How did the sexual revolution overtake traditional feminism? Scholars discuss

Feminist demonstrators establish a blockade outside of the inauguration entry point near 10th and E Streets in Washington, D.C. in protest of President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017.
Feminist demonstrators establish a blockade outside of the inauguration entry point near 10th and E Streets in Washington, D.C. in protest of President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017. | The Christian Post/Samuel Smith

WASHINGTON — The world's push to lessen the differences between the sexes and emphasize abortion as a necessary component of women's equality has negatively impacted both men and women and presents only one side of the feminist movement, feminism scholars say.

Fresh off her event cancelation at a New York City venue for the release of her new book Feminism Against Progress, British writer Mary Harrington argued at a panel discussion in the nation's capital Tuesday that one aspect of feminism being pushed aside in today's feminist movement is the view that women are "embodied female individuals, equal in dignity to men, but different." 

She explained the differences between what she called the "feminism of care," which advocated for motherhood and family, and the "feminism of freedom," which argued that women must have the right to enter the market for the sexes to be equal. 

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"It's my contention that that back and forth, which really characterizes the women's movement from the late 18th century and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft up to the second wave, was definitively won by the feminism of freedom with the legalization of abortion," Harrington, a contributing editor at UnHerd, said during the panel discussion hosted by the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation titled "Reactionary Feminism: Sex and the Market."

Speaking on the panel with Harrington were legal scholar Erika Bachiochi and Arthur Milikh, the executive director of The Claremont Institute's Center for the American Way of Life.

A panel of experts discuss feminism and the women's movement at a Heritage Foundation event titled Reactionary Feminism: Sex and the Market on April 25, 2023 in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Mary Harrington, Erika Bachiochi and Arthur Milikh.
A panel of experts discuss feminism and the women's movement at a Heritage Foundation event titled Reactionary Feminism: Sex and the Market on April 25, 2023 in Washington, D.C. From left to right: Mary Harrington, Erika Bachiochi and Arthur Milikh. | The Heritage Foundation/YouTube

Bachiochi, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute, is also the author of the book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which examines the history of feminism and calls for the movement to reject the teachings of the sexual revolution and reprioritize the family.

"It seems to me quite obvious that when you elevate the capacity for women to, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg would put it in her scholarship, to become equal citizens on the same footing as men through the right to abortion, and you claim that that right is necessary for women's equality and women's citizenship, then it's pretty easy for all of the market institutions and including public institutions to sort of say, 'Great!' We'll join right along with you!'" Bachiochi said. 

How the industrial era transformed women's lives

At the beginning of the panel, Heritage Foundation senior fellow Delano Squires asked Harrington to explain what she calls "cyborg feminism," a concept that she explores in her book. This version of feminism argues for the use of technology to "flatten" the differences between the sexes, including female reproduction.

The author clarified that in discussions about feminism, such as when conservatives discuss the issue, they're missing "half of the story," particularly the advocacy for women, which took place before the sexual revolution. 

Regarding this part of women's history, Harrington said that one side of the women's movement had "won," rendering the other side "invisible." According to Harrington, the story of feminism began with the industrial revolution. 

Before the industrial revolution, women who lived in an agrarian situation could work around their familial obligations. But now, if they were expected to go out and earn a wage, that raised questions about how to balance work alongside raising children. 

"If you were handweaving at home, you could do that with a toddler underfoot," the author said. "You can't very well take your toddler to a factory filled with heavy and dangerous machinery. Well, you could, but it's certainly not advisable."

Harrington noted that there were two ways that women responded to this new "dilemma." 

"One was to make a case for the values and virtues of the now private domestic sphere from which economic activity has been drained," she said, which the author characterized as the "feminism of care." 

Writings focused on the "feminism of care" recognize the importance of motherhood and the value of family, specifically under more industrial conditions. Despite the emerging market society, this form of feminism maintained that the moral education and care of children and the business of relationship held equal value. 

An agrarian housewife wouldn't need to be defensive about "pulling her weight within the home," Harrington said. Considering women had lost economic agency and had not gained any political leverage to compensate for the loss, the author explained, suddenly, it was necessary to defend why housework still mattered.

"I read this straightforwardly as a kind of feminism, even if the liberal feminist historiography frames it as 'patriarchal propaganda," she said, referring to early writings defending domesticity. 

The author explained how another subset of feminists contends that women must enter the market on the same terms as men or the sexes would never be equal. Harrington defined this as the "feminism of freedom," which says men and women are equal and should have equal access to public life. 

The feminism of freedom holds that women entering the market on the same terms as men was the "proper solution" to the dilemmas created by the industrial era. This group of feminists "definitively won" with the legalization of abortion, Harrington said, stating that society currently lives under something that "characterizes itself as feminism" but only presents one side of it. 

Bachiochi seconded Harrington's arguments, agreeing that women became economically dependent on the wages men earned as they began working outside of the home due to industrialization. She noted that early feminists fought for joint property ownership and protective legislation in the workplace, in addition to advocating for men to embody a certain standard of behavior and fulfill their responsibilities to their families.

The feminist legal scholar agreed with Harrington that the liberal feminists and their vision "won," which is why the other side of the women's movement appears to have been forgotten. Bachiochi, however, believes there is a "cognitive dissonance" present in progressive feminism, which still bemoans the workplace not respecting the work women do at home. 

The argument that women's equality depends on the right to abortion means the marketplace does not have to accommodate pregnant women and can continue to favor the "unencumbered male worker," Bachiochi said.

Bachiochi claimed that society views men and women as "breadwinners" first and "caregivers" second. The solution, she proposed, is to utilize technology not to "flatten" differences between the sexes but to help bring work back into the home.

In response to a question from The Christian Post about how to help men and women, particularly young folks, reconnect with more traditional ideas about feminism, Harrington suggested rejecting the contraceptive pill. The researcher asserted that the contraceptive pill is the "original point of entry into cyborg feminism."

Harrington said she has heard from many young women who were put on birth control, some as young as 14. Around 10 years later, Harrington said, these women realized that their personalities had changed entirely, with some mistakenly believing they were just bipolar until they realized contraceptive pills were to blame. 

"And this was all to the purpose of rendering a woman receptive to what is, for the most part, loveless and sometimes extremely degrading sexual access," Harrington said, arguing that she fails to see how this is in women's best interests. 

"It seems to me that a good place to start would be a feminist movement against the pill and for rewilding sex, returning the danger to sex, returning the intimacy and really, the consequentiality to sex," she said. 

The feminist author called for women to intentionally reconnect with the "fullness of [their] embodied nature," which includes women's reproductive roles.

Differences between the sexes

Squires asked Milikh what role men play in conversations about feminism. The scholar warned about efforts to reduce "maleness" and what he called the "destruction of male self-respect." 

"This is partly what toxic masculinity is," he said. "I mean, this is the latest iteration of it. There have been things before it, there will be things after it, but the underlying goal is to make it such that young men especially look at themselves and their value in terms of female judgments of them." 

The scholar highlighted the push to render once all-male spaces co-ed but stated that he noticed there is not the same push for all-female physics labs, for example. Milikh said that both sexes would "preserve something of their own" that he believes is lost through the constant interaction with one another in various spaces. 

Harrington agreed with Milikh's analysis, citing a portion of her book that highlights the potential consequences of rendering once all-male spaces co-ed. She stated that losing opportunities for socialization and positive mentorship creates a vacuum that some men may try to fill by seeking out figures such as Andrew Tate.

Despite men and women occupying the same spaces, Harrington contends that technological developments have reduced the availability of working-class jobs that made the differences between the sexes apparent. As a result, it's easier to claim that sex is irrelevant because in a more digital workspace, men and women are typically not confronted with all of the ways sex is important, she said.

Feminism and transgenderism 

Harrington's response to Milikh's analysis was an answer to a question from Squires about educated women's support for transgenderism. Their advocacy for transgenderism is based on a "sense of self-interest," with Harrington arguing that many of these women believe their support for transgenderism will "make the world a better place." 

These feminists claim that one should not be constrained by the features of the body, according to Harrington, and that allowing people to be who they are makes the world better. 

"If that means I have to accept as a woman someone who just says they're a woman even if they have a fully developed set of dangly bits, then fine," the author said, detailing how some modern feminists think. "I'm going to do that because logically, it's co-extensive with the rest of my position that we shouldn't be constrained by accidental features of our physiology." 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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