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How I Mistook Freedom for Feminism


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The Free Press

Mary Harrington once believed that individual liberty is the highest good. Then she got pregnant.

Mary Harrington

April 24, 2023

In the cultural arguments around what it means to be a feminist—or, for that matter, a woman—author Mary Harrington asks: If individualism, domestic emancipation, and sexual freedom are the happy spoils of the last forty years of feminism, why do so many women feel like something is missing? 

Raised in 1990s Britain, bathing in the Thatcherite glow of market-driven solutions, Harrington ran smack into critical theory and postmodernism at Oxford. After graduating, she spent her 20s as an anti-capitalist, gender-querying warrior in London’s tech start-up culture. Marriage and motherhood, as you’ll read below, marked a profound shift in her views.

Harrington’s outspoken opinions on sexuality, gender, and marriage—she calls it “reactionary feminism”—have landed her in controversy. Last week, the April 26 launch party for her new book, Feminism Against Progress, was canceled by its Manhattan venue in response to a tweet she posted about gender reassignment surgery, but Harrington isn’t backing down. The party, co-hosted by Compact and First Things, has moved to a new location, and is still taking place at 7 p.m. on April 26. (For further details, RSVP to info@compactmag.com.)

Meanwhile, in this adapted excerpt from her new book, Harrington looks at her own life for answers to how and why she thinks feminism got so far off track.


Yet every egalitarian commune I drifted through turned out to be full of interpersonal power games. One likely common factor was me. Real egalitarian utopias may have been possible, just without me and my issues. But I don’t think it was just me. Increasingly, too, I found the shifting constellations of romantic entanglements unsatisfying, and longed for a more enduring partnership. But I was skeptical of the political ramifications of doing so with a man. Would that not represent selling out?

In 2008 our start-up imploded (much as in the communes, I was a major contributing factor in the implosion), and so did the global economy, puncturing my fantasy of social challenges being solved through the creativity and dynamism of markets. I lost my social circle, my career, most of my convictions, and the majority of my identity. It took years to reassemble something like a workable worldview from the smoking ruins of my anti-hierarchical idealism. By the time I emerged in my mid-thirties, I was married to a man, no longer lived in London, and had qualified as a psychotherapist.

And: I had a baby. Up to the point where I got pregnant, I’d taken for granted that men and women are substantially the same apart from our biology, and “progress” meant broadly the same thing for both sexes: the equal right to self-realization, shorn of culturally imposed obligations, expectations, stereotypes, or constraints.

The experience of being pregnant, and then a new mother, blew this out of the water.

It first shocked me physically. Her birth was not straightforward, we both nearly died, and I was bed-bound afterwards. My midsection was held together with staples, while a tiny human I’d carried for months was now on the outside but still dependent on me for every need.

Previously, I’d bought into the idea that individual freedom is the highest good, that bonds or obligations are only acceptable inasmuch as they’re optional, and that men and women can and should pursue this equally. Then I went through the wonderful and disorienting experience of finding my sense of self partly merged with a dependent infant. The kind of absolute freedom I’d accepted as an unalloyed good, pre-baby, was suddenly a great deal less appealing to me than it had been, because I actively enjoyed belonging to my daughter. It was also, obviously, not in her interests to go on insisting that my obligations to her were always optional. I couldn’t very well refuse to get up and feed my crying newborn at 3:30 a.m. just because I didn’t feel like it.

Fortified by my new understanding, I wondered: what might it look like to pursue women’s political interests in practice, in terms of where we actually are now?



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