Mary Harrington on the Family

by Eric Schliesser on August 9, 2023

Late July, The Wall Street Journal published five short pieces under the title, “Have We Ruined Sex?” Among the five pieces was one by Mary Harrington. In her contribution she argues that the sexual revolution has mainly benefitted the “entrepreneurial class.” Since this appeared not in The Nation but WSJ, I was amused, so I decided to read her (2023) Feminism Against Progress.

Feminism Against Progress is reactionary, but it cites Karl Polanyi approvingly and also rails against Adam Smith and Hayek; the political right is indeed transforming. (Harrington spoke at this year’s National Conservatism Conference.) As the mention of Polanyi hints at, Harrington’s sensibility is, in many ways, a culturally traditional, social democratic left (and I was not surprised to find a piece of hers on the SDP blog here.) I expect Keith Starmer’s Labour party (which is by no means liberal in sensibility) to find use for her downstream.

Before I continue. Harrington is a critic of what she calls “bio-libertarianism” or “Meat Lego gnosticism” which she associates with the idea that in the market, “our bodies can be reassembled at will.” (Harrington is no fan of Firestone; and any feminist, techno-optimism.) Unsurprisingly, she is also a participant in the culture wars over transgender rights that (primarily) in the UK has split feminism quite dramatically. My regular readers know I am diametrically opposed to her views on this topic; here I explore a different issue: her views on the family.

It is quite natural, given Harrington’s occasional invocation of socio-biology, and rather sex-essentialist views, not to mention her embrace of a reactionary self-identification, to expect that Harrington advocates for the so-called “nuclear family.” Stateseside the ‘nuclear family’ is much beloved by ethno-Christian-nationalists which also defend women’s subordination to men. This is not, in fact, Harrington’s position.

A few months ago, I noted that in chapter 4 of his (2022) book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Yoram Hazony defended a distinction between this nuclear family and what Hazony calls the “traditional family.” The traditional family is conceived as a multi-generational enterprise in which family and business are a joint concern. Hazony is explicit in rejecting the suburban single family dwelling model because he de facto accepts Friedan’s critique of it as a site of isolation and mental impoverishment. (I don’t think he mentions Friedan in his book.)

Harrington echoes Hazony’s position. However, Harrington is rather critical of Friedan because she thinks that Friedan instantiates the preference of ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’ — which Harrington thinks primarily benefits the wealthy women who embrace lean-in feminism — over social embeddedness and against motherhood. After contrasting Friedan with Germaine Greer, Harrington writes,

[T]hey share the same basic template for personhood: the autonomous one, who becomes a person in the manner envisaged by Rousseau: that is to say, in a world where some unspecified other does all the dull, sticky drudgery that keeps the world of freedom and selfhood turning. Second-wave feminism definitively rejected women’s obligation to bear the publicly unrecognised persistence of dependence and burden of care, within a market society predicated on disavowing these features of our common social life even as it eagerly extracts value from the subjects nurturedby that care.—(p. 48)

Harrington here sounds like a subaltern critic of white feminism. There are more such comments sprinkled throughout the book. But while Harrington is definitely interested in what is known as an ethic of care (and she views Rousseau as corrupting what care should be), Harrington’s book is not itself much interested in those unspecified others, and does not develop or articulate a program on their behalf. I don’t mean this sarcastically, but she is much more concerned with traditional male working/middle class social culture (see chapter 8, “Let Men Be”) and female “solidarity” (p. 172) with it, than poor women’s care-work or struggles.

As noted Harrington echoes Hazony but with a communal nostalgia to the middle ages:

Some conservatives dream of abolishing second-wave feminism, which is to say returning to a pre-1960s understanding of marriage, and with it the ‘traditional’ relation between men and women. This is usually understood to mean the sex roles typical of the industrial model, in which women serve as principal domestic consumers, while relying on their husband’s goodwill and good character to offset the loss of agency this implies under the order of ‘economic sex’. In other words: we should keep everything the same, except what women do.…

But the weakness of these proposals isn’t that they’re unworkable, or even that they’re ‘traditional’, but that they’re not traditional enough. For most of history, men and women worked together, in a productive household, and this is the model reactionary feminism should aim to retrieve. In any case, half a century into the cyborg era, there’s little prospect of reviving the industrial-era housewife as the principal template for sex roles – and there’s no need, because for knowledge workers at least the sharp split between ‘home’ and ‘work’ that drove the emergence of such roles is blurring again. And the blurring of that divide in turn opens up new possibilities, hinting at a way of viewing lifelong solidarity between the sexes that owes more to the 1450s than the 1950s. It does so by bringing at least some work back into the home, and in the process ramping up the kind of interdependence that can underpin long-term pragmatic solidarity.—(pp. 179-180, emphasis added)

Here her use of ‘solidarity’ doesn’t mean concern for and joint action with the global or immigrant/refugee downtrodden (whose interests are, perhaps, not well served by this model); it means mutual concern within the (middle-class aspirational) family. I added emphasis because the glorification of the 1450s is a mark of the impact of Polanyi’s views on Harrington. (I view Polanyi’s account of medieval social embeddedness as a romantic fiction, but as we all know from such fiction political movements are made.)

Now, Harrington’s notion of pragmatic solidarity between the sexes is explicitly a rejection of romantic union. (The chapter from which I just quoted is called “Abolishing Big Romance.”) Rather, it involves embrace of the “productive household.” This household is based on mutual recognition of pragmatic solidarity and the commitment that is a consequence of it. It valorizes work, care for children, and long-range planning.

While Hazony and Harrington have broadly similar account of the family, there is a modest difference of emphasis between Harrington and Hazony. Hazony really thinks of the productive household as multi-generational and having common enterprise(s) housed in multi-generational dwellings (compounds, neighborhoods). Harrington by contrast is clearly conceiving of smaller, more focused families.

More important, for Harrington the productive household need not be thought of as a single enterprise. Rather, the “productive household” is one in which the partners are “home-based,” but potentially have multiple income streams. (p. 180) What’s crucial for Harrington, however, is that the members of the household view their home as the foundation for work and family in joint projects of (what one of her informants calls) meaning making.

It’s worth noting that in her book, Harrington does not discuss the many policies that would follow from this vision of the home. But it’s not hard to imagine that it would lead to different kind of home-building programs, infrastructure programs, tax policies (etc.) by the state. Harrington herself is pretty clear that she hopes it will revitalize many smaller commuter towns and cities. As I said, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Harrington’s program will be adopted by political parties that wish to cater to middle classes who are worried about the speed of progress.

One final thought on all of this. There is nothing in the nature of the ‘productive household’ that has to make it heteronormative. However Harrington explicitly defends marriage as an institution in terms of males and females coupling and reproducing; but she also claims that her reactionary feminism is “contextual and relational.” (p. 167) In the contexts where ‘gay marriage’ has become normalized, it follows that for Harrington the ‘productive household’ need not be exclusively hetero-normative.

In future posts, I explore Harrington’s account of the sexual revolution. To be continued.




Chris Bertram 08.09.23 at 8:28 am

“culturally traditional, social democratic left (and I was not surprised to find a piece of hers on the SDP blog here.)”

The groupuscule that now sails under the SDP name is a far-right organization, by any reasonable measure. (It is also pro-Brexit and anti-immigrant).


J-D 08.09.23 at 8:53 am

It’s worth noting that in her book, Harrington does not discuss the many policies that would follow from this vision of the home.

If people tell me what they think we should fantasise about but not what they think we should do, I suspect one of two things is going on: either they have no idea of how to get from here to there, in which case they are just fantasising, or else they do have some practical ideas but are delaying or avoiding revealing them because they have a shrewd appraisal of how those practical ideas will alienate people.


TM 08.09.23 at 9:38 am

Harrington’s home enterprise works only for office workers able to work from home. Presumably they won’t grow their own food and sew their own clothes and make their own furniture, dispose of their own trash and heal themselves when they are sick, etc., so somebody will still have to work outside their homes. Or how committed is she really to turning the clock back over 500 years?


tm 08.09.23 at 9:43 am

“this is the model reactionary feminism should aim to retrieve”

It’s almost refreshing to see somebody eagerly claim the label “reactionary”.


Jake Gibson 08.09.23 at 2:22 pm

Inevitable I suppose that some on the left would hate the 21st Century. A little surprising they would prefer the 16th Century.
It seems like Harrington is stretching for a “Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche without the necessity of Kirche.
In some feminist speculative fiction there seems to be an idealized matriarchal form of this.
In times of rapid change even some progressives look to the past for templates for social organization. When the river of time turns into rapids, a lot of people want to turn back rather than trying to navigate through the rocks.


TM 08.09.23 at 3:30 pm

@Jake I don’t know Harington, only that she claims the label “reactionary feminism” for herself. Why do you call her progressive?


Alex SL 08.09.23 at 9:58 pm

Yes, that is what we need, a life where we care only about being “productive” rather than happy in our relationships, and where we can never move away from the town where grandma lives because we need to maintain that multigenerational enterprise. /s

I always marvel at people who describe their vision as something that virtually nobody would find attractive enough to do out of their own free will, but somehow still assume that it can become the norm without dystopian-level suppression.

Jake Gibson,

Just because it is funny I need to point out that how you wrote the slogan, it reads ‘children, cake, church’.


DCA 08.10.23 at 12:32 am

OK, suppose we look at a 1500’s English household engaged in, say, making candles. I absolutely guarantee that it contained, and needed, servants (for the household) and apprentices (for the production). None of these people were likely to be family members, and they were not treated as well as family members would be.

If you are going to hark back to the past you should know something about it. But that’s a lot more work than opining.


stevem johnson 08.10.23 at 1:14 am

The citations from Harrington strongly suggest she has no notion of the role of property as the binding force, the basic structure, in productive families. The world supposedly envisaged by Rousseau, where some sticky other does the dirty work, is so far as I can see, exactly the same world envisaged by Harrington. The “family” of the 1450s, even in Europe, didn’t include illegitimate children or orphans and single parents put their children to work (even sex work, something that presumably matters to reactionaries who are generally shamelessly puritanical.)

As a conservative, it is probable that Harrington’s unacknowledged commitments to racism means all her rules for proper households omit adoption, which omits gay men as patriarchs. It’s all about the DNA (=race.) It also is likely that all men are conceived to be patriarchs, even though they aren’t (see the movie Barbie for the latest semi-official.) So it’s highly unlikely guncles count either.

I suppose it’s possible the OP’s unfriendliness to Harrington is misleading regarding the content of her thought. But my impression is the OP is highly respectful, to the point of saying her thought has more than diagnostic interest.


steven t johnson 08.10.23 at 1:17 am

Forgive the name glitch, computer troubles.

Also, PS, Karl was Michael Polanyi’s brother. Both Polanyis are favorites of those who dislike scientific pretensions (as they see it.) So far as I can tell, it’s like anarchism, the fundamentally right-wing approach ends up vitiating any superficial idiosyncratic postures that might impress the unwary as progressive.


Jake Gibson 08.10.23 at 2:21 am

Progressive was probably the wrong term but the horseshoe left does hate the 21st Century.


Moz in Oz 08.10.23 at 2:51 am

Just addressing the actual fantasy rather than the politics, there are a number of multigenerational “family enterprises” in the street I live in, albeit some are likely victims of the sham contracting type of enterprise (lots of Uber/Didi/Ola signs in car windows). I wouldn’t call out agriculture for this, that’s 1% of the population and a lot of it is still multigenerational. For that matter the dentist I go to has the same family name as the two older dentists in the same practice. And my GP is definitely the daughter of one of the other doctors in that practice (she calls him dad). One runs out of a converted house, but there are definitely surgery-with-house in the area. It’s being done right now here today, in other words.

Admittedly Australia is anything from 10 years to 1000 years behind the times on many issues. Maybe it’s that.


TM 08.10.23 at 7:23 am

DCA 8: Good point, although it cannot really be assumed that family members were treated any better than servants by the patriarch of the house.


MisterMr 08.10.23 at 10:27 am

So, a reactionary feminist wants people to be all tele-commuting so they can all live in the single house, in a multigenerational family, and somehow she thinks this is the same of 1450. Have I got it right?

In Italy (and probably in most places that were rural) the multigenerational family was the norm up to the early 20th century, but this was because all in the family worked the same fields; patriarchy and inheritance only for the male firstborn were also part of this logic.

If we remove the rural economic basis, and we have both parents at the same level and equal inheritance, there is nothing particularly reactionary here.

It is more difficult to have a multigenerational family without a straight inheritance line though.

Is the reactionary part linked to the sex-essentialist view?


engels 08.10.23 at 12:41 pm

Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche

What about Kaffee?


bekabot 08.10.23 at 1:51 pm

“(I view Polanyi’s account of medieval social embeddedness as a romantic fiction, but as we all know from such fiction political movements are made.)”

This is a depressing reflection because the kind of romantic fiction of which political movements are made is the kind of romantic fiction in which men alternatively battle and befriend other men. Women can be tangentially involved, but they’re involved in relation to the men. The kind of romantic fiction Mary Harrington has in the back of her head, the multi-generational family saga, does not found political movements, unless you want to interpret The Book of Mormon that way. When it’s a multi-generational family saga with a woman at its head (as frequently happens) it doesn’t found political movements at all so far as I know.* With that kind of romantic fiction the political movements come first and the fiction follows later, often in an attempt to recuperate what it feels they’ve lost.

This is one of the many reasons Mary Harrington and the rest of the TERFs are so wrong.

Illustration: first you have the Civil War; GWTW comes along afterwards. The one major apparent exception to the rule (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) didn’t start a war, though it predicted one.


TM 08.10.23 at 2:55 pm

The OP says that Harrington doesn’t actually care about the “multi-generational” part:

“Hazony really thinks of the productive household as multi-generational and having common enterprise(s) housed in multi-generational dwellings (compounds, neighborhoods). Harrington by contrast is clearly conceiving of smaller, more focused families.”

Which seeems a more than “modest” difference to me. Anyway it’s not clear to me how this is different from the nuclear family. Actually I find the whole concept very unclear (I only understand “reactionary”).

“for knowledge workers at least the sharp split between ‘home’ and ‘work’ that drove the emergence of such roles is blurring again. And the blurring of that divide in turn opens up new possibilities”

This is not remotely original, in fact since the pandemic, everybody has been talking about the new possibilities opened up by the rise of telework. But that doesn’t explain why we need to turn the calendar back 570 years, and anyway it works only for a part of the population.


J, not that one 08.10.23 at 3:24 pm

It’s difficult for me to imagine what Harrington has in mind especially because all the plausible models I can think of are from North America say 1820 to 1930, or alternately today: the homeschooling mom and the dad who involves his kids in projects around the house, with both doing jobs they can do from home, maybe tech support for Dad and an Etsy business for Mom.

Actual people in 1450 didn’t have college degrees or access to an international culture, unless they were celibate. But a lot of people of Harrington’s stripe do appear to dislike capitalist employment outside the home for most so exposure to civilization wouldn’t be so necessary.


bekabot 08.10.23 at 6:10 pm

“The OP says that Harrington doesn’t actually care about the ‘multi-generational’ part”

Most fans of Star Trek don’t expect to end up on the crew of a starship themselves, but the galactic romance plays in the back of their minds and affects their beliefs and behavior. How many John Wayne aficionados expected to earn their living punching cows or to get shot by the Japanese? If there weren’t many, would you claim on that basis that his performances had no effect on what they thought or did?


LFC 08.11.23 at 2:40 am

Has Harrington actually read (and grasped the arguments of) Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, or does she just use it to dress up her endnotes?


bekabot 08.11.23 at 1:44 pm

Very few people read and grasp the arguments they come across in books as if the arguments were mathematical proofs. (For the record, I’m not one of them.) For most of us, the experience of reading nonfiction is not too much unlike the experience of reading fiction, with a blurry shadowy line between the two. Equally certainly, Polyani isn’t in the business of citing facts, like “Marie Antionette was killed on a Wednesday.” Instead he’s making patterns with the facts like Miss Brodie on a tear. But I digress. My point is that I don’t see why Mary Harrington shouldn’t be like most people. Statistically, that’s more what you’d expect.


J, not that one 08.11.23 at 4:50 pm

Is it worth asking whether Harrington is a reactionary feminist because she’s a reactionary who thinks there are feminist arguments in favor of reaction, or because she’s a feminist who thinks reaction serves feminist goals?

Again, most of the arguments around solidarity with men (of one’s own group) that I’m familiar with around feminism are made by Americans (specifically Black feminists – Marxists and Christian apologists seldom use that language).


MisterMr 08.11.23 at 7:55 pm

So I’ll ask again, where is exactly the reactionary part?
From the OP it seems to me that H is just speaking of something that might happen (families where both parents work from home), this is something that both on the left and on the right would like, and she just puts a “reactionary” label with no particular reason.

In facf this idea might help solving one problem for conservatives because, in reality, conservatives too nowadays would moslty reject the “place of the woman is in the kitchen” mindset, but working from home can salvage this “traditional” idea of the role of women while not really blocking a woman’s career (ideally).
So it seems more a case of conservatives accepting a progressive point of view but then trying to claim it as a conservative one (from 1450 no less).

From this point of view this marks a progressive victory.


J, not that one 08.11.23 at 9:44 pm

Answered my own question (well not whether it was worth asking). She’s someone who by her telling didn’t learn how to be a proper woman until she was in her 30s at which point she embraced the conservative religious view of women’s role and devoted herself to a Christian understanding of marriage, and apparently to a career writing propaganda for that role. (Who moreover thinks Alex Jones and Russell Brand have a point when they blame the government for chemically emasculating males.) An Anglo-Catholic heterosexual
Paglia without the wild youth or the writing ability, and exactly as dismal as that sounds, whose anecdotes are drawn from TikTok instead of anything more literary or academic. She does seem quite adept at collecting incompatible critiques of everything existing though.

Her “Lego” theory is a hoot; not clear she’s heard of kidney transplants or blood donations. I suppose it’s interesting if you’ve had friends who may have been so unfortunate as to be tempted in that direction; one has empathy up to the point, around where you remember why they’re no longer your friends.


J, not that one 08.12.23 at 5:25 pm

On a more contextually appropriate note, Harrington is unfair to Germaine Greer, who has the same criticisms of Friedan that Harrington does. There may be a narcissism of small differences effect there. Greer is coming from an actual working-class approach, while Harrington is simply taking men as “breadwinners” and thus as “workers” within capitalism, regardless of class, and appropriating a socialist argument from people she presumably thinks should be less uppity. I’m not even sure that she’s correct that Greer doesn’t go as far as she’d like in rejecting liberalism. It seems entirely like a matter of the language Greer uses to defend the position.

Incidentally, I don’t have a Substack account, but I like your most recent post on Foucault and Hegel.


Eric Schliesser 08.12.23 at 5:35 pm

Thank you J (not that one). Almost all of my Substack essays are free for the first two weeks.


bekabot 08.12.23 at 7:57 pm

J beat me to the punch — Harrington’s perspective is nothing new. Before Harrington there was Greer and the Italian countryside and (later) Greer and the African countryside, and before that, there was Margaret Meade and Samoa.

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