Critic of modern feminism treads a well-worn path, with scant evidence for her claims
There’s room for disagreement in feminism. Women are not a monolith, and most of us are happy to make space for different ideas. So even if feminists disagree with some of the ideas in Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress — and many will — they may be intrigued by the premise of the book.
Harrington offers a critique of progress and equality, which questions if some movements and modern ideas truly serve women’s best interests. The PR around the book suggests that even if you find some of her ideas offensive or objectionable, you can’t deny that her way of thinking is interesting. Actually, you can.
One of the core theories of Feminism Against Progress is that tech has been a corrupting force, and one that should be resisted. So it is ironic then that so much of the book wastes time arguing against the extremes of online discourse — ultra-liberal ideas and notions that arguably have no real traction with most women.
Vast swathes of the book are learned, almost academic accounts of feminist social progress. Where it lets itself down is in the cherry-picking of extreme, often unverified anecdotes from the internet to give Harrington the opportunity to argue against the way things are now. She contributes to a perception that she either spends too much time online or puts far too much stock in how representative online discourse is with how often she references viral or anonymous posts. (“As @gotsnacks_ puts it on TikTok…”)
In a chapter setting out her opposition to the trans rights movement, she discusses the tragic and undoubtedly real instances where young people medically transition too quickly, falsely attributing their issues or anxieties to gender dysphoria. But when looking up the quotes from an 18-year-old “detransitioner” mentioned by Harrington, a quick Google shows that they are from an anonymous Reddit forum.
When making her case against the pill (yes, really), Harrington found some social media posts from women who suggested that hormonal contraception was affecting their mental health and quoted them conclusively.
In another case, she mentions a “widely shared image” from a 2019 abortion rights rally in Alabama, where pro-choice activists are photographed holding a sign that says: “Parasites don’t have rights.” Harrington claims that this is a “common sentiment” that was “widely voiced” before Roe v Wade was overturned, and “with still greater frequency since”. Is it? A cursory search online shows that most of the people citing the phrase are criticising the original image she mentions. And having extensively covered pro-choice demonstrations in Ireland, I can honestly say I have never heard any pro-choice activist use the phrase before.
The book offers a potted history of feminist social progress, which is clearly well researched. But in her own contemporaneous commentary, Harrington makes leaps. She suggests that the logic of online dating, which she describes as a “sexual marketplace”, is “obviously inimical to marriage”. But so many people have successfully used online dating, which has existed in many different forms for decades, to explicitly seek out a serious life partner.
She seems to suggest that the majority of men who use apps are predisposed to becoming incels because the “top 1 percent” of men on apps “get over half the attention”. She adds: “The discarded remnant is increasingly lonely and resentful. This dynamic has driven a growing all-male ‘incel’ subculture of unhappy males who see little realistic prospect of forming a family, and blame women for their unhappiness.” Many people have bad experiences on dating apps and are not radicalised by the experience.
One of her weakest theories seems to be the convoluted suggestion that Gen Z has become obsessed with a world that manages their physical and emotional safety because they spent a lot of time in creches — a claim not burdened by any evidence.
In its final part, the book becomes a manifesto for Harrington’s model of “reactionary feminism”. But her proposals are exactly the same kind of dross that arch-conservative commentators have been pushing for decades. She opposes what she describes as “easy” separations, claiming that marriage should be seen not as a contract but a “covenant”. (“More freedom doesn’t always equal more happiness.”) She advocates for two-parent families and is critical of the further advancement of reproductive rights and of childcare. Harrington suggests that there should be more gender segregation, which she suggests would return “a measure of mystery to the opposite sex”.
It is only when one of its final chapters launches a tirade against the pill by first and foremost setting out the damage it has done to the ecology of frogs that my patience is exhausted.
So much of the PR around Harrington’s book heralds it as being provocative, brave and a groundbreaking new kind of feminist vision. I don’t get it. Are we to believe that archaic, conservative ideas are suddenly very radical and interesting just because they are being proposed by an intelligent woman? Why is it that regressive ideas that claim to come from an intellectual place should earn more respect than, say, the same kinds of ideas which, in countries like this one, are packaged as coming from a spiritual or moral place?
The book claims to be a siren for a society that’s heading in the wrong direction. Every conservative who has ever railed against social progress has claimed that if their warnings are not heeded we are all heading to hell in a handcart.
Harrington goes to great lengths to separate herself from conservatives, and frame her views as ones that are fundamentally informed by feminism. But her own ideas then belie this. One example: “We need to recognise that ‘risk-free’ heterosexual sex can only be had at the cost of reproduction. And eliminating that biological purpose takes much of the dark, dangerous and profoundly intimate joy out of sex.” John Charles McQuaid, eat your heart out.
Non-Fiction: Feminism Against Progress by Mary Harrington
Forum, 224 pages, hardcover €21; e-book £9.99