Feminism’s Failures

“Feminism has never been short of enemies. Evangelicals, red state conservatives, anti-abortion groups, grassroots organizations like Eagle Forum founded by the Napoleon of all anti-feminists, Phyllis Schlafly, have been standing athwart the Ms. Revolution, yelling “stop” since its beginning. Now, a new generation of feminist critics has come along—Louise Perry, Helen Joyce, Helen Roy, and Erika Bachiochi, to name just a few—who look nothing like past dissenters. They’re hip, (mostly) urban, highly literate, and accomplished knowledge-economy workers, yet they see a contemporary feminism—defined by girl power, lean-in careerism, sex positivity, and sexual monomorphism—as essentially a formula for immiserating young women. 

Mary Harrington’s bracingly intelligent new book, Feminism Against Progress, adds both a historical and futuristic dimension to the discussion underway. Harrington’s coming of age story—a middle-class girl grows up in a traditional home, goes to college, and becomes radicalized—would seem to be the biography of a familiar sort of young activist-in-the-making. She “mutinied against every form of ‘normal,’” devoted herself to the “pursuit of life freed from power, hierarchy and all limits,” slept around, took drugs, and hung out with a “genderqueer” crowd; she even briefly changed her name to Sebastian. But she was too restless and passionate a truth-seeker to stay in a predictable lane. Discovering that the communes she knew were dens of toxic power relations, she began to doubt her radicalism; when she became a mother, the scales fell from her eyes. Her near-death during childbirth and her visceral connection to her newborn put the lie to her utopian fantasy of individual freedom and, more generally, of feminist ideas of liberation and progress.”


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