When I was about ten, I began to notice that my father would leave the table after dinner, assuming my mother would clear the dishes. As we grew older, my brothers did the same. I thought this unfair to my mother, whose chores seemed never to end. As the only daughter, I faced a dilemma: Should I show solidarity with my mother by helping her clean up or claim equal status with my brothers by leaving her with the drudgery?
In due course, trying to answer this question led me to feminism. Somewhere between the sullen, sapphic-tinged Riot Grrrl celebration of femaleness and the lucid rationalism of Simone de Beauvoir, I glimpsed unimagined worlds in which women were creatures in our own right, rather than second-class support humans.
I also learned that membership in the feminist club comes with small print. You cannot pursue feminist goals without signing up to a larger bundle of commitments under the banner of “progress,” such as climate justice, racial- and gender-minority rights, wealth redistribution, and so on. Reject those, and you will be excommunicated from the coalition of the righteous.
I set about living my adult life as far as possible according to those ideals, pursuing low-carbon life, non-hierarchical social forms, and maximum sexual freedom. But by the end of my twenties, I had concluded that sexual freedom brings alienation, that economic “progress” inflicts (and conceals) its own injuries, and that not too much but too little interdependence is precipitating a collapse of social life.
In the web start-up I cofounded in the mid-2000s, we set out to divide the work of realizing our vision among five cofounders and to coordinate our activities non-hierarchically. What we got was not a self-organizing cooperative but muddled objectives and tacit power games. These came to a head in bitter interpersonal conflicts, which helped prevent the project from getting beyond first-round funding. In that implosion I lost my best friend, my social circle and identity, and most of my anti-authoritarian idealism.
Around the same time, I also discovered that the supposedly egalitarian and sexually liberated all-lesbian community I lived in was in fact hierarchical and riddled with competition. Whether the issue was who was cleaning the kitchen or who was sleeping with whom, excluding males from the household did not vanquish rivalry and exploitation. My attempts to escape hierarchy had only ensnared me in new hierarchies, just less visible than the traditional kind.
My grandmother, having been by turns a farmer, a doctor, and a single mother, was a pragmatic woman. Around the time my start-up and commune and ideals were crumbling, she said to me, gently and out of the blue: “Mary, I think you should grow your hair and get married.” I laughed, but something must have stuck. Being determinedly countercultural was taking a great deal of emotional and intellectual effort, for questionable returns.
Soon after that, I met the man who became my husband. Some years into our life together, I have found more peace and equality—not to mention more freedom from futile power-games—in the cooperative enterprise of building a home and family than I ever had in my progressive twenties. Thoughtfully embracing commitment has proved liberating rather than restrictive. And far from condemning me to a set of ill-fitting traditions, our navigation of sex roles has resulted in a home life that looks fairly conventional but is well adapted to each of us and our shared goals.
Reflecting on the way sex roles delivered drudgery for my mother but creative freedom for me has prompted a re-evaluation of the feminist critique of “patriarchy.” Whereas radical feminists tend to see patriarchy as akin to a mass conspiracy to oppress women, I’ve come to see it as the aggregate result of historical human efforts to balance the conflicting interests of the two sexes. It has sometimes given rise to abuses and injustices, which are rightly condemned. But the solution is not to be found in some state of perfect symmetry between the sexes. For this cannot be had—the sexes are not interchangeable.
Marriage, for example, is often framed as a patriarchal institution aimed at controlling women’s sexuality. But because premarital sex carries much greater risks for women than for men, social norms in favor of marriage as a precondition for sex benefit women (and children) at least as much as men. It is not clear that feminist efforts to smash those norms have delivered greater happiness for women.
Similarly, “chivalrous” social codes may feel condescending. But men are still, statistically, physically stronger and more violent than women. An assault on codes that encourage men to restrain their physical dominance may not be wholly to women’s advantage.
Once we stop thinking of “patriarchy” as a malign conspiracy, it’s not clear why we should abolish “gender” or educate boys out of “toxic masculinity.” That doesn’t mean we can’t rethink gender relations in the light of changing social conditions. But today that rethinking means liberating the women’s movement from the traditional goals of feminism: “freedom” and “progress.” For we’ve reached a point where the pursuit of these ideals militates against the interests of all but the wealthiest women.
Take the increasing proportion of mothers working full time, a statistic read almost universally as a measure of progress. Those who hold this view see anyone who prioritizes care over career as a loser or class traitor. As the (proudly childless) lawyer and author Jill Filipovic put it recently: “I realize this is like the third rail of the Mommy Wars, but yeah, . . . I would have a really, really hard time being married to a spouse who chose not to work.”
Countless articles have reported the disproportionate effect of coronavirus lockdowns on working moms as—in The Atlantic’s words—“a disaster for feminism.” Less airtime has been granted to moms like Emily Ramshaw, a journalist who wrote recently of her dread of returning to the “old” normal of working away from home: “I don’t want to travel endlessly for work. I don’t want my weekends to be over-committed with activities. I don’t want to miss bedtime with my kid.”
This is a woman with a fun, rewarding, high-profile career. What about the majority of women, who don’t have careers they love but jobs they must do to make rent? It’s far from obvious that a waitress working extra shifts desires to be more “liberated” from home than she already is.
The sociologist Catherine Hakim studied women’s preferences concerning the balance of time spent on work and on domestic life. She found that approximately 20 percent of women prefer that their activities be work-centered and 20 percent that their activities be home-centered, with the remaining 60 percent preferring a balance of the two. And yet to read mainstream discourse about women, work, and childcare, you’d think that most of the 60 percent were shaking the bars of our domestic prisons, pleading for greater freedom from family life.
As an image of what ordinary women are willing and able to accomplish in their lives, today’s idealized career woman is as realistic as the smiling, impeccably coiffed, pearl-draped homemaker who appeared in ads in the 1950s. For it is as true today as it was in that decade that domestic life cannot be fully automated. In households in which both partners work, someone still has to mop the floor, scrub the toilet bowl, and vacuum the stairs. And someone still has to watch the baby. In theory, men were meant to take on an equal share—and some do. But in practice, the project of “liberating” women from domesticity has become a Ponzi scheme, in which well-off women enjoy the fruits and freedom of feminist “progress” by outsourcing chores to a (mostly immigrant and female) servant class. We rarely hear the voices of the nannies and housekeepers whose labor allows their wealthier sisters to “lean in.”
Deafness to the possibility that many mothers don’t want to be any more liberated from our children is evident among both social (that is, left-wing) and economic (that is, right-wing) liberals. Its roots are in an anthropology that depicts humans as radically atomized and in flight from all constraint—constraints of convention, the past, each other, and our own bodies.
Motherhood reveals the limits of this anthropology. It may seem obvious that physical self-ownership is fundamental to individual freedom; but the moment you become pregnant, your self-ownership is compromised. To be pregnant is to be radically unfree (if by “free” we mean unconstrained). Contemporary attitudes toward this state of interdependence are deeply conflicted: A person who advocates ending restrictions on late-term abortions might also look askance at a pregnant woman drinking a glass of wine. Such attitudes combine a recognition that pregnancy does and should compromise a woman’s freedom, with an insistence on her right to be free if she chooses. It is not done to point out the contradiction between a pregnant woman’s supposed liberty in matters as grave as ending the life of her unborn child, and her duty to submit to minute regulation in matters as trivial as whether or not to eat blue cheese.
Do women have bodily autonomy, or not? Inasmuch as modernity—in its liberal or conservative outworkings—takes the pursuit of autonomy as its metric of progress, it struggles to make sense of motherhood. Both liberal and conservative feminisms share this basic commitment to freedom and progress. Both feminisms marginalize mothers, albeit in different ways.
Left feminism seeks to challenge all sex-based constraints in the name of male-female sameness. It rejects sex differences in favor of a “blank slate” theory of personality and treats women who prefer domestic to career activities as class traitors. At its most thoroughgoing, it argues for a transactional approach to women’s sexual and reproductive lives, one that normalizes prostitution, legitimates pornography as a career, frames gestation as “parasitic,” and proposes surrogacy as the template for family life.
Its pursuit of sameness has culminated in the surreal spectacle of a feminism that seeks to liberate women from the need to be female. Recent moves to abolish biological sex in law have been hailed as victories in an “intersectional” progressive project, and resistance is decried as “gatekeeping womanhood based on physiological traits.” This despite the fact that abolishing sex segregation is clearly to the detriment of females on sports teams or in changing rooms, prisons, and women’s refuges. Such effects are of little concern to wealthy women who benefit from a “gender-neutral” culture in their workplaces and are unlikely to find themselves incarcerated or fleeing domestic violence.
Right feminism is less radically atomistic but no more coherent. Feminist conservatives tend to embrace a mix of pro-life, pro-fertility, pro-liberty, and pro-capitalism stances—a cocktail that idealizes feminine sex roles while undermining the social and economic conditions that once made these roles broadly workable.
Consider the argument made recently by AEI’s Angela Rachidi, who criticized Sen. Romney’s proposed child allowance on the grounds that, if it were implemented, “more than one third of unmarried women would reduce their employment by at least one hour per week”—in other words, single moms could spend an extra hour with their kids each week, without suffering financially.
The upshot is a muddled doctrine that protests the killing of babies in utero, while resisting policies that would improve the lives of those babies once born. A true pro-child policy would not resist state action to support family formation or extend maternity leave beyond a brutally short few weeks.
Right feminism thus echoes the marginalization of mothers we observe on the left: Both treat motherhood as a problem to be solved. Liberal or conservative, a feminism that prioritizes freedom will always laud women for transcending our constraints, while overlooking the (usually female) drudges who enable that. The domain of care will remain second-class. Women will succeed at feminism only insofar as we succeed at not being mothers.
The gap between the number of children American women want and the number they have has been growing for more than a decade. As we reach the far end of the industrial era, the anthropology of freedom that powered that era is delivering a nightmare of sterility and leaving women politically homeless.
As economic growth comes unmoored from mass prosperity, liberal feminism is serving the interests of the overclass, whose members can afford to subcontract domesticity. Conservative feminism serves a dwindling middle class, whose members can still afford to choose between subcontracting domesticity and raising a family on a single income. Neither feminism acknowledges that “progress,” insofar as it entails freedom from obligation and constraint, is hostile to mothers. Inescapably, a feminism that supports mothers today finds that it must oppose progress.
This does not mean wishing the genie of women’s emancipation back into the bottle. I doubt I am alone in having little desire to relinquish the franchise or become my husband’s ward. The “tradwife” movement, which valorizes a return to the clearly defined sex roles of the 1950s, overlooks the fact that these roles were tied to an industrial-era economic, technological, and social context that is on its way out. Nor does it have many suggestions concerning sex roles that are appropriate for the increasingly bleak, post-human digital age we are entering, dominated by AI, biotech, and the New Economy oligarchy.
For the age we are entering, a feminism in thrall to technology and its promise of an end to all limits will deliver—is already delivering—only misery. Instead we need a movement grounded in pragmatic realities. Male and female bodies are different; humans can’t change sex; most women want to have children; heterosexuality is the default human condition; outsourcing domestic chores is a movement to reintroduce a servant class; children do better in stable two-parent families; and our hyperfocus on individual freedom is a central factor in the plummeting of birthrates worldwide. Against technological developments that promise to free us from love, longing, and human nature itself, restating these truths is an act of feminist resistance.
We are liberated enough. What we need is more and better obligations: a feminism that seeks the proper limits on freedom for both sexes. Such a feminism occupies the most reviled position of all. Dissenting from the theology of progress, it revels in the mantle of the “reactionary.”
A reactionary feminism seeks to honor women by accepting as givens the things that make us human: our bodies and our relationships. It asks how we might frame our obligations justly, between the sexes, in the interest of the common good. Women must negotiate new social and economic conditions, not in a spirit of zero-sum conflict with men, but alongside our friends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. The aim is not to return to some imagined perfect past, but to reach a future unshackled from the dystopian pursuit of progress. The only escape from a nightmare of atomization and war between the sexes is the recognition that we are embodied creatures, and that interdependence is not oppression but the very thing that makes us human.
Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd.
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