The onslaught of comments following J.K. Rowling’s critique of gender theory demonstrates an ever-growing confusion toward sexual difference and the concept of personhood more generally.

“If sex isn’t real,” she tweeted, “the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love transpeople, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”¹

The Twitter battles between her cheerleaders and naysayers are reminiscent of the aftermath of Meryl Streep’s critique of “toxic masculinity” just a little over a year ago.

“We hurt our boys by calling something toxic masculinity…I don’t find [that] putting those two words together…” She trailed off, perhaps noticing that she was entering into dangerous territory. “We have our good angles and we have our bad ones. I think the labels are less helpful than what we’re trying to get to, which is a communication, direct, between human beings. We’re all on the boat together.”²

There were those who were #WithHer, those who felt the need to “lovingly” correct her, and others to whom she’s beyond correction. How can one possibly enlighten “an old rich white boomer who stars in boring movies which she gets nominated for anyways”?³

Apparently, we’re not all on the boat together, as Streep would naively like to assume. Appeals like Streep’s to a shared sense of humanity, sweet as they are intended to be, hold little to no weight in a metaphysically challenged culture like our own.

These Twitter wars over gender are a fairly recent phenomenon. However, a review of the history of modern feminism reveals that what constitutes womanhood, femininity, and even personhood more broadly has always been contested. Indeed, today’s debates are almost predictable given modern feminisms’s aversion to ontology and metaphysics. Rather than resorting to intense culture war tactics, it may be more fruitful to reintroduce questions about ontology, metaphysical anthropology, and embodiment to the conversation about women’s rights and dignity.

The First Wave

Contemporary discourse on sexual difference, and more particularly on women’s dignity, reflects a confused anthropology that is the legacy of the Enlightenment. Personhood is steadily being reduced to a mechanistic paradigm that posits power as the person’s ultimate telos. These ideologies, more often than not stewed up in elite, academic circles, slowly trickle down and are unconsciously absorbed by the masses via pop culture and media.

This reduction of dignity to power and political agency reflects the weak anthropological basis of the mainstream feminist movement’s early days. The First Wave, which emerged in the US in the mid-nineteenth century, is best known for its goal of achieving women’s right to vote. Many of the suffragette’s approached women’s rights through either a liberal Protestant or humanistic lens.

Among the most notable were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom were raised in pious Christian families, but went on to leave behind traditional Christianity—Anthony for agnostic Unitarianism and Stanton for “rational ideas based on scientific facts.”⁴ Others were actively involved in liberal Protestant denominations, from Methodists like Sojourner Truth and Anna Howard Shaw (the latter of whom was one of the first women ordained in the Methodist Church), to Unitarians like Frances Harper and Margaret Fuller.

These women were motivated by their sense of justice, righteousness, and service to society. Some of the suffragettes attributed these duties to a divine call. Fuller spoke often of “the divine obligation of love and mutual aid between human beings,” and of her “hope for the seemingly worthless,” which was based on the recognition of “the only reality, the divine soul of the visible creation, … which cannot permit evil to be permanent or its aim of beauty to be eventually frustrated in the smallest particular.”⁵ Harper, who was also a fervent abolitionist, claimed that “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”⁶

Though appeals to women’s dignity being rooted in the soul were common, they often were found side by side with appeals based on human progress. As Stanton put it, the suffragettes sought “freedom, freedom from all unnecessary entanglements and concessions, freedom from binding obligations involving impossibilities, freedom to repair mistakes, to express the manifoldness of our own natures, and to progress on, to advance to higher planes of development.”⁷

The lack of ontological depth within these liberal Protestant and humanistic views of personhood made appeals to metaphysical truths optional at best. This gave way to the view of dignity as individual power and autonomy, as opposed to the capacity for love and unity with truth.⁸

This lack of depth is also reflected in the First Wave’s attitude toward femininity. It seemed to be an uncontested assumption that although women deserved the same rights as men, they were still fundamentally different from men. And for some suffragettes, this very difference served as the basis of their argument for women’s votes. This difference was mainly constructed upon the idea that women were morally superior to men. Women’s votes were needed in order to bring a more moral and human sensibility to the public sphere. The close ties between the women’s suffrage and Temperance movements attest to this attitude.⁹

The claim of women’s moral superiority seems to have emerged from social and historical circumstances. American women were still subjected to the ideal of domesticity, where the woman’s capacity for bearing and nurturing life circumscribed her role in the home. The woman’s “role” as homemaker and moral formator of children made her more fit to advocate for moral reforms in the public sphere. This idea was further bolstered by the problem of male drunkenness and violence, from which women had little means to protect themselves and their children (thus the relationship between suffrage, temperance, and moral reform).

Is this observation solid enough to provide a persuasive vision of what makes a woman a woman? This understanding of femininity is rooted less in an anthropological conviction about what constitutes the dignity of woman and more so upon social constructs. It struggles to recognize the ontological symbolism of the female body, and its relationship with its Creator whose image and likeness her soul reflects.

The daughters of the First Wave believed that feminine dignity could be further promoted through women acquiring authentic political power. It is possible that it is precisely because of feminism’s under-developed ontology that such explicitly political goals could be made the final goal.

The daughters of the First Wave went on to construe the goal of furthering women’s dignity through the lens of woman as agent of political power. Perhaps the lack of ontologically serious visions of femininity and personhood allowed for this mechanistic understanding of the person’s agency to determine the type of rights that they went on to pursue.

The Second Wave

The Second Wave, set into motion by Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, was defined by the pursuit of equal opportunities in spheres typically dominated by men. While De Beauvoir acknowledged that men and women are different, she rejected the idea that their differences constituted obligatory social roles. If women want their dignity respected, they must be afforded the same opportunities as men. Women must be able to have careers of their own. De Beauvoir’s Hegelian anthropology convinced her that maternity is inherently oppressive: the woman is forced into competition with her child. Motherhood is also the main justification for keeping women homebound. Accordingly, the threat of domesticity imposed by the child merits her the option of terminating the pregnancy.

This negative attitude toward the forced vocation of women as homemakers is reflected in De Beauvoir’s American counterpart, Betty Friedan, whose The Feminine Mystique ignited the second wave in the US. Friedan, who used to write for women’s magazines, began to note the “problem that has no name.” She writes:

Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night– she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– “Is this all?”

She attributed the invention of this supposedly fulfilling ideal of happiness, what she called the “feminine mystique,” to men who edited women’s magazines. She continues,

Over and over again, stories in women’s magazines insist that women can know fulfillment only at the moment of giving birth to a child. They deny the years when she can no longer look forward to giving birth, even if she repeats the act over and over again. In the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.¹⁰

Friedan’s diagnosis of the “problem that has no name” sounds like a demand for a deeper, perhaps even spiritual meaning of motherhood and home life. What does the dull routine of life at home have to do with a longing for some ultimate existential purpose? Rather than giving space to these questions and exploring the possible answers, she immediately posits that the answer will come from being liberated from the cult of domesticity.

Following De Beauvoir’s cue, Friedan called for women to take up professional careers and leave behind the oppressive ideal of homemaking. Her proposal resonated with countless women who went on to pursue careers of their own. Could anyone blame her for attacking the superficially bland 1950s ideal of the wife as homemaker, intertwined as it was with glittering ads for appliances and unimaginatively bourgeois fashion? The consumerist ideal of femininity was spiritually shallow and inevitably dissatisfying for most. Surely Friedan and the masses of women who have been pressured to confine themselves to homemaking are entitled to feeling frustrated and empty. But who is to say that that same “problem” won’t resurface once she is afforded more agency in the public sphere?

And still, her proposal, rather than seeking to dig deeper into the vocation of woman as wife and mother, fell into the logic of power, thus to downplay the options of marriage and maternity. Raising one’s children at home is construed as an oppressive experience in itself–it robs the woman of autonomy. But is the woman who has a career of her own, her own money, and makes her own choices really superior to the homemaker?

This is not to discredit the laudable efforts of Second Wave feminists who advocated for women to be able to work outside of the home and receive equal treatment and compensation. The challenge here lies within the logic they used to propel their efforts forward. The logic of human dignity-as-power here reveals that it is necessarily accompanied by a logic of elimination. Rather than offering a path towards redeeming injustices and uniting differences into a complementary whole, modern secular feminism finds itself incapable of furthering women’s dignity without eliminating the obstacles perceived to be in their way (in the case of the Second Wave, the vocation of motherhood and life at home). Instead of imagining ways for women to be of service to others both within the family as well as within the workplace, the ideal of autonomy prevailed, inevitably giving way to a new image of the successful working woman.

The Third Wave

The Third Wave not only calls into question traditional gender roles, but the concept of gender altogether. In her seminal work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler takes a step beyond seeking gender equality when she makes the claim that the social construction of the gender binary itself is the source of inequality and injustice. Butler goes straight to the root of what she conceives to be the problem: gender as an ontological category; a problem the previous waves left largely untouched:

If the notion of an abiding substance is a fictive construction produced through the compulsory ordering of attributes into coherent gender sequences, then it seems that gender as substance, the viability of man and woman as nouns, is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes that fail to conform to sequential or causal models of intelligibility…These substances are nothing other than the coherences contingently created through the regulation of attributes, it would seem that the ontology of substances itself is not only an artificial effect, but essentially superfluous.¹¹

The notion of “Being” and ontological categories that precede and define our existence are here construed as artifice. Generated by fear and the desire to maintain a hierarchy of power, these ontological categories and metaphysical truths in general are sources of oppression. Accordingly, the deconstruction of gender is a necessary step on the path to liberation. Here the logic of elimination reaches its climax: the inequality between the sexes presents us not with something to be united or reconciled, nor even to be reversed. Instead, it is an illusion that must be eliminated.

Butler develops her theory of performativity alongside her critique of the gender binary. Gender identity doesn’t presuppose a pre-existing, essential identity. It is a constantly moving action. Relying on a Hegelian notion of being as evolving, rather than a static essence, she claims that we are constantly constructing our identity. While the binary attempts to impose particular modes of performance onto us, we have the agency to redefine and defy the binary.

The phenomenon of transgenderism (in its ideological form, which I recognize to be distinct from the phenomenon of gender dysphoria as a neurological condition), seems to blend older notions of an essential, pre-existing identity distinct from one’s (biological) physical identity, with Butler’s idea of gender as performance. The typical transgender narrative centers around the feeling that one’s mannerisms, interests, and cultural sensibilties don’t align with those ascribed by society to their biological sex. I may have a penis, but I feel and act (perform) more like a woman. The standard narrative presupposes that identity is something performed, while affirming that the categories of “maleness” and “femaleness” correspond to a fixed set of characteristics.

Dissent From the Mainstream

The proliferation of voices challenging mainstream feminist discourse attests to the inadequacy of their underlying anthropology. Most sensible people will have a hard time embracing the reality-bending idea that their bodies have nothing to do with their identities as people, or that sexual difference ought to be neutralized…Streep and Rowling’s comment are just fleeting examples.

The throng of young men fawning over Jordan Peterson testifies to the growing disillusionment with condemnations of certain expressions of masculinity as toxic. The emergence of alternative options, like the “dirtbag” feminism of the women who host the podcast Red Scare (which is inspired by the Amazonian feminism of Camille Paglia) and the pro-life, secular New Wave Feminist movement speak to the reality that women themselves are disillusioned with the solutions offered them by the current hierarchs of the Feminist Magisterium.

I call for Christians to fill in the anthropological and metaphysical void in the different attempts at developing further respect for the dignity of women. Now that the gnostic tendency of trivializing material difference is being called into question, Christians have a chance to offer a more nuanced and realistic approach to the issues at hand.

The philosophical anthropology of writers like Edith Stein and John Paul II, with their development of the concept of feminine and masculine genius, are a good place to start. Contrary to the postmodern view that constructs a dualism between matter and will, this integral view conceives of the wholeness of the person’s identity as body, mind, and spirit. The body “speaks” of the inner awareness and potentialities of the person. These respective “geniuses,” or sensibilities, refer to the particular “modes” of generativity and self-gift that are inscribed on the body. Just as the integral identity of the person is a “gift,” given by another, the person’s masculinity and femininity is defined by the unique way he or she gives of him or herself–both in the home and work place, private and public spheres. The logic of love and self-gift found in Christian anthropology offers a way out of the dead-end, power-driven logic proposed by the previous Waves of feminism.

Conclusion

Thankfully, more Christians are catching on to the need for a New Feminism which affirms the unique gifts of women and of men, both in the home and in the workplace. There are women like Sr. Prudence Allen and Abigail Favale who bring ontological clarity to conversations about women’s dignity, and others like Pia de Solenni and Angela Franks who are doing important work pointing out the dangers that gender ideology imposes on women, and Sydney Callahan who challenges the “phallic fallacy” that abortion liberates women.

These women’s fully human vision affirms that the body is not a “thing” to be dealt with, but a gift that speaks to us. The body, when working harmoniously with our minds and spirits, reveals the totality of our identity. Without this vision, I’m afraid mainstream feminists will continue in their harmful campaign to eliminate the supposed obstacles they see in their way, leading toward a reality-bending soup of gnostic nothingness.

We are all in the boat together…when we allow ourselves the freedom to follow the call to give; inscribed in our hearts, minds, and bodies.

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Footnotes

  1. Twitter, @jk_rowling , 6 June 2020. <https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/1269389298664701952>.
  2. Waters, Lowenna, “Meryl Streep says the phrase “toxic masculinity” can be harmful to men and people are divided,” indy100, 2 June 2019, <https://www.indy100.com/article/meryl-streep-toxic-masculinity-men-women-feminism-controversy-8940711>.
  3. Twitter, @bertoligy, 30 May 2019, <https://twitter.com/bertoligy/status/1134247545608200192?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fd-37944772754035481123.ampproject.net%2F1905091827220%2Fframe.html>.
  4. Stanton, Eighty Years and More, p.43. She said elsewhere of religion: “all religions on the face of the earth degrade her [women], and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible.” Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, pp. 12
  5. Emerson, Rev. Dr. Dorothy May, “Margaret Fuller’s Spiritual Legacy,” Concord Convocation, 28 December 2010, <http://www.margaretfuller.org/resources/general-articles/109-margaret-fullers-spiritual-legacy>.
  6. Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, “We are All Bound Up Together,” Black Past, 1866 <https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1866-frances-ellen-watkins-harper-we-are-all-bound-together/>.
  7. Ellen DuBois, ed., “On Labor and Free Love: Two Unpublished Speeches of Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Signs vol. 1 no. 1 (1975), pp. 266.
  8. “The daughters of the First Wave believed that feminine dignity could be further promoted through women acquiring authentic political power. It is possible that it is precisely because of feminism’s under-developed ontology that such explicitly political goals could be made the final goal.” Elizabeth B. Clark, The Politics of God and the Woman’s Vote: Religion in the American Suffrage Movement, 1848-1895, Scholarly Commons at the Boston University School of Law, 1989, <https://scholarship.law.bu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=clark_pubs>.
  9. Engel, Keri, “Women’s Suffrage and Prohibition: Strange Allies,” Amazing Women in History, <https://amazingwomeninhistory.com/womens-suffrage-and-temperance-movement/>.
  10. Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, New York: WW Norton & Company, 2001, page 58.
  11. Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge, 1990, pages 33-34.

Posted by Stephen G. Adubato

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J. He blogs on Patheos at "Cracks in Postmodernity." https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cracksinpomo/