Editor’s note: Below is Leah Libresco Sargeant’s response to Mary Harrington’s essay, published here on Monday. Their essays are adapted from a panel discussion on Harrington’s new book, Feminism against Progress (Regnery 2023), co-hosted by Public Discourse and the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. The panel also featured remarks from Christine Emba and Alexandra DeSanctis that were also published at Public Discourse this week.
Mary Harrington’s recent essay, “The Three Principles of Reactionary Feminism,” based on her book Feminism against Progress, is a salvo against our increasingly attenuated language of value. Without the ability to speak plainly about values, we narrow our understanding of the goodness and givenness of the human person. In our increasingly pluralistic society, we have lost language for the most important parts of human life. Rather than our divisions driving us to a sort of agora where we sift through our conflicting ideas to assess what is true, there has been a retreat from “values language” in the public square.
We may struggle to speak about how to live, but we know the question still matters. Frequently, public intellectuals and policy makers try to find a way to do philosophy without philosophy, trying to find a “neutral,” valueless definition of value. As Christine Emba describes in Rethinking Sex, that means trying to reduce all of our duties to each other and to ourselves in intimate relationships to a simple, standardized question, “Did both people consent?”
As Emba rightly argues, consent is necessary but not sufficient for right relationship. A culture focused only on consent has no way to talk about how to know what we should say yes and no to, no way to think about how to tutor our appetites and our consciences.
In Feminism against Progress, Harrington identifies another sleight of hand where secular culture tries to find a way to value the good without having to acknowledge it as transcendent and true. As she writes, the metric for value is money:
Women’s liberation was thus predicated on being able to escape any obligation that isn’t paid—including (or perhaps especially) reproductive ones. … If all unpaid work is oppressive, then the work of relationships and carrying is intrinsically oppressive, except to the extent that it can be reimagined as paid work. And, if this is so, having babies itself is oppressive—unless, as we’ll see, it’s the “work” of surrogacy.
Both consent and compensation are attempts to sanitize human relationship and human need. Care is reduced to contract, where we enumerate what we are willing to do and what we are owed in response. That careful, stilted mindset doesn’t allow any room for a child, who comes into the world as a being of pure need and wasn’t party to any negotiation about paying parents back for life and love.
Children are messy, noisy, undeniable contradictions of the ideology of individual control. As Harrington writes, when she cared for her child, she discovered “the shadow side of maternity, where this mixture of the grisly and the miraculous is a kind of secret language shared by mothers of little children.”
Children force us into compassion—not just the sentiment of sympathy, but the practice of com + passion, being present for the suffering of someone we love. When my baby is sick, I have to take on the active work of scraping vomit off a bedsheet as well as the passive work of presence, as a fussy, feverish child simply wants to snuggle up on my lap, her ear attuned to my heartbeat, the first sound she learned. In those moments, the question of what the hourly rate should be for caregiving is obviously irrelevant.
Parenting is not widgetizable. When we try to honor women and parenting through an invocation of household wages or a marginal impact on GDP, we act as though parenting is solving a problem and we don’t much care who solves it. The point of holding my child is not to quiet my child. It’s even less that I aim to give her secure attachment that will help her dodge diagnosable anxiety and earn higher wages fifteen years down the line.
I hold her because I love her and I am her mother. I know her world is larger than just me, but there was a time when I was her world, and thus I will always be a distinctive, still point in her expanding map.
Our culture is distrustful of distinctiveness. It is easiest to guarantee that we can be fair to one another when we are all flatly equal. Any asymmetry, particularly the asymmetry between men and women, or between parents and paid care workers, is suspect.
As Harrington lays out, our culture responds with a frantic pursuit of modularity. Whatever is distinctive to us should be severable and shareable. The capacities of our bodies should be swappable with technological substitutes or paid assistants. The ties of our hearts should be disclaimed as merely chosen, held for as long as they make us happy and no longer.
When it comes to biology, Harrington glosses this mindset as “meat LEGOs.” There is nothing intrinsically valuable about the givenness of our bodies and our particular gifts and burdens. Our age distrusts what is received and values the chosen, controlled, and self-authored. Such a world will be hostile to children and unable to accommodate women as women.
A woman can only navigate a world that demands self-ownership and self-authorship by neutering herself. What makes a woman’s body distinctively womanly isn’t a high femme presentation but the potential for biological hospitality and self-gift. A woman doesn’t need to bear a child to be a woman, but the potential (or even, as some see it, the threat) of pregnancy is a constant reminder that she is not solely her own.
Men are no more autonomous or wholly self-directed than women, but they rely on different reminders to remember who they are. It is easier for them to be swept away by the undertow of a world that expects us to stand alone and to view others’ claims on us as suspicious by default. Women thrash and struggle more against that unjust demand, but that means we’re closer to pulling ourselves free.
After all, as lifeguards remind parents every summer, drowning doesn’t look like it does in the movies. A person who has nearly lost the strength to stay above water isn’t screaming, isn’t waving. He bobs gently, quietly, with his mouth level with the water’s surface, until without any drama, the water rushes in for the last time. When women like Harrington speak up in defense of our embodiment and our exposure to each other’s needs, it’s not just a feminist revolution, it’s a humane one.