Exploring masculinity interactively online

Last week saw the publication online of the interactive resource ‘Being a boy’, which I had a hand in developing. The resource can be found on OpenLearn, the Open University’s free learning site, whose stated aim is to ‘break down barriers to education by reaching millions of learners each year, through free educational resources.’ Those resources provide bite-sized learning experiences which offer a taster for The Open University’s main programme of courses and qualifications, while also being complete in themselves. They also constitute a channel for showcasing the university’s research and making it accessible to a broad audience. I’ve contributed to the development of a number of these resources during my time with the university, a full list of which you can find here.

‘Being a boy’ is the third in a series of interactive learning resources on the topic of men and masculinity that we’ve developed over the past year. The ideas for the series originated with colleagues in the OpenLearn team, and it was our faculty media fellow at the time, Mathijs Lucassen, who suggested me for the role of academic consultant on the project. The way the process works is that the designated academic sketches out some content ideas, based on their own and others’ research, and the OpenLearn team then organises that content into a basic structure for the interactive resource. In the case of the masculinity series, we decided to begin each episode with a brief animation, followed by an interactive quiz, and then some pages summarising key research on issues related to the topic. The media company Damn Fine Media was commissioned to develop the animations, for which I wrote the scripts, which were then voiced by the actor Sanjeev Kohli

Sanjeev Kohli (via imdb.com)

The first resource in the series, titled ‘What makes a good father?’ , was launched to coincide with Fathers’ Day in 2022. The animation posed a series of questions about where shared notions of fatherhood come from, while the quiz asked learners to select what they thought were the key characteristics of a good father, the feedback suggesting how these reflected traditional or modern views of fatherhood. There were no ‘right’ answers to the quiz: the aim was to encourage people to think about how ideas about fathers’ roles have changed over time and how they vary between cultures. The web pages that followed the quiz focused on three key issues surrounding contemporary fatherhood: absent fathers, young dads, and identity and loss, each of them drawing either on research we’ve conducted at The Open University, or on prominent studies from elsewhere.

The second resource in the series, ‘What does it mean, to be a man?’ appeared earlier this year and took a broader focus, exploring changing and diverse notions of masculinity. Once again, the animation posed a number of questions, while the interactive quiz asked learners to select the characteristics they associated with being a ‘real’ man, the feedback indicating whether the qualities selected reflected traditional, modern, or even ‘toxic’ notions of masculinity. Despite the controversy that often surrounds the latter term, I was keen to tackle it head-on and to suggest that, although masculinity is not in itself ‘toxic’ (a common misunderstanding of the term), my own research, particularly with young men, suggests that some aspects of male identity can be harmful to women, and indeed to men themselves. Building on this, the topic pages that followed explored men’s mental health and wellbeing, men’s attitudes to gender equality, and the difficult issue of men, abuse and violence, again drawing on recent research in which I’ve been involved, as well as other landmark studies of these topics.

‘Being a boy’ is the third and final resource in the series, the animation taking as its starting-point the media rhetoric around the so-called ‘problem’ of boys. This time the quiz was slightly different, being a test of learners’ knowledge of some of the key facts about boys’ experiences of issues such as education, health, violence and family relationships. The three linked topic pages that followed focussed on boys and education; role models; and boys, sexism and gender equality. This time, I made more use of work by other researchers and writers, including Richard Reeves’ important book Of Boys and Men, which I wrote about in this post.

This latest resource is the one I’m happiest with. It took me a while to get used to the novel way of working that producing this kind of interactive resource entails. I was worried to begin with about the danger of simplifying the findings from research, or giving the impression that there are straightforward answers to the questions we were posing. I also became more confident, as time went on, about suggesting improvements, or highlighting things with which I wasn’t completely happy. Looking back on the first two episodes in the series, I’d certainly want to do a number of things differently now. In the case of ‘Boys will be boys’, I think we got the tone about right and mostly resisted falling into simplistic representations of the issues. Even so, at least one Twitter user has already responded critically to the animation, suggesting that it denies the important role that fathers play in boys’ lives: in fact, the video simply poses the question as to whether positive male role models are essential for boys’ wellbeing. The purpose, once again, is to encourage learners to challenge their own thinking and to consider all the evidence before making up their minds.

Despite my concerns about over-simplification, I believe that interactive resources of this kind can play a useful role, opening up bodies of knowledge and ways of understanding to those who are usually denied access to them, encouraging people to reflect critically on their own beliefs and why they hold them, at the same time hopefully promoting a more nuanced and informed debate about contentious issues such as masculinity, identity and equality.

Embodied caregiving: a critique of feminist care ethics

One of the many good things about the new online journal Fairer Disputations (see this post) is that, as well as publishing innovative content on the emerging new (or sex-realist) feminism, it also aggregates relevant articles from a wide range of sources, some of them from a while ago, making it possible to catch up with interesting pieces that you may have missed when they were first published. Recently, the site linked to a 2016 article which somehow passed me by when it first appeared, by Erika Bachiochi, author of the much-praised book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, which I’ve mentioned in a number of posts on this blog.

Erika Bachiochi (via americamagazine.org)

Bachiochi’s article, entitled ‘Embodied Caregiving’, is basically a critical dialogue with Eva Feder Kittay’s 1999 book Love’s Labour: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, a key text in feminist care ethics. I really liked the article, as it manages to articulate, more coherently than I’ve been able to, some of the ambivalence that I’ve felt for some time about what Bachiochi calls ‘care feminism’. I should say that Kittay’s book is one that I’ve always found enormously sympathetic, and for me she is one of the more appealing feminist writers on care, her writing obviously deeply influenced by her personal experience of caring for a profoundly disabled daughter. As I noted in a post a couple of years ago, Kittay’s emphasis on the inescapability of relationships of dependency, and her critique of a view of human experience that privileges autonomy over interdependence, shares much in common with the thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre, and indeed with that of Bachiochi herself and other ‘new’ feminists. I was privileged to hear Eva Kittay speak at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, in 2018.

However, while noting these synergies, and praising the work done by Kittay and other ‘care feminists’ to ‘shift the feminist paradigm from a vision of sexual equality that prizes autonomy above all toward a view that embraces human vulnerability and ennobles caregiving’, Bachiochi argues that Kittay’s ethic of care ‘ultimately falls short’. One way in which it does this, in Bachiochi’s opinion, is by its support for abortion, which she sees as in tension with Kittay’s emphasis on mothers’ ‘special duty to nurture and protect the vulnerable unborn child’, a moral claim that ‘arises….out of a relationship between one in need and one who is situated to meet the need’. Bachiochi maintains that a ‘pro-choice position’, though ‘common among feminists…runs counter to the logic of Kittay’s argument’. She adds: ‘The affirmative duty of care that arises from the special relationship between pregnant mother and dependent child remains among the strongest arguments against the abortion issue’.  Bachiochi, of course, like a number (but by no means all) of the authors associated with Fairer Disputations, is unequivocally pro-life, holding that a belief in a consistent ethic of life is by no means at odds with a commitment to feminism: indeed her book, by revisiting the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other pioneering feminists, seeks to show that early feminism was also resolutely anti-abortion. I share Bachiochi’s perspective: I remember being brought up sharp by a conference presentation from another prominent feminist care ethicist, who presented the rolling back of abortion ‘rights’ in the United States as a sign of contemporary society’s lack of ‘care’. I wondered: did an ethic of care not extend to the vulnerable unborn child? However, I should say that I’ve always admired Eva Feder Kittay’s willingness – by no means shared by all who hold her views – to debate with those who see things differently. See, for example, this online symposium to which she contributed, organised by Feminists Choosing Life of New York, in which Erika Bachiochi also participated.

Eva Feder Kittay speaking at the ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ conference, Portland, Oregon, 27th September 2018 (author’s photo)

Another of Bachiochi’s criticisms of Kittay’s book, and by extension of feminist care ethics more generally, also resonated strongly with me. Bachiochi perceives Kittay’s underlying discomfort with the private nature of care and her preference for state provision. In Bachiochi’s words: ‘The optimal situation, for her, is a “public provider”, the state. She envisions government compensating those whose work is the care of dependents’. I have to say that I don’t remember detecting this emphasis quite so strongly in Kittay’s writing as in the work of some other feminist care ethicists, such as Joan Tronto, for example. The latter’s book Caring Democracy, while making the completely plausible case that contemporary western societies have marginalised care, and that care should be foregrounded in public policy, leaps from that to an implicit assumption that this means the state stepping in as the care provider of choice. It was partly my frustration with this tendency in the writings of feminist care ethicists, and a desire to explore a viable alternative, that sparked my interest in writing something about care ethics from a personalist perspective (a work that is still in progress!), one that starts from the primacy of the relationships of care and dependence into which we are all thrown and believes that public policy should support those relationships rather than try to substitute for them. 

Underlying both of these criticisms of Kittay’s work by Bachiochi is her argument that the former – in common with many other feminist writers on care – pays insufficient attention to human embodiment, and specifically to embodied sex differences, which leads to a tendency in her writing to, in Bachiochi’s phrase, ‘degender care work’. So, a third area of critique in Bachiochi’s article centres on what she sees as Kittay’s ‘failure to appreciate sexual difference and the distinct contribution of fathers’. This is where Bachiochi’s article moves into an area of debate that is close to my own research interests, and speaks to my own growing dissatisfaction with arguments for men’s role in care, whether familial or professional, which assume that men’s and women’s care is identical and which overlook embodied differences. And it speaks to my continuing quest to find a way of articulating those differences in a way that does not resort to outdated stereotypes or undermine the struggle for equality between the sexes. Bachiochi is explicitly critical of the argument, proposed by Kittay and other feminist writers on care, that men’s and women’s roles within families, and specifically in their care for children, are interchangeable:

[Kittay] argues that women’s disproportionate role in caregiving is a socially constructed feature of a still prevailing patriarchy. Care work is so critical to a humane society that men ought to undertake it as well. To promote this tendency, she uses the term mother to denote any proper caregiver regardless of the person’s sex. Men, too, can be mothers.

As Bachiochi sees it, the problem with this ‘is that recent findings contradict the claim that caregiving by women is born of social construction alone’ and show that ‘given the choice, women choose to give care at rates far higher than men do.’ By contrast, Bachiochi seeks to redignify motherhood:

After all, as vulnerable and dependent human beings, we enter the world inside of our mothers. Our fragile bodies develop within their protective bodies. They provide complete nourishment until we emerge from our mothers’ wombs and for several months thereafter. Efforts to degender mothering devalue this role, which is enjoyed by women alone. No other caregiving in the common course of human experience better manifests the reality of human dependency and the proper human response.

She continues:

Kittay sees no differentiated role for fathers. If men are going to be involved with dependents (which they ought to be), then they should take over some of the caregiving work traditionally performed by women. Women can then participate in the workplace more freely, and men may enjoy the benefits and burdens of caregiving. Men and women can and should alternate caregiver and provider roles. There is no reason why we should think of a form of paternal care as distinct from maternal care. It follows that two women or two men can raise a child just as well as the child’s mother and father can. So long as a provider offers the caregiver the support needed, the sex of the provider and caregiver is irrelevant.

In following this line of argument, Bachiochi believes that Kittay is undermining her emphasis elsewhere on the embodied nature of human experience, and of care in particular: 

Just as she has a diminished view of women that ignores the role of their bodies in relation to their children, she also has an anemic view of men and their bodies, reducing them to quasi-mothers. In her desire to ensure cultural respect, protection, and adequate provision for caregiving and caregivers alike—and her praiseworthy view that men, too, can care for dependents—Kittay forgets the premise from which she began. In so doing, she trivializes that crucial time of pregnancy and childbearing that epitomizes a woman’s care and dependency, and she disregards entirely the unique relation of fathers to their children.

So how does Bachiochi counter this? As a ‘sex realist’ feminist, how does her view of fathers’ role differ from this ‘degendered’ perspective? She adduces research evidence that men’s active engagement in fathering is good for children, for mothers, for men themselves, and for society in general:

A child wants her mother and father, not two interchangeable individuals playing degendered roles. The same holds for men and women. In fact, for men the paternal role can be especially transforming. When fathers take seriously their paternal duties, all of society benefits.

But what does Bachioci think those paternal duties are? She argues that ‘men’s contributions as fathers are less biological and immediate’ than those of women as mothers, ‘though just as needed by their children, as well as their children’s mothers.’ She writes about ‘the unique contributions men make in the lives of their own children.’ Bachiochi cites a catalogue of problems that she maintains arise for children, and especially boys, as a result of father absence. Conversely, she quotes research that fathers’ involvement in family life is good for mothers too: ‘Moreover, the leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children.’ This is a riposte to those, like Richard Reeves in his recent book Of Boys and Men (see my last post), who argue that women’s new-found autonomy from men is unequivocally a good thing and that trying to revive marriage as a societal ideal is a lost cause. 

‘The leading determinant of a mother’s happiness is the father’s commitment to and emotional investment in her well-being and that of their children’.

(image via pew research.org)

But what does Bachiochi think a father’s specifically male ‘emotional investment’ looks like, and how exactly does it benefit children? She continues:

A father cannot … be a mere stand-in mother, sharing an androgynous caregiving role. But neither should he serve only as a support for the mother. Children whose fathers are attentive and present in their lives have better educational outcomes overall. Fathers seem to be a determining factor in the emotional and social well-being of their children. Children with caring fathers in intact marriages enjoy more security, more confidence in exploring the world, a greater ability to deal with school stresses, and better social connections with peers. Children with attentive fathers are more patient than children with fathers who are less attentiveFathers tend to engage their infants and preschoolers in stimulating, rough-and-tumble play, and researchers think this is one reason why the children of attentive fathers more effectively regulate their feelings and behavior. Girls whose fathers like being with them and their mother experience the benefits of delayed sexual development and delayed sexual experience. Boys with attentive fathers have better impulse control and pro-social behavior, and so have far lower crime rates. And fathers tend to encourage children to do things for themselves at a young age, which helps their competence and confidence later in life. While children who grow up in single-parent or adoptive families can show impressive resilience—and many flourish throughout their lives—researchers from the Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution confirm that children enjoy the best likelihood of positive outcomes when they have a loving relationship with both of their biological parents.

While I agree with much of this, I was a little disappointed to see Bachiochi falling back on what, to me, is a stereotypical view of fathers, and male carers, as engaging primarily in ‘rough-and-tumble’ play. I know plenty of emotionally and practically engaged fathers – including myself, when our children were young – for whom this does not ring true. Then there is Bachiochi’s emphasis on what she terms the father’s ‘relative distance’ from the child:

The embodied human condition, differentiated as it is by sexual dimorphism, offers clues for the care of children that we cannot ignore. If the mother’s initial embodied immediacy with the child influences her custodial care for the child’s physical and emotional needs, the father’s relative distance from the child plays an essential part, too. The father’s attention and affection, uniquely offered to his child, gives the young child the assurance he needs to separate from the mother’s embrace and progress toward independence. The custodial care the mother offers the infant child enables the child’s needs to be met promptly and responsively; the father’s care enables the child to move out into the world with confidence. Both are needed for the child’s development.

If what she’s describing here is simply the biological fact that men are not intimately involved in pregnancy and birth, then that’s fine. But if ‘distance’ means more than this, it risks denying the closeness experienced by many fathers who are equal carers, or in some cases the primary carer, for their child. And what if it’s equally, or even mainly, the mother who is moving ‘out into the world’ as the family breadwinner?

Later in the article, there’s another paragraph that seems to resort to stereotypes about male aggression that aren’t particularly helpful, and again don’t resonate with my own experience and that of many of the men I know:

A full culture of care…demands that men turn their penchant for conquest—a masculine tendency that, when undisciplined, gives way to gangs, gamers, and worse—inward to conquer their passions for the good of their families… Fatherhood curbs instincts of aggression. A culture of care encourages men to give of themselves for the good of their wives and children.

This is quite a negative take on masculinity, I’d suggest. Yes, of course, most people would accept that there’s something distinctive about masculine energy that’s different from feminine energy. But do we have to define the former in such negative terms, as something to be ‘curbed’ or transformed into care? Can’t men also have an innate instinct for care, even if it plays out in differently embodied ways?

I’m a huge admirer of Erika Bachiochi’s writing (as I am, for different reasons, of Eva Feder Kittay’s) and believe her article is a thoughtful contribution to continuing debates about gender, embodiment and care. Even if I don’t agree with some of her specific conclusions, it’s certainly prompted me to question my own thinking, and for that I’m grateful. Finally, I completely endorse the sentiments expressed in the closing paragraph of Bachiochi’s article:

Kittay is right to advocate greater support and provision for caregiving. But universal provisions for caregivers will not bring about authentic sexual equality—even if greater public provision should be made—because sexual equality will never be fully realized at the hands of the state. Rather, it is found in a mutual appreciation of sexual difference, an affirmation of moral duties that arise out of sexual asymmetry, and a deep and abiding trust that the one truly wills the good of the other.

‘A new vision of feminism’

In my post last summer about my search for ‘another feminism’ (or male pro-feminism) that was compatible with my renascent faith and with a consistent ethic of life, I mentioned three authors whose work I had found helpful. They were Erika Bachiocihi, whose groundbreaking book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision I wrote about in that same post; Abigail Favale, whose The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory I reviewed in a later post; and Leah Libresco Sargeant, the author of the Other Feminisms Substack. I should have probably mentioned a fourth writer whose work I have also followed closely, and who often turns up on panels and podcasts in conversation with one or more of these women. Serena Sigillito is a widely-published journalist focusing on women’s experience of work and motherhood. Because I follow Serena’s Substack, I receive regular updates on her writing, and today she posted the news that, together with an impressive team of writers and campaigners, she has been working on the launch of a brand new website and online journal, Fairer Disputations.

According to the website’s ‘About’ page:

Fairer Disputations is not just an online journal. It’s an international community of scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and advocates. Our mission is to advance a new vision of feminism, one that is grounded in the basic fact that sex is real. Although the authors we feature do not all agree on every issue, they each make important contributions to the debate over how society should, in justice, accommodate the reality of sexual difference.

Fairer Disputations will advance that debate by aggregating both popular and scholarly writing, publishing our own original material, and creating an online community of new feminist voices. 

The new journal’s roster of featured authors brings together faith-based and secular feminists from a wide range of backgrounds, and I was pleased to see that this eclecticism extends both to the articles linked to by the site and the list of recommended reading. There are clearly important differences of opinion among those who have attached their names to the project, but what they share is a dedication, in their words, ‘to defending a vision of female and male as embodied expressions of human personhood’. Although those involved are ‘united in an understanding that biological sex is real’, they plan to ‘publish an array of perspectives on how society ought properly to accommodate that reality.’

In a field that has too often been marked by labelling, cancelling and the shutting down of debate, let’s hope that Fairer Disputations lives up to its name and creates a space where reasoned discussion about important issues of sex and gender can take place. And perhaps this development really is a sign that, in the words of the journal editors, ‘a new feminism is emerging.’


Some of the key names behind Fairer Disputations participated in a stimulating and informative online discussion earlier this week, as a way of launching their new venture. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube, or below:

Arguing with Edith Stein

OK, so the title of this post may be somewhat provocative, not to say presumptuous. After all, Edith Stein was an eminent philosopher, a brilliant writer, and an actual saint. And I’m…none of those things. She’s also a heroine of mine, someone whose life story has been an inspiration to me, especially since my return to faith. Indeed, I started writing this post on 9th August, Edith Stein’s feast day in the Church calendar. So, in a sense, this post feels a little bit like arguing with family.

A more accurate – but less eye-catching – title for this post might have been ‘Reflections on reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman as a man.’ And specifically, as a man who researches and writes about men and care. As for ‘arguing with’: it might be more appropriate to describe this post as an attempt to make sense of some of Stein’s key ideas about sexual difference – ideas to which I responded negatively on first coming across them – and their implications for thinking about men and masculinity.

Edith Stein as a young woman

But before going any further, perhaps there’s a need for some background information about Stein, for those who are not familiar with her biography or her work. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, in what was then Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw in Poland. For a vivid account of her early life, I’d recommend her autobiographical account Life in a Jewish Family, though with the caveat that some details have been challenged by members of her family: see, for example her niece Susanne M. Batzdorff’s Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint.

Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, and worked for a time as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1922, she was received into the Catholic Church, then spent some years as a teacher and lecturer before becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1939, in the face of the growing threat to Jews from the Nazi regime, she was transferred to a monastery in the Netherlands. However, following the Nazi occupation of that country, and the public condemnation of anti-Jewish policies by the Catholic Church, Jewish converts to Christianity, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were deported to Auschwitz, where Edith was murdered on 9th August 1942. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s contributions to philosophy include her influential thesis On the Problem of Empathy and her attempt to reconcile phenomenology and Thomist ideas in her major work Finite and Eternal Being. However, it was in her lectures and articles on women’s education and vocation, published after her death as Essays on Woman, that Stein set out her central ideas about sexual difference, particularly in the two essays entitled ‘The ethos of women’s professions’ and ‘The separate vocations of man and woman according to nature and grace’. These are the essays I’ll be referring to in this post.

So why should contemporary researchers, interested in issues of gender and care, take seriously the writings of an early twentieth-century Catholic nun? Well, firstly because those ideas might be helpful in developing an alternative, faith-based feminism (and male pro-feminism), and a way of thinking about sex and gender that’s compatible with a consistent life ethic, of the kind that I’ve been exploring in recent posts. But also because Stein is regarded by a number of modern feminist commentators as a feminist pioneer, someone who argued for women’s suffrage and promoted women’s education at a time when support for such ideas was by no means universal. In addition, there have been claims that her philosophical work, particularly in her writings on empathy, represents a potentially significant contribution to contemporary care theory. US care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2004) suggests that Stein’s work on empathy is helpful in understanding the part played by imagination in care, while the Czech philosopher and ethicist Petr Urban (2022) argues that Stein’s ‘ethical thought makes her a forerunner of some recent developments in feminist ethics, particularly ethics of care’.

Petr Urban (via ethicsofcare.org)

In fact, it was coming across articles by Petr Urban about Stein’s ideas on sexual difference, as well as conference papers of his discussing her thought as a resource for an ethic of care, that first alerted me to her work in these fields. Incidentally, it was Petr’s articles that also introduced me to the work of Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa on sexual difference, ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful in my own recent thinking. Reading Petr’s papers, and the essays by Stein to which they referred, I was intrigued, but also somewhat disconcerted, as a male reader, and as someone with a firm belief in men’s capacity for care. It wasn’t so much what Stein wrote about women that perturbed me, so much as the implications of what she wrote for men, or rather what they implied about men by default.

For example, in her essay on ‘The ethos of women’s professions’, Stein argues that, although women and men share ‘a basic human nature’, a woman’s ‘faculties’ differ from those of men,‘therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well’. She continues:

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.

Stein elaborates on these distinctive feminine qualities elsewhere in the essay, and also in her essay on ‘The separate vocations of man and woman’, where she writes:

True feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other.

According to Stein, these ‘natural’ feminine qualities equip a woman not only for motherhood, but also for her additional vocation as a ‘companion’. 

To grasp what Stein believes about men’s ‘natural’ qualities, one has to read what she says about women as if in a mirror. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication of what she writes is surely that men do not possess these innate qualities: they (we) do not have an instinctive feel for all that is ‘living, personal and whole’, they are not characterised by ‘feeling, intuition, empathy and adaptability’. And they don’t have an innate capacity for activities which involve the ‘total person’, such as caring for others.

Stein doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about men’s innate qualities (perhaps not surprisingly, given that her focus is on women’s vocation), except for one or two brief sentences. For example, in the first essay she writes:

Man is consumed by ‘his enterprise’, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.

And in the second essay we read that ‘masculine vocations’ tend to require not only ‘bodily strength’ but also ‘the ability for predominantly abstract thought, and independent creativity’.

As I read these lines, they just didn’t seem to align with my own experience, or the experiences of men I knew, or those of the ‘hands on’ fathers and male care professionals whom I’d interviewed as part of my research. Didn’t these men have an innate regard for what is ‘living, personal and whole’? Were they constitutionally, because of their sex, unable to respond as a ‘total person’ in their caring? And in their care for others, did these men (did we) find it difficult to ‘become involved in other beings and their concerns’? Speaking personally, as I read these essays by Stein I felt put into a box that didn’t feel at all comfortable or familiar.

Nancy Dallavalle (via nancydallavalle.com)

While I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered the work of the Catholic feminist writer Nancy Dallavalle,  an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In a 1998 article, Dallavalle criticised Pope John Paul II’s 1988 text, Mulieris dignitatem (‘The dignity of women’) – which is heavily influenced by Edith Stein’s ideas – in which he describes women’s innate capacity for ‘community’, but in Dallavalle’s opinion fails to present ‘any positive description of a male psycho-physical structure’, except to assert men’s deficiency in this capacity: ‘Men, in other words do not “naturally” care for others’. This omission, and the implicitly negative picture of masculinity, Dallavalle believes, significantly weakens John Paul’s account of sexual difference, and I suggest something similar could be said about Edith Stein’s account.

This is not the only criticism that could be, or indeed has been made, of Edith Stein’s notions of sexual difference. Sarah Borden (2007) sums up the criticisms of some later feminists as follows:

The claim that women’s ‘genius’…lies in their personal and relational capacities, as an orientation toward concrete, actual persons and their holistic development, is precisely the view of women that has caused trouble all these years. This view is, in fact, the reason the women’s movement and feminism were born. The critics might insist that, although Stein might claim that she is not limiting women to the nursery and home, yet that would be precisely the effect. In arguing that women’s genius lies in persons and attention to persons, Stein they would say has in essence put women back in children’s wards and the low-paying jobs and blocked their path to higher education or positions of leadership. One might argue that no matter what Stein may say about not limiting roles or jobs, this will be the inevitable result of allowing such gender distinctions into our discussion. The objectors might further argue that Stein’s descriptions also play into the hands of the worst stereotypes about women—seeing women as submissive, as secondary, simply the assistants to the more important work, and the ones who clean up all the dirty work when the day is done. Women care about people, so let them be the martyrs for all the men.

In her defence, it should be said that Edith Stein was writing at a time when women were still defined largely by negative traits, and by the ways in which they didn’t measure up to the positive qualities that were associated with men. For example, women’s supposed emotionality was generally seen as a weakness, not as the kind of strength and resource described by Stein. Her writings could be seen as an attempt to reclaim the positive value of these traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities.

Moreover, in the very essays from which I’ve been quoting, Edith Stein anticipates these later criticisms and makes it clear that she is certainly not arguing for women’s exclusion from certain professions or their confinement to ‘traditional’ roles. In fact, quite the opposite. On the one hand, she argues that ‘certain abiding attitudes are unique to the feminine soul and form a woman’s professional life from within’ and that ‘the very nature of woman draws her to certain professions’. But in the same essay she also suggests that ‘there is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman’:

Indeed no woman is only woman; like a man, she has her individual specificity and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.

Furthermore, she explicitly challenges the traditionalist view that a woman’s ‘natural’ place is in the home:

Obviously now, because of the development of the last decades and of recent years, we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of the sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and the man the struggle for a livelihood.

Elsewhere, she elaborates:

Should certain positions be reserved for only men, others for only women, and perhaps a few open for both? I believe that this question…must be answered negatively. The strong individual differences existing within both sexes must be taken into account. Many women have masculine characteristics just as many men share feminine ones. Consequently, every so-called ‘masculine’ occupation may be exercised by man women as well as many ‘feminine’ occupations by certain men.

I have to admit that this last passage left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Doesn’t this contradict Stein’s earlier argument to the effect that women and men possess distinctive, innate qualities that fit them for different kinds of activity? Don’t those statements become meaningless if you then go on to say that, in fact, men can display ‘feminine’ characteristics and women ‘masculine’ ones?  Are these different qualities innate in men and women – or aren’t they?  And although Stein uses the term ‘so-called’ to describe masculine and feminine occupations, there is still an underlying sense that she thinks of care work (for example) as ‘feminine’, even when it’s undertaken by a man.

I tried to articulate some of this sense of confusion, as well as my initially negative response to Stein’s ideas about sexual difference, in an email to Petr Urban, back in 2017. He was kind enough to reply, and we entered into a brief email discussion, which we continued in person when we met in the following year at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to summarise Petr’s response to my queries by referring to a recent paper of his which makes many of the same points that he made in our conversation. In this paper, he argues that it is on the ‘experiential, phenomenal level that [Stein] finds the core differences between man and woman.’ He continues:

Stein obviously does not think of ‘woman’s peculiarity’ in terms of exclusive traits and faculties. The personal traits in question are primarily human ones, and all faculties that are present in woman’s personality are also present in man’s personality. Nonetheless, Stein argues, the human traits may generally appear in different degrees and relationships in man and woman.

This makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure about that ‘obviously’, or that the casual, as opposed to the philosophically sophisticated reader, would pick up this more nuanced meaning from Stein’s own writings. I find Petr’s interpretation of Stein’s thinking to mean that the same qualities exist in ‘different degrees and relationships’ in men and women a helpful one, and certainly one that I find sympathetic, but I’m not sure how explicit it is in Stein’s work.

Later in the same article, Petr refers to an earlier paper of his, in which he provided ‘a detailed argument in favour of a phenomenological reading of Stein’s “dual anthropology” by stressing that Stein conceives of the sexual difference as a difference between two related styles of intentional life rather than a difference between two separate essences (regardless of if it is ontologically or biologically defined).’ He continues: ‘From the phenomenological perspective it seems plausible to read Stein’s descriptions of woman’s specific capacities and attitudes as describing a particular life form that can be shared by women and men alike’ (my emphases).

Sara Heinämaa (via britishphenomenology.org.uk)

This is somewhat similar to the distinction made by Sara Heinämaa, when she argues (2013) that a phenomenological account of sexual difference offers an alternative to both ‘naturalist’ (i.e. essentialist) and ‘constructivist’ (or social constructionist) theories of gender. Heinämaa writes:

Whereas gender-theories aim at explaining observed differences between men’s and women’s behaviours, dispositions, accomplishments, and positions, by the interplay of social, cultural, and biological forces, phenomenology studies how the sense of sexual difference is established in personal and interpersonal experiences in the first place.

I have to admit that, as a non-philosopher, I still struggle to understand what this means, just as I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend Petr’s description of gender identity as a ‘style of intentional life’.  I’m still waiting for the lightbulb moment when all of this begins to make sense. In my simplistic way, I still want to know whether these authors (and indeed Edith Stein) believe that the differences between men and women are innate, or learned, or somehow both, or neither?

In conclusion, I should make it clear that I’m not at all averse to the notion that there are innate differences between the sexes. As I’ve tried to suggest in my recent posts, I’ve moved from a position of believing that gender differences, particularly in relation to the capacity to care, are wholly socially constructed, to an acceptance that significant differences between men’s and women’s care might exist, and to trying to find ways to articulate those differences in a way that is compatible with my unchanged belief in gender equality. I suppose I wish that, instead of claiming that women have an innate and exclusive propensity for ‘caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other’, which by implication men don’t have, Edith Stein had asserted that women and men both care, but care differently – because we are different.

I’m prepared to accept that this difference may well derive, at least in part, from what Stein calls woman’s ‘primary’ maternal vocation. As she writes: ‘Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose.’ I’m certainly willing to agree (in a way that I wasn’t in my social constructionist days) that, in Stein’s words, ‘because of the close bodily tie between child and mother, because of woman’s specific tendency to sympathise and to serve another life’, women’s care – particularly for children – will tend to have a distinctive quality that men’s care lacks. But this doesn’t mean that men have no capacity for care, or that their caring is somehow deficient: it’s just different. Just as, according to Stein, women have a ‘natural, maternal yearning’ which inclines them to ‘cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth’, so surely men can have a natural paternal yearning, a yearning that may express itself in different ways, but which ‘inclines’ them (us) towards the same things.

To end on a more positive note. Needless to say, my quarrel (if that’s what it is) with some of Edith Stein’s ideas doesn’t take away from my enormous admiration for her as a philosopher (not to mention as a spiritual model and guide). I’m already finding her work on empathy a valuable resource in my ongoing project exploring personalist thinking as a resource for an ethic of care, and I plan to write more on this in future posts.

A personal postscript

One of my side projects over the past few years, unrelated to my academic work, has been researching the life and work of Theodor Kern (1900-1969), a painter and sculptor who was born in Salzburg, Austria but spent the second half of his life in Hitchin, the English market town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years or so. My website about Kern can be found here. In addition to my intererest in his art, and the way it expresses his Catholic faith, I was intrigued to discover that, when living in Vienna, Kern had been a close friend of the philosopher and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, and indeed had helped him (and others) to escape from Austria following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, activities which eventually led to Kern’s own flight to England. I’ve long been an admirer of von Hildebrand’s writings and in the past few years have enjoyed attending (virtually) the lectures and seminars organised by the Hildebrand Project, based in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the project’s leading lights is Professor John F Crosby, a former student of von Hildebrand and himself an eminent exponent of personalism, whose writings I’ve found immensely helpful in framing my own thinking in recent years. 

Stephen Schwarz (via https://web.uri.edu)

One of the pleasures of researching Theodor Kern has been making contact with people who knew him, people who were also part of the circle around von Hildebrand – including John Crosby, who kindly shared with me his own reminiscences of meeting the artist at the annual meetings of a religious community to which they both belonged. I had a particularly helpful exchange with another US-based philosophy professor, Stephen Schwarz, whose German-born father Balduin Schwarz was also a student and associate of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and also a vociferous opponent of Nazism who was forced to flee his native country. 

In one of his emails to me, Stephen shared the following story:

My father and Edith Stein were colleagues in the philosophy department at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, in the Spring Semester 1933.  They were also close personal friends.  She came to visit my parents at regular intervals, for extensive talks with my father over tea, about Christ, philosophy and the current horrible political situation.  But before the serious discussions she always made it a point to go to the baby room and hold little baby Stephen, born November 8th of the previous year...This is surely one of the greatest blessings of my life.


Borden, S. (2007) ‘Foreword’, in Padua, M.M., Contemplating woman in the philosophy of Edith Stein, Manila: Far Eastern University.

Dallavalle, N. (1998) ‘Neither idolatry nor iconoclasm: A critical essentialism for Catholic feminist theology’, Horizons, 25 (1).

Hamington, M. (2004) Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Care Ethics, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Heinämaa, S. (2013) ‘Sex, gender and embodiment’, in Zahavi, D. (ed.) Handbook in Contemporary Phenomenology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 216-242

Stein, E. (2017) Essays on Woman, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications

Urban, P. (2016) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Woman’s Personality and Value’, in Alles Wesentliche Lässt Sich Nicht Schreiben’: Leben und Denken Edith Steins im Spiegel Ihres Gesamtwerks‘, Regh, S., Speer, A., eds., Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder 2016; 538–555.

Urban, P. (2022) ‘Care Ethics and the Feminist Personalism of Edith Stein’, Philosophies, 7:60

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 en.wikipedia.org)

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.