Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress sees the benefits, counts the costs, tells us how we got here, and gives some advice on muddling through the bitters. No institution—including the Church—is immune from feminism’s influence, so no one can ignore its deeply personal wounds.
Human mastery over nature, exercised technologically, is how human beings experience “progress.” Better medical care to extend life. Cars that prevent crashes and protect us from their effects. More market opportunity for all. We rarely think of how the sweetness of progress comes with corresponding bitter costs—and what that fact teaches about the human condition.
Modern feminism expresses this dilemma of progress. On one hand, women have more schooling and degrees today than ever before; more political and economic rights; and more liberation from unchosen roles. On the other, we no longer really know what a woman is and how other beings (call them men) should relate to women. Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress sees the benefits, counts the costs, tells us how we got here, and gives some advice on muddling through the bitters. No institution—including the Church—is immune from feminism’s influence, so no one can ignore its deeply personal wounds.
For Harrington, feminism rides the wave of deeper movements like industrialization and technological thinking. In the beginning, families were communities, truly the basic units of society. They were economic units where husbands and wives produced what families needed together. These conditions coincided with patriarchal legal and cultural arrangements, but all was softened by the fact that teamwork was essential. Then came “the transition to industrial society,” which took men from the home and created “separate spheres” for men and women. The social and economic conditions for communal marriage vanished, so social mystiques like the “cult of domesticity” were needed to prop up marriage. “Big Romance,” as Harrington calls it, emerged, all the better to encourage women to love their chains. Soon the contradiction was unsustainable.
The first feminism—the good one, as Harrington sees it—defined a woman’s maternal value amidst this mismatch between the mode of production and family form. Such early feminists “valued maternity, care and interdependence alongside just measures of economic and political agency and individual freedom.”
That first feminism did not last, by Harrington’s account, mostly because the market continued to liquify, commodify and alienate and to reduce all human understanding to variations on the pricing mechanism. The result was second-wave feminism, an extreme version of the market mentality, where the male model of market success became the model for everyone. Women could only find their meaning outside the home in paid work, while housework was pawned off on domestics. Sex became transactional. The promise of liberation—indeed, the promise of progress itself— colonized human life through the market mentality.
As a result, as Harrington catalogs, we live in a time when relationships are more difficult to form, when motherhood is neither honored nor aspired to, and female bodies are thought to be the playthings of transgendered technological innovation. Upper-class women can buy some immunity from liquid modernity, but working-class women cannot.