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 Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help

If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”

I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:

“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”

Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.

Continue reading “The Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help”

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.

On sexed bodies and mind over matter

As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.  

My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.

Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence.  Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.

This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.

I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.

On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.

Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.

Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.

This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.

Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.

Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.

For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.