Transcript: Mary Harrington
My interview with the author of Feminism Against Progress
Liberal feminism is predicated on the idea that more is always better. More freedom, more technology, more autonomy. But my guest on today’s program says this ethos is dissolving the bonds between men and women, between women and children, and between women and their bodies. And she argues that it’s time to rethink feminism.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Mary, welcome to Lean Out.
MH: Thank you for having me.
TH: It’s so nice to have you on. I’ve been following your work for some time. I thought the book was fascinating and I’m excited to get to speak with you today. Let’s start by setting terms. People will be listing from all over the world, and there are different definitions of feminism and progress. How do you define feminism here? And how do you define progress?
MH: Well, I’ll start with progress because that’s probably simpler. When I talk about progress, I mean at the simplest level, a belief that we’re going from things being less good to things being more good — and that this is possible, and can go on happening forever. Or, until we reach some undefined state of total felicity. It’s pretty clear once you start looking at it that this has its origins in Christian theology. But in the way we encounter it today, it’s generally wiggled its way free of that, and people are not thinking about the attainment of heaven on earth in any sort of literal sense. They just want things to get better, and to go on getting better. And if something is regressive, that means it’s moving backwards. Which is, by definition, bad.
I haven’t set out, in the book, to argue that case in detail — the philosophical case for why I don’t believe in this idea. But I’ve simply taken it as a starting premise for my book that this is a belief, not a fact. And that I don't believe in progress.
This is, in a sense, a sort of fundamental metaphysical belief, which is so widespread now. It’s pretty much just in the water. People absorb it; people internalize it, just in the course of everyday conversation. It crops up in kids’ movies. It’s just everywhere. And it’s a basic foundational premise of my book that this is a belief and not a fact.
Feminism? Well, that’s a slightly longer answer. The first third of the book sets out to give you my definition of feminism, which is slightly at an angle, I suppose, to the way it’s normally understood. I set it against these mainstream, the magazine understanding of feminism from which I dissent. Which is, broadly speaking — I’ll borrow the joke from The Onion — “women are empowered by anything women choose to do.”
That’s the crudest definition, I suppose. But possibly also the most accurate expression of magazine feminism. The idea that more freedom is by definition always better, and that progress is a trajectory towards more freedom on any metric you care to name. And that where women are concerned — this particularly relates to our bodies, but it also relates to the kind of relationships we have, the kind of work that we do, and the kind of opportunities we have and so on. That’s broadly the magazine feminism understanding of what we’re talking about.
I’ve taken a slightly more historical approach to this, because I found myself questioning magazine feminism when I had a child. I came to think that this idea that all freedom is by definition always better is just not tenable when you have a baby to look after. It just doesn’t make sense. Because to me, having my daughter in my life was obviously better than not having her. I mean, just self-evidently better. I love her. I loved her to bits. She’s the most amazing thing — the most transformative event of my adult life, really. And so, it made no sense to me in that context to think more freedom is by definition always better. Because what came with that relationship, as with getting married, was not more freedom, but less freedom. At least on some metrics. I don’t have the freedom to just have a lie-in. If I’m sick, I’ve still got to take care of her. You can’t very well just lie there, and not get up to your screaming baby in the middle of the night, because you don’t want to. In many very important senses, you are less free when you have a baby.
I thought, “Why is it that we have this blind spot where mothers are concerned?” And when I started to look around, I realized that there is this blind spot where care is concerned, where the obligation to dependence is concerned, goes considerably further and spreads considerably wider than just mothers and little babies. Even though it’s a very obvious blind spot in that context.
I’ve been a stay-at-home mom and I think every stay-at-home mom I’ve ever spoken to about this will recognize the moment when you tell people at a party that you’re a stay-at-home mom. They’re already looking over your shoulder for someone else more interesting to talk to. They assume because you are mum and that’s your primary occupation, that you’re probably a bit dumb. You’re probably a bit unambitious. In some respects, a second-class human. “What could this person possibly have to say, or what could I possibly find to talk about with this person?” This is a routine occurrence for stay-at-home mom. It’s not like my brain stopped working when I stopped working for money. It’s not like somebody came and took away my first class degree certificate from Oxford University. It’s not like I suddenly became this second-class being. So I thought, “What’s actually going on here? What’s this about?”
And if more freedom isn’t necessarily always better — and if activities in public life are treated as just self-evidently so much more superior, and so much more laudable and admirable and valuable, than activities in the private sphere — and if somehow there’s been this contest within feminism … As I read around, I began to realize that these arguments had been happening in feminism since forever.
What is the place of mothers? How do we make space for care? I mean, this is a major theme within feminism. I thought, “Why does care always lose? Why is this just a structural feature?” I realized that it’s a much bigger story than women; it’s just very pronounced where women are concerned. I began to realize that it’s really the story of liberal modernity. And so, what I’ve ended up tracing, through Part One of Feminism Against Progress, is my understanding of the women’s movement as being a response to that story of liberal modernity — and really women’s specific sexed response to the changes that liberal modernity brought to family life, all of which were justified and legitimate. Really, the feminist campaign for more freedom within industrial civilization was just, in the context of the legacy cultural and legal environment that women found themselves in. Under really very new material circumstances that had been inherited from the Middle Ages, where life was organized quite differently.
And also, those women who set out to make the case for care and dependency and mutual obligation and the private domestic sphere were also justified in the case that they were making, against a much larger cultural and economic order, which was increasingly valorized — the independent, atomized, economically active, sovereign subject. And had a tremendous blind spot for pretty much everything else.
As I’ve said in the book, Rousseau said the quiet part out loud all the way back in the 19th century, didn’t he? When he set out his vision for how to form the perfect liberal subject. And then he pretty much dismissed the possibility that women can have access to that, from the word go. He thought men should be educated to be these ideal, autonomous liberal subjects and pursue their passions, and generally be marvellously free independent beings. And women should be raised to be charming, compliant support humans, and raise their babies and just be generally agreeable and nice and fertile. Bluntly, he’s not wrong.
When I sat there pushing my buggy around the empty daytime streets of small town Britain, I was thinking, “Okay, so, there’s two ways you can think about this. You can either think, well, okay, fine, I’m just going to have to be a charming, compliant support human, and this is a women problem. Or I could think, no sod that, this is a liberalism problem. I refuse to be shunted into this stupid box. And if that means I have to reject the entire liberal paradigm, just out-of-hand, and have a crack at rethinking what it means for men and women to be people in relation to one another while honouring our distinctive, dimorphic, sexed natures — then I’m going to make a case for doing that. Perhaps it’s a little bit ambitious. But on the other hand, I would contend that it’s no more ambitious than what liberal feminism has set out to try and do in response to the sort of Rousseauean paradigm. Which is to abolish by biological sex. Which is really the other direction you can go.
When you have this irreducible conflict between the liberal paradigm, the atomized sovereign subject, and the irreducible physiological obligations that come with motherhood, you can either solve it by trying to abolish mothers or you can solve it by trying to abolish liberalism. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s a lot more that I think is worth preserving about motherhood than I think is worth preserving about liberalism. So really, that’s the case that I set out to make in the book. Raze it to the ground and salt the ashes.
TH: It’s interesting that the baby was the turning point for you. Not having a baby was a turning point for me — turning 40 and having this limitless freedom, but not having the interdependence that you talk about in the book, and the care that we all need as humans, and feeling my life lacking in pretty profound ways. And having to work my way back from that. In the book, you describe a transition period from the crash of 2008. And this transformation of living a very avant-garde countercultural life to being a married, middle class stay-at-home mother. You don’t say much about that transition. What can you tell us about what that time in your life was like?
MH: Yeah, I think I sort of skated over that because I could have written a whole other book about that. I probably will at some point — or at least try to say a bit more, in a slightly more structured way, about what I went through at that point. Because really what happened there was, I suppose, a kind of recovery from postmodernism. In the sense that the postmodern turn hit me really hard when I encountered critical theory at university. It sent me into a sort of low-key psychotic state that took a number of years to be manageable in any sense at all. I tend to take ideas seriously. [If you do], it has wide, far-reaching implications for how we should live our lives. It makes it more or less impossible to commit, in any permanent sense, to anything. And in that respect, the postmodern worldview is about as neoliberal as it gets.
There’s a sort of extraordinary horseshoe moment. People who are fully signed up to the postmodern grievance studies project tend to think of themselves as in opposition to the edifice of capitalism and technology and so on. But, in practice, actually, from an ideological point of view, the two go together like cheese and apple. They really do. Because nothing could be more liquefying than believing that it is not possible to have a permanent relationship. And all you can have is sort of loose, shifting constellations of identities or relationships, or even really forms of embodiment. Which is what the postmodern outlook leaves you with. And if you try and live that on a day-to-day basis, it quickly becomes very alienating. It genuinely does leave you feeling as though there’s nothing in human society, or life, or culture, other than power. Which is a very dark place to inhabit.
In as much as I found a way out of that, it was via — funnily enough, I’m sure there are other routes — but for me it was retraining as a psychotherapist. I don’t practice as a psychotherapist now, but what that compelled me to do was to work my way through a body of theory which had engaged with the postmodern turn. But not from an academic perspective, from a perspective where, just by virtue of what the psychotherapists do for a living, you couldn’t dismiss the idea of an authentic encounter with the other. This all sounds very abstract, but if you think about it … What I found so alienating about the Judith Butler approach to living was that it somehow never seemed plausible that you were ever really … Because language is always just defined by other language, it begins to feel as though you are only ever really talking past each other and you’re only ever really trying to act upon one another.
There’s this sort of Nietzschean war of all against all going on at the semiotic level. It feels as though there’s no space in human relationships for anything except combat. And there’s no possibility of reconciliation, or encounter, or — God forbid — solidarity or trust. It’s a pretty bleak place to be. I look at some of the unhinged campus activists and I think, “Man, I recognize that. I’ve been that soldier. And it’s pretty dark.” I’m not surprised that so many of them are as dysregulated as they are. Because it’s a deeply, incredibly bleak way of relating to the world. It’s horrible.
In as much as I found my way out of that via training as a therapist, it’s because if you are a therapist and you assume that people are only ever talking past one another, what are you even doing there? You can’t seriously do that for a living. So you have to start from the premise that some kind of an authentic encounter is possible. And the way contemporary therapists have squared that circle is by a thoughtful and attentive engagement with the body.
At an experiential level, what I learned from going through that training brought me literally back down to earth and restored my trust in the possibility that we can actually talk to one another. And that there might be other directions we could go with the postmodern turn, other than into nihilism and mutually-assured destruction. It was worth all the money that I spent on a training that I haven’t actually taken up as a practitioner for any length of time — just to leave with that insight. It’s the most incredible gift. And after that, some years of mumming, then I fell back into writing pretty much by accident. Now here I am.
TH: In the book, you talk about how relationships have been liquidated — to each other as men and women, to our babies, and to our bodies. I want to start with men and women, this dissolution of relations between men and women. It’s something I think about a lot. You explore how economic and technological changes have freed wives from financial dependence and sex from the risk of pregnancy. And that the norms governing how men and women interact were dissolved and the market moved into the place that was cleared. Now we have this truly bizarre online dating culture that commodifies everyone. Walk me through your analysis of what’s happening with dating.