(and what it might mean for men)
Towards the end of my interview for the Now and Men podcast last year, I was asked whether I considered myself a feminist. I think I dodged the question and gave a fairly wishy-washy, non-committal answer. Why was that? After all, it’s only a few years since I criticised men’s rights activist Glen Poole, on this very blog, for describing himself as a ‘non-feminist’. In response to the podcast interviewer’s question, I offered a couple of excuses for my indecisiveness. Firstly, I suggested that, in common with many other men working on gender equality issues, I’d never been sure if ‘feminist’ was a label that men had any right to claim for themselves, and that instead I’d always preferred to describe myself as ‘pro-feminist’.
More importantly, I also argued that since ‘there are so many debates within feminism at the moment, you’d have to define what you meant by “feminist”’. Which you may think was a weaselly way of avoiding the question. But I think I was right to highlight the ways in which, even since that online spat with Poole back in 2015, significant fissures have opened up within feminism that make it important to be clear which kind of feminism, exactly, you’re aligning yourself with. The most recent division, and the most ferocious in terms of rhetoric, has been between feminists who adhere to the currently fashionable gender identity ideology, and those who believe that same ideology represents a threat to women’s hard-won sex-based rights.
But if feminism has changed in recent years, then I have to be honest and admit that so have I: see my last post for a rather lengthy explanation of how and why. Some time ago, on my political blog Martin In The Margins, I wrote a post setting out my growing discomfort with some aspects of contemporary feminism – and male pro-feminist activism – as my personal political and philosophical views had begun to shift. I’d become increasingly concerned that support for a feminist or pro-feminist agenda had come to mean signing up to positions that clashed both with my new political centrism and, more importantly, with my rediscovered religious faith and support for the ‘consistent ethic of life’ that is central to Catholic social teaching (as well as to some branches of secular humanist thought, it must be said).
Now, I realise that in proposing that there might be any kind of rapprochement between feminism and Catholicism, I’m risking the ridicule of many of my readers – those for whom the Catholic church is the arch-enemy of feminism, the sexist institution par excellence, a major part of the problem, when it comes to women’s oppression, and certainly with nothing useful to contribute to the solution. I get it: after all, this was one of the factors that kept me away from the Church for much of my life. However, I believe passionately that my rediscovered faith – and in particular the Christian personalist philosophy to which I find myself increasingly drawn – demands a radical commitment to the equal dignity and value of women and men, and opposition to all forms of prejudice and discrimination based on sex (as also on ethnicity, class, age, and so forth). But finding a way to connect the two sets of beliefs has often proven difficult, and identifying writers and thinkers who have trodden that same path, without ending up either renouncing their support for feminism on the one hand, or denying or watering down the truths of their faith on the other, has been by no means easy.
So it was with relief and delight that I eventually stumbled on the work of campaigning organisations like New Wave Feminists, whose slogan is ‘consistent non-violence from the womb to the tomb’; Feminists for Life, who claim that their principles are ‘shaped by the core feminist values of justice, non-discrimination, and non-violence’; and Feminists Choosing Life of New York, who state that their campaigning work ‘draws connections between the root causes of violence, inequality and the social forces that dehumanize’; as well as more avowedly secular ‘consistent life ethic’ organisations like Rehumanize International, which campaigns against the death penalty and unjust wars, as well as against abortion and euthanasia.
Meanwhile, on the academic front, I’ve been heartened to discover the work of writers like Erika Bachiochi, who is a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, Massachussetts, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Bachiochi’s book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published in 2021, is a seminal text in the emerging field of what one might term ‘consistent life ethic’ feminism. The book begins by revisiting the legacy of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, uncovering a moral vision in her philosophy which the author argues has been abandoned by contemporary feminism, in favour of the relentless pursuit of individual autonomy. Bachiochi argues for the renewal of a ‘dignitarian’ and communitarian feminism, regarding abortion as a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the social and economic relations that oppress women, and especially poor women. As Bachiochi argues in an article published earlier this month:
The justice we need today would look to both protect and promote the health and well-being of unborn children and their mothers and ensure that all women, especially the poor, have the financial resources, medical support, and workplace accommodations they need to care for their children once they are born…It will demand the father’s participation (which will mean securing good work for working-class men).
Another key figure in the drive to create a faith-informed feminism is Abigail Favale, Dean of Humanities and Professor of English at George Fox University, who, to my mind, has provided some of the clearest and most accessible explanations of the ways in which gender theory has developed and where it may have lost its way. Favale’s much-anticipated book, The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory, will be published later this month, but she has already shared her thinking in talks and interviews and has published some incisive articles, including one in which she expertly traces the history of gender theory via the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, suggesting that contemporary gender identity ideology is ‘a trickle-down version of Butlerian performativity’ (though elsewhere I’ve heard Favale argue that this ideology actually involves a misreading of Butler). For Favale, one of the contributions that a Christian, and specifically a Catholic incarnational perspective, can make to thinking about gender, is to reinstate the importance of the body, as a response to the disembodied idealism of gender identity ideology. She argues that ‘we must “reincarnate” gender somehow, reattach gender to its generative, etymological root (gens).’ Favale continues:
Anchoring gender identity in the sexed body not only reaffirms the dignity of the body and the goodness of sexual complementarity—it also arguably expands the confines of “man” and “woman” to lived instantiations beyond stereotypes…. Masculinity is simply the way of being a man in the world, and is thus uniquely inflected by each individual personality… This embodied, personalist understanding of masculinity and femininity reaffirms the meaning of the sexed body, without collapsing cultural stereotypes into natural categories.
A third commentator worth attending to is Leah Libresco Sargeant, who recently launched a Substack under the title Other Feminisms, which sets out to provide a newsletter ‘for women who are an uncomfortable fit within present-day feminism’, and in which she argues that ‘the world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way around’, which will mean ‘valuing interdependence and vulnerability, rather than idealizing autonomy.’
Leah Libresco Sargeant, Abigail Favale and Erika Bachiochi at a panel discussion of ‘The Dignity of the Sexed Body’, University of Notre Dame, 23 November 2021 (via catholicnewsagency.com)
It’s notable that all three of these writers are converts to Catholic Christianity who have refused to renounce the feminism they formerly espoused or to be seduced by traditionalist forms of gender essentialism. Understandably, their priority is to explore the implications of their faith-based feminist vision for women. Nevertheless, they have things of interest to say about men and masculinity along the way. Bachiochi’s recovery of Wollstonecraft’s ‘virtue’ feminism certainly has some stark moral implications for men’s sexual behaviour. But in addition, and refreshingly, from my perspective as a man researching men and care, all three women appear committed to promoting men’s participation in care within families, and in society more generally. For example, in an interview with Favale, Bachiochi argues for generous family leave to encourage fathers’ involvement in caring for their children, while in a conversation between Sargeant and Favale, the former contends that we don’t talk enough about men wanting to take of children, simply because they love being fathers and not just because the mother is working, to which Favale responds by describing her own husband’s work as a stay-at-home dad as ‘one of the most beautiful things about his masculinity’ and as something genuinely counter-cultural. As it happens, Leah Sargeant’s husband Alexi recently published an article about men and fatherhood and, in linking to it on Twitter, Leah shared this lovely photo of him with their two young children:
The suggestions by these writers of the implications for men of a faith-based feminism are necessarily brief and undeveloped, and there’s certainly work to be done in exploring further what Bachiochi’s ‘dignitarian’ feminism, or Favale’s ‘incarnational’ approach to gender, or Sargeant’s embryonic ‘other feminism’ might mean for thinking about masculinity. It’s work that I’d like to contribute to, and I’d be interested to identify others who may be thinking or working along similar lines.
In my quest to find other academics and writers who might have something to contribute in this area, I was pleased recently to make contact with María Guadalupe Rodríguez García, a Mexican-born researcher whose research for her Masters degree in Social Anthropology at Aberdeen University explored the concept of machismo through the lens of Christian personalism. María now works some of the time for the International Institute of Culture and Gender, for whom she recently coordinated an online course, ‘Towards an adequate anthropology of masculinity’.
Me with María Guadalupe Rodríguez García in London, 20 June 2022
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Maria in person, when she was passing through London, and I was delighted to discover that our ideas and interests around masculinity, personalism and research methods converged in many respects. We discussed a number of ways of taking things forward, through academic research and writing, and possibly developing a network of researchers working on issues of men and masculinity from the perspective of Christian personalism and a consistent ethic of life. If that includes you, dear reader, then I hope you’ll get in touch.