Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Ginny Roth: A new type of feminism doesn’t turn back the clock but insists on common sense

Commentary

Feminism Against Progress
Author: Mary Harrington
Publisher: Regnery Publishing, 2023

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Author: Louise Perry
Publisher: Polity, 2022

A new movement of young British and American women is challenging liberal feminist orthodoxy, exposing its inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright harms. Two prominent members of the movement, Mary Harrington and Louise Perry, published books in the last year and a half, each different in focus but with similar themes. In Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress and Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, both authors—one a Gen Xer, one a Millennial—explore the challenges with being a woman in the early 21st century, from the failures of consent-based sexual ethics to the commodification of female bodies (or the erasure of them).

They’re both clear that the freedom won for women by first-wave feminism, to be treated as equal to men, must be preserved and is crucial to female flourishing. But they also agree that any feminism for which the goal is to deny sex difference, whether in dating, the workplace, or parenthood, fundamentally fails women.

Harrington and Perry don’t describe themselves as conservatives, and while both are ardent anti-liberals who insist on a commitment to common sense, history, and the immutability of certain elements of the human condition, neither is seeking to turn back the clock. They are not the Phyllis Schlaflys of our time. Harrington describes getting a post-modern education and seriously questioning traditional gender roles and relationships through her 20s, only to realize after giving birth to her child that her biology was intrinsic to her motherhood and to her sex. Perry had a liberal upbringing much like I did, taught by Carrie Bradshaw and Sex and the City that female empowerment is about behaving in sex and relationships just as men do. She then worked in a rape crisis centre where she quickly learned that biological sex differences and centuries of evolution mean that in general, women neither want to have sex like men, nor benefit from it.

Perry’s focus on hook-up culture, the harmful impact of pornography, and the inadequacy of consent for sorting out the appropriateness and potential harm of a given sexual encounter are uncomfortable to confront. For women raised to be good liberal feminists, freedom trumps everything. We’re supposed to think of women involved in prostitution and pornography as empowered. To question their choices (or coerced “choices”) is to question their personal autonomy.

But Perry deftly confronts the reader’s discomfort, drawing on powerful research to show that real, meaningful differences between most men and women—their preferences, their physical attributes, and the power dynamic that results—make the harms caused by a libertarian approach deeply unethical. Perry’s response is not mass vows of chastity, but a practical (if rarely heard) call to women to get to know men before having sex with them and to seek out loving marriages. As if to prove just how serious she is about the suggestion, just last week, Perry hosted an actual in-person event to try to bring together like-minded men and women in search of a romantic partner and uninterested in the potentially harmful hookup culture that pervades the commonly used dating apps that many feel are their only option.

Harrington aims her critique at capitalism and the commodification of the female body. She pulls no punches, calling out companies offering employees egg freezing, the exploitative treatment of many birth surrogates, the proliferation of daycare for all, and the medicalization of so-called “gender-affirming care.” In her view, the aim of liberal feminism is to extract labour and money from female bodies, with no concern for the interests of women themselves. This despite the clear desire many women have to prioritize motherhood, even if they choose to work. Harrington attacks these trends, blaming technology and classism, explaining that wealthier women perpetuate liberal feminism because they have the means to avoid its downsides while lower-income women suffer its dehumanization.

Harrington is less clear than Perry in her prescriptions. She targets hormonal birth control and abortion as offending technologies but does not call for their banning, preferring a grassroots culture shift to top-down edicts. Her most compelling thinking is around a sex-realist vision for working women. She asks her readers to look not to the homemakers of the 1950s but to pre-industrial families where cottage industries allowed women and men to work in the home, and where labouring, earning money, and childbearing were all compatible at once.  

These books are primarily critiques, and for good reason. The liberal feminist paradigm has been so dominant that before it is replaced, it must be systematically dismantled. Harrington and Perry both do so quite convincingly. Evocative examples of the hypocrisy we live with, which champions women’s rights but stands idly by while female bodies are sold for sex, which calls out #MeToo-style sexual harassment but allows natal male violent offenders in women’s prisons, and which champions #girlboss feminism but seeks to split women off from pregnancy and mothering, treating children and motherhood as inconvenient inefficiencies.

Modern women will rightly question any worldview which might appear to want to turn back the clock and devalue their personhood. But the sex-realist feminists are quite serious not only about prosecuting the case against liberal feminism but about articulating new, better advice for women living in the world today, and for society at large to treat women ethically. It would be fair enough for readers to find their suggestions wanting—after all, they’re charting new territory.

But no reader will put these books down thinking the old orthodoxy, that women should just behave more like men, and that if we try hard enough, we can erase problematic sex differences and set women free, isn’t sorely lacking. 

Jerry Amernic: The rats of 24 Sussex

Commentary

The official residence of the president of France is the Élysée Palace in Paris. More than 200 years old, it contains the office and home of the nation’s leader and is where the Council of Ministers meets weekly. The Élysée Palace is a prestige location embedded in the country’s fabric and culture.

The official residence of the prime minister of the United Kingdom is 10 Downing Street in London. This place is over 300 years old and despite the narrow entrance has 100 rooms. It’s where government ministers and foreign dignitaries are hosted. Former PM Margaret Thatcher called it “one of the most precious jewels in the national heritage.”

Australia, a key member of the British Commonwealth, maintains the official residence of its leader at The Lodge in Canberra. Completed in 1927, it is a 40-room mansion built in the Georgian revival style and has been renovated several times because, well, this is where the prime minister lives.

Closer to home, the official residence of the President of the United States is the White House in Washington, D.C. Every president since John Adams way back in 1800 has lived there. A neoclassical edifice, it was set ablaze along with much of the capital by British troops in the War of 1812. Reconstruction began right away because, hey, the president lives there. The White House is a National Historic Site and some years back ranked no. 2 on a list of America’s Favorite Architecture.

Which brings me to 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Canadians may recognize the address as the residence of our prime minister, and until a few years ago it was. But the current occupant has been living at Rideau Cottage since taking office in 2015. Why? 24 Sussex is an abandoned, rat-infested hellhole in dire need of repair, but in true Canadian fashion no one can agree on what to do. It was completed in 1868 and after being in private hands was expropriated by the feds in 1943 only to become the official home of the prime minister in 1951.

Today, the empty, discarded mansion would be an ideal place to shoot Hollywood’s latest slasher film or a new episode of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a fire hazard that, according to a recent newspaper report, is full of asbestos, radon gas, mould, not to mention deficient plumbing, cracked windows, and a leaky roof. But 24 Sussex is managed by the National Capital Commission which begs the question: what exactly is being managed here?

Nevertheless, its current status is more akin to that of a missing pair of socks hidden at the bottom of a basement closet, which is typical of how Canada treats heritage and history. Alas, this is one more reason—there are others but we won’t get into them here—why we aren’t a real country. Not like France, the United Kingdom, Australia, or the United States.

I mentioned the War of 1812. A year after the White House was burned the Yanks returned the favour by burning the governor’s residence and the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. That legislative building—the first parliament in what would become the Dominion of Canada—was situated at the corner of Front Street and Parliament Street in the Town of York. Now Toronto. One would think this is a rather important site.

The Americans rebuilt their White House to the grandeur with which it is recognized around the world today, and in record time. After all, the president lives there. As for the Upper Canadians, they rebuilt their original parliament building but it perished in another fire and new buildings went up yet again and they would be used for everything from law courts and barracks to an insane asylum. Yes, I get the irony, but let’s continue.

On November 1, 2000, Americans celebrated the 200th anniversary of their White House with great fanfare. The very same day archaeologist Ron Williamson was excavating the site of Canada’s first parliament. He excavated the building’s foundation and found artifacts and the charred remains of the floorboards from that fire set by the Americans in 1813. What was standing on the site of the former Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada? The bastion of our nation’s democracy.

A car wash.

I wrote about this in The National Post and there is a quote attributed to the archaeologist: “This is a site of national, if not international, significance. It bothers me how our society views historical resources. This is the cradle of Upper Canada’s democracy, so what was it doing in a car wash?”

I don’t know what’s there now. Maybe a parking lot. But let’s return to 24 Sussex, the one-time home of ten prime ministers. The last of them was Stephen Harper and I assume young people know his name. After all, it wasn’t that long ago. The first PM to live there was Louis St. Laurent, but with him we’re talking early 1950s—the Jurassic era to today’s age of enlightenment—and he may be a stretch.

Now it’s very likely that Margaret Trudeau, one-time wife of PM Trudeau I and mother of PM Trudeau II, was familiar with that comment from the other Margaret—Thatcher, long-time prime minister of the U.K.—about 10 Downing Street being a “jewel.” I say this because she applied that same word to 24 Sussex in a documentary called The Residences: Inside 24 Sussex—Home of Canada’s Prime Minister, only she called it “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”

According to a 2008 report from then auditor-general Sheila Fraser, renovations to bring 24 Sussex up to snuff would cost $10 million. That was then. The occupant at the time, Mr. Harper, thought that was too steep. Perhaps the most telling thing ever said or written about the place was in 1985 when it received official designation as a heritage site. The Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office said in a summary: “The house itself is undistinguished, but its size and general appearance are appropriate for the head of Canada’s government.”

Would this happen in a real country?

In 2021 all levels of government in this wannabe nation-state spent $28,000 per person. That according to Statistics Canada. I realize this was during COVID, but multiply that by 37 million people and you’re talking $1 trillion in spending, so $10 million doesn’t sound like much even when considering inflation and stratospheric rises in real estate. Today the National Capital Commission says it would cost $36.6 million for renovations and that the “important rodent infestation” in the walls cannot be addressed until other structural issues get resolved. The NCC also said: “In the meantime, we use bait to control the situation, but that leaves us with excrement and carcasses between the walls and in the attic and basement spaces.”

If only I were making this up. But it’s all indicative of how we value such things. On the other hand, maybe we should start tours of 24 Sussex.

“Welcome to the official home of our prime minister. Over here is the entranceway but it’s no longer in use so you have to climb through the cracked window in the living room. Be careful of the broken glass. While there please pick up your mask and put it on because you don’t want to breathe in the radon gas never mind the mould that’s leaking from everywhere. And don’t mind the rats. By the way, I will be your guide today. My name is Freddy Kruger.”