Throughout her twenties, Mary Harrington “liberalled about as hard as it’s possible to liberal”. Online, as an early chat-room enthusiast, she adopted a louche persona called Sebastian and wondered if she was even female. Off-line she broke every binary, rule or norm: she experimented with polyamory, drugs and kink, joined communes and “‘genderqueer’ cliques”.
Fast forward a decade or so and Harrington is married, living in the provinces as a stay-at-home mother – and, to her amazement, finds in this heteronormative hell the happiness she’s always sought. Her Damascene moment is the intense maternal bond with her newborn daughter: “I felt for the first time the love idealised in countless artworks by the iconic dyad of Madonna and Child.” Harrington found her human form, her female body, was not after all something she could transcend or deconstruct. It brimmed with blood and milk and animal longings. It was real.
Feminism Against Progress is written with the fiery zeal of the convert, while also reminding me of a certain type of lifestyle columnist who is forever evangelising about the latest twist in their lives. If they have three kids, everyone should be thrice blessed; if they get divorced, it’s liberation – OMG try it! I’m being a little unfair. Harrington has an original mind, a gift for polemic, and although – because she is still such an extremely online person – she overstates problems and under-thinks solutions, this is an exhilarating read.
Her central thesis is that the liberal shibboleth of humanity being on a perpetual up-escalator towards progress – or at least “progress” that benefits women – is a lie. In pursuing a freedom from our embodied selves and in “the replacement of relationships by individual desires” we end up broken into constituent parts: “Meat Lego”, which capitalism surges in to exploit. The results are commercial surrogacy, porn culture, soulless hook-ups, plastic surgery and gender reassignment treatments, a low birth rate, and a universal, atomised loneliness. “To realise ourselves,” writes Harrington of this faux progress, “we must wage war on Nature – and even on the idea that we have a nature.” Integral to this disembodiment is the belief that men and women are the same, with identical needs and desires.
Harrington has an interesting, if debatable, answer to a puzzling question: why are “the priestesses of cyborg theology” – elite “knowledge class” women in academia, the arts and politics – pushing through gender-neutral policies that erase female language and single-sex protections? She argues that if they admit biological sex matters “below the neck” maybe people will assume it matters “above the neck” too, threatening their equality with male colleagues.
She targets the “sex-positivity” movement born in the 2010s, which, she writes, compels women to champion practices that give them little pleasure and often great pain – anal sex, slapping and, lately, choking – as shiny empowerment. Suggest these are driven by the misogynist narrative of porn and you risk being characterised as a bigot, a prude, an enemy of progress. Like Louise Perry in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Harrington notes that casual sex, while exposing women to physical risk, doesn’t even garner them many orgasms.
But Harrington goes further, arguing that the 20th-century ideal of a companionate marriage has been eroded by the primacy of “self-actualisation”. Marriage rates decrease and divorce rates rise because a relationship is valued less than personal autonomy: a pesky spouse may get between you and your true, fully realised self.
Motherhood, the ultimate surrender of personhood, is even less prized. Harrington notes that if only paid labour has value then motherhood becomes invisible, rendering it ever less attractive (but legitimising the financial transaction of surrogacy). Moreover, the reproductive rights movement, she argues, has tipped into “anti-natalism becom[ing] a feminist position”. Abortion is valorised, pregnancy demonised: “Parasites don’t have rights,” said one pro-Roe vs Wade, pro-abortion rights placard in the US. Each generation of women finds pregnancy and birth a visceral shock. But I’ve noticed how current liberal feminist writing on motherhood bears a surly indignation, a joyless “How dare this thing need me” tone. If you prize “agency” and abhor “biological essentialism”, the leaky postpartum state is an existential as well as a physical affront.
So if nature is sacred how much “progress” is optimal? Enough to save Harrington’s life after complications from a horrendous birth, for sure. But maybe not enough to save millions of women from unwanted pregnancy. Like many conservative thinkers before her, she traces female discontent – and societal decline – to the contraceptive pill. It removed the risk of pregnancy: women’s handy excuse to say no to unwanted sex.
Harrington also believes synthetic progesterone “neuters” female nature and poisons the water system. I suggest she reads Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. “It is she who has the long burden of carrying, bearing and rearing the unwanted children,” wrote the American birth control activist Margaret Sanger in 1919 of desperate women in slums, ground down by annual pregnancy and dying babies they couldn’t feed. Nature can be a bitch.
Harrington even teeters on the edge of opposing abortion which “prioritise[s] autonomy even to the extent of killing an unborn child”. She pulls back – just – by admitting that abortion became a necessary backstop after the (not 100 per cent reliable) pill led to all this extra casual sex. (Except casual sex always happened, it just ended in shotgun weddings or illegal clinics.)
So what are Harrington’s solutions to our dehumanised unnatural state? The most bizarre is proposing some simulacrum of weavers’ lives before the spinning jenny drove them into factories: kids running around the loom (or laptop) in an integration of domestic and economic labour. Oh, and women should marry a nice man and stick with him through hard times because “every marriage has ups and downs”. Which seems basic to me, but then I’ve never lived in a polycule. Single-sex spaces, she says, are vital for men too: let them have the Garrick or working men’s clubs, and maybe women troops shouldn’t be in front-line combat if they’re physically weaker and have sex with male colleagues – worrying their wives and lowering morale.
Most alarming is her idea of “rewilding sex” with “natural” contraception and trusting your partner’s self-control, which seems to mean the rhythm method and withdrawal. So rewinding progress, then, until you align with the Pope?
The normies she walks among in the suburbs would be aghast. They might look askance too at her feverish suggestion that it’s but a short leap between students selling their eggs to pay tuition fees and full trans-humanism, where wombs are harvested in order to be transplanted into trans women. Harrington is deeply pessimistic about a technology-driven future. But maybe she should reflect on the Horace quote she cites: “You may drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back.” Like wild flowers growing in concrete, love and tenderness still thrive in extreme modernity: I know Tinder babies and sweet, happy couples who met on Hinge.
Harrington joins a long list of thinkers and writers who have swung from one extreme to another. That is not to say this book fails or is uninteresting. It is a worthy addition to an exciting new canon that I have started to think of as “material feminism”. Harrington joins Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel, Louise Perry, Helen Joyce, Victoria Smith et al, who assert the primacy of biological reality upon women’s lives, blowing apart the first principle of liberal feminism that nothing is “real” and therefore anything goes. These writers all address the so-called trans debate – whether gender identity can always overwrite sex – but also prostitution, surrogacy, porn and, lately, what to teach children about sex.
Scanning a recent line-up of International Women’s Day speakers for the feminist festival WOW, I noted how no material or gender-critical feminists were invited. What a shame to choose preaching to the choir over electrifying discussion. I’m sure Harrington would show up, eyes gleaming, to take on all comers. But then the lib-fem case, its supporters know, crumbles under the slightest scrutiny, which is why it favours cancellation and book banning over debate
Mary Harrington is right that “progress” is not an uninterrupted trajectory: it is prey to fashion’s vagaries, to action then equal and opposite reaction. After a decade of postmodern sophistry, with the female body unnameable and womanhood handed to any male who claims it, whatever his intentions, feminism is getting real.
Janice Turner is a writer for the Times.
Feminism Against Progress
Forum, 224pp, £16.99
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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink