Editor’s note: Below is Christine Emba’s response to Mary Harrington’s talk, published here Monday. Their remarks were part of 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 responses from Alexandra DeSanctis and Leah Libresco Sargeant, whose remarks are also published at Public Discourse this week.
Ask questions. Mary Harrington’s Feminism against Progress urges us to do that just by its title, and by the vocabulary it adopts. What is a “feminist”? What defines “progress”? How have we come to believe that the two should be opposed?
The first question I’d ask is: what does “feminism” mean? How did today’s story emerge? My own book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, is about the myths we have been told—or sold—about feminism, gender, and sexual ethics. It’s grounded in interviews: dozens and dozens of interviews with young women and men about their personal goals, their sex lives, their relationships or lack thereof.
In the process of conducting these interviews, I found that many—in fact, most—young people don’t really know what story it is that they are trying to live out.
Maybe they got their ideas of feminism from the internet: Tumblrs depicting infinitely malleable identities and Reddit threads filled with caustic gender warfare. Perhaps they got their idea of sex from shows like Sex and the City and think that this—a wasteland of apps and hookups and noncommittal “situationships”—is just the way we live now, that no better options are on the table. Often they are simply acting these stories out—or, acting in reaction to what they think these stories say.
But those are the wrong stories.
In fact, the second-wave feminists of the mid-twentieth century had a quite clear vision of what equality and flourishing looked like. They had a revolutionary idea in mind: smashing a system that centered on only male preferences and toxic value systems; replacing it with a new vision in which women and their distinctive concerns were equally valued and respected. Feminism’s success would depend on a cultural and personal revolution in which both genders were equally valued in their specificity. True freedom would demand equal sharing of power, resources, and respect. This total transformation of society would be a heavy and disruptive shift.
Alas, a different story about what feminism might mean was taking shape at the same time. It was one that would take advantage of women’s newfound ability to have unconstrained sex due to widespread contraception and abortion, but leave the more intractable questions of parity, value, and the ultimate aims of “revolution” by the wayside. And it was fueled less by the dedicated women who aimed for utopia than by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown—and by capital, which wanted as much access as possible to women’s time and bodies, without regard to their ultimate well-being.
This story idealized detachment, “liberation” from mutual care, ensuring that relationships never came before career goals. It looked like bringing a capitalist mindset into our interactions, making it normal to use, discard, and objectify other people. And as they often do, our rapacious markets and short-term desires won out.
My second question is: Cui bono? Whom did this new story serve? Who benefits from a world of consequence-free sex, weak ties, the putting off of childbearing and family?
Today, the pharmaceutical and medical industries benefit, by selling decades-long prescriptions for contraceptives, and then various attempts at ART later on. Corporations and employers benefit: they gain a new labor force unsaddled by commitments to family, place, or other less-than-profitable concerns. (Intrinsic in Rethinking Sex’s critique of modern feminism’s dependence on contraception is a critique of the free-market values that many who would term themselves conservatives or reactionaries still—oddly to my mind—hold dear.)
And perhaps some small tier of reckless men benefit: those who can stay on dating apps forever and always find someone with whom to pass the time.
The uncritical feminisms of the modern moment have asked for less than the original movement did. Rather than dismantling a male-dominated system, they have redefined female progress as just gaining power within the existing system—which meant adopting its values. A “boss” is still the ideal, and empowerment just looks like … a #girl one. Playboy is fine, as long as women can be Playgirls!
The “equality” that this uncritical feminism proposes and that women settle for is the equal opportunity to be like this worst kind of man.
And everyone benefits, it seems, except women themselves.
Finally, my third question: what then do we want?
The mid-century feminists were suspicious of checks on women’s freedom and sexuality. But even they saw the risks of assuming too easily that pure liberation, and its outcomes, were beyond critique. In 1981, feminist journalist Ellen Willis wrote:
Though self-definition is the necessary starting point for any liberation movement, it can take us only so far. … The further this principle is extended, the sharper are its contradictions.
… A truly radical movement must look beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? And what would we choose if we had real choice?
In all the interviews I conducted in the course of writing Rethinking Sex, not once did someone say, “I long to be lonely. Porn dependence is my dream. Painful relationships are a pleasure, and gender confusion is a delight.”
I found that most people want love. They want care. They want relationship and community and family. And indeed, I believe—and our faith tells us—that we were indeed meant for love.
It is right to be angry at what a co-opted revolution has wrought. We can rage against loneliness, confusion, false stories that caused more harm than good. And we can posit that a true feminism is one in which women are respected as women, in their specificity. A good feminism is one that pushes society to make room for women, not one that asks women to change themselves to fit into its existing destructive structures.
But when we want to critique, we should do so in love. When we want to convince, we should do so in love. It is not enough to be angry. It is not convincing to belittle or insult those who think differently, and I worry that the sharpness in tone of some post-feminist critique is more off-putting than it is convincing.
The feminist movement was—and is—an opportunity to create a culture that values something other than complete autonomy and economic success—one that valorizes things like relationship, emotion, love, and care instead of downgrading them because they are traditionally seen as female concerns. And we can fiercely resist redefinitions that would tell us otherwise.
But if we outline a positive vision of love, we must live it, too.