Editor’s note: Below is a lightly edited transcript of Mary Harrington’s remarks at a recent event on her new book, Feminism Against Progress (Regnery 2023). The panel was co-hosted by Public Discourse and the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. and featured remarks from Alexandra DeSanctis, Christine Emba, and Leah Libresco Sargeant. Later this week, we will publish their responses.
One of the things I discovered when writing Feminism Against Progress is that it’s much easier to make a critique than to suggest what to do about it. When you start suggesting policies, someone is bound to hate it. In the end I gave up trying to please everyone, and just made three arguments I wish someone had offered me when I was university age, so I wouldn’t have needed to spend the following fifteen years reverse-engineering them from first principles, and sustaining a great many scars in the process.
These are simple if counter-cultural principles in today’s atomized world.
One: if you want to be a mother, marriage is not a patriarchal institution designed to oppress you. It’s the minimum unit for human-scale solidarity. Unless you’re very rich raising kids in this atomized context, marriage is not the misogynist option but the pro-women one.
Two: co-ed social life has lots to offer, but there are times when single-sex social spaces are important. And this goes for men as well as women.
And three: close to the heart of modern women’s dissociation from our own bodies, and the countless forms of exploitation that follow from this, is a technology that was sold as emancipatory to us: the Pill.
When we put these together, they form the backbone of a micro-scale, women-led fightback against the atomized, dehumanized, and commodified transhumanist social order under which we’ve all been living for half a century. This is an order that’s been marching under the banner of “feminism,” but is better understood as a profoundly anti-women libertarianism of the body.
What Is Reactionary Feminism?
I’ve dubbed this fightback “reactionary feminism.” I use “reactionary” in recognition that “progress” in its contemporary form wages war on human nature. It views “freedom” as best served by reframing embodied men and women as atomized, de-sexed, fungible, and interchangeable “humans” composed of disembodied “identity” plus body parts that can be reordered at will, like meat LEGOs. And I use “feminism” in recognition of the fact that proposing to atomize, de-sex, and remodel “humans” has profound negative impacts on women.
If we are to defend women’s interests under this order, we must do so with a feminism against progress. In the book, I argue that “feminism” as such isn’t evidence of moral progress in some absolute sense. Rather, it comprises the aggregate response to ways that women’s lives were transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and crucially by the departure of work from the home.
This response had many facets but was broadly characterized by a back-and-forth between what I’ve called the feminism of care and the feminism of freedom. The feminism of care makes the case for women’s interests as bound up with our embodied nature, especially as mothers, and the relational ties and obligations that come with this. The feminism of freedom argued that the best means of securing women’s interests is for us to enter the market on the same terms as men, and where necessary to socialize domestic obligations—for example, via institutional childcare.
These twin poles formed a rich dialogue until the mid-twentieth century, at which point the feminism of freedom won. It did so via another tech transition: the arrival of the Pill and then, ineluctably, legal abortion. As Erika Bachiochi has argued, these innovations framed women’s personhood—understood in Rousseauesque terms—as best delivered by privileging individual autonomy over obligation to a dependent other. Even one so radically dependent as an unborn child.
Predicating access to “personhood” on the right to abort an unborn child is about the strongest possible statement a culture can make in favor of freedom over care, where these are seen to be in zero-sum conflict. Making this the centerpiece of “women’s liberation” ended the back-and-forth between the feminisms of freedom and care, and left the field to freedom. This is the “feminism” we’ve lived with for over half a century now.
In doing so, we also entrenched the belief that women can only be “people” to the extent that we use technology to flatten human sex asymmetry. In other words, being a “person” under this model is, for women, to be constitutively at odds with our own biology, and dependent on tech to “fix” us.
So now, to be both a woman and a person is to be a cyborg. In this sense, for all the ways that her conclusions are antithetical to mine, Donna Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto is closer to grasping what second-wave feminism is than any number of clichés about having it all.
In this cyborg era, what passes as “feminism” is in truth a radical libertarianism of the body. With Haraway, this feminism rejects rigid definitions: between sexes, between human and animal, between human and machine. To put it another way: cyborg feminism wages war on human nature, in the name of freedom and radical self-fashioning.
And if we’re now at war with our embodied nature, so too must we refuse every given relationship that might otherwise constrain us. This means war on relationships between men and women. Between mothers and babies. And (most fundamentally of all) between ourselves and our bodies. In place of every such given we are promised an order of untrammeled, unbounded, unconstrained self-creation.
The reality, though, is that attempting to liquefy human nature in the name of freedom doesn’t actually work. It just re-orders that nature to the market.
Liberating sex from procreation, for example, didn’t stop men and women from having distinctive mate choice preferences. It just opened these up for commercial exploitation. Half a century on from the sexual revolution, the “pure relationship” Anthony Giddens envisaged, of “plastic sexuality,” has not been realized. Men and women are still different. Meanwhile, pornography and dating are multi-billion-dollar industries, while family formation is collapsing.
The same logic extends to every expansion of this cyborg order of tech-enabled freedom. Big Fertility has set about detaching “parenthood” from normal embodied human reproduction, with a gloss of “rights,” a pile of money to be made, and many uncounted costs. Or take the trans-activist campaign to unmoor “identity” from embodiment, again with a gloss of “rights,” many more uncounted costs, and a whole new pile of money to be made from the lifelong iatrogenic medical patients created in the name of “authentic identity.”
So: what is to be done? We must be radical, in the sense of tackling the roots of a problem. And that means feminist fightback against this version of freedom, and of “progress.” Against libertarianism of the body.
The cyborg temptation was offered to women first. Take this Pill, and you too can be free, like men. So the fightback must also begin with women.
In this, we can learn from the “detransitioners.” This growing group of often very young men and women bet their own bodies on the promise of radical dissociation in the name of self-fashioning. They found flesh isn’t so easily severed from consciousness; that the mangled reality fell a long way short of the emancipatory promise. Many now live with irreversible scars. Most describe the journey toward reconciliation with their own bodies as a long, painful one. Backing out of this blind alley means extending the logic of “detransition” well beyond those who embraced gender surgeries. All the way to making peace with our embodied, sexed natures, as men and women—and creating a new moral consensus on that basis.
This power, to create a consensus, has always belonged to women. So the radical project of reactionary feminism is to pioneer and propagate this consensus. The aim is not a final victory over men. Or over our own sexed bodies. But rather a way of living together with men that furthers our common good.
And to that end, the first proposition I’d offer my younger self is that marriage is not a crowning achievement but a starting point for life in common. The twentieth century led us to believe that life is better in inverse proportion to how bound we are to others: the more unfettered, the better. In this context, marriage is at best optional, of value only as a vector for self-actualization and to be discarded at any time or for any reason should it fail to deliver. The suffering this visits on children compounds down the generations, not least in an epidemic of fatherlessness and associated social ills.
If we’re to swim against this tide of atomization, we must reclaim marriage as a covenant, not a contract. When you do this, it’s like going through the looking glass into another reality that’s not easily described: the smallest unit of solidarity outside the atomized market. This includes when marriages are not perfect, but simply good enough. And this shift can transform a partnership from a resource to be selfishly strip-mined by individuals to an alliance that enables conditions for life in common—and, crucially, for the long-term care and flourishing of children.
This is obviously in women’s interests. Being a mother is hard in direct proportion to how alone you are. A feminism for mothers is a feminism that seeks more community, and a less liquid society. But we can’t do this if there are no men left to marry—and in turn this means going through another looking glass, and making the feminist case for letting men be.
That is: accepting that we cannot ask for solidarity for men on the many fronts reactionary feminists are now fighting—from sex realism in prisons to challenging pornography to advocating motherhood—unless we are willing to consider the well-being of men. And male sociality is a significant, under-counted cost of a cyborg feminism that has sought to render us all interchangeable.
This movement demanded, in the name of equal opportunities, that every facet of society be made co-ed. The aim was laudable. But in practice it meant widening access to professional networks for a minority of knowledge-class women at the expense of degrading male mentorship for a far wider swath of men who were never gatekeeping power or influence.
A subtle but pervasive consequence of this is that in-person sociality is now presumptively feminine in manner and priorities. Allied with the proliferation of fatherless families, the result has been generations of alienated men, lacking mentorship, peer support, or paternal guidance. Many of them now harbor bitter resentment toward the women they blame for their alienation.
Neither sex can, in truth, “go it alone.” So this is also disastrous for women. Without positive real-world mentorship and peer competition, boys never become good men. Influencers such as Andrew Tate pour their noxious misogyny into the vacuum this leaves behind. And this in turn fuels a dearth of good husbands and fathers: a literally vicious cycle.
Leaning out of this doesn’t imply sex segregation at every turn. More just being a little more chill about men doing whatever it is they do when no women are present. And making the feminist case for sex discrimination in those areas—whether prisons, sports, or physically demanding occupations—where sex really does matter.
And finally, a new realism about our embodied nature calls on women to lead the charge against the central plank of bio-libertarianism: the technology that makes unwitting cyborgs of so many women today. I mean, of course, hormonal birth control.
Many of the ways young women suffer today are inextricable from the tech-enabled reframing of human sexuality as a fun, cost-free leisure activity. This happens in blithe indifference to the violence this does to our still-present sexed differences; to women’s widespread longing for intimacy; and to our capacity as women to honor our embodied nature.
If the Pill was the first cyborg technology, rejecting the cyborg temptation means rejecting a model of sexuality, and more broadly of embodiment and “personhood,” that’s structurally reliant on chemical self-neutering.
Reactionary feminists do so first in the name of pleasure. Furthermore, pregnancy risk is a robust reason to decline loveless and degrading casual encounters. We also do so in the name of intimacy. Natural fertility is a sound reason to decline loveless hookups—and a prudent Pill refuser will reserve sexual access for a male partner whom she loves and trusts. (Many studies show, I will add, that love and trust are associated with better sex).
Pill refusal also incentivizes men to step up. To illustrate: one young woman recently read my argument against the Pill and rejected coming off it as impractical. Later, she discussed it with her boyfriend, a young man who had hitherto enjoyed living with his wealthy parents, and dabbling in unremunerative hobbies.
He was thunderstruck by her assertion that she wanted to come off the Pill but would not have an abortion. Since their conversation, he has taken concrete steps to get on the housing ladder, to seek more gainful employment—in brief, to make the shift from “boy” to “man.”
More women will see men make this shift if those men have a proper incentive to do so. Reconnecting sex with responsibility is central to this.
Just as centrally, too, reactionary feminists reject the Pill in the name of embodiment. Chemical self-neutering is the original form of radical body dissociation as “emancipation.” The Pill is also a disaster for aquatic life, an enabling condition for bad and commodified sex, and a disincentive for young men to embrace adult responsibility. And as Sarah Hill showed recently in This Is Your Brain on Birth Control, it’s a psychoactive substance with far-reaching behavioral and psychological side effects.
Reactionary feminists reject these in name of reconnecting with our bodies. Our fertility is not a problem in need of a tech fix. Recentering normal female physiology, via practices such as cycle tracking, is a crucial act of resistance to the dissociative cyborg paradigm, and the loveless, hostile, transactional capture of human intimacy and human sexuality by the market.
An honest reckoning with women’s interests today calls on us to reject the cyborg vision of sexless, fungible homunculi piloting re-configurable meat suits. The cyborg era began with women, and women must reclaim the power to say “no.” In its place, we can pioneer a new but ancient moral consensus. We can lead the charge for solidarity between the sexes. We can reclaim marriage as the foundation for life in common, embrace a social order that honors sex dimorphism without making an idol of it, and reconnect sex with its telos. And we will do this in defense of the human.