up to Dobbs declared that “women are victims of abortion” and described prosecuting them as “antithetical” to the movement’s aims. A viral video from the anti-abortion group Live Action asserted, “Abortion is not really about what women want. . . . Abortion is about men.” It is worth noting how sweeping these claims are. The leaders of the pro-life movement are not content to observe that historic anti-abortion statutes generally targeted abortionists rather than women, nor to point out the powerful prudential reasons for concluding that women who seek abortions should be spared prosecution. They assert that women are victims of abortion, as innocent of the act as the unborn themselves.
More than sixty million American children have been aborted since Roe v. Wade. Supporters of abortion are eager to proclaim, and opponents are reluctant to admit, that almost all of these deaths resulted at least in part from a woman’s choice. Pro-lifers are correct to say that men frequently bear a share of responsibility for abortion. They are right to point out that abortionists profit from the practice. A few, like Bachiochi, accurately state that our economic order promotes and relies on the killing of the unborn. But the anti-abortion movement, reflecting the tenets of pro-life feminism, goes far beyond acknowledging these realities. It absolves one party by blaming another.
It is easy to see why the pro-life movement repeats these claims. It draws its power not only from the moral case against killing the unborn, but from a vision of motherhood that owes more than a little to the patriarchal ideal once championed by Coventry Patmore. According to this ideal, women find their fulfillment in motherhood and domesticity. They naturally love and care for their children. Admitting that tens of millions of American women have freely chosen to kill their children falsifies this ideal. It is a reminder that not all women can or will be good mothers.
Uncomfortable as these facts may be, there are costs to the pro-life movement’s sentimental presentation of the relations between men and women. One is suggested by Bachiochi’s repeated reference to “the harrowing stories of the #MeToo movement” in support of her claim that “easy abortion access has emboldened men to reclaim [sexual] prerogative.” The #MeToo movement was and is notable for its contempt for due process, rejection of the presumption of innocence, and indifference to journalistic standards. Several of its targets—unheralded names including Benny Fredriksson, Jill Messick, Carl Sargeant, and Armando Vega Gil—have committed suicide.
Bachiochi’s uncritical acceptance of the claims of #MeToo is a measure of how much certain strains of the left and the right have in common. For #MeToo relies on the same notions of weak, blameless femininity and powerful, perverse manhood advanced by pro-life feminists. (It’s worth noting the centrality to #MeToo of the notion that women lack agency in their relations with men—that they are innocent “pawns being pushed around,” as the prosecutor put it in one high-profile trial.) Yet it is doubtful that the two sides finally want the same thing. Bachiochi’s book has been received warmly by social conservatives, not because social conservatives are committed to feminism (even in its pro-life form), but because their Patmorean ideals of the purity of women and worldliness of men are consistent with Bachiochi’s feminist account of the relations between the sexes.
Can feminist arguments help conservatives build the order they desire? About a decade ago, I attended a dinner at which a prominent journalist urged her fellow social conservatives to talk up the fact that one in five American women are sexually assaulted while in college. She believed there was no clearer demonstration of the need for a revival of chastity. There was only one problem—the statistic is false. As KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor Jr. have shown in an important book, The Campus Rape Frenzy, the most reliable data for the period, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, suggests that the incidence of sexual assault on campus is around one woman in forty, not one in five. Yet on the basis of that discredited statistic, the Obama administration moved to solve what Hillary Clinton described as an “epidemic” of campus rape. Following guidance from the administration, colleges erected Title IX tribunals that stripped the accused of due process and the presumption of innocence. Gross miscarriages of justice ensued. Far from gaining a new dawn of chastity, social conservatives who repeated the false claims had become complicit in a cruel folly. They had done so not out of cynicism, but because their sentimental ideals blinded them to reality.
Feminism owes much of its success to the same habits of chivalry that it claims to oppose. Americans often accommodate feminist demands out of condescension rather than a principled commitment to equality. They agree that women deserve better treatment, higher praise, and more patient attention not because they share the politics of Wollstonecraft but because, mutatis mutandis, they are attached to those of Patmore. Like Patmore’s England, today’s America is invested in the social and moral prestige of middle-class women. But Americans today regard it as natural and right that middle-class women should have professional lives. They have also dropped the Victorian valorization of sexual modesty. Presenting middle-class women as above reproach (the Angel in the Office) even as they pursue sexual relationships and professional careers is easier if we affirm that they lack agency in their relations with men (“pawns”) and are incapable of lying (#BelieveWomen). These conceits have allowed the burden of proof to shift readily to the accused in the legal and pseudo-legal proceedings of the last few years. In #MeToo and the Title IX tribunals, we observe not the triumph of equal rights but a hewing to the dictum that the purity of women (of a certain class) must not be doubted.
Yet as feminism has advanced, the sentiments on which it depends have receded. A young man who is taught that it is sexist to pull out a chair for a woman may see no reason to defer to women in other contexts. Boys raised in the regime of the #girlboss may feel little instinctive consideration for women’s feelings. Men told that they are a “grand source” of evil may have a hard time seeing how they can be good.
Marriage, the traditional means of reconciling the sexes, has declined for reasons that are at once economic and cultural. Making it more accessible would be the best way to reduce resentment between men and women. Of course, any substantial move in that direction will tend to conflict with the right’s celebration of economic freedom and the left’s pursuit of equality.
Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that anti-feminist sentiment is rising among young men. A recent poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center asked Democratic men whether feminism had done more harm than good. Only 4 percent of older Democratic men answered yes—compared to 46 percent of younger Democratic men. These young opponents of feminism are not the products of a patriarchy. They were not taught to behave gallantly toward women. They thus do not feel bound to accept every claim made under the banner of women’s rights. This last fact is a good thing, even if one laments the disappearance of chivalry.
In the wake of #MeToo, men need to consider the implications of feminist rhetoric. When people describe a class you belong to as a unique source of evil, you should listen carefully. Several years ago, the hashtag #KillAllMen became common on feminist Twitter. It was hyperbolic, but it was not, as the journalist Ezra Klein argued, merely another way of saying “It would be nice if the world sucked less for women.” The same people who used that hashtag went on to defend Title IX tribunals and celebrate #MeToo. Their words reflected, if not a desire and intent to inflict harm, then a willingness to look away as others did so.
In the name of dismantling old hierarchies, we have elevated members of victim classes above those seen as privileged. This is why the testimony of women is assigned greater weight than that of men—in Title IX tribunals, in trials by media, and increasingly in courts of law. It is also why women, in turn, are compelled to share their spaces with a more prized victim: the transgender woman. There is no end to the creation of new victim classes, resulting in the subordination of those who were once on top. Feminism, insofar as it insists on the purity of women and the depravity of men, participates in this process. It tends toward the creation of new hierarchies—ones that may prove to be less bearable than the old.
Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.