The genesis of gender

In a recent post, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with aspects of mainstream feminism (and male pro-feminism), as my own religious and political beliefs have gone through a process of change. I mentioned my interest in the work of a number of writers and thinkers who are attempting to develop an alternative, faith-based feminism, one that acknowledges the gains made by the women’s movement in the past century or so, but at the same time is critical of some of the directions taken by recent feminist thought. In particular, I mentioned the work of Erika Bachiochi, whose important book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published last year, makes a seminal contribution to this ongoing discussion, by recovering forgotten aspects of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and other feminist pioneers. I also mentioned the work of Abigail Favale, recently appointed as a professor at the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame, whose book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, was about to be published. I’ve now read Favale’s book and want to share a few thoughts about it, and extracts from it, in this post.

Favale’s book is very different to Bachiochi’s in a number of respects, and presents a contribution of rather a different kind to the development of an alternative feminism. Bachiochi is a legal scholar and a good deal of her focus is on developments in the law and public policy, whereas Favale has a background in the humanities and gender studies and is more concerned with offering a critique of aspects of contemporary feminist theory. In addition, while The Rights of Women is a more straightforwardly academic book, The Genesis of Gender, though grounded in a deep knowledge of academic theory, is aimed at a broader readership, and combines an extremely accessible analysis of ideas about gender with elements of the author’s personal story. It’s the story of a former teacher of gender studies, who was once a true believer in postmodern feminist theory, but whose conversion to Catholicism has led to a revaluation of those ideas, but by no means a complete disavowal of feminism.

A third difference is in the specific issues that each author chooses to foreground. Although her scope is much broader than this single issue, Bachiochi returns time and again to the vexed question of abortion. By contrast, although Favale does tackle the arguments surrounding abortion (particularly in the chapter entitled ‘Control’), she is primarily concerned to offer a critique of what she calls the ‘gender paradigm’ (and what others would describe as gender identity ideology) and its impact on the lives of women and children. A final important difference is that, whereas Bachiochi’s book, though clearly rooted in its author’s personal religious and ethical commitments, does not use explicitly religious arguments to make its case, Favale’s book, as evidenced by its subtitle, is clearly aimed at a predominantly Christian audience. In fact, the book’s aim could be said to be helping its Christian readers, who may have scant knowledge of or interest in the finer points of gender theory, understand current debates about gender identity – and at the same time presenting an alternative vision rooted in a deeply sacramental vision of the human person. 

Abigail Favale (via Twitter)

Having said that, The Genesis of Gender is something of a mixed bag of different kinds of writing, and there are certainly parts of it that a non-believing reader would find interesting and helpful. The book’s title has a double meaning and the text includes two very different origin stories. One, which will appeal mainly to readers who are believers, is a metaphorical reading of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. In a sense, Favale is reprising here the account provided by Edith Stein in her essay on ‘The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman’, which is referenced in the book. I like the way that, in Favale’s feminist reading of the creation story, the ‘dynamic of domination’ of men over women, and the sexual objectification of women by men, are seen as a ‘distortion’, rather than as part of the original plan. And I especially like the way Favale draws out from this narrative a sense of the fundamental goodness of human embodiment and of the sexed body in particular:

Sexual differentiation is not a mishap, but cause for celebration and wonder. This difference is good, our bodies are good, and both of these are an integral part of the created order, which is good. The emergence of man and woman from the sleep of nonbeing is not a footnote in our origin story: it’s the ecstatic culmination. There is more, if we dig deeper still…the body reveals the person. Our bodies are the visible reality through which we manifest our hidden, inner life. Each person’s existence is entirely unrepeatable, and our unique personhood can only be made known to others through the frame of our embodiment.

William Blake, ‘Endearments of Adam and Eve’ (1808)

This emphasis on the body revealing the person will have implications, later in the book, for Favale’s argument about gender theory. The other origin story in the book is, in fact, an account of the development of contemporary ideas about gender. Although inflected with its author’s profoundly Christian perspective, there is much here that secular readers concerned about current confusions around gender will find helpful. In a way, Favale is providing a shorter, more accessible version of the extensive and more philosophically informed narrative developed by Kathleen Stock in Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, published last year (which I would also highly recommend).

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve always found Favale’s account of the development of gender theory, as articulated in her articles and interviews, both persuasive and easy to follow. She reprises that story here, particularly in the chapter headed ‘Waves’, which is a kind of potted history of feminist ideas, and in the chapters on ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’, which offer a step-by-step account of how thinking on these topics has developed, and how one has come to be increasingly separated from the other.

However, although she is critical of some of the recent directions taken by feminist theory, warning of ‘the danger of embracing feminism unthinkingly and letting it become a totalising worldview,’ Favale remains committed to the basic tenets of a feminist approach and believes ‘there is also a danger is dismissing feminism too hastily, because that leaves important concerns unaddressed’. As she writes:

Despite feminism’s conquest of the mainstream, girls and women are constantly bombarded with images that objectify and degrade them. Depression, anxiety and self-harm are sky rocketing among preteen girls. That same demographic is, in exponential numbers, deciding to reject womanhood altogether and embrace a male identity. The questions that feminism seeks to address are still vital and relevant, even if the answers feminism provides are often self-defeating.

To these issues she might have added continuing concerns about gender-based violence, concerns which sadly have been highlighted recently, here in the UK, by the shocking murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, what Favale is keen to do is point out some of the ways in which, in her view, feminism has been blown off course. She maintains that the complete separation of notions of gender from the body and biology in contemporary gender theory can be traced back to developments in second wave feminism: 

[T]he gender paradigm is the Oedipal offspring of feminism – offspring because it is through feminist theory that the concept of gender has taken hold of our imagination, and Oedipal because like Oedipus’ murder of his own father, this concept has eroded the very foundation of feminism, turning ‘woman’ into an identity that can be freely appropriated by men, regardless of material reality. 

Judith Butler (via

However, it is with the ‘postmodern turn’ taken by feminist theory in the past half century that, according to Favale, things really began to unravel, and as in her earlier writings on this topic, she pins particular blame on the influential work of the eminent gender theorist Judith Butler: or more precisely, on the ways in which some of Butler’s key ideas, such as her notion of gender as performance, have percolated into popular thinking:

In my years reading and teaching Butler’s writing, I have never seen a student correctly grasp the full implications of her argument. They latch onto those aspects that are intelligible and jibe with their own experiences, and on the basis of that minimal confirmation, embrace the rest wholesale. This creates a phenomenon of what I call ‘trickle-down gender theory’: the widespread popular acceptance of ideas that spring from a worldview that most people…would reject. Because that worldview is never clearly articulated, it is smuggled onboard unseen.

Elaborating on this claim, Favale argues that students tend to respond positively to Butler’s idea of gender performativity ‘because there is a sense in which it is true.’ She continues:

Most people have had the experience of playing up their masculinity or femininity in order to conform to sex stereotypes. There is certainly a basic arbitrariness to some of the visible signals of sexual differences in terms of hairstyles and clothing, which vary from culture to culture. There is a sense in which all of us perform, or enact and embody, our sexed identity.

However, Favale argues that students, and others who use Butler to reinforce their arguments about gender identity, tend to overlook the more radical implications of her ideas:

She’s saying that sexed identity is only a performance, that there is no ‘real’ woman or man underneath the various cultural expressions. The cultural expressions themselves are merely creating an illusion that men and women exist.

One of Favale’s key arguments is that, although Butler is in a sense the godmother of gender identity ideology, that ideology in fact represents a profound misreading or reversal of her central ideas:

Judith Butler’s theories have arguably shaped the gender paradigm, but those theories morph once they are swept into the capricious winds of popular culture. For example, Butler’s early work, particularly her hit concept of performativity, does not align with the transgender narrative of having a gendered essence that is in the wrong body…This is an essentialist narrative, one that cuts against Butler’s denial of gender having any essence at all.

Much of what follows in the book is a working through of the implications of this wrong turn in gender theory, illustrated by sensitive accounts of conversations with young people caught up in the web of the ‘gender paradigm’. In sharing these personal narratives, Favale is concerned not to judge or to condemn, but rather to empathise and understand. She sees in the gender confusion experienced by an increasing number of young people, and especially young women, an underlying desire for healing and wholeness. As she writes: ‘There’s a holy side to every longing.’

As well as highlighting the often devastating consequences on young lives of the ‘gender paradigm’, Favale is also concerned to critique it on an intellectual level, and particularly its reinstatement of the essentialism against which feminists once fought:

Both narrow-minded traditionalists and postmodern genderists fall prey to the same error: defining manhood and womanhood by stereotypical caricatures and policing those stereotypes, assessing how well individuals conform, or fail to conform, to a fantasized ideal.  Part of countering the gender paradigm must be a greater openness to the variability within the categories of man and woman.

In the later chapters of her book, Favale presents an alternative vision, one informed by a recognition, rooted in Christian personalism, of the unique value of each human person, and a sense of the profound unity of body and soul. It’s a vision which resonates with phenomenological insights into the ‘expressive body’ and the sense of the living body as an ‘expressive whole’, which I discussed in the previous post. I’ll end with a quotation from Favale which crystallises this vision:

Our consideration of sex and gender must be attuned to the holistic and sacred reality of the person – the person as an integrated unity of body and soul. We must follow a path of contemplation that sees the various dimensions of personhood in order to receive the miracle of each person. This is a path that moves toward integration, from disorder to wholeness. The postmodern approach to sex and gender runs in the opposite direction, into fragmentation, a piecemeal self, where body and psyche and desire are split off from one another and rearrangeable – where the body is not the foundation of personal identity, but rather its lifeless tool. In contrast, the personalist approach allows us to see each human being as a person, rather than a collection of ever-proliferating labels, and, more importantly, to attune our awareness to the sacramentality of every human body.

Amen to that.


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