Summer book club: Feminism against progress

Mary Harrington’s recent book is an angry rejection of much of what we consider to be feminist progress and comes after other books, such as Louise Perry’s The case against the sexual revolution which covers some similar ground.


Feminism is facing a definite moment of self-reflection of late and two recent books provide much food for thought, even if you don’t agree with everything in them.

Both are in part the result of motherhood, a subject previous waves of feminism have been criticised for failing to address fully. Mary Harrington’s Feminism against progress came about as a result of her experience of motherhood which upended all her previous thinking about women, causing her to question feminism’s focus on economic liberation, individualism and gender neutrality policies and aspirations. Motherhood marked a profound realisation that she was dependent on her child and vice versa. Before that she describes a life of sexual liberation in the form of easy come, easy go sexual relationships which left her feeling empty and miserable. Louise Perry started writing The case against the sexual revolution after getting pregnant.

Harrington’s book talks about the core historic tension at the heart of the women’s movement between care and self realisation. Both have merit, she says, but, driven more by technological changes such as the pill rather than by opposition to the patriarchy, she says self realisation has won out and we have become detached from the idea of care.

For Harrington, this is most clearly seen in motherhood where, she argues, the economic drive to separate mothers from their babies at an early age has trumped their visceral need to remain more attached. For her it is the tension between these reproductive and economic roles, rather than the patriarchy, which make it difficult for women to compete with men on equal terms. This is very much based on her own experience and response to motherhood.

For Harrington formal childcare is part of the capitalist machine, but it cannot obliterate a mother’s instinct to nurture. She links early experience of childcare to mental health issues in the teenage years, but no real evidence is presented, given mental health is hugely complex and multi-layered. Her argument is that this disembodiment is making us ill.  In the very next chapter she also blames smartphone usage and young people’s increasing detachment from real as opposed to virtual life for mental health problems. 

Her discussion of childcare seems to be based in part on the more extreme US models of return to work at a very early age and the alternative presented seems fairly utopian – a return to cottage industries with parents working together to build a meaningful legacy for their children, something which may not suit everyone and which seems fairly unrealistic even in this post-Covid world. 

She is a big proponent of marriage – to provide a stable space for children to grow up in – and says we give up on marriage too easily because of the pressure to achieve self-actualisation. She also worries about the commodification of sex through apps like Tinder. She talks about how the market has encroached into all of our relationships, at a cost to both men and women and to solidarity between them.  She speaks too about how this represents an attack on sexual intimacy and on the body – ‘a war on nature’. 

There is a chapter on the trans issue followed by one on detransition, pointing out the high recent figures for girls transitioning to boys and linking this to the problems many girls face in coming to terms with all that being a woman implies. Harrington is sympathetic when it comes to parents who go along with their child’s desire to transition, but says that this may be storing up longer-term issues later down the road when teenage identity issues subside, which the stories she cites from detransitioners seek to illustrate. For her gender neutrality and transition is yet more evidence of our detachment from bodily reality and is in part a response to today’s more virtual world and the continuing rise of technology.

She alleges that it is a certain section of professional women with an arts and humanities background – the kind of women who she says dominate HR – who are often pushing the gender neutral/trans agenda and, as earlier in the book, she generally points the finger at the liberal feminist elite who she says stand to benefit from the kind of commercialised, ‘empowered’ feminism being promoted and she says this is at the expense of the majority of women. Yet HR is not a monolith. While some are promoting more gender neutrality, others – and often the same people – are promoting more support for mothers and for things like period or menopause awareness, including, in some cases, specific leave. It’s certainly a confusing picture.

Moreover, she later specifically states that she is not blaming women for all these changes. “The technological and cultural shifts that got us here happened slowly, and every step made sense on its own terms,” she writes. “But taken together, it’s now fusing into a commercial and political programme that threatens to launch us into a world of hackable, fungible, wholly commodified and de-sexed humans.”

So what is her solution?

Well, the last part of the book is devoted to what she calls a grassroots ‘reactionary feminism’ that is fighting today’s battles, the battles of the cyborg, hypercapitalist era rather than those of the industrial period. This, she says, would be grounded in women’s interests rather than in women’s rights and would not be dependent on specific contexts, rather than universalist. 

She wants to see a more critical approach to technology and a re-embrace of marriage, based on realism rather than romanticism and self-actualisation and on the idea of creating a commons rather than a meeting of two individuals. She also advocates a move away from being a ‘slave’ to corporations and from feminist attacks on all-male spaces [she says we should let men and women have their own spaces and doesn’t see male spaces as necessarily bad for women], more support for better jobs for men and less porn and video games, the rollback of radical ‘gender neutrality’ and, finally, the ‘rewilding of sex’, by which she means ditching the pill and allowing risk back into sexual encounters. She says this will make them more meaningful and will make women more choosy about their partners and more able to reject those who don’t come up to scratch. It’s certainly a radical idea, but radical ideas often have unforeseen and not entirely positive consequences. The pre-pill days were not exactly nirvana for women.

While there is much to argue with in the book, what it is not short on is ideas that make you think. Her book and that of Louise Perry is definitely an angry one and there is certainly a lot to be angry about when it comes to violence and the commodification of everything. For Harrington, there is also a need for a positive and radical restatement of ‘human nature’ in the face of the cyborg era.

Sexual violence

Louise Perry’s earlier book covers similar ground in relation to sexual liberation and violence, and the neoliberal sexual marketplace which reduces everyone to a product. Sold as freedom and empowerment, she says it is a lie.

Perry says she is not arguing for a return to the pre-feminism past, but adds that the recent present is not a period of continuous improvement for women either. 

A lot of the book, which first came out last year, is about the issue of sexual violence and how we can regulate what Perry sees as the different sexual interests of men and women, in large part due to women’s reproductive role, in order to prevent harm to women from rape and attack. She says feminism often seems to be about trying to change men, but she believes it is better to be realistic about whether this is possible. She says: “I’d like to live in a world in which women can do whatever they want, without fear of what men might do to them. But we don’t live in that world. Our present reality demands that both men and women accept the existence of our sexual asymmetry, even if that means curtailing our freedoms.”

The book talks in depth about the issue of consent and argues that consent alone should not be enough in a culture that makes women feel they have to say yes when they might want to say no. Perry berates as irresponsible authors such as Dolly Alderton for encouraging women to seek rough sex through casual encounters, putting themselves at risk in the process. She talks about how pro-sex worker, privileged feminist academics have ‘sterilised’ the reality of prostitution by using the language of business, such as sex work management. “In academic writing,” she says, “pimps and madams engage in ‘sex work management’, rape becomes a ‘contract breach’, and violence, pregnancy and disease become ‘occupational health risks’. The horror of what is actually happening [particularly, she argues, for the poor and vulnerable] is deliberately obscured, because we are not supposed to feel horror.” Yet such women, she adds, recoil if a man casually brushes their arm or leg and claim sexual harassment.

There is also a chapter on marriage as being the best thing, generally [as long as there is no violence involved], for children and for women, citing statistics about single parenthood forcing many women into poverty and saying it means they end up having to fulfil the role of both parents, something Perry sees as virtually impossible.  

The book ends with a plea for the young to listen to the old and particularly for young women to listen to their mothers because they have themselves struggled with many of the same issues and they care about their daughters. She cites a young woman who writes about the misery of being a late night, drunk second option and tries to mother herself. “Am I OK with that for her?” she asks. Perry says the reason she is trying to mother herself is because she has been denied the guidance of her actual mother, not because her actual mother is unwilling to offer it but “because of a matricidal impulse in liberal feminism that cuts young women off from the ‘problematic’ older generation”. She writes: “This means not only that they are cut off from the voice of experience, but – more importantly – they are also cut off from the person who loves them most in the world. Feminism needs to rediscover the mother, in every sense.”

*Mary Harrington’s Feminism against progress is published by Forum. The case against the sexual revolution by Louise Perry was first published in 2022.

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