The weakening of family structure scaffolding — including declining birth and marriage rates and a growing loneliness epidemic — has ignited debates around what’s contributing to this alarming trend. One of the more controversial questions being raised is the effect that feminism has had on family formation and child rearing.

This was the subject of a recent debate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, both conservative organizations. Erika Bachiochi, American legal scholar, author of “The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision” and director of the Wollstonecraft Project, sparred with Scott Yenor, a political science professor at Boise State University, over a central question: Does feminism undermine family?

It doesn’t have to, argued Bachiochi, a Catholic mother of seven. But the “pro-family” feminism she’s defending is not the version prevailing in the modern culture today. “What flies under the banner of feminism today is not actually feminism, but a corruption of feminism, born of the abortion-backed contraceptive revolution in the ‘60s-’70s,” said Bachiochi, a former self-described Marxist feminist and a convert to Catholicism. This kind of “autonomy” feminism, as she called it, equates feminism with sexual and reproductive rights.

Yenor, on the other side, argued that independence is a pillar of feminism, and by this definition, feminism compromises the mutually dependent community that is a family. “If I boil it down to one simple proposition, I would say that feminism is about cultivating a new kind of woman — an independent woman, a core of her identity is independent of marriage and family, of tradition; it’s independent of the country,” he said.

As she does in her book, Bachiochi laid out a case for a more “authentic” feminism — one that doesn’t negate or constrain women’s reproductive nature, but instead recognizes the “distinctive sexual, reproductive and caregiving needs of women as women.” This affirmative version of feminism, she argues, is a return to the origins of the vision espoused by first-wave feminists, who coalesced in the mid-19th century to advocate for women’s needs and interests amid increasingly industrialized society.

A different kind of feminism

Bachiochi is not alone in her advocacy for a reframing of feminism. In her book “Feminism Against Progress,” British author Mary Harrington writes that a more fitting term to describe modern feminism is “bio-libertarianism,” the idea that individual freedom can be extended to the realm of the body to the point of altering it and controlling it through various technological means. “The endpoint of a three-century struggle for ‘progress’, understood as individual separateness, has culminated in a political effort to eliminate all meaningful sex differences through technology,” Harrington writes.

Harrington’s theory of “reactionary feminism,” as she dubbed it, has resonated with “conservative Catholics, radical feminists, and the weird online right,” she told The Atlantic. Another British author, Louise Perry, argued in her 2022 book “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution” for an alternative to the prevailing sexual culture, “one that recognizes other human beings as real people.”

Bachiochi agrees that today’s “bio-lib” feminism is largely defined by its primary quest for freedom from all bodily constraints for a woman. And unfortunately, she said, both progressives and conservatives tend to regard this version of feminism as the only one that exists. “Frankly, an authentic feminism is needed to respond not only to the autonomy feminism of the left then, but the growing anti-feminism of the right,” she said.

Erika Bachiochi, left, American legal scholar and director of the Wollstonecraft Project at the Abigail Adams Institute, and Scott Yenor, right, professor of political science at Boise State University, debated feminism and family at an event in Cambridge, co-hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute and Intercollegiate Studies Institute on Wednesday, March 3, 2024. The event was moderated by Danilo Petranovich, center, director of the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge. | Mariya Manzhos

During the debate, Bachiochi said that the first wave of feminism relied on a few basic principles: that men and women are equally human, rational, responsible, and dependent on God and each other. This earlier vision of feminism also embraced the “biologically distinctive” nature of men and women and the idea that they experienced their reproductive roles “asymmetrically, with the burdens and privileges of reproduction and early caregiving falling disproportionately on women.”

That generation of feminists were concerned with both the rights and responsibilities of women. “They were after opening up opportunity in order for women to carry out their responsibilities, which included certainly education, professions, and economic opportunities.”

Most early feminists, Bachiochi said, opposed abortion and embraced caring for children as women’s responsibility. Women were urged to be physically and intellectually strong to carry out their duties for their own benefit as well as their children. They also called on men to embrace their responsibilities as fathers. But this important history is often lost today, she said, as feminism has become a kind of “radical liberalism, asserting the abstract rights of women alongside the abstract rights of men.”

While the early feminists fought for civil and political rights — speaking against slavery and child labor, property and contract rights, custody rights and access to education — these efforts were replaced by campaigns for birth control. “Offering women pills and surgeries to enable them to imitate irresponsible male behavior or just feed their families has short circuited what early feminism was so clearly seeking,” Bachiochi said.

‘We have no children anywhere’

Many women today are scared to have children, Bachiochi said. “We have no children anywhere,” she said. “They’re not on college campuses. People are hardly having any of them, so it’s hard for people to have an affinity for that.”

Bachiochi herself didn’t always see children in a positive light. She grew up in a broken home, and it was only after a conversion to Catholicism that her views on child rearing began to change.

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Women need to be around children to want them, she said. “There has got to be a way to bring the woman to the side of the child,” she said. “And the only way you can do that is by giving a really beautiful account of what it is to be a woman, what it is to be married, what it is to have children, what it is to have a beautiful collaboration with a man.”

Feminism stands in the way of this collaboration or “reconciliation,” Yenor believes.

In his view, marriage is a way of “reconciling different interests and different characters that men and women have.” But the way that men and women reconcile these differences is part of the larger social scaffolding of laws, manners and customs, he said. And when feminism is integrated into the laws and customs, he said, social dysfunction is sure to seep into family life. “When we replace the scaffolding with a kind of bizarro world, anti-matter scaffolding, we get less marriage, more misery, less fecundity, more loneliness,” Yenor said.

Yenor favors family wages with increased pay for men to support families and endorses policies like the one held by the Martin Marietta Corporation, which in the 1960s refused to hire mothers with preschool-aged children, spurring a lawsuit filed by a mother of seven who was denied a job. (The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the mother.) “That’s one way that you can have an economy that supports men and women doing different things in the family, and pays a wage that may be different between them,” Yenor said.

But Bachiochi underscored the context of the the Martin Marietta case: the mother of seven was married to man with an alcohol addiction and her job at a diner did not offer health insurance, plus she had a family member ready to watch her children. She had a duty to take care of her children, Bachiochi argued. “In this case — and this is very much in line with the principle of the early feminists —which was that they were seeking rights in order to carry out duties.”

One of Bachiochi’s recent efforts to articulate a more affirmative feminism is an online journal called Fairer Disputations.

Her advice for her conservative friends: “Don’t get trapped in these rigid understandings of masculine and feminine, but think about moral and religious excellence and sanctity, and that that’s something men and women do together,” she said. “A lot of that cannot be stated in legal codes, but it’s something that we experience together.”