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  • "Often in our debates about gender, we talk past each other because we're not attentive to the animating worldview behind each perspective." Tweet This
  • "Are we using technology in a way that harmonizes with our nature? Or are we trying to use technology to defy, change, erase or transgress our nature?" Tweet This
  • "Now, we have disembodied gender identity as the reality that can't be changed, and sex is the construct that is malleable." Tweet This

The debate surrounding the nature of a man or woman, if fixed and certain definitions even exist, brings forth untold contention and disagreement. What does it mean to be human? More specifically, what does it mean to be an embodied man or woman? These questions underlie so many misunderstandings and political conflicts today.

In her new book, The Genesis of Gender, Dr. Abigail Favale, a professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, draws richly from her former research in gender theory and her journey through marriage and motherhood to address questions at the heart of Christian personhood, feminisms, and the role of technology in re-imagining the body. Beautifully written and refreshingly practical, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to better understand the dizzying world of gender, sex, and the debates surrounding what it means to be a woman. I recently spoke with Dr. Favale about all this and more for the Family Studies blog (the following interview has been lightly edited for clarity). 

Emma Waters: The Genesis of Gender begins with competing creation narratives, origin stories meant to explain the nature and telos of humanity, of man and woman. This duality is subsequently present throughout the remainder of your book, including in your own story that is so beautifully interwoven. From coming of age as a “Christian feminist,” to marriage and childbearing, and your faith journey, I would love to hear more about your background and how you came to this topic?

Abigail Favale: I have often wondered why I'm so interested in gender. I grew up in the intermountain west in the Mormon belt of Utah and Idaho, in a conservative evangelical family. But I wasn't put in a box because I was a girl; I felt free to develop as a unique person. And there are ways in which throughout my childhood, I fit stereotypes for girls, and then there were also places where I really didn't fit. I think that created more of an awareness of my gender than if I had seamlessly fit into the usual scripts. I had a deep sense that being a girl was great and awesome, but I also felt like I had to justify it. By the time I went to college, I was carrying with me a desire to better understand what it means to be a woman, because I wasn’t really satisfied with some of the answers or non-answers I was given in the community where I grew up. That’s when I started exploring feminism in college. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been looking for. This will give me all the answers I need.’ I really dove into feminist studies: I majored in philosophy, then went on to grad school to study literature while specializing in gender theory and feminist literary criticism. That’s where my interest in gender became a central intellectual and personal passion of mine. 

Waters: The modern-day implications of the duality you highlight in the origin stories culminate in two distinct paradigms: The Gender Paradigm and the Genesis Paradigm. What do each of these paradigms entail, and why is the use of “paradigms” to describe them so useful?

Favale: That's a great question. I'll start with the latter one first. I’m using the term paradigm because it refers to a way of seeing and interpreting everything around you. In many ways, a paradigm is a totalizing way of seeing. What I wanted to do in this book is get at those underlying worldview questions. Often in our debates about gender, we talk past each other because we're not attentive to the animating worldview behind each perspective. We’re using the same terms and the same language, but we mean very different things by them. The gender paradigm is a way of seeing that is based on postmodern anti-realism: there is no God; we are not created beings; what we perceive to be real is a social fiction, created by language, including the categories “man” and “woman.”

This is why I appeal to origin stories in the ancient world: they’re deeply connected to identity and purpose. If we want to look into this question of identity, as a Christian, we have to turn to our origin story. When I talk about Genesis in the book, I think it's helpful to compare the first several chapters of Genesis with the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation narrative, and the backdrop against which Genesis would have been told. When you compare both origin stories, many things jump into sharp relief that we might otherwise miss. One of those things is the elevation of sexual difference as something good, as something connected to God’s image in us. The Babylonian origin story, in contrast, is a narrative of conflict and violence where the male deity kills a primordial goddess and then uses her corpse to create the universe, as an afterthought. Human beings in this story are created from the blood of a lesser god, and they’re made to be slaves. When you compare that to Genesis and the kind of relationship between male and female that should exist, it’s so different. Genesis draws out this distinction in a meaningful way.

"Maleness and femaleness are one way that we’re part of the image of God." 

Waters: Your answers highlight a key shift in how folks have traditionally thought of men and women, namely as essentially sexed creatures whose gender corresponds to this reality. Now, however, sex and gender are two distinct categories that open the door for conflicting definitions of each term. Where did the division of sex and gender emerge, and how has it impacted the way we discuss maleness and femaleness? 

Favale: The concept of gender began to emerge in the mid-twentieth century. The first person to borrow the term from linguistics to refer to sex identities was a psychologist named John Money. He coined the term ‘gender role’ and was a social constructionist. He thought that gender, or one’s gender identity, was a creation of society and entirely malleable in the first three years of life. Money made a distinction between the facts of one's biological sex and the cultural meanings attached to it. Needless to say, his theories about malleability were wildly wrong and ended in tragedy. But the tragedy took decades to play out. And in the meantime, second wave feminists in the mid-twentieth century saw the sex-gender distinction as a helpful way of analyzing certain cultural narratives as created by society and then seen as natural, and therefore unchangeable. And there's something to that, right? Historically, there have been certain narratives about womanhood that have really restricted us socially, like say, our access to education or even being able to vote. The concept of gender became a helpful tool to make that distinction between cultural scripts and one’s biology. But the problem is, once that distinction was made, it became a growing separation. 

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, feminist theory took a postmodern turn, specifically though the influence of Judith Butler. Butler upped the ante by saying not only is gender a social construct, but sex itself is a social fiction rather than a matter of fact. Today, activist and pop-culture rhetoric has moved beyond Butler to argue that sex is a construct, but gender identity—an internal sense of self—is what is real and fixed. In this paradigm, the body has to be altered to align with gender. This is ironic. It's almost an exact reversal of the second wave sex-gender split, where sex is the fact and gender the construct. Now, we have disembodied gender identity as the reality that can't be changed, and sex is the construct that is malleable. 

Waters: As I think about female “empowerment” properly understood, I am encouraged by the increasing use of Fertility Awareness Methods as an alternative to hormonal or implanted birth control. Unlike previous generations, many of the young women I know have their pick of apps or accessible ways of tracking their fertility and gaining a deeper understanding of how their bodies work naturally. How has technology shaped our cultural imagination surrounding gender and how can technological advancements positively shape our understanding of and experience with our bodies? 

Favale: I really like this question. Because it’s easy in the gender conversation to focus on the dangers of technology as a tool that pushes us past limits that we perhaps shouldn't go past. One connection I make in the book is that at the same time we’re seeing a conceptual revolution take place in terms of gender, there’s a contraceptive revolution happening as well. In the same decade John Money is coining the term ‘gender role,’ the hormonal birth control pill is being formulated. I think both advancements are closely interconnected as the material conditions of men and women drastically change, especially when it comes to procreation. 

Technology can be used in a very different way. The distinction is, are we using technology in a way that harmonizes with our nature? Or are we trying to use technology to defy, change, erase or transgress our nature? I would put hormonal contraception in the same category as taking cross sex hormones to feminize your appearance (if you’re a man) because in both instances, hormones are being used to disrupt the normal physiology of the body in ways that have very real health consequences. Whereas I am a huge fan of FemTech—these sorts of technology allow women to be more in harmony with their nature and physiology by empowering them to control or plan births. I took hormonal birth control for a decade, and I was not in tune with my body the way I am now. I love technological tools that have helped me connect with my body rather than do violence to it. 

Waters: How would you define what it means to be a woman, specifically in light of Christian sacramentalism? 

Favale: I do think a good basic answer is: a woman is an adult, human female. Simply because there are many kinds of females in the world, right? There are female frogs, there are female mosquitoes. But we need a word that captures a human being who is female. And that word in the English language is woman. But you don't stop there.

Even the term female can sometimes require us to ask what female means. In my own work, I argue that you can’t reduce that to body parts. A woman is a personal category in the sense that it refers to a person, a whole human being with body and soul. From a Christian perspective, there is also a spiritual dimension. That’s why you can't just say ‘adult human, female’ and then move on. To define female more fully, I would say, ‘a woman is the kind of human being who has the potential to gestate life.’ I use the word potential here in a technical and philosophical way, but it basically means my body is organized in such a way that I have the inherent potential to gestate life. Now, there are many reasons why that potential might be prevented from being actualized. For example, an infertile woman who's unable to actualize her potential in that way is still very much a woman because she still has that potential, and it can't be taken away. In fact, the category of “infertility” acknowledges a potential that isn’t being actualized for some reason.   

There's also the spiritual, sacramental dimension, and this is where studying the theological dimension of womanhood has been really life-changing for me. In Christianity, when we talk about the sacramentality of sex, it’s the idea of human maleness and femaleness. These aren’t just important in a temporal sense, in that this is how we have babies, but they also function as signs that point toward divine realities. One of the primary metaphors that we’re given throughout scripture for understanding the relationship between God and humankind is the nuptial mystery. So, our very capacity for nuptial union in this embodied way is a good in and of itself. But it also points toward human-divine communion. In that sense, maleness and femaleness are one way that we’re part of the image of God.

That's how we image love, and God's desire for communion with us, in our sexual natures as men and women. That’s really profound. It creates this fruitful ground for trying to cultivate certain kinds of sensibilities and virtues. As a woman, I can cultivate a particular attention to the value of life, to the dignity of the human person, and to the fact that I have the potential to knit a new human being inside my own body. Dwelling on that has given me a spiritual calling to defend the dignity of even the most vulnerable. Thus, the spiritual meaning of womanhood, or the feminine genius as is sometimes used in Catholic theology, is a way of actively habituating or cultivating a spiritual dimension to one's femininity.