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8 March 2023

Mary Harrington: “Make sex consequential again”

The journalist and author on what liberal feminism gets wrong.

By Sophie McBain

The term wasn’t in use then, but if you had met Mary Harrington – the polemical, iconoclastic writer and self-described reactionary feminist – in the early Noughties, you might have described her as woke. She lived in various communes, experimented with drugs, considered her gender and sexuality fluid (briefly changing her name to Sebastian) and co-founded a tech start-up with friends. “We all thought it would be possible to get filthy, stinking rich, and also to pay our taxes, and also to save the world,” she recalled when we met at her home in Bedfordshire, her living room quiet and dimly lit, a Labrador curled dutifully at her feet.

Instead, in 2008 she fell out with her best friend and left the start-up, which went bust soon after amid the financial crisis. It was “completely shattering”, she told me. This was supposed to have been the end of boom-and-bust economics, the end of history. “It was the same kind of implosion of the Third Way, which happened at the macro scale, just in my own life, and in my bank balance and in my heart, all at once.” She took a job in marketing but spent most of her time “noodling around” on the internet, falling deep into rabbit holes. It was the start of a “years-long thought experiment”: “If all this stuff that I used to believe in maybe isn’t true, then how much of it is actually the exact opposite?”

[See also: Gary Lineker: “The BBC can’t stop me talking about politics”]

A second, deeper shift in world-view happened just over six years ago, when she became a mother. In the aftermath of a traumatic birth that almost killed her, Harrington began to feel that she wasn’t a separate person from her daughter. How could a feminism that valorises independence account for her total bodily devotion to her baby? If stay-at-home motherhood was something to be liberated from, why did so many women experience returning to work as a bereavement?

“I sort of became a political junkie, at the same time that I retreated into this very tiny, mothering world,” she said. “After three years of obsessive scrolling… I thought I had a few things to say.” She started a blog, and her contrarian, reliably incendiary commentary quickly attracted attention. Since 2019 she has been a columnist at UnHerd, and this month she publishes her first book, Feminism Against Progress.

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Her central thesis is that liberal feminism is in thrall to the myth of progress and is spectacularly ill-equipped for the coming era of instability, scarcity and ecological collapse. The book reflects the breadth and idiosyncrasy of her reading habits (expect both Marxist analysis and Cardi B lyrics), and reveals a mind that is both brilliant and blinkered. This is an ambitious study of how economic conditions shape gender relations and family life, one that takes in the grand sweep of history – but then lends enormous, unjustified ideological weight to Harrington’s own life story.

She argues that feminism has largely abandoned the question of how men and women can best live together in favour of supporting a tech-enabled drive to liberate humans from the confines of biology. Liberal feminism’s insistence on freedom and equality between the sexes has fuelled social atomisation, and it has welcomed a culture of casual sex that disproportionately harms women. We need a “reactionary feminism” Harrington concludes, one centred on women’s interests rather than their freedoms. Reactionary feminism supports the phasing out of the contraceptive pill and abortion to make sex “consequential” again, argues for the centrality of marriage and seeks to restore single-sex spaces.

To liberal feminists, Harrington’s conclusions are anathema. But her arguments, particularly around the value we place on care work, are interesting. Ultra-conservatives who read her conclusions and think they have an ally could also find themselves disabused: “Some on the right, if they realise quite how Marxist my approach is, might throw my book out of the window,” she said, laughing. She also criticises the “misogynistic excesses” of the American pro-life movement, maintaining that until sexual mores change and policies are put in place to properly support mothers and babies, abortion bans will only immiserate women.

[See also: Why liberals keep being fooled in the gender debate]

I told Harrington that I lived for many years in the Middle East, where society is largely organised along the lines she proposes: sex is consequential, marriage is hard to dissolve and rarely based on big romance, motherhood is revered and single-sex spaces are commonplace. I didn’t doubt that many women led happy lives (if, crucially, they were married to decent men), but even they were denied a degree of self-authorship: they had less freedom to choose this life over another. “Sometimes there are no good solutions, there are certainly no universal solutions. I go back and forth on a lot of these issues,” was her reply.

And what about women who don’t want this kind of life? Does reactionary feminism deserve to be called feminism if it is simply a way of saying that you know women’s interests better than they do? “You don’t have to listen to me,” Harrington said, adding that her writing was an attempt to counterbalance the dominant strand of liberal feminist thinking. “I feel like we’re not having a serious enough conversation about what the trade-offs are.” She accepts that when sex is “consequential” women bear most of the consequences. But she writes from the perspective of someone whose sexually liberated youth left her with a “wagonload of sexual trauma”. (Making sex consequential is supposedly a way to discourage women from having unsatisfying casual sex with untrustworthy men.)

[See also: The sex lives of medieval women]

Harrington, 44, came of age during the heyday of “ladette” culture, which she described as “brutalising”. She had a “normie” childhood in the Home Counties, where her father worked in IT and her mother was a teacher. “I was the weirdo… While everyone else was doing normal, Nineties-kids things, I was reading Nietzsche in the bath, getting subscriptions to Green Anarchist.” She started to find her crowd at Oxford, where she studied English and spent a lot of time in the “genderqueer” cliques of early internet messaging boards. It struck me that the constant throughout her life was a kind of ideological fervour, a commitment to living in accordance to defined political principles.

Some of her friends from her teens and twenties have also settled down, though Harrington said she is now by far the most conventional. She writes from 5am until the 3pm school run, after which she tries to avoid screens. To unwind, she goes for long runs in the nearby countryside. She keeps chickens, which she names after ice cream flavours. Her writing explores how this kind of rooted, domestic existence offers a respite from a harsh public sphere, from the creeping commodification of every aspect of our lives. She will never shake off her “apocalyptic streak”, the feeling of impending doom.

I was surprised, during our conversation, by how receptive she was to criticism: she doesn’t believe her solutions are perfect. But then I realised that one reason her conclusions are so bleak and narrow (we haven’t even got into how gay or transgender people fit into her model) is because she isn’t trying to set out a utopia. This is a political vision for a dystopia, for survival in the face of catastrophe. “If we’re sliding away from peak abundance, from peak everything, and if the women’s movement was to a substantial degree about technology, about abundance and ease and washing machines and formula and yada yada, we need to think really seriously about what women’s interests mean in the absence of that,” she said. “What if our daughters don’t have them any more? What if we’ve left them with a whole set of moral priors, a whole set of paradigms, a whole set of assumptions about what is and should be possible that’s completely incompatible with a world of scarcity? That sort of scares the living crap out of me.”

[See also: Mariana Mazzucato: “Consultancies depend on weak governments”]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid