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Feminism Against Progress
by mary harrington
regnery, 256 pages, $29.99

Sometimes life is stranger than art. Suppose you were a novelist, and your book's protagonist is the genderqueer founder of a web start-up who calls herself Sebastian. Suppose the novel charts this character’s further transformation into a stay-at-home mom now going by her birth name of Mary and writing manifestoes about “reactionary feminism.” Your book would be rejected by all the major publishing houses, who would want the story to be told the other way around.

And yet such is the improbable backstory of one of the most important contemporary writers on gender and feminism, Mary Harrington. She is not alone in her concerns. The gender wars have made strange new alliances, joining Catholic thinkers (such as Erika Bachiochi and Abigail Favale) with prominent lesbians such as Julie Bindel, feminist philosophers such as Kathleen Stock and Nina Power, and sexual-revolution critics such as the journalist Louise Perry. All of these women would likely describe themselves as feminists. And all of them once had or still have a political home on the left. All of them are concerned with the erasure of women in contemporary gender ideology, which grants female status to anyone with an inner feeling of womanhood.

This groundswell of female opposition to the current gender and sexual regime is noteworthy because it is so heterodox within feminism. Harrington’s insightful new book, Feminism Against Progress, traces how feminist orthodoxy became identified with approbation of the sexual revolution and how feminism is now in thrall to technological forces that are monetizing the body and sexuality. Harrington’s book is marked by a profound philosophical grasp of this new era of “cyborg theocracy,” in which the new imperative is to seed the body with tech in order to move beyond human limits, including the limits of binary sex.

Like Bachiochi’s work (on which Harrington relies), Feminism Against Progress gives us historical context, deepening our understanding of the sexual revolution while also relativizing it. The twentieth century’s turn to finding identity in sex was not the only option available to feminism, nor was it solely a result of women’s demands. This turn was, in fact, the product of more foundational social shifts, in which industrialization played a key role.

Those shifts Harrington captures as “memes + material conditions.” She defines “memes” elsewhere as “our culture and habits concerning how to live.” By the twentieth century, our “solid” memes concerning truth and human nature were liquefied within higher ed and contemporary theory, which treated ideas as the aggregation of different attempts to acquire power over others. Debates about truth were to be reinterpreted as attempts to exert control over others.

The existential result of this deconstruction for Harrington was not an increase in intellectual sophistication; it was a paranoia that deconstructed not only the tradition but also the deconstructing university itself. “Overnight, the hallowed buildings of Oxford University stopped looking like an expression of ancient traditions within which I could find my place. Suddenly they were hostile incursions into my consciousness by something phallic, domineering and authoritarian.” As a result, she abandoned academia.

She remembered the lesson, however, and later was able to transform it into something more fruitful. “It’s clear enough to me that language does shape meaning, and more broadly, that memes really do help to structure reality.” Armed with this insight, the more mature Harrington further deconstructed the deconstructions, in particular that of sex and gender. Moving on from the creed of what she calls the Progress Theology, wherein “men and women are substantially the same apart from our dangly bits, and ‘progress’ meant broadly the same thing for both sexes,” she realized that motherhood shed light on a much different reality. When she realized that she loved her daughter more than anything else, even her own autonomy, that experience revealed that the deepest human goods were not reducible to freedom.

The memes at play here were crystallized in previous centuries within two strands of feminism, which Harrington calls Team Interdependence and Team Freedom. Whereas Team Interdependence sought social and legal protections for women with duties of care, Team Freedom’s ruling meme was the dichotomy of constraint bad, freedom good. The more limited you are, the less free. Q.E.D., constraints must be eliminated. The strongest objection to this viewpoint is that we are inherently limited as human persons—by our bodies, our fallibility, our mortality. How can we eliminate constraints without eliminating ourselves?

Ah, but man’s loss would be progress’s gain. Team Freedom dealt with the obstacle by co-opting it into a positive good. The limitations intrinsic to human nature—including, especially, our bodily constraints—would be overcome, through the market and through technology.

If such post-humanist androgyny seems easier for men to manage than for women, it is. This truth complicates Progress Theology’s narrative that women’s plight is steadily improved as history marches forward. Drawing on the scholarship of Bachiochi, Christopher Lasch, Ivan Illich, and others, Harrington argues that premodern sexed codes were, despite their downsides, in many ways more manageable than today’s options, and certainly more humane than the liberatory myth of the sexual revolution.

Progressives and conservatives alike tend to be anachronistic in the options they offer women. Mothers today can choose between staying at home and not working, or else working outside of the home. This alternative is a postindustrial one. Preindustrial households were socioeconomic units, in which sexed differences in work coexisted, because few men left the house to commute to work. Rather, the household itself was where work happened. Until a few centuries ago, the only option for non-aristocratic women outside the convent was at-home working motherhood.

Like Harrington, Dorothy Sayers surveyed the arenas that encompassed “women’s work” within the households of the Middle Ages:

the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and . . . the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates.

All this, plus pitching in with agricultural labor.

Harrington points out that these occupations, in their preindustrial configurations, suit women who are simultaneously watching children. Looms are fairly safe instruments that can be placed off the ground, out of reach of toddlers. A weaver can pause her work easily to nurse or care for children, and she can do such work with others present, including other women spinning thread or dying cloth. Industrialization removed female work from the household and into the factory, run by male industrialists and employing men and women alike for twelve-hour days. In this new system, non-reproductive androgyny was a benefit, because babies and toddlers cannot be cared for on the factory floor. The rhythms of female reproduction became a positive liability, once one could no longer be self-employed and had instead to respond to the inflexible schedule of the factory boss. Thus did it happen that a man unencumbered by reproductive caring became the model worker in late capitalism.

Harrington notes that this technological shift was not all bad, for women as well as for men. Many women have negotiated a twenty-first-century version of the at-home working mother, now in web-enabled remote, part-time, or self-employed jobs. But such flexibility was hard to come by for poor women in earlier generations. Thus, nineteenth-century feminism responded to a situation in which women were penalized economically and in terms of their social worth precisely as women, in ways new to industrial capitalism. By the twentieth century, Team Interdependence wanted social care for women as reproductive beings. Their demands included workplace protections, prenatal and maternal care, and the support of widows. Team Freedom wanted women to be non-reproductive. Thus, the latter worked to produce and normalize the technology on which the sexual revolution would depend: the Pill and abortion.

This technological shock to the female system brought the definitive victory of Team Freedom and ushered in the era of cyborg theocracy, what Harrington also calls “bio-libertarianism”:

This worldview sets women constitutively at odds with our own bodies. To realize ourselves, we must wage war on nature—and even on the idea that we have a nature. Indeed, from a bio-libertarian perspective waging war on the idea of ‘nature’ is precisely what feminism should be doing.

This is the public face of modern establishment feminism, backstopped by market forces that still prefer androgynous, sterilized “humans” over embodied men and women with their inconvenient needs and offspring. For these feminists, abortion is the sine qua non of women’s rights.

The Pill was the first medical intervention that administered technology to healthy female bodies with the purpose of attacking a healthy system (fertility). Contraception and then abortion made reproduction (and hence maleness and femaleness) seem optional. This development opened the door to “cyborg therapies,” such as transgender hormonal or surgical interventions, which further attack healthy bodies. Harrington deplores the rise of gender ideology, which assumes that the body can be remolded at will (“meat-Lego Gnosticism”) and which she sees as advancing the androgyny encouraged by the market.

Reproductive tech ushered in a sexual world that is experienced less as genuine liberation than as a wild, unregulated “sexual marketplace.” Harrington contrasts this marketplace with the traditional mores of her mother’s adolescence:

In her youth it was normal and unquestioned outside avant-garde circles for encounters between men and women to be structured by courtship: a ritual that assumed the presence of a female monopoly on sexual access, and male monopoly on economic resources.

But by the time Harrington was a teenager in the nineties, reproductive technology had removed the ability of women to say no to unwanted sex, because now the new “bargain” was the promise of sex without pregnancy. Courtship withered away, and the sexual marketplace took over.

In recent decades this process has accelerated, because “every generation younger than mine has grown up at least partly in a digital social world that is incorporeal by definition.” Socializing primarily in a disembodied way, kids have been primed to accept disembodied anthropologies and practices that bend toward consumerism. Harrington points out that dating apps like Grindr and Tinder are “geared towards quick judgement of potential partners and seemingly optimized for transient hook-ups: a new, throwaway form of sexual consumerism.”

The consumerism of the sexual marketplace liquefies relationships by disincentivizing commitment and foregrounding individual freedom amid proliferating options. Quoting David Courtwright, Harrington calls this form of consumerism “limbic capitalism,” a reference to the brain’s limbic system, which deals with pleasure and motivation—and is rewired by addiction. Under limbic capitalism, “commerce hacks pre-rational pleasure and reward systems and re-orients them to commercial ends.” Just as social media manipulate and monetize our most primal neurology, so too does the online sexual marketplace—including the multi-billion-dollar porn industry—with catastrophic effects on long-term happiness.

Whether you experience this limbic yet simultaneously disembodied marketplace as liberating or as annihilating depends in part on your social class. The winners include those people for whom sexed differences are unimportant and perhaps even threatening—namely, female “knowledge workers,” who “are unlikely to be confronted, in the course of working life, with any stark contrasts between their ability to perform professionally and that of their male peers.” Their economic prosperity also places them in “the subset of women liberated to fly high by the tech-enabled detachment of sex from reproduction, and motherhood from care, that now comprises the bulk of mainstream ‘feminism.’” This class—the “priestesses,” in Harrington’s words, of cyborg technocracy—imposes an extreme androgyny that goes beyond opposing sexist hiring practices to include technological meat-Lego Gnosticism. The latter is enforced through educational indoctrination and HR mandates, two fields that are disproportionately female and favorable to gender ideology.

The losers are those lower down the economic ladder, whose labor is more manual, who are less likely to deny sexed differences, and who are nevertheless more exposed to the adverse effects of cyborg theocracy. Concretely, the decoupling of sex from procreation means that these people are more likely to sell their eggs or rent their wombs to gestate other people’s children. They are more likely to sell their bodies in pornography or prostitution. And they—especially poor women—are more likely to bear the brunt of the nullification of committed marriage in favor of hookups. Whereas an educated working woman might be able to weather single motherhood through her networks and income, a poor mother is likely to regret being deprived of the support that marriage can provide.

Those who rage against the sexual status quo are often men from this lower class. These are the men who are most affected by economic shifts such as offshoring, suffering “a devastating loss of agency, purpose and dignity.” To add insult to injury, though the sexual revolution promised sex to anyone, in reality women still tend to prefer higher-earning, higher-status men. Moreover, many women are in thrall to what Harrington calls “Big Romance” and its unrealistic expectations, in which spouses must be “soulmates” who provide each other with comprehensive emotional support. These expectations lead women to refuse men who might in many ways be good partners. The result of these developments is that the men who are left behind feel aggrieved, shortchanged by a promise that did not pan out.

In this way, the sexual marketplace

destroyed what was left of social norms developed over generations to mitigate normative sexed differences in how men and women approach sexual intimacy. And amid the rubble, those differences persist—just in grotesque form, or re-deployed as weapons in a war that rages both within relationships, and against the possibility of forming relationships.

Angry feminists deplore violent male “incels” and vice versa.

Harrington is tentative in presenting solutions to these problems, but her solutions are mostly good ones, with a goal of “reclaiming desire from the machine.” Concretely, she calls for a rejection of the Pill: “we must heal our polluted erotic ecologies by rewilding sex.” The false promise of non-reproductive sex ironically removed the exhilaration that comes with sexual vulnerability to a person with whom one might have a child—and, more ironically, often failed to prevent conception. “Rewilded sex” ejects the tech and accepts the risk with open eyes. That requires, of course, committed relationships, in part to safeguard the woman, who is asymmetrically exposed to the challenges of reproductive care.

Harrington stops short of calling for abortion to be outlawed; instead, she expresses a preference for significant limits, such as banning it after twelve weeks of pregnancy. (Such limits are the norm throughout Europe, despite Europe’s higher degree of secularization.) Her argument, which somewhat resembles the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Casey decision, points to the difficulty of overturning present social conventions. “As things stand, so much of the world is ordered along the sexually libertine and implicitly anti-natalist lines enabled by these technologies,” she writes, “that abrupt prohibition of that backstop would be most likely to immiserate women still further.” Harrington’s view seems inconsistent, since the social changes she desires likely require the elimination of existing technological alternatives.

Harrington further argues for a return of single-sex spaces, believing that any detriment to women’s professional advancement is unlikely these days and in any case worth the risk. Decrying the feminist demonization of men and of male desire—as in the T-shirt that boasts “I Survived Testosterone Poisoning,” referring to normal male puberty—she calls for women to “let men be.” This does not mean abandoning them in the basement of fallen desire and aimless entertainment, but instead giving their strength and aggression proper outlets, sometimes in spaces reserved for male camaraderie.

All in all, Feminism Against Progress is a remarkable and necessary book, a moving personal story as well as a rousing call to “reject the totalitarian sexual–industrial complex.” Harrington exposes strange paradoxes—that a women’s movement has harmed women, that the anti-capitalist left is in thrall to market demands, and, most importantly, that freedom is less important than love. In mirroring these paradoxes, her story takes on the strange beauty that arises from a commitment to purer things. Amid an anesthetizing culture of trashy excess, Harrington may well become an example to readers who are looking for relief and hope.

Angela Franks is a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.

Image by PxHere, public domain. Image cropped. 

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