Defending the Family in Liquid Modernity

May 15, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published in American Reformer on May 9, 2023.

Opposition to the dissolution of the family requires better family politics

Human mastery over nature, exercised technologically, is how human beings experience “progress.” Better medical care to extend life. Cars that prevent crashes and protect us from their effects. More market opportunity for all. We rarely think of how the sweetness of progress comes with corresponding bitter costs—and what that fact teaches about the human condition.

Modern feminism expresses this dilemma of progress. On one hand, women have more schooling and degrees today than ever before; more political and economic rights; and more liberation from unchosen roles. On the other, we no longer really know what a woman is and how other beings (call them men) should relate to women. Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress sees the benefits, counts the costs, tells us how we got here, and gives some advice on muddling through the bitters. No institution—including the Church—is immune from feminism’s influence, so no one can ignore its deeply personal wounds.

For Harrington, feminism rides the wave of deeper movements like industrialization and technological thinking. In the beginning, families were communities, truly the basic units of society. They were economic units where husbands and wives produced what families needed together. These conditions coincided with patriarchal legal and cultural arrangements, but all was softened by the fact that teamwork was essential. Then came “the transition to industrial society,” which took men from the home and created “separate spheres” for men and women. The social and economic conditions for communal marriage vanished, so social mystiques like the “cult of domesticity” were needed to prop up marriage. “Big Romance,” as Harrington calls it, emerged, all the better to encourage women to love their chains. Soon the contradiction was unsustainable.

The first feminism—the good one, as Harrington sees it—defined a woman’s maternal value amidst this mismatch between the mode of production and family form. Such early feminists “valued maternity, care and interdependence alongside just measures of economic and political agency and individual freedom.” 

That first feminism did not last, by Harrington’s account, mostly because the market continued to liquify, commodify and alienate and to reduce all human understanding to variations on the pricing mechanism. The result was second-wave feminism, an extreme version of the market mentality, where the male model of market success became the model for everyone. Women could only find their meaning outside the home in paid work, while housework was pawned off on domestics. Sex became transactional. The promise of liberation—indeed, the promise of progress itself— colonized human life through the market mentality.

As a result, as Harrington catalogs, we live in a time when relationships are more difficult to form, when motherhood is neither honored nor aspired to, and female bodies are thought to be the playthings of transgendered technological innovation. Upper-class women can buy some immunity from liquid modernity, but working-class women cannot.

Harrington proposes a “reactionary feminism” the better to secure human interests in liquid modernity.  At its center are deeper marital communities and motherhood, both of which might propound a non-market ethic of care. Becoming mothers and marrying help ground women (and men) in concrete realities beyond the market. Making such communities demands an attitudinal shift, beginning with recognizing the poverty of our current regime. Spouses value loyalty and sticking it out in marriages that endure for good times and bad. Families might organize productive households, where pre-industrial familial arrangements might be reproduced.  Honoring men’s spaces as productive of better male friendships and mentorship would help form better men, and this would benefit women. Giving up on contraception and abortion—other expressions of technological thinking in our lives—which Harrington calls “rewilding sex”—would be grounds for more fruitful marriages. Repealing no-fault divorce laws might be considered.

I found myself nodding in agreement with Harrington’s diagnosis of our current reality and remedies, as far as they go. A natural or cultural basis for “reaction” exists. “Most of us want children,” Harrington writes, “most want a life lived in common usually with a member of the opposite sex.” Defending naturally-givens and moral teachings like the goodness of love in a marital community is truly reactionary in liquid modernity. Sign me up for “reactionary feminism” or a sexual counter-revolution.

Sometimes, Harrington’s reactionary feminism is grounded in “sex realism.” Male spaces are as important to the development of responsible male character, she argues, as female spaces are to female character. She embraces the priority of motherhood—of having babies and caring for them–in a woman’s life. 

At other times, she hesitates or demurs. There can be no “returning to the 1950s understanding of marriage,” writes Harrington, “and with it the ‘traditional’ relation between men and women” (i.e., different sex roles with men as providers and women as care-takers or, as Harrington characterizes them, “domestic consumers”). No one thinks that every aspect of the 1950s family can or necessarily should be revived, but all well-wishers for the family, Harrington included, think some should be. For Harrington, the 1950s family is not reactionary enough because it is still grounded in the “separate spheres” ideology of “traditional” sex roles, which, she thinks, are neither workable nor “traditional enough.” Attempt to make “traditional sex roles” normative is, as Harrington writes, a case of “keep everything the same, except what women do.”

Laying aside the question of whether the separate spheres ideology proceeds from modern industrialism, those (like me) who defend “sex role realism” within marriage, as Harrington suggests, project today’s most healthy family forms under today’s economic system forward. The need for separate spheres would decline with a change in the mode of production. A revolution in the mode of production would not be enough, however.

For Harrington, how society organizes productive activity moves human history. Feminism and the sexual revolution were “less a moral change than a technological one.” When the mode of production determines human fate, the future appears more or less inevitable unless there is a greater revolution and sensible reformers like Harrington can seek carve-outs and pursue delaying tactics that are dependent on the larger economic forces but still resist them. These scattered strategies however hardly amount to an alternative way of life.

In contrast, the technological and moral are intertwined. The modes of production and family life itself derive from a regime’s idea of justice, the good and the honorable. On this score, liquid modernity has been fundamentally a moral-political act (requiring laws, treaties, and mores). Effective opposition to the dissolution of the family requires better regime-level family politics. Nations informed by the Christian tradition have  a coherent, sensible justification for embracing motherhood, being fruitful, staying married, and fulfilling filial responsibilities no matter the economic system. There is still much support for the Christian idea that men and women have different vocations—both in what Western men and women think and in how they act. Building on these is not irrelevant to making “marriage and family part” of the young’s “own life plans.”

Pro-family reactionaries like Harrington seek to get beyond or beside modernity, which seems inherently hostile to marriage, motherhood, sex, and sex differences. Ultimately, success in this endeavor means seeing our world in specifically Christian ways—and seeking to make those terms govern our family regime and renew men, women and our culture.