Is Reactionary Feminism a Gateway Drug?

Mary Harrington’s incisive essay, “Feminism in the Ruins,” shows that tech-driven feminism has led to a profound fragmentation: of families, the sexes, and selves. She says that the “pursuit of absolute freedom underwritten by tech” has created relationships that are “transactional, hostile, and nihilistic.” Neither men nor women are happy under this paradigm of autonomy.

If tech-enabled feminism has led us astray in disastrous ways, what kind of feminism would set us on the right path? Harrington gestures in a promising direction, arguing that “pursuing a story of interdependence and reconciliation” will mean “learning to live with ourselves, include those ways in which our sex shapes who we are, how we live, and what we desire.” Harrington speaks from personal experience, too, which gives her account additional force: “take it from someone who has liberalled about as hard as it’s possible to liberal: you’ve been lied to. Another life is possible.” For Harrington, the key to accessing this other life is knowing that “we can’t, in fact, abolish human nature.”

Therefore, Harrington advocates for a feminism that’s grounded in our nature as embodied, dimorphic, sexed beings. But this leaves a wide range of options available. Based on biological differences, should we construct comprehensive, prescriptive roles for men and women based on hierarchy? Should we cheer tradwifing?

Elsewhere in her book, Harrington explains why reinstating strict sex-based social scripts is neither possible nor desirable. Still, even if the Nineteenth Amendment won’t be repealed anytime soon, those disgruntled with gnostic feminism need a viable, philosophically sound alternative to hierarchies that consider women subservient and sub-human. Some dissidents, frustrated with the excesses of modern feminism, may be tempted to take sex-realist critiques of feminism to a quasi-pagan extreme. Already, the online vitalist right—which doesn’t look very kindly upon women—is making its way into mainstream conservativism.

In other words, once feminism realizes that it must take nature and sexual difference seriously, it has to look outside itself to justify and explain its interest in equal treatment as a valid project in the first place. Embodiment and nature alone don’t offer firm defenses of sexual equality. They do tell us, as Harrington notes, that human beings are relational and dependent creatures; but raw nature doesn’t clearly convey what kind of dignity women possess, nor does it tell us in exactly what ways men and women are and aren’t equal; a range of interpretations are plausible. Post-progress feminism, therefore, needs to be grounded in broader, comprehensive vision. Where can Harrington-sympathetic feminists who seek reconciliation, friendship, and a prudently defined equality between men and women turn?

Here, I’ll show my hand: I think Catholicism best grounds and answers the deepest longings and impulses of reactionary feminism. With Harrington, Catholicism acknowledges rights as an important but limited tools for protecting dignity. It recognizes women as fully human, rational creatures equal in dignity to men, but also celebrates female and male bodies as sacraments—each made in the Image of God. Pope John Paul II taught that both male and female sexuality point to the acceptance of the other as an unrepeatable gift who is “willed by the Creator for his or her own sake.” Each person is “chosen by eternal Love,” and sexual consummation is an affirmation of another person’s dignity.

Again, nature alone can’t offer a systematic account of sexual equality; it’s no coincidence that, as Erika Bachiochi pointed out in a recent First Things essay, the pre-Christian responses to sexual asymmetry were unsatisfying. Plato’s fix to sexual difference is political technology that facilitates the communal upbringing of children, while Aristotle’s view of sexual difference is overdetermined, suggesting women are deficient men. By contrast, Christianity fully accepts nature and embodiment, placing these realities within a broader vision that advances women’s true interests as embodied creatures. As Bachiochi says, “the Christian response to sexual asymmetry … channeled sex into lifelong monogamous marriage, so that women were not left alone with the unequal burdens of sex.”

In my view, Harrington’s position is quite close to a feminism inspired by John Paul II—even where she might think she’s departed from the Catholic position. Although she is opposed to “abrupt and radical abortion restrictions,” Harrington also writes that “reactionary feminism dreams of a world where every baby is welcome, and this is not in zero-sum competition with an understanding of personhood so atomized that mothers are by definition un-person in the course of embodying that welcome.” Catholic feminists dream of this world too—and, in fact, are building it: in marriages, families and Churches; in crisis pregnancy centers and charitable organizations; and in policies that free moms to be dependent so that their babies can depend on them. 

Harrington’s reactionary feminism is a forceful, desperately needed reality-check for women who’ve been deceived, discarded, and dismantled (sometimes quite literally) by the “Meat Lego Gnosticism” underwriting modern feminism. Perhaps for some, reactionary feminism will be a gateway drug into Christianity, where, at last, a satisfying vision of female dignity and sexual equality can be found.


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