The Reactionary Feminist vs. the Meat Legos

REVIEW: ‘Feminism Against Progress’ by Mary Harrington

Pro-women's sports protesters / Getty Images
May 14, 2023

Most feminists—heck, most people in general—like to see themselves as being on the side of progress. Not Mary Harrington, a self-described "reactionary feminist" and the author of Feminism Against Progress.

What does it mean to be "against progress" in the name of feminism? That turns out to be mostly a semantic matter: Harrington does not want to lose the right to vote, and while she takes some swipes at the "Progress Theology" of folks like Steven Pinker, she doesn’t deny, much less bemoan, that humans have become richer and live longer lives in recent centuries.

What Harrington dislikes are some major changes we have seen in the relations between the sexes in the past 60 years or so: The essence of her view is that not every change that free markets enable—or that societies enthusiastically embrace—is necessarily an improvement on what came before. Just as ubiquitous sugar is a poor fit for a species that evolved in an environment where calories were scarce, perhaps dating apps, "gender affirming" medical interventions, and even the Pill are a poor fit for humanity too, offering instant gratification but longer-term harm.

Feminism Against Progress is an immensely rewarding read, filled with provocative insights, clever theories, and evocative writing. It correctly diagnoses much of what has gone awry in the modern world’s approach to sexual matters. Whether Harrington’s "reactionary feminism" can deliver a better outcome, though, is an open question.

Harrington took a rather circuitous route to her current beliefs. In her younger years, she writes, she "experimented with drugs, with kink, with nonmonogamous relationships," "hung out among the ‘genderqueer’ cliques in early-2000s messageboards," and changed her name to Sebastian.

Pregnancy and motherhood—what Harrington describes as "finding my sense of self partly merged with a dependent infant"—is a big part of what changed. Maybe autonomy wasn’t as important as she’d thought, she realized, and maybe men and women were fundamentally different in ways she hadn’t previously understood.

This eureka moment leads Harrington to an intriguing assessment of feminism’s history, victories, and internal debates. Changes in gender roles didn’t happen because later generations were made up of better people than earlier ones; they were symptoms of much deeper shifts in humanity’s material conditions, including the transition from agriculture to industry. Certain features of humanity stay the same—including that women bear children, with all that entails—and each era forces new arrangements to navigate sexual relations and family life in the new environment. Of course, there’s the obligatory mention of Phyllis Schlafly’s comment about the washing machine liberating women.

Historically, many of these changes were indisputably good for the fairer sex. But those fighting for women’s interests were often torn between seeking access to things that had previously been reserved for men (Harrington calls this Team Freedom) and valorizing the home-based "domain of care" that has traditionally belonged to women (Team Interdependence).

Today’s landscape is a bit different. Team Freedom clearly won the day, given our modern obsessions with individualism and eliminating sex differences—and modern developments are not so obviously a boon to women, in Harrington’s eyes.

Even the Pill she’s not a big fan of, to start with the elephant in the room. Few could deny the drug’s debut had different effects on the two sexes: The risks of pregnancy and unplanned parenthood fall primarily on women, and delaying motherhood can do wonders for a woman’s career. But abortion was needed as a backstop when the Pill failed, the drug works by inducing hormonal changes in women alone, and the resulting earthquakes in the sexual marketplace were not such a clear feminist victory. The promise of consequence-free sex created new pressures on women to consent to it, but casual sex tends to be much less appealing to women, who (among many other concerns) are less likely to experience orgasm with less familiar and committed partners. The attendant cultural shifts also served to make parenthood and a family-focused existence simply unthinkable for many young adults.

The "bio-libertarianism" exemplified by the Pill—the idea of liberating ourselves from our own bodies—has only grown in power since. Harrington calls its latest iteration "Meat Lego Gnosticism," the notion that human body parts and functions can and should be swapped out at will. Her discussion of transgenderism is thus, interestingly, more philosophical in nature than anything, though she also highlights examples of minors harmed by interventions they later regretted, draws attention to sexual assaults committed by biologically male inmates in women’s prisons, and connects teens’ growing discomfort with their bodies to the rise of social media.

Speaking of which, internet technology also amplifies what the Pill already did, furthering a Sexual Revolution that failed to deliver a fun sexual free-for-all and instead gave us a "collapse of human intimacy into the ‘marketplace.’" Disproportionately, men value beauty and women value status in their mates; in a frictionless marketplace, then, some low-status men go sexless and become bitter, some beautiful young women build digital fanbases of loyal followers—and everyone develops unrealistic expectations of what a type of person they'll be able to settle down with.

It’s a dystopian landscape that Harrington depicts, one that results not from some evil force we might vanquish, but mostly just from technology, capitalism, and people’s desire to control their own bodies and lives—all of which, of course, are here to stay and have their good aspects as well.

In books about difficult social problems, authors often struggle toward the end, when they get to the question of what to do about it. Are there levers that "we," as a society, can pull to change things? Or does the author simply wish people would behave differently, perhaps advising readers to make what changes they can in their own lives—in which case we’re more in the territory of a self-help book?

Feminism Against Progress falls prey to these difficulties. In laying out a reactionary-feminist game plan, Harrington focuses not on politics but what she calls "the small scale: family life, loved ones, and sex." Even in these domains, she decides against a mass return to some traditional lifestyle, noting that women resisted those old models for a reason and that the material conditions that created and sustained them are gone.

Setting up the book’s final few chapters in a brief section called "Detransition," Harrington advises a "more critical relation to the technologies we use" and an acceptance that our bodies are part of us, not something that can be changed at will. She calls her proposals a "speculative sketch of how a feminism against progress would support" the rebuilding of connection between men and women in the modern world. She also notes that her ideas will be most helpful to women young enough to still be deciding how marriage and kids will factor into their own lives.

Such women should "abolish Big Romance" from their lives: focus on stability more than freedom, see marriage as something more than a route to personal improvement, and accept the fact there’s no "perfect partner" out there. They should also "rewild" sex: refuse the Pill, and refuse men they don’t trust without it. "I suspect many men would prefer a robust ‘no’ from a self-possessed young woman un-neutered by progesterone and in command of her own reproductive cycle," Harrington contends, "to being resentfully #MeToo’d or hectored on TikTok about toxic masculinity."

She also wants to see more acceptance of male-only spaces, up to and including military fighting units, which would require policy change. But it’s not until the very final chapter that Harrington briefly discusses a few political strategies, such as recapturing woke institutions, requiring schools to teach that there are two sexes and "it’s physically impossible to oscillate between them," and in general not worrying too much about being called "illiberal."

The solutions chapters are far weaker than the rest of the book. I’d have liked to see more of a roadmap out of our current quagmire, one that goes far beyond personal advice. If nothing else, I’m curious how far Harrington would be willing to go, by force of government, to address these issues.

Pretty much any reader of Feminism Against Progress will find some parts bizarre or unconvincing. But more than anything, the book is simply engaging, written out of deep passion with unique ideas throughout. Whatever its flaws, it has earned a place in our debates over sex and gender.

Feminism Against Progress
by Mary Harrington
Regnery, 249 pp., $29.99

Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.