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A brave manifesto for true womanhood

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Feminism Against Progress, by Mary Harrington; Forum (March 2023) £16.99.

MARY Harrington is a rare woman: clever (a First from Oxford in English Literature) and arguing from a secular standpoint, she brings formidable powers of analysis and intellectual clarity to the feminism she embraced unthinkingly in her youth (she was born the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister) and entirely demolishes the ideology behind it. My (trivial) complaint is that she still describes herself as a ‘feminist’. I think she should ditch residual loyalty to this word, with all the distracting, unhelpful baggage that comes with it, and simply call herself a ‘woman’. For what emerges powerfully in her book is a re-examination of what it means to be a woman: a woman in relation to man. A Christian would quote Genesis here: ‘Male and female he created them’. Harrington has reasoned herself into a similar position, but does so outside religious faith.

She begins with the birth of her daughter. Other honest would-be feminists and mothers will recognise her surprised admission: ‘Having a baby changes everything.’ In particular, it brings her straight up against the impenetrable feminist mantra of ‘self-realisation’. She discovers both that ‘I didn’t want to be away from my baby for any length of time’ and that babies ‘need responsive and devoted care’ from a loving caregiver, something that impersonal nursery care cannot provide. ‘Individualism’ and ‘relational bonds’ come into conflict. Harrington terms them ‘Team Freedom’ versus ‘Team Interdependence.’

Alongside feminism, the author brings forensic attention to the word ‘progress’. As a student, influenced by post-modernism and the idea of non-binary sexual fluidity, frankly admitting that ‘my own “liberated” youth left me with a wagonload of sexual trauma’, she reflects that humanity has not reached the anticipated ‘ever greater freedom and equality’. After all, ‘Warfare hasn’t gone away. Nor has hunger, misery, want or human degradation.’ Just as G K Chesterton quipped that the evidence for the doctrine of Original Sin lies all around us, Harrington knows from observation, personal experience and wide reading (the book includes 25 pages of references) that technological and scientific progress do not go hand in hand with the moral or social progress of mankind.

The second part of the book makes especially thought-provoking reading. Online, in ‘cyberspace’, it is possible to manipulate reality so that a person – especially young people who may not yet have a full acceptance of their human, binary, sexual identity – can feel entirely disembodied, adopt a persona and pretend to change their sex. This is an enticing prospect, especially if you are socially awkward and lonely; it is also a lie. Harrington provides much evidence to demonstrate that it is not possible to change one’s gender and that transgender ideology is the ancient heresy of Gnosticism newly revived: ‘the push to master or escape the physical’. She points out that transgender ‘theocracy’ has its own saints, its inquisitors, its clergy – and increasingly its victims, young people who are betrayed by an illusion and who end up with wrecked bodies and lifelong medical problems. I do not like the term the author uses, ‘meat Lego’, but it accurately describes a dystopian nightmare in the way healthy body parts are casually amputated and reassembled within our ‘progressive’ society.

Again, Harrington destroys another feminist dogma as she points out the contradictions behind its love affair with the Pill. On the one hand, since the 1960s the contraceptive pill has provided previously unheard-of sexual freedom to sleep around without fear of pregnancy. On the other hand, it has removed a woman’s ability to say ‘No’ to a casual date and thereby irretrievably trivialised relations between men and women. She also points to feminist silence on the massive ecological damage done to the water supply by contraceptive chemicals released in urine. Her whole charge is a weighty one: ‘Quite aside from harming aquatic life and facilitating the pervasive pornification of mainstream culture, the Pill causes mood issues, weight gain and libido loss. It is also a crucial precondition for bad sex, because it de-risks casual hook-ups.’ Who would gainsay this?

What is the alternative? The author proposes revaluation of the way ‘men and women can be human together’: a rediscovery of the essential ‘solidarity’ between the sexes, whereby two imperfect human beings can combine in marriage to build a permanent meaningful life together. This, despite all feminist cries to the contrary, also provides the most stable environment in which to raise children. Harrington does not advocate a return to the traditional roles of women in the 1950s. Much more daringly she advocates a return to the way ordinary married people lived in the 1450s, when a man and wife worked together, in the fields, in trade and in the home, to create a productive economic and interdependent household. Translated into modern life this would mean flexibility in work, sharing of household responsibilities and an end to the suburban loneliness of mothers who choose to stay at home when their children are young.

What is marriage for? In our current age of easy divorce and women’s liberation, where homes are empty of mothers most of the day and where their very young children spend hours in day-care, Harrington provides a spirited and eloquent answer. Seeking ‘The One’ in unattainable romantic bliss, while at the same time postponing marriage and children to pursue personal goals, has not led to women’s contentment. Marriage, Harrington believes, should be seen not as a contract but as a ‘covenant’ precluding separation and where sex and pregnancy, as well as rediscovering a joint appreciation for a woman’s fertile cycle, must be reclaimed ‘as one of the most profound and beautiful mysteries of our common humanity’, seen not as a casual transaction but reflecting a lasting loyal bond.

Faced by our post-Christian society which ignores the self-sacrifice required for a greater good, Harrington’s brave manifesto will meet with outrage in predictable quarters. But there is much that is wise and insightful in these pages; her observations on the human condition have a profundity that sociological surveys, wedded to post-modern ideologies, completely lack. Her book should be included in all school PSE syllabuses and given wide coverage in the MSM, to arouse it from its dreary, debased conformism. But I would change the title: what about Women: A Recipe for Real Happiness?

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Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips is a mother, grandmother and occasional book reviewer living in Buckinghamshire.

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