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In search of social justice for women

Two incisive and thought-provoking books explore how society deals with infertile women

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

Feminism Against Progress, Mary Harrington (Forum, £16.99)

At 40, I am now approaching the foothills of Hagdom. Two of the Gen-X women in whose sensible shoes I’m following are established writers and now first-time authors, Mary Harrington and Victoria Smith. 

In Feminism Against Progress, the provocative Harrington warns of a future in which humans are conceived of as products. In Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women, the insightful Smith digs into layers of intergenerational misogyny.

Both have taken a moment to survey the path below and ahead of them. Each recall how as university students they flirted with attractively airy concepts about identity, before material reality kicked in.

“Feminism”, says Smith, “is an idea, not a body; it’s not dragged down by the accumulation of flesh, relationships and compromise.” 

As with so many women, for Smith and Harrington pregnancy and motherhood was where the personal rubbed up against the political, forever changing each writer’s understanding of feminism. Harrington opens by musing that “feeling like I wasn’t a separate person from my baby” was the catalyst in her deciding to write a book.

Mary Harrington

These women are proud that the personal has informed their political stance. The odious term “lived experience” might have turned into a feral beast within woke culture, but it has a well-earned place in feminist analysis, such as these two books.

Hags maps out a trajectory whereby as women reach the peak of personal power, we lose political power. To become a “hag” is to age out of the “fertility, femininity and fuckability” marketplaces. The book unpicks what might be termed (though she doesn’t) the “Cassandra complex” that afflicts women at around the same time our breasts begin to droop. Through the years we accumulate the wisdom to see truth in the lives of younger women and to know what their future holds; the kicker is that by then we are too old to be believed. 

From a parallel vantage point, Harrington looks in another direction, further toward the horizon where a dystopian, disembodied world is beckoning. From artificial wombs to an atomised society, she warns that the material reality of our existence as humans is being commodified as the Fourth Industrial Revolution tilts the economy away from industry to biotech and artificial intelligence. 

Brutal and dehumanising, “Big Porn” has displaced reciprocity in sex, whilst “Big Romance” has set unrealistic consumer-driven expectations. The grotesque mortification of the flesh through what she colourfully brands “Meat Lego Gnosticism” celebrates bodily dissociation, with transgenderism taking a step toward transhumanism.

Controversially, Harrington traces such harmful social trends (commonly misunderstood as “progress”) back to the pill. She urges women to reject hormonal birth control, arguing that “desire and reproduction can’t be disaggregated, any more than ‘self’ and ‘body’”. Whilst conservative and religious criticism of contraception is well established, such an assertion is fighting talk from a feminist. Yet to hang enormous social changes, including the rise of identity politics and ubiquity of pornography, on the decoupling of procreation from sex seems reductive. Nonetheless, Harrington’s intellectual bravery and clarity of reasoning are impressive; and the approach of what she terms “reactionary feminism” is thrilling — ironically, it is revolutionary.

Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women, Victoria Smith (Fleet, £20)

Smith’s analysis follows a more familiar feminist track. She argues that from the vilification of J.K. Rowling to the burning of witches in Scotland centuries earlier, women who dare to live past their reproductive prime serve as repositories for derision and disgust. Younger women’s inhumanity toward older women, their future selves, is also forensically dissected with an expert, rueful eye. “It’s reassuring to believe that the reason you are treated as inferior is the fault of women who were once in your position and blew it; to insist it was their moral failings — their privilege, their ignorance, their entitlement.”

Smith charts how visceral hatred of older women has become fused with a new social justice movement. Such progressive “justification” for violent misogyny is epitomised in a tweet she quotes which boasts, “Once the TERFs [trans exclusionary radical feminists] start being killed the laws will change.” Pithily, she reflects, those at the forefront of the fight against TERFs believe themselves to be “on the right side of history”, just as those opposed to women’s suffrage did before them. 

The observation that men are treated as the default is taken to a new level by Smith, who argues that to centre youth is to work around a male worldview, because female bodies change more than males. This seems particularly apt at a time when workplaces are fannying about introducing menstruation leave and menopause policies — as if the man-shaped world of work can be sanded around the edges to fit the ebbs and flows that characterise women’s lives.

Smith concludes that if the “male default” can be tackled in design, medicine and workplaces, it should be possible to “identify it in supposedly ‘progressive’ narratives too”. This can be achieved, she believes by “feminist investment in intergenerational narratives”.

Victoria Smith

For Harrington, technology rather than transfer of knowledge is key. She concludes that social progress has been driven by market needs, rather than the advance of ideals such as a moral case for equality. Hence today, men and women in the workplace are treated as fully fungible, because that suits the knowledge economy. As a result, talking around the water cooler about sex difference, either above or below the neck, is a potentially sackable offence.

Reluctantly, I stand with Harrington on this. Whereas once I might have instinctively turned to the left for protection from the excesses of the market, today from the tea-and-biscuits socialism of the Fabian Society to Antifa’s balaclava-clad bully boys, progressives are actively cheering on the destruction of the safeguards and social boundaries that exist to protect the vulnerable. 

They are doing so because acknowledging the divergent needs and different bodies of women and men has been framed as regressive. Harrington has recognised this, too; her solution is reactionary feminism. 

With its opposition to hormonal contraception, criticism of the sex industry, pro-family stance and warnings about technological hubris, in some respects reactionary feminism finds itself bedfellows with religious right wingers — but they’re definitely top-to-toe; there’s no sexy spooning. Perhaps it’s an imperfect solution, but it is at least an accurate reflection of a problem.

Both these incisive and thought-provoking books explore how society deals with infertile women — either those who arrest their fertility with hormones or those with the temerity to grow old. The flip side of the hellish progressive misogyny outlined in both books is love. With radically different political approaches, but united by the personal experiences shared by most mothers, each author has proposed that connectedness to others, across generations and within families, is part of how women might thrive against the might of the man-made machine.

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