Feminism’s dangerous false utopia

The modern battle for women’s rights has now fallen prey to a self-defeating brand of power politics


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“I’m not convinced that women should vote.” I say this to get people’s attention, to shake their assumption that because I am young, single and female, I will insist on my right to an abortion, or frown on anyone who dares use the word “manpower”.

Feminism has so dominated the public discourse that perfect strangers assume my full sympathy on contentious political questions. Men in particular mask their opinions, fumble their language, apologise for giving offence to a political agenda that I do not support.

Even when I taught overseas, a colleague sought to establish common ground by apprising me of an article she had read by Hillary Clinton. This article apparently lamented the persistence of the glass ceiling — as evidenced by the author’s failed presidential bid. Despite everything Clinton had accomplished, my colleague sighed, she still faced discrimination.

Must be nice, I thought as I listened with a fixed smile, when “equal rights” means that you should be president.

Perhaps people expect women to be feminists because they assume that feminism advocates in the interests of all women. If this was ever true, it has become increasingly less so in the era of postmodern critique. Feminism is anything but monolithic. Louise Perry, Victoria Smith and Mary Harrington are among those who challenge prevailing narratives, re-examining the nature and purpose of feminism. 

To me, there is much to commend in a strand of feminism that recognises the reality of biological sex and admits the damage caused by the sexual revolution. The feminism promoted in the media and universities, however, has largely joined ranks with such postmodern critiques as critical race and queer theory.

Postmodern critique fixates on power structures because it has denied all other sources of meaning (or at least our capacity to discern it). As Richard Rorty admitted, with refreshing candour for a postmodern theorist, he sought to impose his political preferences on society for the simple reason that he preferred them. The arbitrariness of postmodernism strips politics down to a shoving match, with each group struggling through force of will to assert its claims over the others.

An ironic fable illustrates the natural outworking of such discourse. The heroine witnesses a social revolution: oppressed servants rise up and subjugate their masters, claiming the trappings of aristocracy for themselves. Newly ensconced on her throne, one of the eldest women wryly confides that, of course, this has happened before. The servants who seized power were themselves descended from the original aristocratic classes.

As soon as the victims declare victory, they join the ranks of the oppressors. The quest for social justice only succeeds in perpetuating itself. I witnessed this mindset at work during my graduate studies, when my coursemates would consider and regretfully discard a woman author who had achieved international recognition for her work. Her very success rendered her unsuitable; she no longer represented the marginalised class. Unmoored from any outside standard or fixed purpose, postmodernist critique is insatiable. “You either die a hero,” quoth The Dark Knight (2012), “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

In response to this conundrum, popular culture has embraced it. Take the Peggy Carter character in Marvel’s What If… series, where animators reimagine her as bravely volunteering in Steve Roger’s place to become Captain Britain. To illustrate the obligatory sexism obstructing Peggy’s path to greatness, a military officer sneers at her, “You’re lucky to even be in the room.”

Set aside the fact that Steve Rogers met the exact same response. His character exemplifies the postmodernist’s nightmare of a privileged man (once he grows his muscles and sheds the trappings of his impoverished orphanhood, that is). Even if we overlooked this inexplicable parallel and insisted on attributing every obstacle women face to insidious discrimination, the ending should give us pause. 

At the height of her triumph, Peggy proves her dominance by mirroring the villain’s arrogance back at him. With a broad smile, she dresses him down: “You’re lucky to even be in the room.”

Taking the high road has gone the way of colour-blind admissions, evidently. This feminist hero achieves peak heroism when she wrests from the enemy the power to dominate others, then exercises it herself.

Unfortunately, postmodern feminist theory has worked itself out in social policy

Perhaps this twisted aspiration accounts for the adulation of women who act not only like men, but the most unpleasant type of man possible. The smash single “Pretty Girl” (2016) reflects this attitude in microcosm. The singer, Maggie Lindemann boasts, “I can swear, I can joke; I say what’s on my mind.” We generally do not consider these habits virtuous when men display them. In her case, however, it demonstrates her liberation: “I’m not just a pretty girl.” She moreover assures us that if she drinks, if she smokes, “I keep up with the guys.” Men are to be discouraged from smoking and drinking, yet a woman deserves our admiration if she can match them at both. 

Postmodern critique specialises in dissonance. If its contradictions reached no further than cartoons and pop songs, we might excuse feminism’s postmodern manifestation as a faddish trend. Unfortunately, the theory has worked itself out in social policy.

Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress (2023) draws out the alarming consequences of victim turned oppressor in her research on state-sponsored daycare. She describes how an earlier generation of feminists struggled to achieve this long-cherished tenet of their campaign. Activists understood the socialisation of care as either a highlight of their utopian vision (“full abolition of family bonds, state care of children and the liberation of men and women to love as they saw fit”), or a practical necessity for women entering the workforce. “Proletarian mothers” lacked “the economic or cultural capital to survive in such a competitive environment”; therefore “emancipation must necessarily be underwritten by state support, to replace those social activities traditionally performed by women — especially childcare”.

Having overcome fierce resistance (from the mothers themselves, as a 1985 essay by the feminist, Ruth Wallsgrove, complained), feminists can now cheer the widespread institution of publicly-funded care centres. This triumph brings with it an uncomfortable revelation, however. Harrington explains, “the net impact of women rejecting a sexist obligation to shoulder the burden of care hasn’t yet been men taking on an equal part of that burden”. Instead, the state has employed “poorer people — usually women” to carry out the work. Women still bear the responsibility of raising children. Feminism has mainly succeeded at ensuring that they no longer raise their own children.

“If you’re female, childless, well-educated and ambitious,” Harrington concludes, “or wealthy enough to outsource all of ‘care’ to underlings,” then you may well applaud alongside the activists. “Proletarian mothers” have yet to realise their utopia, however.

The same scenario is playing out in the growing industry of “surrogate” mothers. Hailed as an assault on biological encumbrances and sex-based limitations, surrogacy in practice typically involves a wealthy couple outsourcing the hardship of bearing a child to a woman of a lower economic class. The women who assert their liberation from femaleness do it on the backs of other women — or in the case of surrogacy, through their wombs. In fictional fantasies, the lone heroine embodies all women’s victory over men when she seizes power. In real life, she lords her newfound powers over other women. The power reversal splinters messily, as the vulnerable class fragments and some are left behind.

In response to this imbalance, feminist critique presses on in the ceaseless quest to defeat power disparities by wielding power. Harrington identifies the latest solution as replacing caregivers not with state employees, but with robots. If we are all “entitled to pass the buck on caring obligations, then the only available caregivers must be machines”. Harrington envisions society evolving into a digital daycare for adults, where everyone is “tended to by automated deliveries of food and entertainment”. Test tube babies, or mechanical wombs, complete the transhumanist vision.

Harrington describes our physical bodies as the final frontier in feminism’s battle to “level the playing field”, that alluring promise of equality so absolute that men and women become indistinguishable. She vividly imagines the horrors of a culture that only honours mothers when they sell their babies — until even surrogacy is no longer necessary to propagate humanity. Will test tube babies and sexless workers advance humanity, however, or eliminate it?

Feminism Against Progress channels C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man in the recognition that attempting to subdue human nature cannot end in victory. Supposing that the transhumanists do succeed, what will they have actually accomplished? Lewis argues the subjects of a radical re-engineering project “are not men at all: they are artefacts”. The “conditioners” decide the next generations’ destiny before their births, moulding them for our own purposes. By manipulating and deconstructing human nature according to our whims (arbitrary whims, as Rorty would say), we reduce future generations to livestock. “Man’s final conquest,” warns Lewis, “has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

Feminism grips women’s loyalties because it, too, taps into maternal instincts

Eradicating man does not mean eradicating nature, however. Lewis anticipates base instincts taking over in the absence of a moral code that would have restrained transhumanist intervention. Harrington highlights one particular aspect of nature turned monstrous in the drive to transhumanism: the maternal instinct.

The 1980s feminists found their campaigns stymied by mothers who did “not want their particular loves socialised away”. Today the nurturing impulse of motherhood persists “despite near-universal public messaging that valorises more or less any other life choice you care to name”, as Harrington puts it. She believes some mothers have tried to square the circle by embracing an activist role: becoming a “trans parent” to a “trans child”. Harrington calls this dynamic a “Gnostic Madonna”, where mothers “claw back” some parental authority from the state and exercise their nurturing instincts by “smoothing the path” on their children’s behalf.

Not all activism drives motherhood to such extremes, but it may appeal to a maternal character more often than those involved would care to admit. In my Peace Corps cohort, for example, women outnumbered men five to one. These young women choose to invest a chunk of their early twenties in projects such as English literacy and AIDS prevention. In service to the ideals of women’s empowerment, globalism, and modernisation, they aspire to better the lives of children halfway across the globe. 

Upon arriving, most struggle to make an impression in a community where they don’t speak the language, don’t understand the local culture, and don’t have any family or personal connections to support them. Even in the relatively few cases who have professional qualifications in their field, they are swimming upstream against the children’s lifelong upbringing and home environment.

Little wonder that our training conditioned us to expect failure. “International development,” the programme managers intoned, “is like water dripping on rock.” In other words, we should not expect to see results.

I could not help but compare this programme with previous generations’ quaint convention of marrying and having a family around that same age. Imagine the unmatched impact any of these young women could achieve by devoting herself to raising a child of her own. The foremost influence in that child’s formative years, she would inculcate ideas and practices that would shape the course of a lifetime. Instead, she lays out an extravagant expense in public and personal resources, then returns home exhausted and often in need of psychological counselling to recover from the experience. The drumbeat of women’s professionalism has drawn her away from traditional domesticity, but by offering a poor substitute at best.

Considering the toll that feminist critique has taken on individuals and society, how does it maintain its grip on the public consciousness? Harrington theorises that a critical cross-section of women consistently benefit from its policies: the upper-middle-class knowledge workers. These women enjoy the professional advantages of suppressing sex-based differences whilst shielded from its worst consequences. Incidentally, they also occupy many of the administrative decision-maker roles in non-profits, universities and other bureaucracies.

Compounding the incentives of class interests, I suspect that feminism grips women’s loyalties because it, too, taps into maternal instincts. “Trans mothers” will sign their children up for life-altering surgeries, consenting to horrific procedures out of love. Likewise, there are feminists who support policies that fund abortions and mastectomies, sometimes glorifying prostitution and pornography, all in the name of advancing women’s interests. No sacrifice seems too great, no hurt too costly, for a mother who believes she is advancing her child’s wellbeing.

Perhaps this explains why books like Harrington’s meet a cool reception amongst mainstream feminists. Her persuasive account of impending disaster will fall on deaf ears, until women believe that some alternative will better care for that hypothetical teenage mum-to-be whose misery summons their sympathies.

Harrington concludes that this contest will take place in the pre-political, or even post-democratic, space. Her brand of post-liberalism begins with decisions at the community level, such as discouraging the use of oral contraceptives and protecting single-sex spaces for both men and women. She advises against relying on public debate or electoral politics, as movements like transhuman feminism seize power through regulatory frameworks and institutional capture, not the ballot box.

“All politics is now illiberal,” writes Harrington. “Those who insist on sticking to liberal tactics in spite of this shift have already conceded the fight.” If she is correct, then perhaps women have better things to do than vote after all. 

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