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