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The Neo-Liberal Feminists are Boring

May 10th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

I had a couple people ask about my thoughts on some of the pushback against my thread last week, particularly as it relates to Dr. Robinson’s essays here.

There are two separate issues so I’m going to try to take one here and the other in a different thread. The latter issue is the swarm dynamic in particular. That’s for later. For now, I wanted to hit the underlying assumptions I see driving much of the anti-Butler stuff.

First: The critique of Butler’s book that Dr. Robinson makes in the first two pieces seems basically correct to me. It’s quite similar to what MLA and Dr. Treweek have said in their pieces, both of which I’ve already commended multiple times, including last week.

That said, the comment she makes about birth control in the final post is indicative of the problem, I think. Robinson *really* wants to preserve birth control methods beyond NFP, presumably for standard 2nd wave feminist reasons related to independence, career advancement, etc.

Assuming I have her correct then I find the whole thing deeply boring and disappointing. It’s like talking to a Mainline Protestant circa 2000. It’s just neo-liberal feminism where liberation is proven through accomplishment in the marketplace.

And it’s not even all that popular with many feminists these days anyway! It’s just the most “OK boomer” sort of feminism you can imagine.

Go read Christine Emba, Leah Sargeant, Alexandra DeSanctis, Louise Perry, Abigail Favale, or Mary Harrington. For that matter, go read Elizabeth Anscombe.

These feminists argue that accepting a society so hostile to life, care, and the design of women’s bodies that we make “rendering your body as fertile as a man’s” a prerequisite for full participation in the market is itself deeply misogynistic. I think they have a good case!

Go read Emba’s “Rethinking Sex” or Favale’s “Genesis of Gender” or Harrington’s “Feminism Against Progress.” Perry’s book on the sexual revolution is also good. Getting some historical background would also help–Harper’s From Shame to Sin is fantastic here.

Christopher Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World is great.

Wendell Berry is also all over this:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

So why did these feminists move on from second wave stuff? Emba has it:

Alas, a different story about what feminism might mean was taking shape at the same time. It was one that would take advantage of women’s newfound ability to have unconstrained sex due to widespread contraception and abortion, but leave the more intractable questions of parity, value, and the ultimate aims of “revolution” by the wayside. And it was fueled less by the dedicated women who aimed for utopia than by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown—and by capital, which wanted as much access as possible to women’s time and bodies, without regard to their ultimate well-being.

This story idealized detachment, “liberation” from mutual care, ensuring that relationships never came before career goals. It looked like bringing a capitalist mindset into our interactions, making it normal to use, discard, and objectify other people. And as they often do, our rapacious markets and short-term desires won out.

My second question is: Cui bono? Whom did this new story serve? Who benefits from a world of consequence-free sex, weak ties, the putting off of childbearing and family?

Today, the pharmaceutical and medical industries benefit, by selling decades-long prescriptions for contraceptives, and then various attempts at ART later on. Corporations and employers benefit: they gain a new labor force unsaddled by commitments to family, place, or other less-than-profitable concerns. (Intrinsic in Rethinking Sex’s critique of modern feminism’s dependence on contraception is a critique of the free-market values that many who would term themselves conservatives or reactionaries still—oddly to my mind—hold dear.)

Harrington also narrates her own evolution on this in a really compelling way in Feminism Against Progress.

The currently dominant social order existing around sex and gender, particularly in blue cities and states, operates by a) obscuring or erasing the biological realities of our bodies, and then b) rendering us all detached, atomized workers in service to the capitalist class.

BTW: That capitalist class? Mostly straight white dudes.

That capitalist class is happy to have detached, individualistic workers who lack familial ties or children to ground them, give them purpose, and take them away from work. This allows them to exploit their workers who treat their employment not as a livelihood but as a purpose.

Not only that, many of these young workers will take bad wages in exchange for absurd office perks. This gives the capitalists a steady stream of cheap, disposable workers that will burn themselves into the ground for their job because it’s how they feel significant.

Just give them a game room, wall of candy, and free lunches and they’ll work insane hours at bad pay and make you rich. And when they burn out and quit, you won’t even have to pay them for unused PTO b/c of your unlimited PTO policy that no one actually uses anyway.

Put another way: The entire frame in which this critique is operating is presupposing a version of feminism deeply friendly to capitalist exploitation and deeply hostile to the biological realities of the human body, and largely devoid of socially normalized practices of care.

Now, if I have Dr. Robinson wrong here, I’m happy to be corrected. But much of the evangelical feminist space looks to me like microwaved second wave feminism imported from the 90s and early 2000s.

The take seems to be “Complementarianism and evangelical sex ethics are bad because actually everyone needs to have equal access to the expressive individualist marketplace,” which is really just a capitalist hellscape that makes rich white dudes even richer.

Anyway, Emba’s book is great. Harrington’s is also excellent. And Favale won’t disappoint either. There is a ton of great work being done right now by anti-progressive feminists. I just wish more of it was showing up in evangelical spaces.

Oh, one more link: Leah Sargeant’s “Other Feminisms” Substack is wonderful. It’s tied with Paul Kingsnorth for my favorite Substack–I pay for it and it doesn’t even have any subscriber only content. It’s just that good. Go subscribe.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).