Talk – National Conservatism conference, Orlando, 31 October

It’s often noted that the right generally has a better grasp of the left’s motives and arguments than vice versa.

The right thinks the left is mistaken, while the left thinks the right is evil.

With one exception: feminism.

I have sympathy with some critiques advanced by friends on the right, of the excesses and uncounted costs of feminism. I have made a number of those critiques myself.

But I’m often frustrated by conservatives’ refusal to engage with feminist arguments or history much beyond the ‘pop’ versions you might find in the pages of Vox. The result is, regrettably, a right-wing treatment of the women’s movement that’s often as ignorant of what it condemns as modern liberal feminists are of the conservative case against abortion.

Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better. And we must, because today defending women’s interests is properly, and rightly, a defence of the family. Which is to say of all humans – including men – understood as relational beings.

This isn’t easy to see from a conservative vantage-point that blames feminism for many modern societal ills. Some of this critique is not without justice.

But nor is the women’s movement without justice. 

I don’t believe in progress, in the ‘arc of history’ sense. Nor do I believe that there exists an eternal conspiracy against women, called ‘patriarchy’. Worked free of these fairy tales, what we think of today as ‘feminism’ is a story of economic transitions.

Specifically, it’s a story of how men and women re-negotiated life in common, in response first to the transition into the industrial era, then into twentieth-century market society.

In each case, sex roles have been re-negotiated not by some abstract process of moral advancement but in response to changing material conditions: first from an agrarian to an industrial setting, and then into an individualistic, consumer one. And in each case, sex roles have been re-negotiated as social and legal norms struggle to catch up with changes to material conditions.

And perhaps the most important material change, from the point of view of sex roles, took place in the mid-twentieth century: the sexual revolution.

I’ll address this in more detail because in my view the sexual revolution was not the start but the end of feminism.

In its nineteenth and early twentieth-century incarnations, the women’s movement sought a positive negotiation of sex roles for prevailing material conditions, in the interests of life in common. But feminism in this sense ended in the 1960s, killed by the twin technology shocks of contraception and abortion.

Up to that point, the women’s movement encompassed both women who understood personhood in the context of family life – women as relational beings – and those who argued for women to be treated primarily as individuals, irrespective of the givens of sex or relational obligations.

Medical control of fertility esd a fundamental material change to this debate. It enabled the final victory of the individualist side.

Treating access to legal abortion as a necessary precondition for personhood implies a liberal and male-centric understanding of what a person is: a radically separate individual.

Within that framework there’s no conceptual language, for example, to describe the ‘more than one but less than two’ nature of pregnancy, or the radical sense of merged selfhood that comes with mothering a newborn baby.

For women to be human on this model, we must have total ownership over all these aspects of our bodies that differ from those of males.

Even a conflict between total autonomy and an unborn human life must be resolved for autonomy.

There exist feminist thinkers who contest this, but they have been marginal since the 1960s. For the mainstream, the entrenchment of this radical bodily autonomy in law as a baseline for human personhood signalled a conclusive defeat of relational feminism, and with it the whole domain of care and interdependence.

Instead of calling for both men and women to embrace a human duty to dependent others, we embraced a supposedly empowering pursuit of universal, de-sexed radical individualism, and outsourced care to the welfare state.

The story told about feminism is this story. Of women’s entry into the market as atomised individuals, aided by an assertion of absolute mastery over our bodies.

Conservative critiques of feminism usually focus on the uncounted costs of this story. The meltdown of family life. The degradation of sexual intimacy. The collapsing fertility rate, et cetera and so on.

But we need to understand that what we’re fighting is not feminism, as generally understood prior to the sexual revolution, but what I call bio-libertarianism.

A worldview that for fifty years now has claimed to act in women’s interests but is increasingly obviously at odds with those interests.

It’s a worldview that believes human freedom requires total emancipation from the givens of our bodies.

The transgender writer Jennifer Finney Boylan recently observed that campaigns for medical abortion and transgender surgeries have a great deal in common. This is true. Both causes champion the right of atomised individuals to exert absolute mastery over their bodies.

Boylan celebrates this bio-libertarian programme. I disagree.

Bio-libertarian causes may have seemed in women’s emancipatory interests, in a broadly democratic consumer society. That era retained some shared social and cultural norms, along with a belief that things could go on getting better, richer, freer, more comfortable forever. In that world, loosening social norms and physical givens seemed like a good thing.

That world is gone. There are no shared norms. We’re past peak oil. Living standards are falling. So is life expectancy. Variously in the name of economic progress, digital disintermediation, Covid, net zero or the great reset, the middle class is being cannibalised to shore up the one per cent.

Pluralism has birthed a Hobbesian moral anarchy, held together only by the technologies that mediate our meme wars.

This is the new normal and it’s not going away. Against this backdrop, the interests of men and women no longer align with the bio-libertarian agenda of mastery over the body, that emerged out of twentieth-century feminism.

And this brings me to the theme of my talk.

 ‘Trads, Cads and Radfems’.

The three most common types of response I see to the new tension between emerging conditions and our legacy cultural frameworks.

Very reductively, these three positions break down as follows.

The Trads say: all this could be fixed if only we could put second-wave feminism back in its box, and return to something more like the cult of domesticity. This has the appeal of both familiarity and nostalgia.

But we no longer live in the industrial society that produced those roles. The economic landscape has changed beyond all recognition. Arguing over the merits of those changes won’t reverse them. And today’s reality is that the ‘Trad’ argument is pure fantasy fiction, for the millions of twentysomethings who can barely make rent, let alone support an unwaged carer for little kids.

Nor is the sexual revolution going back in its box, a fact that today produces ‘Cads’ of both sexes. Men and women who have internalised the radically individualist, bio-libertarian belief that sex is merely a fun leisure activity that can be managed via contract theory.

Among high-status men, this looks like Tinder hookups summoned as casually as a Deliveroo pizza. For the less fortunate it looks like the embittered life of a porn-sick ‘incel’.

Among women, the same dynamic looks like classes for college freshmen on how to launch yourself on OnlyFans. Like consenting reluctantly to violent or degrading sex in the hopes that it will make a boy like you enough to hold your hand in public.

For both sexes, it means an interpersonal landscape marinaded in pornography, actively hostile to intimacy, and governed by a false belief that male and female sexuality are the same. Under its rubric the pursuit of pleasure becomes a degraded search for thrills: one which leaves both sexes numb and jaded, scarred by having traded in love for violence.

The cads have accepted this situation and resigned themselves to scavenging whatever kicks they can get. Others try to solve it by seeking a final victory for one sex over the other.

In this sense, ‘radfems’ in fact encompasses both feminists and anti-feminists. They have a surprising amount in common.

Radical feminism is a rich and fractious tradition that I clearly can’t do justice to here. But its contemporary inheritors take for granted the individualistic liberal anthropology I have described.

The anti-feminism that opposes this view is just as individualist. It simply prefers not to extend selfhood to women.

Both believe in the same patriarchy. They differ only on its merits. Both are similarly hostile to interdependence. Both these groups, in different ways, argue for the use of power to settle the war between the sexes, either for or against the “patriarchy”.

They’re both wrong. Because patriarchy doesn’t exist, either as a good thing or a bad. What does exist, has always existed, is the ongoing negotiation between men and women, over how we can best live together in the world as it is.

And we are in the throes of renegotiating now. For the age of abundance is over. Neo-feudalism is already here. It’s underwritten by an emerging bio-security state that disciplines and surveils our bodies even as it proposes to terraform our souls.

It would de-regulate human nature itself. Open up our bodies as markets for biotech. Applaud males for embracing a surgically feminised ‘gender identity’, while re-branding females as ‘gestators’, chestfeeders’, ‘birthing bodies’ or just ‘uterus-havers’.

Men and women face this disunited; no longer sure how to live together. Family formation is collapsing. Anti-natalism is hip. Millions of young people are trapped in a hell of transactional sexuality ordered not to love, or meaning, or the future, but to bare, squalid, hyper-mediated commerce.

The pursuit of freedom from our sexed bodies, and each other, is not just delivering diminishing returns. It has long since turned against women. It is now turning against life itself.

What we need, to face this challenge, is not more freedom. It’s more and better obligations.

That means, for feminists, a reckoning with some of the unpaid debts of the age of emancipation. It also means that we’ve run out of road for the kind of movement that seeks to pry women free of our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

To respond, first and foremost we must stop treating the question of family as a women’s issue. It’s a human one. And we need to accept that men and women are equal in dignity and personhood but different in physiology. The core question is how we reconcile our interests.

At the centre of this is how we understand marriage.

The twentieth-century consumer society trivialised and individualised marriage, as a vehicle for personal fulfilment. That no longer works. But marriage does, if we pry it free of the ‘patriarchy’ baggage and treat it as the first and most crucial step in a fightback for life in common.

At scale, we must push for policies that support this. That defend the human body against enclosure by biotech. Human interiority against enclosure by digital transparency. Human desire against enclosure by the sex industry.

Children against enclosure by ‘reproductive healthcare’ or identity medicine. That support family formation. Incentivise solidarity in marriage. Proactively seek to shield the domain of human intimacy from the market.

To those of my feminist friends about to denounce me as a reactionary, I say: under current conditions, defending women means defending the human. And if you do that, people are going to call you reactionary.

A women’s movement – a human movement – that resists the bio-libertarian nightmare must centre embodied care and dependency. Marriage has the power to convene radical loyalty, in the interests of life in common.

For a feminism that centres care, this is self-evidently a good thing. So here the interests of twenty-first century feminism converge with those of conservatives.

Such a movement also defends human nature and the body, against technologies that would remodel us in the name of utopia. We already have commercial surrogacy. Transgender surgeries. Eggs made from human blood. Experimental human-animal chimeras. This is just the start.

Resistance means a willingness to re-open the question of those embodied ways in which men and women are different. Here too the interests of feminism converge with those of conservatives.

To those well-meaning progressives who argue ‘you can’t be a feminist and not be for freedom’, I say: wake up. The agenda you ushered in is now the stuff of nightmares.


To those on the Right who say ‘feminism got us here; you’ve made your bed ladies, now lie in it’ I say: I get where you’re coming from, but don’t be stupid. You might enjoy watching trans activism abolish biology, to own the feminists, but the post-humans are coming for your kids as well.

To everyone here, I say: at its best, conservatism has always been pragmatic. It seeks the eternal Good, not from nostalgia but from where we are. We can’t go back, but the future doesn’t have to look like a nihilistic hell, or like the defeat of one sex by the other.

In terms of how men and women live together, there may be nothing left to conserve. But that means there is everything to build. What we have is the rubble. Our bodies. Each other. And our willingness to try. It’s time to begin.

Given at NatCon II, Orlando, Florida, 31 October 2021

The death of Britain’s dignity

We largely have Christianity to thank for our faltering modern belief that human life is sacred. The ancients took a much more casual approach. Unwanted babies were abandoned to die or be rescued by strangers: like Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders, who were raised by a wolf.

Much as new lives were not automatically worth preserving, taking your own life in the ancient world wasn’t automatically bad either. Socrates’ decision to drink hemlock rather than face exile, was deemed honourable by many ancient philosophers.

Christian doctrine, though, taught that human life is sacred, because it holds a spark of the divine. Thus only God should be permitted to give or take life. The 325AD Council of Nicaea decreed that every Christian village should have a hostelry for the sick, a principle which extended to abandoned children. For the same reason, a long-standing Christian tradition forbids suicide. But as the Christian era has faded, so old debates about the beginning and end of life have re-surfaced – most recently, in the accelerating campaign to legalise assisted dying.

The latest such effort, Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill, has been debated today in the Lords. It’s a campaign that kicked off initially as Christianity began fading in earnest, in the early 20th century, and has accelerated sharply in the last two decades.

But it’s not enough just to see this as further evidence of Christianity’s terminal illness. For even when Christendom dominated the West, the edges of life have always been vulnerable to a nudge this way or that. And this in turn shows why even non-believers should think twice about legalising such nudges — even when they’re justified in the name of choice, agency or compassion.

The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Christianity, picked up speed after World War I. When church leaders on all sides cheered on that bloodbath as a “crusade”, perhaps it’s no wonder “the Church says so” lost its shine afterwards, and “progress” began to look like ‘whatever the Church forbids’.

Unsurprisingly, campaigns challenging Church teaching on the sanctity of the beginning and end of life gathered pace in the Thirties. The Abortion Law Reform Society was founded in 1936, while the first Voluntary Euthanasia Bill was proposed even earlier, in 1931.

The Abortion Law Reform Society got its way in 1968; closely tracking this victory for individual choice, another effort was made to legalise voluntary euthanasia in 1969. Though this attempt was unsuccessful, more recent efforts have sounded an insistent drumbeat, in tandem with decline of Christian faith.

The 2001 census reported that 71.7% of Britons described themselves as Christianby 2011 that was 59.3%, and it’s predicted to be below 50% when this year’s census data are released. And since the 1997 attempt by Labour MP Joe Ashton to introduce a Doctor Assisted Dying Bill, there have been nine further attempts, of which Meacher’s is the most recent.

The principal defence of assisted dying is that an individual of sound mind should be free to choose whether he or she continues to suffer. Many today find this convincing. But when we weight the merits of this argument, it’s worth considering some of the less-counted costs of the successful parallel campaign for ‘choice’ at life’s beginning.

Today, legal abortion in the UK is widely viewed as a core feminist victory. But while this change eased the predicament of countless women facing unwanted pregnancy, it also had wider knock-on effects. For while legalisation gave more women the option to end a pregnancy, not all of them wanted to take it.

Meanwhile, though, the fact that carrying the baby to term was now optional eased social pressure on those men who caused accidental pregnancies. One US study shows that the availability of oral contraceptives so increased demand for extra-marital sex that — because the method wasn’t 100% reliable — it also increased the rate of extra-marital pregnancies by around 15%. At the same time, another US study shows that legal abortion drove a parallel decline in shotgun marriages that far outstripped the number of accidental pregnancies forestalled by abortion.

Thus, while advocates of legal abortion believed that it would reduce instances of single motherhood, its paradoxical effect was the opposite. By relieving social pressure on men to step up after impregnating a woman, legalising abortion accelerated the prevalence of single motherhood — a phenomenon now widely recognised as a central to the feminisation of poverty.

Most women in the UK support the availability of at least some legal abortion. My aim here isn’t to re-litigate this acutely sensitive debate, but to draw out a more general implication: that when a previously unavoidable life experience becomes avoidable, wider attitudes to that experience will change. And for some, it’ll stop being a matter for sympathy.

This is the shift which justified the Right-wing depiction of single mothers pervasive during my youth in the Major years, and still widely associated with individualist Thatcherite Toryism: lazy, parasitic “welfare scroungers”. Implicitly, those who took this position assumed that because such women could have terminated a pregnancy, the duties following on having not done so should be wholly on their shoulders. In other words: if suffering is avoidable, the choice to suffer comes to be seen as wholly private.

And it’s on these grounds that we should be wary of assisted dying, regardless of our views on the immortal soul. For in practice, over the increasingly liberal 20th century, it’s been consistently the case that what looks like ‘choice’ for the well-off gets underwritten for the less wealthy by the welfare state. In the case of accidental pregnancy, for example, as single mothers grew in number others rightly sought to relieve the resulting poverty and suffering.

Again, I mention this not to re-litigate these debates and certainly not to stigmatise those who rely on these resources. Rather, I want to sound a note of pessimism about how sustainable this dynamic will be in the 21st century. For the expansion of the welfare state as underwriter of last resort for personal choice is predicated on economic growth. And this in turn relies heavily on population growth. And while that well seemed bottomless in the Peak Boomer years of the 20th century, the 21st so far has seen economic shocks, concentration of wealth in a super-elite, and a globally collapsing birth rate. In other words: the enabling conditions for a 20th-century welfare state are crumbling in front of our eyes.

We’re already seeing intensifying competition for a dwindling pot of taxpayer support, between different interest groups. Thanks to the demographics of the UK’s voting public, which skews toward the old, victory in this struggle has thus far gone to the elderly. But this may yet change, as demographics shift and belts are tightened. And history teaches us that even during the Christian era, when life was explicitly defended as sacred, scarcity has at times driven people put a thumb on the scales.

Folk songs tell of women who give birth out of wedlock and murder the newborns. And at the other end of life, even Christian European cultures sometimes practised “mercy killings” of the elderly.

In Sardinia, the femina accabadòra, the “lady of the good death” would be summoned to the bedside of someone very old or terminally ill, and after reciting a final ritual blessing would kill the sufferer with a blow to the temple, using a special hammer. The Galluras Ethnographic Museum in Luras includes an example of this implement, resting with a gothic flourish on the pillow of an empty bed. Similarly, early 20th-century ethnographic reports describe Lapot, a practice in the Carpathian mountains in which an elderly person unable to care for themselves would be ritually killed by a relative.

The common factor in such killings was a shortage of resources. That is, societies making grim choices about what to do with those so old, young or ill they’re wholly dependent on care – and to whom a community is unable or unwilling to devote the necessary resources.

And notwithstanding cruel conservative stereotypes, it’s overwhelmingly scarcity that drives the “choice” to end a pregnancy. In the US, the poorest 12% of women account for almost 50% of abortions. And a glance through women’s stories swiftly illustrates just how far the individual “choice” to end a pregnancy is often far from free, but rather a reluctant decision driven overwhelmingly by poverty.

In a world where dwindling welfare resources are ever more grudgingly funded by a shrinking working-age population, it’s easy to imagine the arguments from scarcity that will follow, ever more explicitly, upon the transformation of terminal illness into a “choice”. Indeed, they’re already foreshadowed by an assessment of assisted suicide by the Canadian government, which noted that legalisation “could reduce annual health care spending across Canada by between $34.7 million and $138.8 million”.

Those individualists now pushing to extend “choice” to the end of life are still wedded to a hyper-individualist twentieth-century mindset that relies on an ever-expanding welfare state to underwrite its freedoms. But they’re not paying attention: the age of abundance that shaped that dream of endless choice is already over.

And yet they push on. If they succeed, many people now healthy will face terminal illness in a “care” landscape created by individualists, for a society that’s enshrined “choice” over any public duty of compassion — and that can no longer afford a publicly-funded care infrastructure to pick up the pieces. I don’t want to live in a world where ‘tough-minded’ right-liberals write op-eds implying that those with terminal illnesses who refuse the Socratic way out are selfish parasites.

A cynic might argue that given all this, adjusting the statute book to allow for a 21st-century “lapot” is merely sensible. But if this is so, we should drop the rhetoric about freedom and compassion. We should be under no illusions about what this Bill is for, or about the callously neo-Roman attitude to human life that will follow in its wake.

Originally published at UnHerd

Is there a feminist case for virtue?

I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.

Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairs that what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.

I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.

Another recent read, Susan Faludi’s superb 2010 essay American Electra, discusses the matricidal streak in the feminist movement. Faludi argues that what she calls this ‘persistent barrenness’ (in other words the repeated rejection by successive ‘waves’ of whatever their foremothers valued) has its roots in the 1920s. At this point, following the suffragists’ success in attaining votes for women, a movement that had sought political change with and in the name of its daughters fragmented from a more matrilineal approach toward an individualist, consumer one based on rejecting maternal heritage:

The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother. The forces arrayed against the mother were many. Some of her antagonists would be presented as allies, sympathetic “experts” who knew better than she did how to do her job. Mothers, the new and reigning “behavioralist” psychologists held, knew nothing about “scientific” child rearing and would do irreparable harm to children if they followed their own instincts instead of the male authorities.

To this end, mothers’ homespun skills were cast out in favour of ‘experts’, and crafts in favour of a newly consumerist expert-led womanhood. Faludi quotes sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who reported how daughters “fresh from domestic science in school” now “ridicule the mothers’ inherited rule-of-thumb practices as ‘old fashioned.’”

A glance around Mumsnet discussions on unwanted advice from one’s own mother says we’re still living in that world. Putting together Faludi’s connection of consumer society with that ‘matricidal’ streak in feminism, and my own exploration of the relationships between economic transition and the emergence of ‘women’s rights’ as such, I was thrilled to speak this week with Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and director of the Abigail Adams Insitute’s Wollstonecraft Project, about how on earth she found time to write a scholarly pro-family re-reading of Wollstonecraft while caring for seven children.

“That is maybe the question”, she told me. Her approach, I gather, was first having a very supportive husband, plus ensuring her children didn’t expect her to entertain them: “I’d be around, but reading”. But while she acknowledges that Wollstonecraft’s own life didn’t match the ideals she set out, Bachiochi tells me she wanted to write this book partly because “I actually have the family life Wollstonecraft describes”.

Bachiochi’s recent The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy seeks to recoup Mary Wollstonecraft from her current role in the pantheon as proto-liberal, for a more Aristotelian understanding of human excellence as rooted in our common experience of rationality and our obligation to order that to the good.

Wollstonecraft, as Bachiochi characterises her, wasn’t interested in a conception of humans with rights in some abstract sense, but in a more grounded, relational one: we have rights in order to do the right thing – which for her was centred around family life.

Bachiochi sets out the way Wollstonecraft challenged Rousseau’s vision of the ideal liberal subject, who was a male one possessing male virtues. Women, he thought, were fundamentally different, had their own set of virtues, and were (or should be) oriented toward pleasing men as well as manipulating them toward moral improvement by offering or withholding sex.

Wollstonecraft disagreed. “Wollstonecraft thought virtue was human, and God’s attributes reflected in humans,” Bachiochi explains. “You can only judge virtue by understanding the attributes of God, and it makes no sense to say they’re specific to sex.” But what about sex roles, then? “Different lives may mean different manifestations of virtue and these may be sexed; but virtue means using reason in principle to master one’s appetites. And that’s applicable to both sexes in pursuit of their duties.”

Wollstonecraft, she tells me, also saw how harmful Rousseau’s notion of sexed souls was for women, once you put it together with his idea that passion, not reason, should lead. “If we allow passions to direct, and we agree with Rousseau that men are more libidinous, then an ideology of passion means freedom mostly for men.”

Looking around, it’s clear who won. It wasn’t Wollstonecraft. One thing that intrigues me about this debate is the way it’s reproduced even among those who see themselves as fiercely anti-feminist: see for example the neoreactionary writer ‘Zero HP Lovecraft’ here expressing a very Rousseauian vision of proper relations between the sexes:Zero HP Lovecraft (HAVER OF VITAL MAGNETISM) @0x49fa98@JamesMaddenUWU @russiancosmist @The_WGD If your wife “thinks for herself” – that ain’t yo wife, that’s yo husbandAugust 23rd 202110 Retweets172 Likes

Much of what we understand as liberal feminism today consists, essentially, of women rejecting this contemptuously-framed role as second fiddle to the active, passionate, political man, and seeking to join men on the same terms. (The perennial question of who looks after the babies while we’re all smashing glass ceilings then spawns its own set of bitter debates).

In any case, Rousseau’s fantasy of a passive, second-order feminine Other to act as foil for his idealised, atomised, individuated liberal subject, is close to the beating heart of liberal modernity. And inasmuch as liberal feminism accepts these premises, and sees female humans as of a different metaphysical nature to male ones, it’s bound to reproduce its contempt for care and marginalisation of mothers.

Contrasting The Rights of Woman with my other two August reads, The Right To Sex and The Transgender Issue, it’s clear that the latter two argue from and within the matricidal tradition that’s descended from these early debates over sex roles, that took place in another immense economic transition. Srinivasan manages to write a whole book about sex without more than a passing mention of love, biology or children – all topics with more than a passing connection to the subject, or so you’d think. And Faye has argued convincingly for trans activism as the legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism’s intermittent trans-humanist fantasies of using technology to liberate women permanently from the need to be mothers.

As presented by Bachiochi, Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of women’s rights wasn’t rooted in repudiation of the obligations and bonds that come with motherhood, in pursuit of pure atomised selfhood, but rather conceived of as one-half of a common human enterprise centred in family life.

As such it’s clear that Erika Bachiochi offers a radical challenge to modes of feminism that have become entrenched orthodoxy. She mounts a defence of common life that centres motherhood to an extent even I, a purported ‘reactionary feminist’, find challenging. That is, she situates the most profound marginalisation of mothers in the drive – led by feminists seeking freedom on equal Rousseauesque terms with men – for abortion rights.

Abortion, Bachiochi argues, has resulted not in greater freedom or equality but more ‘sexual risk-taking’ that largely benefits men, even as it places the women’s movement ‘on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood’.

This is a difficult and emotive subject, and one I approach with some caution. So for now I’ll just say that we continue our steady advance into the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’, a worldview that sees us all – and women especially – as endlessly malleable flesh, and human fertility largely as a biotech market ripe for opening up. And in the light of these changes, it’s possible – though I reserve judgement still – that we may yet find ourselves needing to argue, for women’s sake, against a medical practice that in an earlier socioeconomic context seemed unambiguously to be in women’s interests.

In any case, Bachiochi makes a spirited feminist case against abortion, in the interests of re-situating mothers and motherhood in the women’s movement. And while I have a great deal more thinking to do before I commit myself either way on this topic, as a reader it was a blessed relief to step from the arid, disembodied, amoral circumlocutions of The Right To Sex to Bachiochi’s warm, woman-centred moral clarity.

Two books, then, feted in the mainstream, in different ways pursue the ever-more-disembodied vision of human selfhood first envisioned by Rousseau: a vision that structurally marginalises care, women and motherhood and takes entry into the market and public life plus the medical interruption of pregnancy as core political aims. This tradition has, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned as its logical daughter a ‘transfeminism’ that unmoors ‘womanhood’ from bodies altogether, in the name of self-realisation and individual freedom.

A third, considerably more marginal book argues the case instead for an engaged, relational understanding of women’s rights and interests, centred in a common human pursuit of excellence and rooted in virtue the obligations of family life – to the extent of challenging our contemporary view of abortion as a feminist ‘right’ as inimical to that pursuit of virtue.

This right here is the emerging terrain of feminist debate in the early twenty-first century. Are we still killing our mothers? What if any are the links between matricide and feticide? Is there a feminist case for virtue? I’m going to leave this open, as this post is now long enough, but this is challenging terrain and merits a great deal more thought.

Love in the Marketplace (Plough)

“In the digital age, Adam Smith’s artificial separation of sympathy from the market is dissolving, along with the industrial-era divisions between the domestic and commercial. In their place we’re offered a single order of unchained and monetized desire, in which there is no outside limit to selfhood – with even our bodies increasingly seen as infinitely malleable to the demands of self. Our emotional lives are now big business, whether in the commercialization of desire via online dating or pornography, or the countless digital temptations that hook our brains to the next social-media dopamine hit. We no longer pursue our interests in a market informed by sympathy-driven moral sentiment; rather, we are consuming units in a “marketplace of sentiment” where every desire is valid providing it can be monetized.”

Read the rest (Plough Quarterly)

The Sexual Counterrevolution (Spectator World)

Charlotte is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate. Beautiful and willowy, she grew up in — her words — ‘a super-liberal environment’. You might expect to find her Instagram full of sexy, pouting pictures. But Charlotte has deleted all the bikini photos from her online life. And six months ago, she embraced ‘modest dress’: nothing that exposes her collarbones or shoulders and nothing that reveals her legs above the knee.

Narayan is seven years older than Charlotte. He is what matchmaking 18th-century matrons might have described as ‘very eligible’: a clean-living, highly educated and charismatic single guy with a well-paid job in tech. He’s the embodiment of Jane Austen’s famous observation that ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. And contra all the modern laments about single men preferring to play the field, Narayan actually wants to get married.

Narayan and his close male friends are all around the same age. They’re all elite guys working in tech and finance — and all either dating to marry, or already married. In what amounts to an informal 21st-century marriage brokerage, they and the wives of already-married members of their friend group collude to track down potential partners. But they’re picky — and Narayan is blunt about the criteria. It’s not just about being educated, ambitious or pretty. ‘Guys who say they don’t care about their wife’s sexual history are straight-up lying,’ he tells me. All the men in his group, he says, would strongly prefer their future wives to be virgins on marriage. Some categorically rule out women who aren’t: ‘No hymen, no diamond’.

Charlotte and Narayan are not the uptight fundamentalists or ugly, embittered feminists of stereotype: they’re members of the Ivy-educated jeunesse dorée. They’re pushing back against a culture of sexual freedom they see as toxic not just to individual wellbeing, but even to the long-term health of American society. They’re the forefront of what ‘Default Friend’, a Bay Area writer on sex and relationships, terms ‘the coming wave of sex-negativity’.

Welcome to the sexual counterrevolution.

Read the rest (Spectator)

On why we’re all post-liberal now, with Simeon Burke

I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.

On surviving postmodernism, with Benjamin Boyce

Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:

Opening remarks for Res Publica post-liberal feminism webinar

The Motherhood Blind Spot

The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:

Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.

Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.

Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.

All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.

Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.

The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.

The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.

This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.

It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.

But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.

If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.

Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.

In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.

Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.

So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.

But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.

If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.

It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.

That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.

To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.

My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.

Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.