Rethinking Feminism (Part 1): Currents, crises and critiques

June 27, 2024

Rethinking Feminism (Part 1): Currents, crises and critiques


Dani Scarratt

Women’s issues are once again front and centre in our news feeds. Despite decades, even centuries of feminism, we are bombarded daily with high profile cases and disturbing statistics regarding sexual harassment, abuse, and domestic violence affecting women. Women continue to do the lion’s share of unpaid domestic and care work, and gender earnings gaps over lifetimes stubbornly persist. Transgender issues have sparked very public debates between feminists of different stripes, and reopened questions about what it is to be a woman, as activists seek to erase and/or emphasise sex differences. The ubiquity of internet porn in its multitudinous forms has reignited debates over whether sex work helps or harms the women who engage in it, and over its consequences more broadly. Explorations of intersectionality—how the disadvantages attaching to sex, race, class, etc. interact—have become more prominent. And alarmingly low birth rates across much of the globe have led to soul-searching about why young women (and men) are opting out of family life.

Has feminism failed women, or has it not yet gone far enough? Or do we perhaps need a new women’s movement to address the issues of today?

Diverse feminisms

Feminism is not a single unified movement, as will become increasingly obvious over the course of this article. If there was a time when even a widely accepted answer could be given to the question ‘what is feminism’ it is well past. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Kirsten Birkett wrote:

There is hardly a feminist movement today… no united battlefront… Hundreds of lobby groups and individuals follow their own goals, and, as long as these goals somehow impinge upon women, they are able to attach the label ‘feminist’. Within this label can be found totally contradictory ideas.[i]  

The years since Birkett wrote have seen feminism become even more splintered. The one thing everyone agrees on when it comes to feminism is that there is a great deal of disagreement about what it is! Perhaps at the highest level of generalisation we might find some consensus. If we said that feminism seeks to bring about conditions in which women are not socially, politically or economically disadvantaged by comparison with men most ‘feminists’ would probably be happy to sign up. But as soon as the conversation starts getting specific about what it looks like to be a thriving woman, or what equality with men looks like, or which conditions need to change for us to get to any of these destinations, conflict quickly surfaces.

Re-evaluating feminisms

In the midst of all this, the feminisms of the past are being put under the microscope by a growing number of women who have begun to question whether ideas they once put their faith in are actually in the best interests of women.

These women cannot be simply categorized as sitting to the right or left of politics. Some are religious, many aren’t but are sympathetic to religious values. They are well-educated and work in the knowledge economy. Many are married with children.

Three such women are Abigail Favale, Louise Perry, and Mary Harrington. Each studied gender theory at university and became deeply committed to the ideology of liberal feminism. Each experienced a personal ‘crisis’ that led them to critically re-evaluate this commitment and ultimately conclude that liberal feminism, despite having done some good, has not been in the best interests of women. And as a result, each calls for a new, better feminism.

This article focuses on their thinking as it appears in their recently published books. Of course, there is much more to say than can be covered here, and I encourage those interested to read the books for themselves. Part 1 of the article summarizes their main arguments, together with the key historical and intellectual context provided. Part 2, to be published in the next edition of Case Quarterly, will look more closely at how this new movement is taking shape, what advice it offers women, and how it relates to Christianity.


Abigail Favale

Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender (Ignatius, 2022) offers insights into feminism from several angles. As an academic with expertise in gender theory, she is able to identify, explain and critique the intellectual underpinnings of later feminisms. As an American, she provides important background to the women’s movement in the US, unlike Perry and Harrington who write from a British perspective. And as a committed Roman Catholic, she has insight into the relationship between feminist ideologies and Christian theology. 

Four Waves

The status quo prior to the women’s movement meant ‘women were generally not granted the right to vote, to own property, to serve on juries or be witnesses in court, to have custodial rights over their own children, to stand for election, or to attend most colleges and universities’ (p56).

The first feminist wave (in the US) was connected with Christian revival. Large numbers of middle class women were converted and became committed to social justice causes, in particular the abolition of slavery and the temperance movement. The latter was driven by the needs of women and children, as many men were caught up in a culture of alcohol abuse and failing in their responsibilities to their families. Women sought political representation to fight these battles, and the first wave concluded with the achievement of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.

The second wave arrived in the wake of World War II, itself a major cultural disruption as men went to war and women took on a host of new roles in their absence. These changes proved difficult to reverse when men returned from war and women were redirected into domesticity. In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan wrote of the misery of (middle class) women confined to the home, and the Women’s Liberation movement was born.

The movement sought a much wider range of social and legal changes than the first wavers had in the quest for equality with men, the major difference being the centrality of reproductive freedom to their cause. Contraception was readily embraced—initially to aid family planning. Abortion too became part of the platform, but only after pressure from a male-led pro-abortion movement, and its inclusion led many women to abandon the movement. For those who remained, contraception and abortion both became inseparable from the push for sexual freedom.[ii]

Favale identifies a third feminist wave arising in the 1990s out of conflicts within feminism over whether sex work and porn were forces of oppression or liberation for women. The new wave took a ‘sex positive’ line: consent became the benchmark of sexual permissibility; postmodernist Judith Butler argued influentially for a radically socially constructivist account of gender; and individual choice and self-expression became even more prominent.

The fourth and final wave (and Favale acknowledges that feminisms are now less wave-like and more ‘a roiling ocean, fed by distinct streams’ (p60)) emerged with the digital revolution, and this is where we are today. Some existing trends intensify in the online context—like diversity, intersectionality, and disconnecting gender from bodily sex. But there are also reactions against earlier trends. Increased awareness of sexual abuse, harassment, and domestic violence as a result of social media phenomena like #MeToo has meant earlier anti-censorship and rebelliousness tendencies have been replaced with a ‘new puritanism’ of strictly prescribed and policed codes of speech and behaviour.

Three intellectual currents

Favale argues that today’s ‘gender paradigm’ is indebted to three strands of intellectual feminism: existentialist, postmodernist, and intersectional. The earliest, and least well understood today is existentialist feminism, which entered the mainstream through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949; translated into English in 1953). It was a major influence on Friedan, through whom the ideas of ‘domesticity and female biology as domains of enslavement’ entered feminism, and continue to influence much feminism today.  

According to de Beauvoir, people are caught between the brute facts of their existence and their capacity to transcend these through creative activity. To give in to the brute facts is a moral failing. To force others to do so is oppression. And for de Beauvoir, the brute facts of female biology (fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding) are towering barriers to transcendence. A woman’s body is, therefore, inherently oppressive, whereas a man is easily able to transcend his bodily constraints through creative work in the world. Favale summarises what she calls de Beauvoir’s misogyny: ‘In order for a woman to create herself, she must repudiate herself. She must recognize the feminine as devoid of meaning and turn her gaze, her aspirations, towards the masculine ideal’ (p65).

The idea that women’s fertility is responsible for women’s oppression (though with eugenicist rather than existentialist trappings in this case) can also be found a few decades earlier in the writings of Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement in the US. The irony is hard to miss: for Sanger, de Beauvoir, and the many feminists who have wittingly or unwittingly followed their lead, ‘freedom for women is cast as freedom from femaleness’ (p69).

In the 1990s, Judith Butler imported into feminism the postmodern idea that ‘what we perceive to be “real” is actually a fiction that is created and enforced by institutional power’ (p74). And since power is always oppressive, the appropriate response to the categories we think of as ‘real’ is to destabilise them by undermining the power structures they depend on. As a gender theorist, it is the categories associated with heteronormativity that are in Butler’s firing line. One weapon in her arsenal is technology, and she advocates denormalising heterosexual reproduction by developing reproductive technologies to replace it (p75). Another is the intentional manipulation of language, ‘creating new pronouns and mandating their use, constantly changing the definitions of terms like gender, continually proliferating new categories and subcategories of identity and desire’ (p76).

The final intellectual current Favale identifies as contributing to today’s gender paradigm is intersectionality—the idea that disadvantages attaching to different marginalized identities intersect to create more nuanced categories of disadvantage. A poor disabled woman, for example, confronts a different set of disadvantages to a gay black man, or a white middle-class transgender person. As Favale notes, this idea in and of itself is quite sensible and potentially helpful in addressing genuine difficulties people might face. However, in practice it has led to categorizing people as sets of identities rather than caring for them as individuals, or at the other extreme, as people with a shared humanity.


For years, Favale taught gender studies at university level, promoting the ideas outlined above to the new generations of students, until ‘something terrible happened. My conscience started to rebel’ (p11). She goes on:

The world I’d inhabited comfortably as a feminist academic started to make less sense… I was suddenly plagued by unbidden questions, noticing gaps and inconsistencies that had never troubled me before. Over the semester, it became increasingly clear to me—in little epiphanies of horror—that I’d been living in a cave for over a decade, mistaking it for reality. (pp11f)

Intellectual and moral integrity caused Favale to recognize that she could not go on uncritically teaching the gender paradigm she had lost confidence in, and she was forced to reassess what, if anything, was good and salvageable, and what should be discarded. At the same time, she was taking steps towards Roman Catholicism, and weighing up how (if at all) her new theological beliefs could be integrated with what remained of her gender theory.

The remaining chapters of The Genesis of Gender unpack the results of Favale’s reassessment. She pinpoints the fundamental divide between the gender paradigm and Christianity in how each understand the nature of reality. The gender paradigm rejects the idea of a creator who imbues things with meaning and purpose, leaving us in a world where ‘Reality, gender, sex—everything, even truth—is socially constructed’ (p82). If we construct our own meaning, seeking to live along the grain of reality is nonsensical. ‘Freedom no longer means being free to live in harmony with our nature, to fulfill our inherent potential; freedom is simply the pursuit of unfettered choice, endlessly pushing past limits and norms’(p83).

Favale argues that the implications of falsely believing that we are free from limits imposed by a creator and our own natures has led to a raft of destructive outcomes. Seeing sex as primarily recreational, rather than procreational, for instance, contributes to a consumerist view of sex, the increased objectification and abuse of women, and high rates of abortion. Seeing our bodies as enemies, separate from who we ‘really’ are, in turn leads to many forms of self-harm—particularly for young women—from eating disorders to the skyrocketing demand for gender transition interventions.

Favale is clear that she doesn’t reject everything feminism has given us. In fact she goes out of her way to urge people to think carefully and resist totalising ‘all or nothing’ judgements. But for the reasons outlined above, she is also adamant that the feminisms informed by today’s gender paradigm will not help women, but harm them. She believes it’s time for a new feminism that takes into account what it is to be an embodied female human created by God, and doesn’t fight against it.

Louise Perry

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s was wildly successful in upendingnorms around sexual behaviour across the West and beyond in a few short decades. The contention that it has been wildly unsuccessful in living up to its promise of improving people’s lives—especially women’s lives—is the subject of Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Polity Press, 2022).

Of course, feminism was not the sole cause of the sexual revolution. Freud had elevated the significance of sex, and claimed it was unhealthy to repress sexual desires. Liberalism, with its emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy as the ultimate good, had been driving change in a whole host of arenas since the Enlightenment; adding sex to the list was no great leap. Moreover, many feminists of the first wave would have opposed the sexual revolution wholesale, and there was deep disagreement within the second wave over some elements, such as abortion.

Yet what was to become known as second wave feminism was integral to the sexual revolution, and directly championed by influential feminists like Shulamith Firestone and Germaine Greer. They argued that once you factor out reproduction, sex is just like any other leisure activity and needn’t be restricted to marriage. Further, the apparent differences between the sexes regarding sexual desire and behaviour are socially constructed, not baked in. So if the risk of pregnancy could be removed, and with it the taboos this imposes on women, it would become evident that women’s sexuality is no different to men’s.

The advent of reliable contraception in the 1960s allowed this ideology to become flesh, and the sexual revolution sprang to life. The West had embarked on a massive social experiment (without ethics approval) that would act as an effective test of its hypotheses. Women and men alike could now enjoy having as much sex as they wanted with as many people as they wanted with no ill consequences. Right?

Well, no. As it turns out, Perry argues, the hypotheses were not right. The sexual revolution has created a context in which women are now expected—by men and by themselves—to mirror male sexuality, but the promised ‘free-love utopia’ has not eventuated. The ideology failed to map onto biological reality.


The turning point in Perry’s thinking was reading an account of rape by an evolutionary biologist. At the time, she was working at a rape crisis centre. Her background in gender studies had taught her that men engage in sexual violence in order to perpetuate patriarchal dominance and keep women in a state of intimidation. On this view, rape is not driven by biological factors, but by politics and power; its eradication therefore lies in countering it through education and creating alternative political and power structures. Yet faced with the reality of sexual violence every day, and conversant with the statistics, Perry was forced to acknowledge that, despite being very controversial, evolutionary biology provided a much better account of the data than gender theory, grounding the impulse to rape in sexual desire, an effective strategy for ensuring one’s genes are passed on.  

This realization left Perry ‘disconsolate and oddly satisfied’ (p23): satisfied because it made sense of what she was seeing; disconsolate because a behaviour based in biology is much harder to eradicate than a learnt one. And if the biological account was correct, the advice she and other liberal feminists had been giving women was not. This has significant flow on effects, particularly for the wellbeing of young women, and compelled her to investigate further.

Sex differences

A deep dive into the research convinced Perry that men and women are different when it comes to sexual behaviour. The ‘sociosexuality gap’ is a globally robust finding that men tend to be inclined to casual sex with multiple partners without relational investment, whereas the majority of women want sex within the context of a committed relationship. (As with all sex differences Perry makes the important qualification that these occur at the population level. Individuals may not conform to sex norms, but the existence of outliers does not undermine the existence of the norm.)

The default sexual norm in a society will tend to prioritise either men’s or women’s preferences: it can encourage women to suppress their inclinations and cater to the desires of men (e.g., the current hook-up culture); or it can encourage men to suppress their sociosexuality to accommodate what women want. While this might look like a zero-sum game, Perry argues that the costs are not symmetrical. This is because from an evolutionary perspective, there are two effective reproductive strategies for men, with corresponding biological instincts, not just one as there is for women.

What Perry calls ‘cad’ mode for men involves sex with many partners without investment in partners or offspring. From an evolutionary perspective, this strategy is to have as many children as possible in the hope that a few survive despite lack of fatherly input. ‘Dad’ mode involves suppressing the sociosexual instinct and committing to a sexual partner and offspring. This results in fewer children, but their chance of survival is increased by the father’s investment.

In the ‘cad’ scenario, it is women—and men who don’t find it easy to attract partners—who bear the cost. And, Perry argues, this is the scenario the sexual revolution has promoted. The resulting damage suffered by women is documented in often-shocking detail throughout the book. It includes pressure to engage in unwanted sex, unwanted pregnancy, exposure to abuse, shame, being treated as an object, disrespect, and loneliness. It is impossible to ignore the irony that this was the option championed by many liberal feminists in an effort to improve the lot of women.

The ‘dad’ scenario has men bearing the cost by suppressing their sociosexual instinct and investing in family. But because ‘dad mode’ is also a biologically grounded male instinct, Perry maintains it is less costly for men to suppress their sociosexuality than it is for women to forgo their instinct for sexual commitment. After all, many men naturally engage in both modes over their lifetime, settling down with a family after sowing their wild oats. And to add insult to female injury, men prefer women who have not been promiscuous when it comes to choosing a long-term partner. Women who satisfy the male’s desire for casual sex thus get short-changed in both cad and dad modes.

Perry is adamant that as a society, we must always acknowledge and accept that there will be outliers and allow avenues for their flourishing. But at the same time, we cannot pretend that norms don’t exist. She concludes that a feminism that truly has women’s interests at heart will take population-level biological differences between men and women seriously—and this is a feminism we need now.

Mary Harrington

Mary Harrington tells her story in Feminism against Progress (Forum, 2023). Throughout her 20s, she was deeply committed to what she describes as ‘Progress Theology’—the doctrine that ever-increasing individual freedoms and autonomy are desirable, possible, and the trajectory along which history is headed. Of course, this ideal of progress has been around for a long time, but it was turbocharged by postmodernism’s ideas about the socially constructed nature of reality (including the self), and by rapidly developing technologies. Constructing reality in line with our individual preferences, and being freed from constraints that previously seemed intractable, were starting to appear possible in areas previously undreamt of.


It was against this backdrop that Harrington became a mother:

Up to the point where I got pregnant, I’d taken for granted the notion that men and women are substantially the same … and progress meant broadly the same thing for both: the equal right to self-realisation, shorn of culturally imposed obligations, expectations, stereotypes or constraints. The experience of being pregnant, then a new mother, blew this out of the water. I’d bought uncritically 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. (p14)

Prior to having a baby, Harrington had understood feminism to be fuelled by the ‘progress’ narrative: it was in women’s interests to free them to be more self-determining and independent. Her experience of interdependent motherhood—being responsible for a dependent infant and herself dependent on her husband—was at loggerheads with this vision of her good. More confronting still, she wanted the stay-at-home-mum life feminism had told her was oppressive and had liberated her from.

Harrington was forced to rethink what it meant to be feminist. She remained committed to feminism ‘in the sense that I care about women’s interests and think these are often sidelined’ (p13), but had become apostate in regard to ‘progress’. The tension led her to examine the link between women’s interests and progress more carefully: could there be a feminism that valued interdependence and motherhood?

In researching the history of feminism to answer this question, Harrington discovered that women’s movements can be better explained as women reacting to changing economic and technological conditions than as the pursuit of an ideological vision of freedom. These new conditions altered the status quo, and impelled women to renegotiate their place in society.

Response to industrialisation

Industrialisation changed the way typical households divided labour, from the interdependent agrarian household where everyone contributed, to the individual—usually male—employee going out to work for an employer.[iii] As a result, many wives withdrew into their homes to focus on domestic and care duties, and became dependent on their husband’s wage. Mothers who needed to work to provide for the family were now forced to do so outside the home in conditions often hostile to their caring responsibilities. In both scenarios—withdrawal, or a workplace no longer conducive to caring for children—the situation of women and especially mothers was made more vulnerable to the failure of the husband to provide, whether through irresponsibility or incapacity. It became clear that the previous order of women’s legal, economic, and political entitlements needed to change so they could meet their responsibilities in these new circumstances. Changes of this first wave of women’s activism included property and inheritance rights, child custody, workplace protections, freedom to speak publicly, and eventually, women’s suffrage.

Harrington also discovered that not one, but two distinct strands of what would retroactively be called feminism emerged in response to this new economic order. The ‘feminists of freedom’ recognised the difficulties women faced due their dependents and dependence, and argued that the solution was to give women the kind of economic agency men had. ‘Feminists of care’ however, leaned into these relational distinctives and argued for the high moral status and social significance of bringing up children and managing the domestic sphere—what became known as the ‘cult of domesticity’.

Harrington notes that while each approach was important, neither solved everything. Removing legal barriers to work, property ownership and inheritance was helpful for many, but it didn’t make working women’s caring duties go away, and out-of-home work meant they either had to neglect them or pay others to do them—both of which created a whole new set of social problems. And while women with respectful and responsible husbands on a good income could thrive at home without economic agency, praising the value of domestic work did little for women married to incapacitated, neglectful, incompetent, or abusive men with no other means of income.

These two strands of feminism continued to develop alongside each other until cheap and reliable contraception came onto the scene, and feminism ‘morphed from a movement with both communitarian and libertarian strands, to one focused almost entirely on individual freedom, imagined as the property of functionally interchangeable “humans”’ (p16). The story of feminism as a movement that valued interdependence, motherhood, domesticity and care is now all but forgotten in mainstream feminist histories.

Response to the pill

The role of contraception in kickstarting the sexual revolution, and its flow-on effects for sexual relationships, have been discussed above. Acknowledging but moving beyond this, Harrington shows how the widespread adoption of the pill flattened differences between men and women, and society reorganized itself around the assumption that infertility was the female default, and men and women were functionally interchangeable for most purposes. Expectations and policies have encouraged women towards paid work and independence for decades and now, despite many women wanting to stay with their young children, being a stay-at-home-mother is commonly viewed as an embarrassment, or even socially unacceptable—especially when children reach school age. At best, it is a temporary hiatus in one’s more significant productive work—the ‘motherhood’ penalty.

Progress had always been about liberation, but the pill was the first step on the path of what Harrington calls bio-libertarianism, freeing people from the limits of their own bodies by changing those bodies, rather than the conditions around them. In the pill she finds the beginning of a transhumanist revolution or ‘cyborg era’ which has succeeded the industrial era. The pill, she argues, is the thin edge of the wedge that is splitting the reality of our bodies away from our ideas of who we want to be. We are heading into a world where bodies are nothing more than collections of ‘Meat Lego’ components that can be disassembled and reassembled, sold, bought, and upgraded at will. If (as the progress story has it) there is no such thing as human nature that is essentially embodied, subject to hard limits, and inherently valuable, such things can be done with impunity.

Only, as having a baby brought forcibly home to Harrington, there is such a thing as human nature—a body-mind unity that comes in male and female forms. And she sees plenty of evidence that going against this nature does incur a cost, and that these costs often disproportionately impact women, be it through hook-up culture; the devaluation of motherhood; or the denigration of embodiment.

For all these reasons, Harrington argues that we once again need a feminism that seeks the good of women in all their female reproductive distinctiveness and not one that forces them to reject or suppress it.

*            *            *

Favale, Perry, and Harrington each argue that feminisms of the recent past have, in many ways, failed women. The doctrines they identify as flawed include the assumption that there are no important differences between men and women; the belief that individual liberty is the greatest good; that interdependence, marriage, motherhood, and embodiment inherently hinder women’s wellbeing; and that attempting to subvert the proper functioning of our bodies with technology is unproblematic. They conclude that these errors have given rise to all manner of harms to women, harms which often extend to men and children, and that it’s time for a new women’s movement.

Part 2 of this article, to be published in Case Quarterly #70, will take a look at the movement that is emerging in response to these critiques and calls for a new, better, feminism.


Dr Dani Scarratt has a background in philosophy and is Assistant Director of CASE.


[i] Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of Feminism (Matthias Media, 2000), p54.

[ii] For a detailed account of this by someone who was personally involved, see Sue Ellen Browder, Subverted: How I helped the sexual revolution hijack the women’s movement (Ignatius Press, 2015).

[iii] Erika Bachiochi provides a more detailed account of this historical argument in her book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a lost vision (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021).

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.