In the cultural arguments around what it means to be a feminist—or, for that matter, a woman—author Mary Harrington asks: If individualism, domestic emancipation, and sexual freedom are the happy spoils of the last forty years of feminism, why do so many women feel like something is missing?
Raised in 1990s Britain, bathing in the Thatcherite glow of market-driven solutions, Harrington ran smack into critical theory and postmodernism at Oxford. After graduating, she spent her 20s as an anti-capitalist, gender-querying warrior in London’s tech start-up culture. Marriage and motherhood, as you’ll read below, marked a profound shift in her views.
Harrington’s outspoken opinions on sexuality, gender, and marriage—she calls it “reactionary feminism”—have landed her in controversy. Last week, the April 26 launch party for her new book, Feminism Against Progress, was cancelled by its Manhattan venue in response to a tweet she posted about gender reassignment surgery, but Harrington isn’t backing down. The party, co-hosted by Compact and First Things, has moved to a new location, and is still taking place at 7 p.m. on April 26. (For further details, RSVP to email@example.com.)
Meanwhile, in this adapted excerpt from her new book, Harrington looks at her own life for answers to how and why she thinks feminism got so far off track.
As always, we want to know what you think. See you in the comments.
I was born the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. My first political memory is the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reverberations, followed by glasnost and perestroika, marked the decade of my teens.
For an average middle-class girl in 1990s Home Counties Britain, the big battles seemed to have been won, and the great disagreements of history settled. Progress was the backdrop to all we did; relative material comfort and safety could be taken for granted. And I firmly believed in feminism’s capacity to bring about continued progress: after all, over the period between my grandmother’s birth in 1914, and my own in 1979, women’s lives had changed immeasurably for the better.
Studying critical and queer theory as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford both confirmed and radically scrambled my faith in progress. At Oxford I was taught that language itself helps to shape meaning—and, worse, that every “sign” can only be defined in relation to other signs. In other words, we have no way of experiencing truth directly or objectively. How this related to the material world—the pressures of survival or the demands of physical life—was unclear.
This mental shift sent me (to say the least) a bit loopy. Overnight, the hallowed buildings of Oxford University stopped looking like an expression of ancient traditions where I could find my place. Suddenly they were hostile incursions by something phallic, domineering, and authoritarian. I told a friend that I experienced the “dreaming spires” as “barbed penises straining to fuck the sky.”
I wish I could say this paranoid state passed swiftly. After I graduated, I carried a visceral aversion to hierarchies, a fierce defensiveness against anything that felt like someone trying to wield power over me, and a determination to make the world a better place. All this made me a less than ideal employee.
I drifted through low-paying jobs, wrote unreadable novels, and tried my hand at anti-capitalism. This extended to my views on women. I’d read Judith Butler’s 1990 book, Gender Trouble, in which she argues that neither sex nor “gender” exist pre-politically, but instead are social constructs that we “perform” in a system that’s imposed on us, and that we reimpose on ourselves and others by participating in it.
Disrupting this system seemed possible, perhaps for the first time, thanks to technology. In the heady early years of social media, it suddenly was easy to find others with similar interests. I experimented with drugs, kink, and nonmonogamous relationships. It felt possible to reimagine our genders and create supportive communities to realize our inner lives. I changed my name to Sebastian for a while. I pondered whether I really was female. It felt liberating, revolutionary, and unambiguously like the “progress” I’d always dreamed of.
With friends, I founded a web start-up that aimed to disrupt education the way eBay had disrupted auctions. We hoped to make the world a better place and make ourselves a whole lot richer. And we somehow made it to first-round funding in East London’s febrile “Silicon Roundabout” community.
Yet every egalitarian commune I drifted through turned out to be full of interpersonal power games. One likely common factor was me. Real egalitarian utopias may have been possible, just without me and my issues. But I don’t think it was just me. Increasingly, too, I found the shifting constellations of romantic entanglements unsatisfying, and longed for a more enduring partnership. But I was skeptical of the political ramifications of doing so with a man. Would that not represent selling out?
In 2008 our start-up imploded (much as in the communes, I was a major contributing factor in the implosion), and so did the global economy, puncturing my fantasy of social challenges being solved through the creativity and dynamism of markets. I lost my social circle, my career, most of my convictions, and the majority of my identity. It took years to reassemble something like a workable worldview from the smoking ruins of my anti-hierarchical idealism. By the time I emerged in my mid-thirties, I was married to a man, no longer lived in London, and had qualified as a psychotherapist.
And: I had a baby. Up to the point where I got pregnant, I’d taken for granted that men and women are substantially the same apart from our biology, and “progress” meant broadly the same thing for both sexes: the equal right to self-realization, shorn of culturally imposed obligations, expectations, stereotypes, or constraints.
The experience of being pregnant, and then a new mother, blew this out of the water.