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Feminism Toward Peace

Mary Harrington’s new book offers more substance than mere criticism.

Daily Life In Gaza, Palestine
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A feminism that promotes female flourishing cannot be found in a tech-optimistic future. It cannot be found in eliminating sex differences, nor in a return to one of the previous “waves,” nor even, as some conservatives have suggested, in the 1950s and its “Cult of Domesticity.” The path forward, argues Mary Harrington in her debut book Feminism Against Progress, is in a “reactionary feminism” that is so old it’s new: a future animated by a concept of female fulfillment that predates the Industrial Revolution. It’s a refreshing idea in a field that is crying out for living water. 

The core concept of reactionary feminism is that women ought to be the measure of feminism’s success. That means all women, not merely laptop class childless women, and in particular mothers, since mothering is the exclusive work of women, despite every technological attempt to the contrary. The ideal Harrington imagines is “a world where every baby is welcome, and this welcome is not in zero-sum competition with an understanding of personhood so atomized that mothers are by definition un-persons in the course of embodying that welcome.” 


What is the problem against which this new feminism reacts? A couple of ideological flashpoints come to mind, namely the transgender movement, which seeks to erase all differences between the sexes, and the fertility crisis, in which a majority of women are dissatisfied with their fertility, even in the face of unprecedented tools such as egg harvesting, in vitro fertilization, and social surrogacy. In Harrington’s view, these two flashpoints are related. Both have been spurred not simply by the feminist movement, but more broadly by the liberalization of Western society and key technological advances that have shaped the way women and men relate to one another and to the market. 

The first and most influential technological change Harrington identifies is the Industrial Revolution, and the marketization of the home that it began. Prior to industrialization, the home was the primary economic unit, and the work done by the men and women within it of equal value. While men typically performed duties requiring brute strength, women took responsibility for the majority of childcare, doing other in-home tasks, such as weaving and gardening, that were maneuverable around that care. In such an arrangement, male and female roles were in harmony with the sexes’ physical capabilities as well as with one another, Harrington argues, so that even the worst of men and women could form fruitful partnerships that benefitted both society and themselves. 

This was important, because men are not angels, and the material consequences of sex (pregnancy and childrearing) fall asymmetrically, with the majority weight on the woman. But the material value a female could add to a man’s household in the agrarian era meant he had an economic interest, if no other, in protecting and providing for her. 

The Industrial Era brought radical change. “If your concept of personhood is based on market participation, mothers don’t really show up as ‘people,’” Harrington writes. Cottage industry became factory jobs, and while women often still worked them, having few alternatives, it was at the expense of their own health and that of their children. The tales of children born on factory floors to women too impoverished to take maternity leave are an indelible image of the post-industrial female’s struggle; it’s an image that returns later in Harrington’s account, in the female surrogate who carries and births a child for the joy of another woman. 

“Big Romance” attempted to solve this imbalance of power by capitalizing on romantic love. “Under the new regime of economic dependence, mutual affection in marriage took on new significance for women,” Harrington writes. Since a young woman no longer added economic value to a man’s household, professional matchmakers and parents took great interest in making her an object of entertainment and attraction to a man of good standing and wealth—and, importantly, keeping her out of his bed before the marriage was secured. The devices of romantic love worked to protect women by maintaining their monopoly on sexual access, to counterbalance the male monopoly on economic and political power. So long as both pieces held, a tenuous balance was struck. 


The Pill upended that balance. Once the old material consequences of pregnancy and child-rearing had been removed, sex fell quickly from a controlled substance to a casual act. In theory, this second major technological change meant a woman no longer had any more to lose than a man did by her promiscuity. This enabled the “deregulation, enclosure and commodification of sex—and with it, the extension of the market society to sexuality, in the creation of a so-called ‘sexual marketplace.’” 

The internet radicalized this marketplace, even as it further removed sex from material reality, allowing men and women to recreate themselves online. It also allowed them to access any sort of sexual material their mind could come up with, no strings attached. This is of particular importance to Harrington, who sprinkles her account with hints at her own history as a young woman growing up in an era of radical autonomy and sexual experimentation. She describes the internet as a powerful drug for her, as it was for so many others of her generation. She also refers to a period during which she went by the name “Sebastian.” The selfish relationships and the emptiness that followed, the tragic expectations to engage in horrific acts, are personal for Harrington, who tactfully skirts details. 

The result of this free market wasn’t a Hayekian spontaneous order. Instead, it was self-commodification: “With sex thus subject to market logic, the main consideration in arranging it—as in any other transaction—is that both parties agree to the deal.” This resulted in an all-out war between men and women, with each side using every available bartering chip to extract as much as possible from the other party.

Feminism and technology destroyed the guardrails between men and women, but not their differences. Consider the primary goal of feminism, women competing as equals with men in the workplace. Here too there is war, not between women and men but between a woman and her own body. If competition is to be fair, men and women must be interchangeable. But it turns out women still want children; they just want someone else to care for them when it’s difficult. 

This opens another hostile front, this time between the woman and her baby, who is a hindrance to her ability to be present in a job the same way a male can be. Harrington refers to this hostility as the archetypal “devouring mother,” which describes the “suffocating ‘care’ of a risk-averse third party pseudoparent” who does the work of raising the child while the real mother rejoins the rat race. This “devouring mother” might be a nanny, or perhaps a daycare worker, or more broadly she could be the arm of the state, which does the real work of molding children in the modern era. Regardless of who she is, her presence results in deep dissatisfaction, not only to the children who are objectively worse off in her care, but also to the mother, whose “ability to be attuned to and present for their babies” has likewise been devoured.

There’s also a technical problem here, one that serves to animate the latter half of the book for Harrington. Namely, which women are actually liberated by this feminism? As it turns out, not very many. The women “liberated to fly high” are mostly good white liberals, knowledge workers who rarely, if ever, encounter real sex differences in their work. These “priestesses of cyborg theocracy,” are those who “predominate within the wider ecosystem of institutions that shapes the modern moral universe”—that is, in education, law, media, and especially HR (they compose more than 70 percent of this class of workers in the United States). 

The priestesses’ tech optimism has paved the way for the transgender movement’s acceptance within feminism, despite their blatantly opposed interests. This is because, at their roots, both feminism and transgenderism harbor a religious belief in the ability of technology to free men and women from their physical nature, toward a neutral, unsexed “human.” Harrington calls this “biolibertarianism” or “meat lego gnosticism.” In short, if nature is mutable, then flesh means nothing: bodies can be chopped up and rearranged at will to serve the autonomous, self-creating soul that inhabits them.

The cyborg priestess has a vested interest in defending this biolibertarianism because, as Harrington notes, the minute we acknowledge sex differences below the neck, “this increases the risk that someone might resurrect the discussion of such differences ‘above the neck’ too.” But outside the laptop class, in places where these differences are more visible, others are carrying the costs of our failed attempts to create humans with no nature. The technology that was supposed to make us more “human” by way of freedom from biological constraints is instead making us less so. “The endgame,” Harrington writes, is “our total reconceptualisation as de-sexed ‘people,’ as ‘sex workers,’ as ‘lactators,’ ‘menstruators’ and ‘gestators,’ or simply as ‘donor tissue.’”

In juxtaposition to all of this, Harrington posits her own vision of what feminism should be, and what it might be, if it can divorce itself from meat lego gnosticism and rampant commodification of men, women, and sex. This involves following in the footsteps of those who have detransitioned, Harrington says: women must “seek a measure of peace with our own bodies.” It’s a radical call, one that flies in the face of the bulk of feminist thought up to this point, as it aims to harmonize, rather than tyrannize, embodied womanhood. 

The project will be to tear down the Industrial Era cult of individual autonomy, and to turn the atomized approach of “women’s rights” into a more integrated “women’s interests.” This means, among other things, playing nice with the boys. Harrington argues for more male-only spaces: “We cannot…wring our hands about men’s ailing mental health while reacting with fear and hostility to every fraternal organization that focuses on practical activities and produces, apparently as a side effect, more confident and well-adjusted men.” We want good fathers and husbands, don’t we? “If we want to see more of these in the world, we need to step back a little, and let them create one another,” Harrington advises. 

There is one more piece that must fall, and here Harrington is at her most reactionary. Feminist women, she says, must give up the Pill and “rewild sex.” 

The problem with a sexual marketplace is that sex becomes too common. Pervasive pornography access, not to mention presumably moral women selling themselves in more subtle forms on social media, have created a “widespread societal indifference to sexual stimuli,” Harrington writes. The Pill adds to this by taking all the risk out of the sexual act itself, so that neither societal norms and propriety nor the material consequences of creating a whole new human life inhibit lust.

In de-risking sex, this technology has made [sex] ubiquitous, and in the process stripped desire of anticipation, excitement and mystery: in a word, emptied it of eroticism. In its place we’re offered an increasingly coarse, commodified and grotesque landscape of all-you-can-eat lust.

Yet one of the remaining asymmetries between male and female nature is in their psychological response to sex. As Harrington rightly notes, while a man may be able to segregate physical and emotional intimacy, a woman, whatever she might say to the contrary, still experiences sex as a profoundly emotional connection. The market cannot meet her need for this. Or, to describe this in economic terms, the market value of her emotional fidelity is far less than that of her (temporarily) youthful body. 

The solution, for Harrington, is not more sex, but less. In an all-you-can-eat lust era, we might think that nothing is considered forbidden, but to Harrington, one striking taboo remains: “sex with the real danger left in.” If it is scarcity that makes something desirable, the scarcity infrastructure around physical intimacy is children. Thus, “don’t take the Pill. Don’t encourage your friends to take the Pill…Why would you take a pill that makes you fat, miserable and sexless?” 

To “rewild” an ecological region is to reintroduce natural predators. Rewilding sex works the same way, Harrington says. Only by raising the stakes, by “reclaiming the danger,” will men and women find equilibrium again, “the profoundly intimate joy of sex,” and with it the possibility of “solidarity, intimacy, family and building a life together.” This feminism against progress could also be described as feminism toward peace—between men and women, between women and their bodies, and between mothers and their children. It’s a peace we’ve been waiting for. 


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