Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Genesis of Gender:
A Christian Theory

by abigail favale
ignatius, 248 pages, $17.95

Our departure from the Enlightenment is apparent everywhere today. “Truth” is contested territory at all points on the political compass, whether in conservative cynicism about liberal bias in the “mainstream media” or liberal claims that “objectivity” is merely “whiteness” mystifying its own interests. First Things readers may not like the moral order that has become dominant in the wake of this shift, but one thing is clear: We are not in rationalist Kansas anymore. And Oz is fundamentally theological: founded on faith, or more accurately, a Babel of competing faiths.

I’ve written previously in these pages about my own struggle to come to grips with this postmodern turn, particularly where sex and gender are concerned. And reading Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender felt like meeting a fellow-­traveler of sorts. Favale’s book, a bold effort to open diplomatic relations among feminism, postmodernism, and Catholic social teaching, navigates these sometimes-conflicting currents, taking full account of the intellectual paradigm shift that has rejected the Age of Reason.

The Genesis of Gender addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women. This dispute is far from safely confined to academic feminism. Rather, our conclusions have profound ramifications for what it means to be human—whether in the terrain of commerce, our own embodiment, or the very survival of humans as a species. And in our now ­pervasively post-­Enlightenment discourse, rational argument is increasingly unequal to the task of deciding this contest.

Favale presents this controversial theme through the lens of autobiography. Raised in a conservative evangelical household, she embraced feminism in college before converting to Catholicism in her early thirties. In recounting her own journey, she addresses a question by no means unique to her: How can anyone with feminist sympathies embrace traditional Christian belief, especially if one participates in a broader discourse that often treats these positions as irreducibly antagonistic?

Feminism, Favale believes, cannot be dismissed out of hand. Rather, it “rightly recognizes that something is amiss, that the relationship between men and women has been too often characterized by domination.” But she questions the solution that has become mainstream feminist doctrine: a worldview she calls the “gender paradigm.” This worldview separates “gendered” social roles and attributes from embodiment and admits of no intrinsic connection between our physiology and our interests, attributes, or social roles.

Favale proposes a different paradigm for understanding sexed human existence: an incarnational, Christian anthropology that speaks not merely of “the human” in a disembodied, abstract sense, but of men and women as we live together. In the “divinely revealed poetry and allegory” of Genesis, men and women are depicted as created beings, interdependent and complementary in physiology and equally possessed of the divine spark. Drawing on John Paul II, Favale argues that this picture of divinely ordered interdependence extends as well to our existence as ensouled bodies. Favale presents Genesis as a picture of human relations in their proper, prelapsarian order: the relations of men and women, and of each human soul with embodiment.

But this easy harmony, this “serene community of love,” was disrupted by the Fall. The loss of Eden marks “a fracture in the original spiritual-somatic unity of the individual,” leaving each of us at war with ourselves. And in this fallen condition, the body is no longer “integral to the self” but “something that must be tamed and controlled.” From this point, too, men and women are set against one another, in conflict, mistrust, and a never-­ending contest for dominance.

Favale is careful to avoid simplistic equivalences between the complementarity of body and soul, and of men and women. As she explains, feminist theologians have often questioned an analogy that is sometimes taken to imply that women are “flesh” and men “spirit.” Rather, in sharp contrast with the recurrent theme of negative liberty in feminist thought, it is in the interdependence of man and woman, body and soul, that we find the parallel.

Here Favale’s vision ­diverges from mainstream feminism, a worldview whose emphasis on individual autonomy sets women against the limits imposed by the sexed reality of our bodies. Embodiment itself becomes a problem to be solved—­particularly our reproductive potential. As Favale acknowledges, feminism is a rich and fractious tradition. But she traces a line from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s atomized understanding of selfhood to ­Simone de Beauvoir’s definition of “freedom for women” as—in Favale’s words—“freedom from femaleness.” Throughout this trajectory, liberation has come to be viewed as an escape from our sexed ­embodiment.

This picture of neutering as liberation, Favale argues, underwrote the movement to legalize abortion in the mid-twentieth century, which—particularly in America—indelibly associated women’s ability to attain full personhood with control over our fertility. For many, reproductive technologies became indispensable tools in the feminist battle to rebalance the sexual asymmetry between men and women, ensuring that women, like men, could live as sexual beings without carrying the main burden of fertility.

Favale argues that it was this widespread social and legal embrace of contraception and abortion that drove the feminist shift toward “gender.” She shows how queer theorist Judith Butler applied to the body Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “nothing is natural” in our personalities or inner lives. ­Prior to this, it had been only partially possible to escape our sexed reproductive roles; but Butler, writing in a context wherein fertility really could be medically controlled, extended de Beauvoir’s claim beyond social norms to the body itself, and to the contraceptive revolution.

As Favale puts it: “The idea that humankind is split into two sexes that are biologically complementary is, for Butler, a social fiction rather than a matter of fact.” And once the female body has been divorced from “womanhood,” the survival of the “social fiction” of what it means to be a woman is, in Favale’s paraphrase of Butler, “a matter of power, not of truth.” Perhaps the most significant consequence of this dissociative paradigm lies in its “divorcing femaleness from the concept of woman.” For severing “bodily sex” from “procreative potential” makes it seem plausible that humans might meaningfully be understood to change sex. From this perspective, we arrive at “a picture of the human person like a Potato Head doll: a hollow, neuter shell that comes with an assortment of rearrangeable parts.”

With our sexed embodiment “reduced to appearance and pleasure-­making,” identities are all we have. And as disembodied identities proliferate without end, a growing number of confused and unhappy young women embrace transgender identities—in many cases to regret them, only after irreversible medical interventions.

But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.

Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-­somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.

Birth control severs women from their own bodies, “pathologizing femaleness” by treating the “­procreational potential of sex” as “a switch that can be flipped” but “whose default setting is ‘off.’” This dissociative relation to their own fertility inhibits women’s awareness of their cycles, a fracture that can in turn make careless and risky sexual behavior more likely.

Birth control also separates us from one another, Favale argues, because it reframes sex in individual and “consumerist” terms as a leisure activity in which the other is little more than object. Splitting sex from love, this norm makes it increasingly difficult to refuse casual or degrading sexual encounters. And it splits mothers from unborn ­children: For contraceptive ­practices are not always effective, which drives demand for the radical rupture of abortion.

Favale contrasts this dissociative, instrumentalist view of “consumer sex” and of inert and endlessly malleable bodies with the fertility awareness methods and periodic abstinence promoted by Catholic teaching. These approaches, she argues, cultivate an integrated bodily awareness, and put responsibility for managing fertility on the man as well as the woman. This in turn encourages mutual investment in the sexual relationship, the opposite of what so often obtains for many women today.

Those “gender critical” feminists who decry trans activism while embracing reproductive technologies will be challenged by Favale’s argument that Ground Zero for trans activism is contraception and abortion. Feminists committed to “gender abolition” may find her proposals equally challenging, for her arguments rest in a commitment to the reproductive telos of sex and the immutable differences between the sexes.

In place of the fantasy of control and mastery, Favale proposes “an ethos of interconnection,” that is, an approach based “on the norm of female embodiment.” She draws on Aristotle’s notion of potentia: a holistic understanding of the human organism as a set of potentials, rather than an assortment of parts. If our embodiment as women is “teleologically organized according to our distinct role in reproducing the species,” it in no way follows that this organization implies sharply defined prescriptions for the ­social roles of men and women. But it might, for example, have ­implications for the factors ­women weigh when choosing whom to marry, or the order in which to pursue life goals.

Favale’s argument is emphatically not that women can evade the collapse of feminism into disembodiment only by spending their lives getting pregnant willy-nilly—or indeed by returning to a bygone world of patriarchal control. Rather, she argues, it is current social norms that are based on an ideology of domination. The “underlying fantasy of postmodernity,” she argues, “is that we have control over our nature, that we are the masters, the gods, the makers,” seeking “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.”

Those expecting an academic argument in the Enlightenment tradition may find Favale’s blend of personal narrative with interviews, literature, theory, and theology disorienting. But Favale is offering not so much comment on this critical debate as an intervention in it. Despite some textual unevenness in both form and content, The Genesis of Gender represents a sorely needed emerging genre I like to call “postmodern combat theology.”

Writing in this genre does not shy away from positionality, or from moral commitments—but neither does it retreat into iconoclasm, self-absorption, or nihilism. Favale interweaves reason with narrative, literary references, and autobiography to offer an argument that is grounded emotionally as well as intellectually. Her writing rejects dead rationalism for a constructive embrace of the postmodern turn, which seeks (rightly to my mind) the engaged, situated pursuit of a multifaceted truth. In this sense, ­Favale both expounds and enacts the holistic vision she advocates. And it’s in this holistic conception of personhood, premised on “human embodiment as integral to personhood and the person as an icon of the divine,” that Favale articulates a workable synthesis of feminism and the Catholic worldview.

Mary’s assent to becoming the Mother of God became, for all of us, a means “to restore the original justice of creation through the engine of grace.” Favale argues that this “yes” should be a template for a feminism not of fracture within or among us but of integration and integrity, a feminism that ­embraces “radical hospitality” to our embodied selves and the other alike. In such a feminism, pregnancy is no longer a danger, liability, imposition, or illness, but “a living mirror through which we can glimpse the qualities of God.”

Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd.