Defending women means defending the human (Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

November 1, 2021   9 mins

It’s often noted that the Right generally has a better grasp of the Left’s motives and arguments than vice versa. The Right thinks the Left is mistaken, while the Left thinks the Right is evil. There is one exception: feminism.

I have sympathy with some critiques advanced by friends on the Right, of the excesses and uncounted costs of feminism. I have made a number of those critiques myself.

But I’m often frustrated by conservatives’ refusal to engage with feminist arguments or history much beyond the ‘pop’ versions you might find in the pages of Vox. The result is, regrettably, a Right-wing treatment of the women’s movement that is often as ignorant of what it decries as modern liberal feminists are of the conservative case against abortion.

We can do better. And we must, because today defending women’s interests is properly, and rightly, a defence of the family. Which is to say of all humans  including men – understood as relational beings.

This isn’t easy to see from a conservative vantage-point that blames feminism for many modern societal ills. Some of this critique is not without justice. But nor is the women’s movement without justice.

I don’t believe in progress, in the ‘arc of history’ sense. Nor do I believe that there exists an eternal conspiracy against women, called ‘patriarchy’. Worked free of these fairy tales, what we think of today as ‘feminism’ is a story of economic transitions.

Specifically, it’s a story of how men and women re-negotiated life in common, in response first to the transition into the industrial era, then into twentieth-century market society. If everyone today seems to be arguing about men and women again, it’s because we’re in the throes of another economic transition.

To illustrate, I’ll take a short detour through that story. Of course this is complex, and varied by factors such as class, race and geography. But since what we think of as ‘feminism’ today is mainly driven by bourgeois white American women, and serves their class interests, I’ll focus on their story.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century America was mostly agrarian. The typical American matron was a disciplined, skilled, devout individual who worked alongside her husband in a productive household. She processed raw materials and foodstuffs produced by male family members into meals, clothing and so on, usually while caring for multiple children.The patriarchal legal system of ‘coverture’, which subsumed her legal personhood and property into that of her husband, rendered her technically a subordinate class of citizen. It also served to shield her from market pressures.

By the end of the nineteenth century, though, America was more industrial than agrarian. Families were smaller. Work took place outside the home, forcing a much sharper split between sex roles. In the new private household, the bourgeois woman was more economically dependent than her agrarian grandmother. Her main activities were the education of children, the management of servants and the consumption of goods produced elsewhere. She may have been more materially comfortable. But this woman had in many respects less agency than her foremothers.

This prompted a frenzy of debate about sex roles. Some women moralised the new feminine role. They framed the home as sanctuary from competitive life in America’s capitalist economy, and the non-working bourgeois housewife as its guardian. Her task was to tend this sanctuary, and to shape the children whose ability to flourish in industrial society depended on having the right moral and intellectual education. This was the so-called ‘cult of domesticity’.

But it takes a while for social norms to catch up with changing material conditions. The old legal system of ‘coverture’ still existed. Women had lost their agency in the agrarian productive household, and as yet acquired no other kind. The result was an economic and political helplessness that resulted in some deep injustices. It was this imbalance that drove the first feminist campaigns for property ownership and enfranchisement.

Fast forward a century. Labour-saving devices and booming consumerism have shifted society once again. This set off another round of re-negotiation between the sexes as to the proper division of roles. Phyllis Schlafly observed that women were liberated more by the washing machine than feminism. And for bourgeois twentieth-century housewives, labour-saving devices combined with an increasingly atomised, individualistic social world to trigger a renewed search for agency, this time within the workplace.

I take this detour into women’s history to illustrate a core underlying argument. In each case, sex roles have been re-negotiated not by some abstract process of moral advancement but in response to changing material conditions. And in each case, this has been necessary because social and legal norms change more slowly.

So what about the central event in twentieth-century feminism: the sexual revolution? I come to this separately because in my view the sexual revolution was not the start but the end of feminism.

In its nineteenth and early twentieth-century incarnations, the women’s movement sought a positive negotiation of sex roles for prevailing material conditions, in the interests of life in common. But feminism in this sense ended in the 1960s. It was killed by the twin technology shocks of contraception and abortion.

Up to that point, the women’s movement encompassed both women who understood personhood in the context of family life – women as relational beings – and those who argued for women to be treated primarily as individuals, irrespective of the givens of sex or relational obligations. Medical control of fertility constituted a fundamental material change to this debate: it enabled the final victory of the individualist side.

As my friend Erika Bachiochi has argued, treating access to legal abortion as a necessary precondition for personhood implies a liberal male-centric understanding of what a person is: a radically separate individual. Within that framework there’s no conceptual language, for example, to describe the ‘more than one but less than two’ nature of pregnancy, or the radical sense of merged selfhood that comes with mothering a newborn baby.

For women to be human on this model, we must have total ownership over all these aspects of our bodies that differ from those of males. Even a conflict between total autonomy and an unborn human life must be resolved for autonomy.

There exist feminist thinkers who contest this, but they have been marginal since the 1960s. For the mainstream, the entrenchment of this radical bodily autonomy in law as a baseline for human personhood signalled a conclusive defeat of relational feminism.

Instead of calling for both men and women to embrace a human duty to be dependent others, we embraced a supposedly empowering pursuit of universal, de-sexed radical individualism, and outsourced care to the welfare state.

Received opinion today frames this shift as a victory. Conservative critiques of feminism usually boil down to enumerations of its uncounted costs: the meltdown of family life, the tiny infants in daycare, the degradation of sexual intimacy, the collapsing fertility rate, and so on.

But we need to understand that what we’re fighting is not feminism, properly understood, but something I’ve characterised elsewhere as bio-libertarianism. A worldview that for fifty years now has claimed to act in women’s interests but is increasingly obviously at odds with those interests. It’s a worldview that believes human freedom necessitates radical unmooring from the givens of our bodies.

The transgender writer Jennifer Finney Boylan recently observed that the campaigns for medical abortion and transgender surgeries have a great deal in common. This is correct. Both causes champion the right of atomised individuals to exert absolute mastery over their bodies. They are not feminist but bio-libertarian.

I disagree with Boylan only on whether this is desirable. Because conditions have now changed again. And our norms and laws haven’t caught up yet.

Bio-libertarian causes may have appeared in women’s emancipatory interests, in a broadly democratic consumer society. That era retained some shared social and cultural norms, along with a sincere belief that things could go on getting better, richer, freer, more comfortable forever. As such, working loose those old-fashioned social norms and physiological givens seemed an unalloyed good.

That world is gone. There are no shared norms. We’re past peak oil. Living standards are falling. So is life expectancy. Variously in the name of economic progress, digital disintermediation, Covid, net zero or the Great Reset, the middle class is being methodically cannibalised to shore up the 1%. Pluralism has birthed a Hobbesian moral anarchy, held together only by the technologies that mediate our meme wars.

This is the new normal and it’s not going away. Against this backdrop, the interests of men and women no longer align with the bio-libertarian agenda of mastery over the body. And this brings me to the three main types of response I notice to the new tension between emerging conditions and our legacy social and cultural frameworks: trads, cads and radfems.

Very reductively, these three positions break down as follows. The Trads say: all this could be fixed if only we could put second-wave feminism back in its box, and return to something more like the cult of domesticity. This has the appeal of both familiarity and nostalgia.

But we no longer live in the industrial society that produced those roles. The economic landscape has changed beyond all recognition. Arguing over the merits of those changes won’t reverse them. And today’s reality is that the ‘Trad’ argument is pure fantasy fiction, for the millions of twentysomethings who can barely make rent, let alone support an unwaged carer for little kids.

Nor is the sexual revolution going back in its box, a fact that today produces ‘Cads’ of both sexes. Men and women who have internalised the radically individualist, bio-libertarian belief that sex is merely a fun leisure activity that can be managed via contract theory.

Among high-status men, this looks like Tinder hookups summoned as casually as a Deliveroo pizza. For the less fortunate it looks like the embittered life of a porn-sick ‘incel’. Among women, the same dynamic looks like classes for college freshmen on how to launch yourself on OnlyFans; like consenting reluctantly to violent or degrading sexual practices in the hope that it will make a boy like you enough to hold your hand in public.

For both sexes, it means an interpersonal landscape marinaded in pornography, actively hostile to intimacy, and governed by a false belief that male and female sexuality are the same. Under its rubric the pursuit of pleasure becomes a degraded search for thrills: one which leaves both sexes numb and jaded, scarred by having traded in love for violence.

The cads have accepted this situation and resigned themselves to just scavenging whatever kicks they can get. Others revolt against this nihilistic nightmare by calling for the re-imposition of power, in the interests of a final victory for one sex over the other. In this sense, ‘radfems’ in fact encompass both feminists and anti-feminists. They have a surprising amount in common.

Radical feminism is a rich and fractious tradition that I clearly can’t do justice to here. But its contemporary inheritors take for granted the individualistic liberal anthropology I have described. The anti-feminism that opposes this view is just as individualist. It simply prefers not to extend selfhood to women.

Both believe in the same patriarchy. They differ only on its merits. Both are similarly hostile to interdependence. Both these groups, in different ways, argue for the use of power to settle the war between the sexes, in either for or against the “patriarchy”.

These groups are both wrong. Because patriarchy doesn’t exist, either as a good thing or a bad. What does exist, has always existed, is the ongoing negotiation between men and women, over how we can best live together in the world as it is.

And we are in the throes of renegotiating now. For the age of abundance is over. Neo-feudalism is already here. It’s underwritten by an emerging bio-security state that disciplines and surveils our bodies even as it proposes to terraform our souls. It would de-regulate human nature itself. Open up our bodies as markets for biotech. Applaud males for embracing a surgically feminised ‘gender identity’, while re-branding females as ‘gestators’, chestfeeders’, ‘birthing bodies’ or just ‘uterus-havers’.

Men and women face this disunited; no longer sure how to live together. Family formation is collapsing. Anti-natalism is hip. Millions of young people are trapped in a hell of transactional sexuality ordered not to love, or meaning, or the future, but to bare, squalid, hyper-mediated commerce.

The pursuit of freedom is not just delivering diminishing returns. It has long since turned against women. It is now turning against life itself. What we need to face this challenge is not more freedom. It’s more and better obligations. That means, for feminists, a reckoning with some of the unpaid debts of the age of emancipation. It also means that we’ve run out of road for the kind of movement that seeks to pry women free of our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

To respond, first and foremost we must stop treating the question of family as a women’s issue. It’s a human one. And we need to accept that men and women are equal in dignity and personhood but different in physiology. The core question is how we reconcile our interests.

At the centre of this is how we understand marriage. The twentieth-century consumer society trivialised and individualised marriage, as a vehicle for personal fulfilment. That no longer works. But marriage does, if we pry it free of the ‘patriarchy’ baggage and treat it as the first and most crucial step in a fightback against radical atomisation, and for life in common.

At the bigger scale we must fight for policies that support this. That defend the human body against enclosure by biotech, human interiority against enclosure by digital transparency, human desire against enclosure by the sex industry. That defend children against enclosure by ‘reproductive healthcare’ or identity medicine. That support family formation, incentivise solidarity in marriage, and proactively seek to shield the domain of human intimacy from the market.

To those of my feminist friends about to denounce me as a reactionary, I say: under current conditions, defending women means defending the human. And if you do that, people are going to call you reactionary. A feminism fighting back against the bio-libertarian nightmare must centre embodied care and dependency. Marriage has the power to convene radical loyalty, in the interests of life in common. For a feminism that centres care, this is self-evidently a good thing. So here the interests of twenty-first century feminism converge with those of conservatives.

Such a feminism also defends human nature and the body, against technologies that would remodel us in the name of utopia. Commercial surrogacy, transgender ‘medicine’ and experimental human-animal chimeras are just the start. Resistance requires a willingness to re-open the question of those embodied ways in which men and women are different. Here too the interests of feminism converge with those of conservatives.

To those well-meaning progressives who argue “you can’t be a feminist and not be for freedom”, I say: wake up. The agenda you ushered in is now the stuff of nightmares. To those on the Right who say “feminism got us here; you’ve made your bed ladies, now lie in it” I say: I get where you’re coming from, but don’t be stupid. You might enjoy watching trans activism abolish sex dimorphism, to own the feminists, but the ideology is coming for your kids too.

At its best, conservatism has always been pragmatic. It seeks the eternal Good, not from nostalgia for bygone days but from where we are. We can’t go back, but the future doesn’t have to look like a nihilistic hell, or like the final victory of one sex over the other.

In terms of how men and women live together, there may be nothing left to conserve. But that means there is everything to build. What we have is the rubble. Our bodies. Each other. And our willingness to try. It’s time to begin.

This is a version of a speech delivered at NatCon 2. 

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.