- Harrington comes to her re-assessment of feminism with an unusually acute, quasi-Marxist awareness of the way material conditions...have sculpted modern understanding of relations between the sexes. Tweet This
- At the heart of Harrington’s critique of feminist thinking is its denial of the fundamental asymmetry between the sexes. Tweet This
- According to Harrington, women’s capacity to bear children is not a simple addendum to some generic, genderless human; it's the essence of being...a female human. Tweet This
Feminism has never been short of enemies. Evangelicals, red state conservatives, anti-abortion groups, grassroots organizations like Eagle Forum founded by the Napoleon of all anti-feminists, Phyllis Schlafly, have been standing athwart the Ms. Revolution, yelling "stop" since its beginning. Now, a new generation of feminist critics has come along—Louise Perry, Helen Joyce, Helen Roy, and Erika Bachiochi, to name just a few—who look nothing like past dissenters. They’re hip, (mostly) urban, highly literate, and accomplished knowledge-economy workers, yet they see a contemporary feminism—defined by girl power, lean-in careerism, sex positivity, and sexual monomorphism—as essentially a formula for immiserating young women.
Mary Harrington’s bracingly intelligent new book, Feminism Against Progress, adds both a historical and futuristic dimension to the discussion underway. Harrington’s coming of age story—a middle-class girl grows up in a traditional home, goes to college, and becomes radicalized—would seem to be the biography of a familiar sort of young activist-in-the-making. She “mutinied against every form of ‘normal,’” devoted herself to the “pursuit of life freed from power, hierarchy and all limits,” slept around, took drugs, and hung out with a “genderqueer” crowd; she even briefly changed her name to Sebastian. But she was too restless and passionate a truth-seeker to stay in a predictable lane. Discovering that the communes she knew were dens of toxic power relations, she began to doubt her radicalism; when she became a mother, the scales fell from her eyes. Her near-death during childbirth and her visceral connection to her newborn put the lie to her utopian fantasy of individual freedom and, more generally, of feminist ideas of liberation and progress.
Harrington comes to her re-assessment of feminism with an unusually acute, quasi-Marxist awareness of the way material conditions, specifically technological and economic forces, have sculpted modern understanding of relations between the sexes. Feminism, she argues, was a child of the industrial age. Before that, the subsistence farm of the agricultural economy blurred the gender lines that bedevil modern families. Sure, men and women had different household tasks, but they engaged in an “ambiguous complementarity” as they shared both physical space and obligations to a common project, one that allowed a natural flow between childcare and the work that could maintain their families. Communal to the core, the Old World viewed households, not individuals, as “the constitutive units of society.”
In Harrington’s view, the Industrial Revolution represented a fall from the grace of this historically and environmentally grounded existence; this helps explain what she calls her “reactionary feminism.” The arrival of the dark Satanic mills and white-collar offices ruptured the give-and-take rhythms of the farm household. It also isolated women from economic life in a way that, despite the effort to prettify it with an angel-of-the-house mythology, seeded discontent for multiple generations. Second Wave feminists understood this part of the story of women’s dissatisfaction; Betty Friedan famously called it “the problem with no name.” For Friedan and her Second Wave sisters, the solution was obvious: women should escape the nursery and kitchen and join men in the workplace as equals.
This is the point at which the author parts with the women’s movement, though not due to any sentimentality about domestic life. Feminists, she contends, failed to grasp a more subtle social transformation triggered by the Industrial Revolution. The modern market economy required uprooting people from the communal pre-modern order and re-fashioning them into “atomized trading partners;” both men and, eventually, women, were to be regarded as “fungible, interchangeable work units.”
Early feminist thinkers like Harriet Taylor Mill and Charlotte Perkins Gilman adopted this vision of autonomous selfhood as key to women’s well-being, but there were structural obstacles in the way. The arrival of the birth control pill in 1960, allowing women a degree of agency that would have been unimaginable to Mill and Gilman, weakened the most stubborn of those obstacles, namely pregnancy. In so doing, the Pill fixed the ideal of autonomous self-realization, especially via workplace success, as the goal of feminist progress, while also deepening the movement’s ambivalence towards marriage and motherhood. In erasing the risk of pregnancy, it flipped the settled equilibrium of male-female courtship, while opening the door for the eventual arrival of Pornhub, “the orgasm gap,” and sexual anomie.
At the heart of Harrington’s critique of feminist thinking is its denial of the fundamental asymmetry between the sexes. As she sees it, women’s capacity to bear children is not a simple addendum to some generic, genderless human; it is the essence of being a particular sort of human, a female human. Yet “progress” has been taking us in a direction where individual self-fulfillment seems possible only through female dis-embodiment. It’s a trend perfectly captured by transgender ideology, she writes, which insists trans women, that is, natal men who cannot bear children, are truly women.
A future shaped by ever more cutting-edge technology will take us further down the path towards bodily alienation into what the author calls “the cyborg era.” The internet has already instilled in younger generations the sense of a self apart from material reality. The perpetually online sometimes refer to the body as a “flesh box” or a “meat suit,” an artificial covering for the genuine self. Harrington calls the creatures of the emerging cyborg state “Meat Legos,” with detachable parts available for sale.
She finds chilling examples to prove her insight into the association between market logic and dis-embodiment. Advances in biotechnology are creating a large market for selling sperm, freezing eggs, and renting out wombs, in addition to expensive surgeries to cut off the breasts and penises of the gender dysphoric; meanwhile, artificial wombs, ectogenesis, and gene editing of the unborn seem a mere historical nanosecond away. Among their employee benefits, enlightened companies like Disney and Tesla cover reproductive technologies that will help workers put off childbearing. Tesla’s founding genius Elon Musk and the singer Grimes, one of his many “baby mammas,” are avatars of the age. Grimes celebrates the cyborgian human as “fundamentally different from previous Homo sapiens. I call us ‘Homo techno’…We could be, really, whatever we want.” Fittingly, the couple, who used a surrogate to gestate their second child, named their techno children Exa Dark Sideræl Musk and X Æ A-Xii.
For those, like me, who share Harrington’s brand of a pessimism verging on catastrophism, much of the argument of Feminism Against Progress will make bitter sense. Its depiction of “social liquefaction” overlaps with contemporary findings about postmodern loneliness and despair. Her portrayal of a society increasingly alienated from the body and ordinary human aspiration is consistent with the spread of gender dysphoria, the misery of adolescent girls, suicidal men, and the growing number of never-married and childless adults. The economist and polymath Tyler Cowen is predicting that in the very near future, children will grow up with AI friends, companions, teachers, and therapists, much as the great British novelist Kasuo Ishiguro imagined in perhaps his finest novel, Klara and the Sun. Somewhere in cyberspace, ChatGPT and its AI comrades are laughing.
But I wonder whether readers less addicted to doom scrolling will sign on to Harrington’s brief for a de-technologized, less self-centered society. You don’t have to be a libertarian apostle for progress to understand that technology promises relief from all sorts of human misery: hunger, physical pain, many diseases, and—it’s worth mentioning given Harrington’s feelings about motherhood—infertility, miscarriage, and still births. Americans, especially, will guard their freedom to choose the genuine gains technology has to offer; warnings about the inevitable and very worrying costs of Crispr, for instance, will seem abstract, even cruel, compared to the promise of a healthy child. And surely there is some place on the socio-sexual continuum between a birth control pill-free world on the one hand, and a degraded, pornified dystopia on the other.
The arc of history may not bend towards justice, as Harrington rightfully notes, but it does bring tangible benefits. Calibrating technology’s very real moral hazards is the worst answer to the problem of the cyborg future—except for all the others.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.