There is much about Mary Harrington’s political change of heart and criticisms of modern feminism with which I identify.
As a young person, I was a deeply committed leftist and feminist. I envisioned an ideal world, free from violence, hierarchy, oppression, and capitalism. I believed we would all thrive living in small communities or communes, wherein everyone contributed equally. I thought the solution to society’s ills lay in some version of communism, wherein power imbalances were upended. A revolution was the answer, in other words.
I rejected gender norms at an early age. Perhaps it was in reaction to my fraternal twin, who was very into “girl things,” and from whom I always felt the need to differentiate. It could have been a result of my inherently difficult personality (I seem to have always had an inherent desire to go against the grain), or simply because I viewed “boy things” as more fun—cooler, more exciting, less boring, and less cliched. It may have been all of the above. In any case, I developed an approach to feminism that saw all things “feminine” as undesirable, from motherhood to passivity to pink.
My dislike of so-called “girl things” extended into adulthood. I never wanted the life of a “typical woman.” I preferred dogs to babies, thought the idea of giving birth seemed like hell, and had little interest in marriage, which I viewed as a patriarchal trap. I couldn’t understand why, at around thirty, all my friends started doing it. (And taking their husband’s names, at that!) Weren’t we all progressive? Everyone, it seemed, began to fall into traditional roles. I was baffled by these choices and did not relate. I saw the women who continued to choose the roles of “wife” and “mother” despite our “liberation” as dull, uninventive, duped, lemmings.
My version of feminism saw arguably the most important role in nature—the mother—as something deeply pathetic. In fact, I rejected the idea of human nature full out, and viewed all human behavior as socialized, and therefore malleable. We could, I thought, reject anything we liked, from monogamy to violence to our desire for traditional families. Maybe we could even politic our way out of heterosexuality entirely! Just open your mind.
I have only recently come to realize that my personal disinterest in motherhood is not widely shared: most women truly do want to have babies. This isn’t just false consciousness driven by a desire for social acceptance, nor is it simply a hobby for those too uncreative to come up with something more interesting.
I grew up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, which meant some good things and some bad. Feminist successes had ensured that kids who did not fit perfectly within gender norms were accepted and even encouraged. A girl like me was considered a “tomboy,” which was not at all the same as being considered a literal boy. I never felt ashamed of my hatred for pink, frilly dresses, or ballet class. I felt proud of my vests, bowler hats, mismatched hightops, and short haircut.
This was a wonderful time to grow up. Pre-internet, we roamed free outside with other kids, under the condition we came home for dinner. We played in the dirt, built forts, explored the neighborhood on our bikes, got into fights that we then had to resolve on our own, and invented a wide variety of games and projects. We quite literally played on the train tracks, placing pennies out to be squished as the trains passed. Thanks to my feminist upbringing, I believed I could do and be anything I wanted. My favorite nightgown had a drawing of a girl with a baseball bat and cap on, with the caption, “Anything boys can do girls can do better.” While porn existed, it was limited to magazines and shady video stores. It had not yet overtaken our entire culture. Girls in pop culture looked like awkward kids, not sexed up near-adults.
The mid-nineties also brought a new wave of feminism, almost perfectly timed to meet the rise of porn culture and the move from “females should be free to make choices in life” to “anything a woman chooses is inherently empowering.” Third-wave feminism launched itself on the back of the second wave, kicking its foremothers in the face in the climb. This was “not your mother’s feminism,” though it should have been.
This modern iteration of the women’s movement denied it was a women’s movement at all, demanding an “intersectional” approach that prioritized every identity above “woman.” A queer, disabled, fat black woman was ideal; a heterosexual white woman was the worst: an oppressor to be derided, mocked, ignored, and freely insulted without defense. Conversations about “feminism” were increasingly focused on “privilege,” and on understanding one’s place in the hierarchy. If you were deemed “privileged,” you were to “sit down and shut up.” Silencing and putting down women for being women was a strange approach to what was once a woman’s movement, but it seemed even the word “woman” was going out of fashion.
Third-wave feminism hyper-focused on a woman’s “choice” to the point it became a conversation-ender. Being a prostitute was a good thing if an individual woman labelled it as an empowered choice. If high heels made you feel sexy, they were uncriticizable. Flashing one’s breasts in a Girls Gone Wild video could not possibly be viewed as degrading or exploitative, because those young women “chose” it. Even a vaginaplasty could be empowering if a woman claimed it as such.
As a young woman, my rejection of “human nature” and attempt to embrace this modern version of “feminism” manifested itself in the belief that women could approach sex just like men. I thought I could disconnect from my emotions and attachments, that I could be an empowered slut—a player. Who wants a boring old monogamous relationship anyway?
None of this worked, of course. Sleeping around inevitably led to my “catching feelings,” mostly hurt ones. Either I never got what I wanted because I refused to admit that what I wanted was love and commitment, or I just sort of accidentally fell into relationships with men because I happened to be sleeping with them. In other words, the relationships I ended up in tended not to be good ones, as I had told myself it was “just casual sex,” and therefore I needed not consider whether or not these guys might make for good husband material.
It wasn’t all bad. I did have a lot of fun, along with the bad. But pretending away human nature did not serve me—nor does it serve most women.
Mary argues against the feminist glorification of personal freedom above all else. A life centered on pursuing hedonism and purely selfish interests is toxic not only to the individual, but to everyone else. It’s how we’ve ended up in a culture that says, “Porn is my choice, it affects only me when I consume it or perform in it,” which is demonstrably untrue. Selling sex is profitable and therefore inarguably good. We’ve determined that being obese is healthy and sexy, and to say otherwise is hateful and “shaming.” We must respect an individual’s pronouns and associated identity, even if the pronouns and identity are patently nonsense, forced to suspend disbelief to validate the whims of an adolescent narcissist. And while I don’t personally want children, encouraging women to pursue their own interests above all else has led to far too many women reaching forty and realizing it’s too late to do the thing their body was designed to do years earlier.
It would be easy, considering all this, to jump aboard the “feminism has only made women unhappy” bandwagon that appears to have made a resurgence in the last year or so, alongside the “tradwife” trend. But this isn’t entirely true, from my perspective. The first and second waves offered women many rights and freedoms we should protect. I am very glad to have been able to choose a child-free life, as it has been incredibly fulfilling in all the ways I would like my life to be. I am grateful to be able to live independently and to learn from the mistakes that might come with that. That said, third-wave feminism is a new beast, destructive in countless ways. I struggled to find my way through the lie that women can be just like men (just with a few different parts), as many more young women are today, in much darker ways as we see an upswing in young women attempting to actually become men themselves.
I came out ok, having slipped through under the wire—just before porn culture, anti-woman feminism, post-modernism, and the trans trend truly took over. I am unconventional, and have lived a suitably unconventional life, as such. To an outsider, it might appear as though have not succeeded in life, in terms of wealth, a husband, or a family, but I am happy and free in my weird little town in Mexico with my dog and my writing and my boyfriend and my 5am karaoke nights.
So while I don’t personally want to go as far back to tradition as Mary recommends, we should seriously consider going back to 1993.