In today’s interview, Unherd contributing editor Mary Harrington joins managing editor Elayne Allen to discuss the ways feminism has changed alongside economic shifts, and its dependence on technology—especially reproductive technology—to achieve its goals. Her book, Feminism Against Progress, will come out in March 2023.
Elayne Allen: Mary, thank you so much for joining me. I’ve long admired your writings and find your work refreshingly independent. I think your speech at the National Conservative Conference last year captured the spirit quite well. I remember it was quite a sensation on Twitter for a while, and people talked about it for a long time afterward.
As I understand it, one of the core arguments is that women’s interests look different given what economic milieu we find ourselves in. For example, in an industrial society, women’s roles and men’s roles look very different than they do in our post-industrial digital economy. They’re not fixed things. And so in any given economic context, women and men have to renegotiate our roles, and figure out how to work together.
One question I have after reading that is, what ought the renegotiation between the sexes look like in our digital economy? One benefit, it seems to me, is that remote work in the digital economy often means that some mothers and fathers have greater flexibility in balancing work with familial obligations. But this benefit obviously hasn’t led to a renaissance of family life, or of men and women settling into a mutually satisfying social and economic positions. In fact, neither women nor men seem happy. I think Richard Reeves’s new book, Of Boys and Men, nicely captures the way men are struggling. And even as mainstream feminism has fought for female reproductive rights and has largely won (Dobbs being the great exception), women (especially those left of center) don’t seem satisfied either.
I’ve said a lot there. First, do you agree with how I’ve framed our situation, and second, in our current economic milieu, what might be more conducive to both men’s and women’s happiness—how might men and women renegotiate our lives together in such a way that’s satisfying for both?
Mary Harrington: The case I made at NatCon forms the fundamental argument of my book, Feminism Against Progress, which comes out in March next year: that the roles of men and women were radically renegotiated over the course of the industrial era. And the women’s movement as we understand it today is an effect of those social and material changes. Our lives were transformed in the industrial era, when work left the home and became something that happened elsewhere. This meant that women actually had less economic agency at the beginning of the industrial area than they had had in the previous one—in an agrarian situation where women worked around family obligations.
Women responded to this loss of agency in many different ways. But they took two broad trajectories. Some women argued that, in fact, the new “domestic-only” situation for women was good. They made a case that women belonged the private home; this was the so-called cult of domesticity. Other women said, “No, no, no, actually this just isn’t working.” And not without reason: in the new order women were effectively very dependent on men, and if you have a cruel, tyrannical, or spendthrift husband, that’s just not a good situation to be in. Women couldn’t own property. Women couldn’t easily work. And so a lot of women also said, “We need the right to own property. We need legal personhood on the same terms as men. This is the only way that women can function under these circumstances.”
And that push for liberalization, if you like, for the disaggregation of men and women’s relations, and women’s entry into the market on the same terms as men, is really the story of what we think of as feminism today. This liberal form of feminism has pretty much conclusively won that dispute. I break them down as the feminism of interdependence—the feminism of care, if you like—and the feminism of freedom.
The feminism of freedom and the feminism of care are the twin poles of the women’s movement from the mid- to late 18th century onward. It plays out differently depending on which country you are in because different nations industrialized at different rates. But the same broad pattern is evident across the Anglosphere. And with it came a massive renegotiation of men and women’s roles.
The upshot of all of that was this real tussle between the feminism of freedom and the feminism of care. Because women were rightly quite conflicted. They say, “We need more freedom of movement. This new world seems premised on the idea that everyone is a free individual and an atomized self in the market, and that’s what freedom is. And so why can’t we have that?”
But then of course, because we’re women and we’re mothers, we have children—you have a baby, I have a six-year-old—we know what it’s like to be needed. So women who argued from that experience of motherhood said, “It’s not as simple as that, because actually there are people who need us and we need that to be recognized and taken into account.” They wanted to make space for dependence—the dependence of the very old, the young, the sick, and the physical vulnerability of women, whether in pregnancy or in motherhood. And we need to make space for all of those embodied realities of our life that are distinct. These realities are different from this ideal atomized liberal subject, which was very much constructed on a male template.
I think it was Rousseau who pretty much set out that original vision. And he explicitly excluded women from it. In his view, women should be trained and educated to be charming, compliant support humans. And in a sense, he wasn’t wrong. This is possibly a slightly controversial thing to say. Rousseau wasn’t wrong to exclude women from this male-standard template of the atomized self, because actually it doesn’t really work for women; certainly, it doesn’t really work for mothers. A great deal of feminism is about wrestling with that paradox. We’re people, we’re human just like men, so it seems not unreasonable to make the case that we should have equal dignity and standing and political agency and so on. But when the dominant political paradigm for what a person is pretty much forecloses that, what do you do?
So fast-forward through a couple hundred years of back and forth. Women got the vote, we can own property. And the trajectory through every iteration of that has been to edge women closer, underwritten by technology, toward the male-standard understanding of what the atomized self is. But the final frontier for equality between the sexes—or if you like, the missing tech fix—was always, how do we deal with reproduction? How do we deal with the different reproductive roles between the sexes? How can we use tech to flatten those differences?
Erika Bachiochi has argued very persuasively that really the point where the feminism of freedom decisively won was with the legalization of contraception and abortion. At that point, the right to kill a dependent person within your body became constitutive of what it meant to be a person—because the only way to keep women—at least in potential—as free from reproductive obligations as men is to have that technological backstop. Especially in the United States, in the legal case work surrounding the early arguments about abortion, it’s very clear that a lot of people were making the case for abortion based on the idea that it granted women personhood on the same terms as men.
The case I wanted to make at NatCon is that this ended feminism, which had previously been a back and forth between the feminism of freedom and the feminism of care. With the legalization of abortion, the feminism of freedom conclusively won. I date the beginning of the cyborg era from that point: that’s when women gained access to personhood on the same terms as men, but radically, fundamentally underwritten by technology.
EA: So in the cyborg era, women have to self-sterilize so that they can enter the marketplace on the same terms as men, in a Rousseauian fashion, which relies on certain technologies. Can you say more about the cyborg era?
MH: Yeah. Another way of phrasing the cyborg era would be to say the transhumanist era. In this era, my personhood as a woman is predicated on and inseparable from certain technologies. I see the Pill as the first transhumanist technology, because it’s the first application of medicine to cure health. It treats normal, healthy bodies as a problem to be solved. The traditional model of medicine has a very clear understanding of what normal human physiology is like, and it has a restorative model. The Pill does something very different. It takes a normal, healthy, fertile adult woman and says, “Actually, your normal, healthy, fertile state is a problem to be solved, and we’re going to apply medical technologies to interrupt that.”
And there’s a huge amount of subsequent technology, particularly in reproduction, that falls out of that paradigm. We’re not quite at artificial wombs yet, but we’re fifty years further down that trajectory now; but the Pill was the beginning, and along with the digital revolution it inaugurated the cyborg era. With the Pill came a certain understanding of what women are, which is really the dominant model that we’ve been living with ever since.
EA: These technologies, including the Pill, abortion, artificial wombs that you describe, seem like the preconditions for the totally sexless cyborg era that we live in. But it seems like there’s other technologies of the digital era that are perhaps more morally neutral, that could be used in service of a feminism of dependence.
Here’s what I mean by this: there are some technologies who have more of a clear moral logic, like abortion and the Pill, at least in my view. But there are other technologies (like laptop work) that can encourage an interdependent feminism to flourish, even though they do not depend on sexual traits. For example, if you can work from your computer, in some ways maybe that reinforces this disembodied, sexless, cyborg paradigm we’re in. But maybe there are other ways that it helps relationships of dependence to flourish.
And then there are things like breast pumps and formula. I’ve seen some more conservative feminists who have argued that these kinds of technologies can push us even further down the cyborg path, to a sexless future where women’s bodies become less essential to how we parent and how we work. They enable a more disembodied mothering. But they also can be used to help men and women care for their children, and can obviously do a lot of good. But I do see how they create wedges between a mom and baby that employers and market demands could exploit. So these technologies have both cyborg potential and caregiving potential, it seems to me.
All this is to say, the future you describe sounds kind of hopeless and dystopic, but do you see any technologies or economic developments that could support a feminism that’s hospitable to human dependence? Do you have any hope for that sort of future at all? And if so, how can we push more in that direction?
MH: I think there are two parts to that answer. The first is that I should make it clear I’m pretty ambivalent about most of the technologies I critique. I am very much a creature of the cyborg era. I’m permanently welded to the internet. I got my job through Twitter, I’m a fully paid-up cyborg. And if I’m critical of these technologies, it’s not because I’m a tech determinist (although I come across that way sometimes). I think tech determinism is itself a moral choice. If we just say, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do. We must just go with the flow,” then we’ve already given up agency that we might otherwise have. I don’t think we’re without agency in terms of how we engage with our own inventions. This beast doesn’t have to run away with us helplessly. That’s the first thing I would say.
And yes, absolutely: each of these things is a real two-edged sword. There was a story from the Institute of Family Studies that came out recently, which looked at the fact that it’s particularly among demographics where work can be more flexible and sometimes from home that actually people are able to have kids. This is news that should surprise nobody. For families where work doesn’t have to be a zero-sum choice between family and your professional life, of course you might consider having more kids. Personally I find my work is pretty ideal, from the point of view of actually being able to see my daughter, which is a privilege, and I’m really conscious of that. And that’s also downstream of the cyborg era.
We are where we are. There’s no meaningful sense that we could put either the digital world or reproductive technologies back in the box entirely. That’s just not going to happen. But I don’t think we’re without agency in terms of how we engage with these, and try to wield them mindfully. So we need to find ways of leading by example in using technologies in a way conducive to the good life. I’m not a Ted Kaczynski acolyte. I don’t think it’s just a case of blowing up industrial civilization or what’s come after it, and going back to living in the woods. I think that makes no sense. The only way out is through. And in that context, the work is trying to find how we can use those technologies meaningfully.
But the second part of my answer is that being mindful about how these technologies are used has to come with thinking about how they play out in different contexts—and particularly, up and down the socioeconomic food chain. It’s very easy if you are, say, Elon Musk’s baby mama, to think that becoming a cyborg, and having your babies by surrogacy is just all great. Because if you’re Elon Musk’s baby mama, you’re unlikely to see any of the material downsides of that paradigm. But if you’re a woman who can’t find work doing anything except being a commercial surrogate in Ukraine, it’s a completely different story. And so the further down the food chain you get, the grimmer and more disembodied the commodification, particularly of our reproductive functions.
The class politics of the cyborg era is an argument we’re really only just beginning to have. I’m in Dallas, as it happens, and I just went for a run this morning, which is what I always do to get over jet lag. I was genuinely shocked at the number of homeless people on the streets. Particularly in urban areas, the volume of homeless, often drug-addled people has rocketed over my lifetime. That’s been consistently true of every city I’ve been to over the course of my adult life. It’s just got worse and worse. Although we don’t really have the time or the space for me to argue the case, it’s very clear to me that that’s also partly downstream of the increasing polarization in wealth, which is coming as a consequence of digitization, financialization, and de-industrialization. That’s slightly off topic for what we’re discussing today, but in that context, the class politics of the cyborg era are only just beginning to kick off, and I think they’re going to be ugly. Once you map that onto questions of how or if we technologize or commodify our reproductive functions, there are some truly dystopian possibilities that lie down that path.
However, this is part three of my answer: I’m not without hope. I’m really not. One of the most interesting phenomena—and quite powerful and inspiring—I’ve seen from people younger than myself (I’m in my early forties) is backlash from young men and women to the ways in which both sexes are encouraged to commodify themselves. Or, if you like, are instrumentalized by the machine. In the case of women, I’m increasingly hearing from women in their twenties that there’s a real pushback against the contraceptive pill.
When I was a teenager, if you wanted to go on the Pill, you’d get the third degree from your GP, from your doctor about, “Are you in a steady relationship? Yada, yada, yada.” But as far as I can make out, a girl getting put on the Pill is now pretty much an automatic thing. And there’s real backlash now from young women in their 20s who are like, “No: I’ve been fat and crazy for seven, eight, nine years now. And then I stopped taking this thing every day, and all of a sudden I’m a completely different person. How could you do that to me?” And it really isn’t just Catholics. This is spreading beyond religious communities and is a very genuine and understandable backlash against this idea that we should just be biochemically modified by default so that we can put out in a cost-free way. Why should I do that to myself, just for the possibility of bad sex, where I only have a 10 percent likelihood of having an orgasm? No thanks.
That’s not a battle for me to fight because I’ve aged out of that whole scene. But I wonder how that’s going to pan out for younger women. Should we be entering a post-Pill era, right now I think it’s mostly very clever, very online, elite, slightly dissident women who are propagating this. But if the post-Pill movement is growing, then all manner of sexual and social mores will have to be renegotiated downstream of that. Although it’s quite avant garde at the moment, in ten years’ time, we could be looking at a very different sexual scene.
Something equivalent also seems to be happening among young men. It takes a different form, because the way men’s sexuality is commodified is different. Whereas women are encouraged to biochemically neuter themselves so they can be sexually available, men are incentivized to just become mindless porn addicts.
The most interestingly countercultural anti-capitalist movement, in my opinion, is the NoFap movement. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that, but this is a huge community of young men. These are guys who support one another via internet forums, and there are tens of thousands of them who support one another to beat porn addiction. As a subculture, it shades into some quite weird, online places. It gets accused of being a gateway to the alt right. But fundamentally what these guys are doing is unplugging themselves from limbic capitalism.
You see these soft-style communists who tweet about solidarity from their iPhones, while sitting in Starbucks and cheerleading sex work. Those guys are not anti-capitalists. The real anti-capitalists are the young men who are turning their backs on this entire industry, which is dedicated to weaponizing their limbic system against them to keep them addicted to pornography for somebody else’s profit. I think there’s something incredibly subversive and powerful about that. The men who are supporting each other to beat porn, and the women who are propagating natural family planning (often for health rather than religious reasons) and rejecting the industrialization of their bodies through the medium of the Pill—these are two very interesting subcultures embracing a more mindful engagement with the technologies that commodify men and women in different ways, and that in the process undermine constructive and healthy relations between the sexes.
EA: I see that too with young women. I’m Catholic, but I’ve encountered in conversation women who aren’t Catholic but are deeply unsettled by what the Pill has done to their bodies. They’re frustrated by a default assumption that their healthy body needs to be medicalized. There’s going to be a lot of renegotiation, as you say, that needs to be done if this really takes off, and I think it might.
You mentioned that you have a book coming out. Can you give a brief overview of what your argument is, what you’re trying to accomplish with the book, and who you hope your readers will be?
MH: Part one I’ve already explained. It is my slightly sideways read of the history of feminism to date as a set of responses by women to the transformations in how we live together with men over the course of the industrial era. I see this trajectory culminating in our departure from the industrial era into the cyborg one, and the transformation of feminism into something I call bio-libertarianism. By this I mean a libertarianism of the body that says we’re entitled to modify ourselves as we see fit in the name of freedom of progress. What marches under the banner of feminism now and has done since the 1960s is bio-libertarianism in my view.
And in the second part of the book, I’ve looked at some of the ways that plays out in a many-faceted war on relationships. Our relationships, the relationships between men and women, the relationships between mothers and babies, and also our relationships with our own bodies. I’ve looked at the ways in which the dissolution of previous bodily limits through technology and the reordering of bodies to the market creates adversarial dynamics between the sexes, between mothers and babies, and even between ourselves and our own bodies.
And in the last part of the book, I’ve sketched some possibilities for where we might go next that isn’t further into some of those dystopian scenarios. One chapter looks at sex segregation, and particularly through the lens of sex segregation in women’s prisons, but also broadening that out to look at sex segregation, including single sex spaces for men. I think this is controversial and under-discussed, but has a bearing on how we might do things differently.
Another chapter looks at marriage. I argue that in fact one of the major obstacles to a more healthy understanding of marriage in the cyborg era is leaving behind the idea of romance, which to my eye has become an obstacle to forming relationships and then to sustaining them. Finally, the last chapter is my feminist case against the Pill. I’ve drawn an analogy from the ecological harms caused by the Pill, which are manifold and disastrous and caused by the leaking of synthetic estrogens into the environment. I’ve used that as a metaphor for poisoning the water of our social relationships and what it might look like to re-wild the environment as well as the social and sexual ecologies between men and women. I’m going to be interested to see how those land, I imagine probably more controversially in some quarters than others, but it’s going to be fun.
EA: I’m looking forward to reading it. I guess we should end there; we’ve already gone a bit longer than I said we would!
MH: It’s been fun.
EA: It has indeed been fun. Thank you, Mary.
MH: No, thank you.