It’s not surprising marriage and a child catalyzed Mary Harrington into a rich observer of the human condition. Her experience shows it’s dangerous to encourage delayed family formation because that connects people to reality.
Slowly accepting her body’s uniquely female capacities and consequently undergoing a philosophical makeover formed Harrington into a hopeful representative of escaping the sexual revolution’s house of horrors. Her inaugural book, “Feminism Against Progress,” seeks to reduce the kind of casualties she almost became. “Like many kinds of revolution,” she says, “losing my faith happened slowly, then all at once.”
It’s a gentle effort that will speak to the millions brutalized by the social Marxist war against both sexes. She’s so persuasive, her book release has been the target of the usual cancellation attempts.
Yet Harrington’s new anthropology also appears incomplete. She’s a feminist mugged by reality, but not reality-checked enough to stop supporting feminism, at least in name. That’s important because names ought to describe reality. They can be more or less accurate, and inaccuracy creates grave problems.
Will Harrington halt her reorientation toward reality before she’s reached it in full? This book, at least, records her at such a pause. Thankfully for readers, this journey is worth joining her on.
Mary Harrington Against Progress That Isn’t
Harrington’s voice is abloom. She of course has a Substack, plus writes at UnHerd and First Things. The Brit blends a thoughtful, conversational style with an interesting combination of left and right political views. That makes her a leader for some of the millions across the globe fleeing leftist soul drones yet sometimes unwilling to adopt leftist-punished labels, including “fertile,” “Christian,” “married,” and “conservative.”
Many times I underlined her words for how well they express reality. A few examples: “Mainstream culture is founded on assumptions that foreclose motherhood.” “[E]verything that made small-town life feel like a community, rather than a dormitory with some shops attached, was powered almost exclusively by retirees.” “…a market that wears women’s political interests as a skin suit but is ever more inimical to those interests in practice.” “[I]f all of us are now ‘humans’ [as opposed to men and women] entitled to pass the buck on caring obligations, then the only available caregivers must be machines.” “[W]e live together in the rubble of absolute freedom.” These sentences also indicate how broadly her arguments rove.
Harrington sings soprano in the swelling choir chorusing that the “liberal consensus” about the “arc towards progress” has been clearly revealed as a lie. She never says so explicitly — one of her weaknesses is a failure to define key terms, preferring instead to describe — but by “progress” she essentially means “progressivism.” Progressivism’s core is the idea that humans have no nature and must therefore confiscate others’ labor to explore their infinite malleability.
Harrington describes “progress theology” in many different ways, including, “for both sexes,” “the equal right to self-realisation, shorn of culturally imposed obligations, expectations, stereotypes, or constraints.” “I have questions about how indisputably pro-women the effort to transcend our sexed bodies in favor of a genderless ‘human’ state really is,” she writes (p. 17).
Ultimately, Harrington calls for readers to fortify three bulwarks against selling off human relationships for parts: Protect single-sex spaces; reduce abortion and environment-damaging birth control by supporting women’s natural fertility; and promote marriage as a practical, creative arrangement that unites the sexes in solidarity with each other and their natural offspring. These are very basic propositions that only seem challenging because of how chaotic we’ve allowed our societies to become.
What She Gets Right About Feminism
Harrington reaches these conclusions through a characteristically unusual blend of ideas, not all of which are accurate, or at least oversimplify and elide. This would be fine — books can’t be infinitely long — if it didn’t damage her core argument.
Harrington’s book ravages feminism while hoisting its banner aloft. She advocates for feminism — just not the dominant strain, which she agrees fuels “bio-libertarian” human alienation and harms the majority of women. She excuses this firstborn identity politics category as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, arguing, “The inception of feminism is the story of men and women adjusting to market society, and particularly of women’s response to the asymetrical impact of that society on areas of our life in common that have historically been women’s domain: that of care and the household.”
It’s almost certain the feminist elite women such as George Sand, tossed about before the Industrial Revolution, could never have gone viral without the Industrial Revolution eventually expanding prosperity and leisure. Feminism, as Harrington notes early in her book, is a leisure activity. Peasants don’t have time to militate against how unfair it is for the men to plow, build, and plant with the bigger kids all day while the women milk, cook, and weave amid nursing babies.
So we can agree that feminism as a mass movement was certainly ignited by the Industrial Revolution’s massive economic and social changes. So were communism and socialism. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution did a lot of damage while also doing a lot of good.
What She Gets Wrong About Feminism
Feminism — and socialism and communism — were understandable but still terrible responses to a terrible situation. Both etymologically and historically, feminism atomizes women and takes them out of the family, just like Harrington complains the Industrial Revolution did to men.
Feminism as a word pits women against men and locates them outside of the fundamental relationships of interdependence Harrington urges all to seek. It is an anti-solidarity term that excludes the other sex entirely — unlike, say, patriarchy, which locates a man in the context of his family, as a father, an embodied and relational being with responsibilities to others. A man cannot become a patriarch without intercourse with a woman. A feminist declares her complete independence from men, which is both false and harmful. A man taking counterpart action would be equally wrong.
This word comes with too much historical baggage to rescue it now. Too many people mean by feminism the very thing Harrington lances with all her considerable rhetorical might. Most will not read her book or even hear its arguments. To say one is a feminist while actually standing against most things people understand feminist to mean is duplicitous.
Now, there can be prudent acts of duplicity. Perhaps this is one. Maybe the only way to halt feminism is to critique it from within. Or the only way to reach the majority ravaged by their own false beliefs is to use the language they speak even if it is wildly imperfect and even damaging. Still, it seems specious and strategically counterproductive, not to mention historically and intellectually condemned, to pretend the loudest and most numerous of an ideology’s voices don’t express its “true” form.
So is Harrington’s “reactionary feminism” heading to the most reactionary place possible — its own erasure? Is this a false reading? Or is it a too-clever rhetorical attempt that will fail partly because of its grounding in falsehood?
More Reasons Precise Definitions Matter
Speaking of a lack of solid definitions, Harrington’s treatment of the concept of “markets” is also intellectually attenuated. In both this and her descriptions of conservative arguments against feminism, it’s like she has only ever clipped conservative ideas from, not people who believe it and give their best defense, but their opponents.
What she describes as “the market” is very often more like what people call national socialism, fascism, government-directed capital, or “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” It’s businesses acting in concert with the government, and that government, as early American progressives said, “acting as the senior partner.” That’s not a market or capitalism. It’s state-directed enterprise.
For example, who provides transgender medical interventions? Hospitals and insurance entities, following government money and demands. If people had to pay for their own transgender mutilation, far fewer would happen. Same with daycare and contraception. Markets are involved here, but they sure as heck ain’t free markets. They’re outsourced government agencies.
Outside Career Eunuch Versus Bored Housewife
Some of Harrington’s criticism of conservatives, however, is accurate. Namely, this: “When conservatives call for a return to ‘traditional’ family life, but mean by this a return to some variant of ‘separate spheres’, whether in its 19th- or 20th-century forms, this misses the fact that such forms of family life are not ‘traditional’ at all, but distinctively modern.” She means, I take it, that the 1950s breadwinner-housewife combo is an anachronism.
It’s true: Nearly all women in history have worked their entire lives, usually very hard. Most women have been peasants and farm wives, whose lives included not only hard physical labor but also dangerous childbearing. There’s something to the second-wave critique of the housewife as bored to death once machines took away much of her homemaking duties, public schools took away her children most of the day, and her husband clocked out of the home M-F, 8-5. Both Harrington and I think second-wave proposals were essentially deranged, but the conditions they spoke to were real.
I usually find the few couples who do explicitly seek the 1950s breadwinner-housewife ideal to be doing so as a slight overreaction to the clear excesses of feminism that Harrington also notices. Since that makes many of these couples happy, I see nothing wrong with people choosing it, and lots wrong with the many obstacles our society places against such arrangements.
However, this is also not an ideal arrangement for many other couples. Lots of women who love their children also hunger to exercise professional skills. Lots of fathers want to be involved in raising their children more than on weekends.
As Harrington notes, with increasing “WFH” and online business possibilities, some can now better reintegrate family life, professional skills, and financial provision than was possible in the 20th century. Almost no conservatives oppose this. Sometimes young conservative women receive the unsent message that the 1950s housewife is the ideal, but don’t find trying it sates their hunger for project completion even if they do love their children and making a home.
They receive that message that today’s right practically never sends because that stereotype is almost the only feminine type women know of besides leftism’s sterile career beeyotch who has rotten and terrifying casual sex but never a marriage. I also blame feminism for making this the only alternative to Jezebelery most people can imagine by ceaselessly resurrecting that straw foil.
Marriage Is a Start; Humans Also Need Communities
People who aren’t afraid to declare themselves part of the political and cultural right could do better to give women a vision of the many options available for living a full life that affirms the goodness of their female bodies’ life-giving powers. The Theology of Home women do that. The New Founding folks aim to do so as well. They’re not alone. Just check out all the homeschooling homesteader YouTube channels with hundreds of thousands of daily views.
Harrington also makes an attempt at this, citing a few examples for which she deserves credit, although they are also unintentionally funny. Let’s just say one of her example couples homesteads in Uruguay and teaching online “low-carbon living” classes part-time. I’ve nothing against that, except its complete inability to scale.
Most family-sustaining work involves concrete realities that won’t blend seamlessly with perfectly equal co-parenting. Jobs like plumber, engineer, mechanic, electrician, teacher, and even tech bro are typically not even close to compatible with working a flexible four hours a day around getting the baby to nap — a least for those who aim to earn a living wage.
Pushing men into “equal” caretaking is a consequence of couples living far outside of true communities, such as a family or church. It doesn’t work very well. Many men don’t like it, for one thing, and neither do the children. Marriage definitely provides the inter-sex solidarity Harrington rightly valorizes, but the average couple needs a social network bigger than two. Trying to parent without it is a recipe for burnout after only one or two kids — which, may I remind folks, is below replacement level and women’s own family size ideals.
I’ve spent much of this review critiquing a book I found both profound and mentally enlivening over multiple reads and discussions with my husband and friends. That’s because there’s no worth to a review that says, “Good job, Mary. I love reading your stuff. I totally agree: surrogacy is sick!” That sort of thing is for book jackets, friendly YouTube interviews, and press releases.
If you’re the reading sort and you want to spend more time with a popular and fresh voice’s first foray into books, nab a copy and take your own four weeks to chew this one over like a cow. They’re out in the United States on April 25.