Reclaiming feminism from the logic of the market


This essay is an excerpt from Women’s rights: recovering a lost vision by Erika Bachiochi © 2021 University of Notre Dame Press, published today.

When founded in the 19th century, America’s first feminist movement worked hard to resist the powerful pull of market values ​​into the personal lives of men, women, and children. These women recognized early on that the finest, truest, and most beautiful things in life would never be counted in the growing industrial economy or valued by a salary.

They clearly foresaw that the character-building and solidarity work they did with their husbands, uplifting new generations of Americans in the virtues of collaboration, reciprocity, trust, and caring for others, could be undermined by the materialistic tendencies of the new economic trade, even though these virtues make such an economy viable and sustainable in the first place. Through their political advocacy for joint ownership, workers’ rights, suffrage and more, these women have sought to legally and politically elevate the essential work of the house: this person-centered island in a sea ruled by the market.

Over the past half-century, this traditional resistance to the pervasive logic of the consumer market has withered, and more often than not feminism has also given in to its worldview. Today, mainstream feminism promotes a vision of freedom as an autonomous choice, which is most clearly manifested in the popular abortion right slogan “right to choose”. Parenthood is increasingly seen as just one lifestyle choice, and for mothers, an added “opportunity cost”. The value of children (and other dependents) is too often subjected, like other “trade-offs” in the market, to an individual (or social) “cost-benefit” analysis.

The women’s movement of the past 50 years has made extraordinary strides, not least of which is the recognition of women as equal before the law. The myriad and diversity of capacities, interests and capacities of women, especially as opportunities are increasingly available to them, know no end. Credit can be given to today’s women’s movement for finally ending the ways in which the unequal legal status of women in the family and in society had unfairly subordinated them for too long.

But today’s feminist movement has been slower to recognize that abstract rights only lead women so far. Pushed to their limit as a simple power to choose, abstract rights tend to eat away at the very conditions that make their exercise worthwhile and humane. Other valuation considerations, in particular our shared responsibilities to the vulnerable and dependent, are subordinate to the autonomous, duly free self, so prized in the “good life” of our late modern capitalist society. And this consuming, choosing, disembodied self leaves no room for the concrete asymmetries inherent in sexual intercourse and reproduction, as well as in caregiving. The bridge is stacked today against pregnant women and caring families: the very ones to whom future generations will owe their existence and well-being.

Without a substantial exposition of human freedom and its own end, human excellence, the essential human goods of children, family and community, so necessary for genuine human flourishing, are subordinate to the dominant value of the human being. choice dictated by the logic of the market. We end up with a culture that amplifies consumerism, the workaholic, and the relentless pursuit of power, wealth and pleasure. And although this new American way of life may appear for the benefit of the rich, well-educated and otherwise privileged, none of this bodes well for children and other vulnerable populations.

Protesters attend the rally at the Washington Women’s March on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Mazur / WireImage / Getty Images

Women’s rights are no different; without an account of what freedom is for, feminism ends up appropriating a market orientation as well. Individual choice must be maximized without an obvious limiting principle and without due regard for the apparent goods that are chosen. As a result, the modern feminist movement as a whole struggles to condemn epidemic pornography, child genital mutilation at the behest of sectarian gender ideology, and other forms of sexual exploitation (of “sex work To casual sex now normative). He insists on retaining “consent” as the highest value in the sexual context, even as asymmetric power disparities rightly challenge this concept in other fields, and a growing number of women ordinary people deplore today’s male sexual norms.

In the now dominant logic of the market, marriage, children and care – human goods that have been affirmed and celebrated throughout human history – are treated as mere individual preferences with substantial financial consequences. Private goods made mediated by private choices, the inherently public nature of these goods and the community and political responsibilities they imply are largely forgotten. The rich are hardly touched by such cultural amnesia, as many persist in living relatively family-centered lives, but the poor are stripped of that essential family and community substructure on which they could find their own place and place. rise above their situation.

It is not surprising that while law and policies over the past decades have elevated the rights of the isolated, free and self-reliant individual above our common and shared responsibilities to the dependent, weak and vulnerable , our workplaces have not become much more welcoming to those who care for these people. The community at large has also failed to find ways to support this most essential work.

Feminists of the 1970s believed that free and easy access to abortion would allow women to achieve unparalleled levels of autonomy, allowing them to take full advantage of the new freedoms and opportunities available to them. But maybe the easy access to abortion in the United States has made it possible women to exploit more fully in the workplace and in the bedroom instead.

Rather than making room for dependent people and the asymmetrical caregiving duties inherent in both sex and caregiving, we sought to remake women (and men) in the exalted image of the always competitive, bearer of rights, free, maximizing pleasure, autonomous individual of the imagination of Thomas Hobbes. And we now see in practice, especially among the most disadvantaged among us, what this much-vaunted abstraction tends to deliver: mothers and other caregivers who have to fend for themselves, and sex that is reduced to sport.

Of course, it is possible that a real breakthrough took place in the mid-1970s, and that the old ways of thinking about freedom and its responsibilities were relegated to the dustbin of history. Women are obviously better off today, pussy hats and everything. All they need is their greater access to power. It is more likely, in my opinion, that old conceptions of freedom have simply been forgotten or unfairly dismissed along with contemporary historical ideas and practices that modern feminists have rightly considered unjust. But historical overviews do not need to be appropriate with all of the coincidental conditions that have accompanied them historically. Wisdom can transcend time and space, and serve as a course correction, if we allow it to do so.

It would surely be difficult for feminist activists of the 1970s to re-imagine a women’s movement without the right to abortion at its very center. These feminists remember a time when women were seen as designed only for domestic life, when women’s views were underestimated, and when mothers were seen as more capable and essential to the education of their children than women. fathers. For feminists of the 1970s, restrictions on abortion seem to betray precisely this view of women, a view that unfairly confines women only to motherhood, with no respect for their contributions beyond.

But for those of us who grew up with the anti-discrimination skills of the 1970s firmly in place, there is no doubt that women are as capable of achieving academic and professional success as men. The questions now are why the essential work of caring for dependents – always undertaken disproportionately by women – is not as valued and supported as it should be, and why poor women, in particular, continue to be deprived of paternal support, both themselves and their children. so heartily needed. These are the questions that a renewed feminist movement must seek to resolve. And rethinking the country’s dependence on abortion as the preferred response to sexual asymmetry would be a good place to start.

At this time in our nation’s history, where the consumerist approach to freedom tends to dominate our cultural sensitivities, where the quest for autonomy is elevated above the family and community preconditions of any freedom we might enjoy. , where our ability to raise moral leaders has compromised, it is time once again to remind our nation of its most fundamental moral proposition. All human beings are created with equal dignity and worth. But such dignity finds its true nobility when, as former women’s rights defenders understood, each of us is encouraged and empowered by our families and communities to strive for moral excellence in all that we do.

Today, perhaps more than ever, this noble vision is once again commended to us.

Erika Bachiochi is a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute where she leads the Wollstonecraft project.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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