When political leaders can’t define what a woman is, society has a problem.
Removing fact and biological reality from sex has led to a “subtle denigration of … the female body in our culture,” Favale says.
Favale joins this edition of the “Problematic Women” podcast to discuss the difference between gender and sex, and why it’s so important to understand and celebrate the uniqueness of the female and male body.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: Society is increasingly becoming very confused about sex and gender. And it’s really starting to affect every single aspect of society, whether it’s education or the workplace. We’re hearing so much about this. So, that is why I’m so excited that joining us today to discuss gender ideology, and really the history of where this movement has come from, and the Judeo-Christian understanding of what sex and gender is, is Abigail Favale. She’s the president—oh, excuse me. She’s a professor.
Abigail Favale: Oh, wow, I am?
Allen: You’re moving up in titles, congratulations.
She’s the professor of English and dean of the College of Humanities at George Fox University in Oregon.
Abigail, thank you so much for being here.
Favale: Of course, yeah. Happy to be here.
Allen: So, I’m so excited to talk about the work that you have done. I want to mention you’ve written two books, [including] “Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion.” And then, you’ve just recently released a book called “The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.” And we’re going to talk a little bit about that in a few moments. And then, you’ve also created this program called Cultivating Catholic Feminism. I love that title, Cultivating Catholic Feminism.
But I want to begin by asking you to share a little bit of your own personal story. How did you kind of get into researching and writing about sex and gender?
Favale: Sure. That’s a great question. So, I was raised an evangelical Protestant, lived in the mountain west in the United States. And I think I became interested in gender even as an adolescent, or a teenager often because I found myself not quite fitting the normal stereotypes of what was expected of women. And I would often find myself being the only woman … the only girl on this soccer team, or playing basketball with my dad and other middle-aged men. Just weird things like that.
And I felt like in the little subculture I grew up in there weren’t a lot of positive visions of womanhood that I felt I could relate to and connect with. And so, I think that created a curiosity in me to seek that out.
And then I went to college, and that was when I first encountered feminism. And at first I thought, “Oh, this, this is what I’ve been looking for. This will help me understand what it means to be a woman, and to be a woman of dignity.” And I think, at first, feminism provided me with some helpful tools. But then eventually, I think I absorbed more of a postmodern feminist worldview.
Then, I went to graduate school in gender theory and feminist literary criticism, got my doctorate. And, by that time, I had really imbibed a worldview that was pretty at odds with Christianity, even though I think I didn’t quite want to recognize that, and lived in the space of cognitive dissonance. And eventually that escalated into a spiritual crisis.
Then, I became a mother and that was like, whoa, a lot of things I thought about the world are being upended right now. And then, I pretty quickly and suddenly became Catholic. And that prompted a pretty big worldview shift in the first couple of years of being Catholic.
So since then, I’ve been trying to figure out, OK, how do I continue to write about and explore gender and sex and womanhood but from the perspective of a Catholic worldview, a thoroughly Catholic worldview? And also, [how] to bring my kind of insider knowledge of feminist and gender theory to benefit the church, and society in this kind of moment of debate and confusion? So that’s my personal mission right now.
Allen: And you’ve had a wild journey.
Favale: Oh I have, yes.
Allen: So, we’ll have to have you back sometime to go deeper in your story.
But I want to ask about—you draw distinctions between sex and gender. And there’s a lot of confusion, I think, right now about what actually the differences are. Can you define those terms for us?
Favale: Sure. That’s a really hard thing to do because I think linguistic confusion is a big problem in the current conversations about gender. ‘Cause you’ll have people using the term gender, but meaning wildly different things by it—anything from a totally artificial construct to an innate state of the soul, or psyche that can’t be changed. Those are two very different understandings.
So the sex/gender split … The term gender originated with John Money, a psychologist in the mid-20th century. He borrowed the term from linguistics. And he used it to name what he saw as this kind of social construction of norms surrounding sex that was completely malleable in the first few years of life. And his story is a harrowing story. You can either Google it, or read my book to find out more about it.
But second wave feminism took his concept of gender and they used it to name the social and cultural expressions of biological sex that can vary from place to place, and time to time. And so that distinction between sex as biological, and gender as the social and cultural expression of sex stayed pretty much constant until the late ’80s and ’90s, when Judith Butler, who was the foundress of queer theory and gender theory, began to say, “Well, no, actually sex itself is also a social construct, not just gender.” And uprooting both of those words opened the door for using those terms in ways that are kind of detached from material reality.
And so, that’s where we’ve come to where we are, where increasingly you’ll hear people talk about sex as a construct, or the sex binary as not real. But then, one’s gender identity, one’s sense of one’s sex as that being something that’s real, something that’s immutable, and something that has to be expressed, and sometimes imposed on the body rather than read from the body.
Allen: So, when you use that title in your book “Genesis of Gender,” you’re tracing it back to postmodern feminist roots where this ideology, essentially, brought it up, correct?
Favale: Yeah. So, [in] the “Genesis of Gender,” it works in two ways. One is the way you just described. I described the development of the concept of gender over the past 100 years.
And then the second usage is then comparing that concept of gender to the concept of gender offered in Genesis, or in the Christian understanding. So then, that’s why it’s kind of a double meaning—the genesis of gender, and then also the Genesis of gender.
Allen: Oh, that’s cool. So it’s mirroring each other, that’s neat. So, you also talk about a gender paradigm in your book.
Allen: What does that mean?
Favale: OK, so, I use the word paradigm because paradigm basically means a way of seeing, a way of conceptualizing, all that is. It’s like a totalizing framework that you enter into, and then see everything in the context of that framework.
And so, it’s not just enough to say there is a word gender, and here are the many definitions it’s had. That’s why gender has become more than just a term. It’s actually a worldview. It’s a paradigm. It’s something that people have entered into.
And then, it totally reshapes their understanding of reality, their understanding of the body, their understanding of language, of truth, of freedom. And then, so I contrast that with the Christian way of seeing, or the Genesis paradigm.
Allen: OK, so neat. So, if you would, can I take a minute and maybe paint the differences of you have the one side that’s this very feminist kind of perspective, and then you have this kind of Judeo-Christian perspective.
Favale: Yeah, I wouldn’t even characterize the gender paradigm as feminist first and foremost. I think it’s kind of an outgrowth, I call it like an edible offspring of feminism. But I would call it fundamentally anti-realist. So, postmodern might work, but sometimes postmodern can mean many different things.
So what’s really essential about the gender paradigm is that it has … It’s fundamentally anti-realist even if the inhabitants of the gender paradigm don’t quite realize the anti-realism at work. Because you’ll hear regularly in activist rhetoric, or just people talking about their own experiences, claims about reality like, “I am a woman. Trans women are women. Sex is a spectrum.” Those are claims that are made about reality. They’re not saying sex is a construct and therefore, we can say it’s a spectrum. They’re actually trying to prove it’s a spectrum.
So, there’s this kind of bait-and-switch that happens where anti-realist postmodern philosophy facilitated this kind of detachment of these concepts from reality. But then, people redefine those terms to usher in a different concept of reality, and then assert that as real. …
Allen: … That’s helpful to have that background. So then how does that compare to that Judeo-Christian?
Favale: OK, right. So, some of the main areas that I really compare the two paradigms, I mean, it starts with who does the creating? So in the gender paradigm, we do. It’s all human beings, any kind of meaning, or categorization, or knowledge, or truth is fundamentally human made. And that includes our identity. That includes any sex categories. So we create ourselves, basically. We are the creators, we are not creatures.
Whereas the Genesis paradigm is very clear that actually we receive who we are from a creator, and that there’s a kind of intention and design and we’re part of a created order and we are creatures. So, that’s a pretty big difference. And that relates to then a view of reality where on the gender paradigm reality is a construct versus reality is something that is given. And given to us. Reality is this gift that we receive. So, one of the big contrasts I think between these two paradigms is a dynamic of control versus a dynamic of receptivity.
And I also talk about how they have fundamentally different understandings of sexual difference: sexual differences being a fiction essentially versus part of God’s self-revelation to us—part of the way the image of God is etched in our very being. And [they have] different views of language, and also different views of freedom.
So in the gender paradigm, freedom is very much about pushing past boundaries. It’s about transgression, and trying to overcome any limits, just pushing past limits. Complete open-ended self definition whose only limit is death, that’s freedom. Whereas in the Genesis paradigm, freedom is depicted as a sense of belonging—of belonging in the created order and, ultimately, our belonging in God. And so, you really see that clearly in how the man and the woman are kicked out of the garden. They’re exiled. And it’s this anguished moment in the text.
But if you were to kind of approach it from the gender paradigm perspective, that would be a moment of triumph. You’re out of the garden, you’re away from God and His rules. And now you can kind of create freely in the world, and figure out who you are. You essentially become your own gods. But in the Genesis way of seeing that kind of exile is tragic.
Allen: Wow. OK. So, you’re a professor. If in one of your classes, let’s say, a young woman comes up to you, or as you’re out speaking, and says, “OK, well, why does my sex really matter? Why does gender really matter? Why?” I mean, especially in this day and age, when we are seeing kids taking puberty blockers, and hormones, and getting surgeries to “transition.” And biological men are participating on women’s sports teams. In an age when young people are inundated with the message of it’s all [relative] and whatever you want it to be, what’s your message of, wait no, no, why is sex so important?
Favale: I mean, I guess my message is almost even prior to that, which is that the body is important. The body is a gift. I think there’s so much in our culture that denigrates the body, that wants to define identity, and selfhood apart from the body. But I think it’s just really deeply true that human beings are this integrated whole with a W, W-H-O-L-E. We are a whole, not a hole. We actually have this integrated identity, and that’s a beautiful and good thing. And that embodiment in humans is characterized by sexual differentiation.
So we don’t have bodies, we are our bodies. And so, there’s so much in our culture, I think, especially with women that sets them at war with their own bodies. It says, “OK, well, you need to make sure that you alter yourself chemically so that your reproductive system doesn’t work correctly in order that you can be temporarily sterile, and compete in the workplace,” blah, blah, blah. So, from a young age, I think women are adopted into this subtle denigration of especially the female body in our culture. And that ultimately harms women.
Allen: Yeah. Well, and you have taken so much of this information and, like I mentioned, you’ve put it in this video course called Cultivating Catholic Feminism. I’m just obsessed with that title, it’s so great. And the course was really created in part, in response to Pope John Paul II’s call for women to really bring about this new feminism. What does that mean, new feminism?
Favale: Right so, when John Paul II writes that, I think the full quote is something like, “We need a new feminism that doesn’t simply replicate male modes of domination.” So, in that, he’s also kind of jabbing against the old feminism one might say, which really just is also obsessed with control, and power, and domination, and autonomy. So, I think he’s calling there for a movement that defends the dignity of women, but that is rooted in a Catholic understanding of dignity in the human person. And that will look quite different than the old feminism, you might say.
And the Cultivating Catholic Feminism series, I wrote the content for it, and it was produced. But it was produced and kind of created by this woman named Corynne Staresinic who founded The Catholic Woman. And she’s kind of like you, she’s young, and still in her 20s, and just this amazing entrepreneur. And so, her mission is to show the beauty of Catholic understanding of womanhood, but also the freedom that’s offered, and how we can live out our vocation as women, and our genius as women in so many different kinds of ways.
So, there’s this beautiful diversity when you look around at the various kinds of ways women live out their womanhood. And so, that series is an attempt to really articulate what feminism could look like if it was truly an expression of a Catholic worldview.
One of the interesting things about feminism is that it tends to be grafted onto other philosophical systems. It doesn’t have a lot of content to it itself, but it’s almost like parasitical on other things. So, you have like Marxist feminism, or liberal feminism. So, a Catholic feminism would be a movement that is concerned with the wellbeing of women, but one that is completely rooted or built upon the premises of a Catholic understanding of reality.
Allen: OK, interesting. So, if I were to sign up and get this sort of course, what should I expect?
Favale: OK, so, it’s totally free. Totally self-paced. And there are, I think I filmed like 21 videos, and those are the ones I wrote the script for. And so, those videos provide basically a theological framework for what a Catholic feminism would look like. And then, there are also quite a few videos on specific questions. Like, why are there only men in the priesthood? Or why do we call God Father? Or abortion? Contraception? Any of the kind of things that someone who’s confused about feminism and Catholicism, and how those could relate might ask.
There’s also a wonderful set of like mini documentary videos of various Catholic women. So, some religious sisters, women of various ethnicities and backgrounds to show, again, that kind of beautiful diversity of living out Catholic womanhood. So, the production quality is amazing. Corynne’s husband—
Allen: I was watching some of the videos. I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is good.”
Favale: It’s really well crafted. And it’s totally free. And it also has like journal prompts, and there’s kind of this interactive thing to it. But you really make what you want of it. You can just sign up and then watch all the videos at your own pace. Or you can actually do the more kind of interactive work as well. But it’s totally free. I really recommend it. I think it’s a great resource, especially for young women who are trying to navigate how to … I don’t know, I feel like our culture is so polarizing in so many ways. It’s like, oh, OK, so there are some genuine critiques we need to make about feminism, but that doesn’t mean we then need to sort of become strident anti-feminists, and say that women shouldn’t wear pants and vote, and things like that. So, I think there’s like a healthy middle ground between those two things. And this is an attempt to articulate what a Catholic approach would be.
Allen: And for those who aren’t Catholic, I’m not Catholic, is it OK to still, even if you’re not Catholic, take the course?
Favale: Totally. Yeah, because it’s well … Anyone can take it. It is going to take Christian understanding of reality for granted, but it’s going to articulate that. I mean, there might be things that are more specific to Catholics like, say, the male priesthood thing, but that could still be interesting. So I would say yes, anyone who’s either interested in a Christian understanding of feminism, or is Christian themselves, whether Catholic or not, I think it would be helpful.
Allen: That’s so cool. I just love it. Love that you guys are talking about this. Now, there’s one question that we ask all of our guests on the show. And we’ve, in some ways, been talking about it the whole time. But that is, do you consider yourself a feminist? Yes or no? Why or why not?
Favale: That’s a good question. When I converted to Catholicism there was a stretch of two or three years where I think I probably would’ve said no at that time. And it was actually the process of creating this ’cause I remember when Corynne first reached out to me and said, “I have this project, would you be interested in doing it?” I remember at first I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. … I don’t even know if I really consider myself a feminist.” But then, in preparing that, actually producing that and writing the scripts was a way for me to really work out what it could mean to call myself a feminist as a Catholic. And through the process of that, especially reading Edith Stein, and getting more into John Paul II, I began to realize like, wow, that is possible. And there’s a need for that.
So now, I would say, yes, I’m a Catholic first, but I am a feminist second. But what I mean by feminism is definitely grounded in my Catholic theology, I guess.
Allen: Yes. So cool. Now, how can our listeners follow your work, find the course, get the book?
Favale: OK, so, the course you can just go catholicfeminism.com or cultivatingcatholicfeminism.com. My book, “The Genesis of Gender,” is available on Amazon, or directly from the publisher Ignatius. … My conversion memoir, “Into the Deep,” you can get on Amazon and you can follow me on Twitter @favaleabs.
Allen: Awesome. Abby, thank you. This has been so fun. Really, really appreciate your time today.
Favale: Thank you.
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