Mary Harrington is a writer and a contributing editor at UnHerd. She is the author of Feminism Against Progress.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Mary Harrington discuss second-wave feminism and the downstream consequences of the sexual revolution; the unintended effects of industrialization and contraceptive use; and whether the contraceptive revolution has, as Harrington argues, brought about a greater commodification of female sexuality.
The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You're known in an interesting sense as a critic of some of the forms of feminism that have been dominant in the last decades.
The traditional metrics, questions like do women have the vote, are they participating in the workplace, how much income are they able to generate—why is it that you think those are insufficient questions to ask?
Mary Harrington: The logic of second wave feminism emanates from a specific tech transition, into what I call the cyborg era, which is to say the contraceptive era. I think this is wildly underpriced as a transformative shift in the entirety of culture because it just completely rewrote interpersonal relations at an absolutely fundamental level on so many different axes, and had a huge number of downstream consequences commercially, legally, politically, and economically. It's integral to women's access to the workplace on more or less the same terms as men. There's a huge raft of social changes and equality legislation and cultural transformations which are downstream of all of that. Most of all that is good. Now, to be crystal clear, when I say I don't believe in progress, I mean that things are necessarily getting worse. My argument is that when you vote for any given gain that you make, there are probably some trade-offs somewhere, and that sometimes those trade-offs land asymmetrically, and often they're obscured by a simplistic narrative of directional moral improvement. When I talk about the contraceptive era, to be clear, there are a great many benefits from that. I'm a beneficiary of a great many of those improvements. I'm a graduate woman, there are opportunities which are open to me downstream (all of those social transformations) which wouldn't have been if I'd been born in 1920, or would have been at considerably greater personal risk and cost. It would have been considerably more challenging to do, actually, most of the things I've done with my life since I left school.
I'm not saying that all of these things are bad, but the logic of the contraceptive era has also been to present women with an understanding of ourselves and our embodiment, and of what it means to pursue the good, which is constitutively at odds with our biology, which is to say we’re offered a version of emancipation which means we end up waging war on our own bodies as a precondition for being able to pursue that form of emancipation. The logic of that has been broadly beneficial for several generations of women, but it's now, following through its own logic, arrived at a point where it's reversing into net negative gains, in my view, at least for some women.
Mounk: I think it's obvious some of the freedoms that the pill and the broader sexual revolution have been positive. Tell me a little bit more about the ways in which it's negatively impacted women in your estimation.
Harrington: Returning to the logic of trade-offs, one of my heuristics for thinking about technology more generally (not just the contraceptive pill), is that technological advances tend to free us from some limit that previously seemed a given. Motorized transport freed us from the limits on how fast you could travel. I just flew 5000 miles around the world to speak at MIT. On its own terms, that's progress. And one of the trade-offs is that escaping a previously given limit will end up making us dependent in other ways. This is Ivan Illich’s theory of counterproductivity. In a sense, we become dependent on the technologies which we imagine have freed us. There are now people who don't have the opportunity not to travel. There are people who can't afford not to have a car and spend half of their working week earning the money to pay for the car that they need to get to work.
The whole thing becomes a kind of a cycle of a different kind of dependency. You liberate yourself from what was previously a set of embodied or physical givens governed by social codes. And what happens is that the market moves into that space. So this is my heuristic thinking about technology more generally. And one of the ways I've set out to understand what happened with the contraceptive revolution is to think of it as the point where we turned our liberating technologies upon ourselves. What that tends to do is to deliver a huge dividend of freedom. But what also happens is that the market moves into our bodies. Immediately downstream of the contraceptive pill, you get a libertarian defense of the porn industry. And you get a mushrooming of the sex industry. And you get whole new types of commodification of female sexuality, which existed previously, but which were now impossible to sanction at a social level. It's very much harder to argue in that situation that women shouldn't sell sexual access to themselves. And if bodily autonomy is liberating for most women, then surely also, by extension, it’s liberating to those women who want to sell sexual access.
My critique of this is not to say this is not beneficial to some women; it's to say whether or not that's beneficial depends on how much social status you have. And if you look at the sort of “happy prostitute” archetype, which comes up a lot in advocacy for the sex industry, what you tend to see is that these are middle-class women who've chosen this lifestyle. And what you very, very much less frequently see is the trafficked women who were impoverished, who came from the Global South who were children when they were trafficked, who are drug addicts, or who needed to make rent or whatever, and who are also liberated into being able to sell sex, but were not, in fact, in a position to choose to do so and were instead coerced into it. The liberation that comes with technology, using our own bodies, also comes with a dividend of commodification and the benefits of that accrue asymmetrically, depending on how much social status you have. This is emancipatory except for the people who are just having an absolutely terrible time under this order.
Mounk: Let me try and puzzle through this argument from commodification. And I'm going to try and channel second wave feminism here, perhaps not very convincingly, to imagine how they might respond.
The first thing to say, I suppose, would be a second wave feminist reading of marriage, in traditional societies—as I understand that, it was all about commodification, right? Marriage was a kind of property contract, in which the husband acquired property of a woman. Even when you go back to someone like John Stuart Mill, his objection is that whether he wants to or not, in fact, a man acquired a form of property of a woman in the act of marriage, and so, at that point, women were effectively the property of either their fathers or their husbands.
So when we're thinking about whether that whole set of social changes you're talking about has commodified women, I guess the first thing I would say is that for the vast majority of them, it's given them more agency: they are now able to have a job and command a market wage, and the laws around marriage have changed. And when when it comes to the question of sex work, I'll just note that it seems like a choice we've made since the 1960s. It's not the case that the introduction of the pill has automatically led to the legalization of all forms of sex work, as is evident from the fact that different societies have adopted different laws about sex work and pornography, some extremely permissive, like in the United States, some a lot more restrictive. And so on that count, I take your argument, that perhaps those very permissive laws may ultimately be bad (or may at least come with very serious trade offs that we should take more seriously than some feminists do). But it doesn't seem to me that that necessarily follows from those changes.
Harrington: Feminism Against Progress is speaking about the Anglosphere, so I'm comfortable with my analysis being applicable to the Anglosphere. While you may be right that there are other cultural contexts which have responded differently, I've explicitly set those aside.
Just on the point of marriage and commodification—yes and no. You're right that some strands of second wave feminism are sharply critical of marriage. It's often read through the lens that Engels sets out in The Origin of the Family, where he views women's subordination as originating with agriculture (he calls it “the world historical defeat of female sex”). Now, I'm not going to try and argue back against Engels. Certainly, if you go back to the 18th century, in the context John Stuart Mill was writing in, he's responding to his sort of immediate cultural past and women's predicament under those circumstances. And really, what he's responding to there is the conditions of early industrialization, which the women's movement also responded to. And he's right to make the critiques that he makes, because under the conditions of the early industrial era, the institutional environment—inherited from the premodern order within which marriage was understood—was no longer a good fit for the material conditions which were brought into being by industrialization.
The fundamental change which industrialization brought to family life, the central one that the women's movement responded to, was in draining work from the home. Prior to the arrival of modernity, both sexes worked. This is not to say that it was all sunshine and roses, I'm sure there are plenty of grim homesteads where nobody really loved one another and work was dull, arduous and grim. But one thing we can say with a great deal of confidence is that both sexes worked; work was what was gendered. Men's work and women's work were clearly distinctive. Again, I've drawn from Ivan Illich, who writes in a great deal of anthropological detail about the gendered-ness of men's work and women's work in agrarian societies. And under those circumstances, the kind of work that women did was generally conducted with children underfoot. And I'm sure there were plenty of trade-offs to that situation. I'm sure there were plenty of toddlers who died by falling into a fire because all of their parents were busy working or whatever. But this is how it was. And under those circumstances, women had a measure of economic agency under the terms that made sense at the time. But the key thing to remember is that the principal economic unit in the medieval world was not the individual, as it is under modernity—it was the household. And under those circumstances, legal personhood wasn't really separable in any meaningful sense. Because it just didn't make sense to think of people as individual economic producers or consumers in the way we do today.
And under those circumstances, most people didn't vote, full stop. But what then happened, as we arrived into the industrial era, was that it was women's work that left the home first (textile making, for example, and the processing of foodstuffs into consumables for the family). There was no longer women's work within the home with children underfoot as it had been since time immemorial; it then became much more something which happened outside the home. Women, relative to their premodern forebears, were significantly disempowered chief consumers in a private household.
Bringing it back to the question of marriage, if you only look back to the 19th century, and the predicaments of women in the 18th and the 19th century with the beginning of industrialization, you're not looking back far enough. And I would question the automatic assumption that marriage in the medieval world was so straightforwardly hierarchical and properterian and patriarchal. I would just want to see considerably more detailed historical analysis before I made a claim like that confidently. I think to simply reverse engineer everything in the context of the specific dilemmas of the 18th and 19th century and early industrialization—we're not doing our history thoroughly enough.
Mounk: If we're chronicling some of the trade-offs of the changes that have been brought about in the last 50 or 60 years, one of the obvious ones seems to be the juggling between workplaces, child rearing responsibilities, and so on. The positive cast of this is the “you can have it all” attitude. The negative cast of it is that it's impossible to do all at the same time, and that if they fail to do one of those things (because they choose not to be mothers or because they are housewives and don't participate in the workplace and so on), they're seen as somehow incomplete. What is your view of this area of contemporary reality for women?
Harrington: I'd be hesitant to speak for any other woman or any other mother. Women vary so much in their priorities. I will say that there's some interesting work by a sociologist called Catherine Hakim on women's preferences, all other things being equal. It was done about 20 years ago. And she wants to look at the question of how, in an ideal world, you would want to balance work and home. What she established is that on average, it breaks down that about 60% of women want some want some mixture of the two, and of the rest, roughly 20% want to be stay at home mums, while the other 20% want to be professionally ambitious, and of the professionally ambitious subset some proportion won't have children at all. But by far, the majority of women would prefer some mix, some balance: generally speaking, it means working part-time fairly flexibly. The majority of women, especially with young children, would prefer to work flexibly and ideally not full time.
It is not possible to have it all, it just isn't. Speaking from my own personal experience, I mean, here I am in the United States. I only have one child, which makes a difference. And she's no longer tiny. But there are points where the contest is zero-sum; there are opportunities I have to decline because she needs me more at home. And there are times when she misses me terribly. For the most part, I have pretty much the Holy Grail in terms of mothering setups in that I can work from home pretty much according to my own schedule. And if I need to take time off at short notice because my child needs me, I can. That's pretty much the optimum setup for somebody with children under 10. And I would be willing to bet that the majority of mothers, if you offer them that setup, will bite your arm off. This is obviously not something which is very easy to generalize about, because not all careers are identical. I mean, obviously, if you're an emergency room doctor, it's just not gonna work like that. But then by the same token, it's not really a coincidence that women are very well represented in general practice, because it's something you can do part-time and have predictable hours.
There are situations where we arrive at motherhood not realizing what it's going to be like. I hear this quite a lot. Having kids is like going through the looking glass, with just an entirely new palette of emotions that they didn't even realize existed. And if you do that at the point where you're already fairly well established in a career, it’s quite difficult to combine that with the new palette of emotions and inclinations and desires. And there's a non-trivial number of women who now find themselves in that position and feel very pulled in different directions as a result. When younger women ask me, do you have any advice for planning for a life where I can be a mom and also have a fulfilling career? And I say, if you can, optimize for a career that's fairly portable, and that you can dial up or down at different points in your life, depending on the duty of the moment. But again, it's just incredibly risky to try and make statements that are going to be applicable to everybody.
Mounk: So what conclusion should we draw from the shortcomings of the feminist framework and the areas where the trade-off is particularly stark? If the sexual revolution has huge benefits that can lead to the commodification of women; if the fact that women can now have high-flying careers is an obvious positive, but it can lead to this intense conflict between the desire to be caregiver to children and to persist in their career; is this a call for simply an intellectual change in recognizing these trade-offs, or does something important follow from it? How should we think about the nature of sexual liberation in our society, the nature of female empowerment in the workplace, and so on?
Harrington: At the very simplest level, a good start is simply to acknowledge that there are some trade-offs, instead of implicitly suggesting to women, which happens a lot, that if you step back a little bit from peak professionalism or whatever, that you're somehow a loser or letting the side down. I remember distinctly when my daughter got to about one year old, my husband asked me if I wanted to go back to work. And I sucked at every career I ever attempted from graduating up to accidentally becoming a writer; I was hopelessly unemployable by the time I had kids. And there's literally nothing that I could imagine doing that would motivate me enough at that point. I felt a bit ambivalent about saying that because I felt like I was letting the side down, or somehow not being a good feminist. And then I thought that this doesn't make sense. And furthermore, I also realized that the very fact that I had a choice to not go back to work, because we were financially in a position for me to have that choice, was not evidence of oppression, as I've always somehow sort of just implicitly believed as part of the ambient messaging that you receive from the culture; but, in fact, it was an incredible privilege. And there were many peers who were in a position where they had to go back to work and they didn’t particularly love their jobs, but it was either that or they would get the house repossessed. The question of freedom and choice and economic empowerment—and what we may or may not have to sacrifice in terms of our children—is a great deal more ambivalent than we might otherwise imagine.
I feel very protective of the mothers who do make those choices and very, very sort of defensive on behalf of every single stay-at-home mum who's ever had somebody instantly lose interest in them at a party when she says what she does all day. This happens a lot. Every stay-at-home mum knows what it feels like when somebody asks “So what do you do?” And you say, “Oh, I'm a mum,” and you can already see them looking over your shoulder to find somebody more interesting to talk to. That’s happening all the time. And I feel angry and protective on behalf of all of those mothers because it's utterly priceless work. And it's somehow treated as something that we can outsource, as something that can be done by subalterns and subordinates and third parties, and often racialized minorities, and we can underpay those people, because who cares? And it's not true, because these are our children. And I struggle to think of anything that matters more. This sort of ambient assumption that literally anything you could imagine doing is of greater value than being with your children is just grossly offensive. It will be a good start to be able to speak about that a little bit more.
Mounk: If we had more time we could quibble about whether your objections are to liberalism or to a certain kind of left-wing milieu. I think liberalism rightly understood should allow people choices, including the choice of whether they want to prioritize their career or to prioritize child rearing.
But is this partially a jeremiad against a certain cultural set, against a set of assumptions among upper-middle-class metropolitan elites who say your work is defined by your job? It's not clear to me that describes society as a whole, but it certainly does describe a sort of progressive-ish, urban, upper middle class.
If that's the critique, then do they need to become more open to certain ideas that might be coded as conservative, do they need to recognize that allowing people those choices is, in fact, a progressive value? How do we rethink this culturally? How can people speak to these concerns without sort of coming off as reactionaries that just want to lock women back in the kitchen or whatever?
Harrington: I don't see being a reactionary as something bad. I don't think there's anything wrong with being reactionary. Yes, absolutely, mine is a critique of a certain social set. But the structural problem is that this is the set that has the microphone. Overwhelmingly. I was reading a great anthology of radical feminist writing from the 1990s and it recounts how this feminist group held a vote at their women's center as to whether or not they were going to open a crèche. And they voted against it. And the reason they voted against it was because all of the women who would have voted for it weren't able to turn up for the vote because they were looking after their kids. So there has always been a structural problem with the representation of mothers in public political life, because we're busy. We can't show up to all of the late-night hustings or whatever. And as a consequence of that, what commonly happens is that the women who do end up representing, as it were, the interests of all women in public life are the ones who didn't prioritize their families—because, obviously, that's who has the time to show up.
What happens downstream of that is that there's very little consideration given to the interests of those women who might have made different choices. Again and again, when you see women speaking in public about a feminist political program, what they'll generally be offering is more childcare; what they're very much less likely to be offering, for example, might be transferable tax allowances or a childcare allowance, which you could pay to extend a family, or any one of the 1001 different ways that you might think more creatively about about balancing work and family in order to meet the needs of the 60%. Invariably, what ends up happening is that what's framed as “feminist” within that context is the interests of the highly ambitious 20%—the other, pretty much 80% of women, go voiceless.
One of the things which I think affords some hope is—I'm very critical of the digital revolution in some respects, but I think the internet, really the smartphone, has given mothers a voice in the feminist conversation again in a totally unprecedented way: you can scroll and you can tweet and you can participate in the discourse to a significant extent in public life from your smartphone now, in a way that gives mothers a voice in the conversation, and I think that's having a lot of really interesting downstream effects. In that women's center vote about the crèche, if those moms who were pushing the buggy around town to get their kid to sleep were able to vote remotely, perhaps the vote would have gone differently. And this at scale, this is having some very interesting effects on the women's movement as a whole, which, as you may or may not have noticed, is quite turbulent at the moment with different groups of women quite intensely at odds about what constitutes women's interests. Voices have come into the conversation which had previously just been structurally excluded, and particularly the voices of mothers. And to me that's a real wealth. I would call that progress on the terms which make sense to me.
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