This interview was originally featured in Cogitare’s 2023 Summer Print Edition
Dr. Abigail Favale, a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, has an academic background in gender studies and feminist literary criticism, and now writes and teaches on topics related to women and gender from a Catholic perspective – her most recent book is entitled The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.
Favale, who describes herself as a convert from “postmodern feminism” to Catholicism, joins Sarah Soltis in dialogue about gender, motherhood, and culture.
SS: Your recent book The Genesis of Gender speaks to some of the overlap and differences between the terms “sex” and “gender.” Can you summarize the relation of those terms? What, if any, are the distinctions between sex and gender?
AF: That’s a great and very complex question! Much of the confusion around gender today is fueled by a confusion of terms. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, feminist theorists began to make a distinction between sex and gender with “sex” referring to biological maleness or femaleness, and “gender” referring to the cultural norms, expressions, and expectations associated with sex. The fairly common phrase “gender is a social construct” typically expresses this idea. Now, however, it is increasingly common for people to speak of “gender” in terms of “gender identity,” defined as an innate sense of one’s self as male or female (or both/neither). This concept of gender is quite different, less of a social construct and more of an inner essence. Thus, in contemporary discourse, there is constant equivocation about what gender even means.
From a Christian perspective, one’s personal identity as man or woman (i.e. “gender”) is grounded in the reality of sex, even if it is also influenced by culture. Gender—womanhood and manhood—refers to the whole person as an integrated unity, body and spirit.
SS: What, to your mind, are some of the ways that women can honor God – as women in particular? In other words, how (if at all) ought women use their particular gifts / callings to honor God?
AF: A woman is the kind of human being whose body is organized according to the potential to gestate new life, i.e. motherhood. A man is the kind of human being whose body is organized according to the potential for fatherhood.
These are biological realities, yes, but they are also spiritual realities—what does it look like to live out spiritual motherhood? Nourishing personal development in others; protecting the vulnerable; defending human dignity, bearing spiritual fruit in our communities, etc. – there’s so much we could say! And spiritual fatherhood is not a polar opposite calling, but a distinct embodiment of the vocation to love—using one’s strength to help the most vulnerable flourish, etc. So to women, perhaps the question to ask ourselves is this: how can I more fully develop my capacity for spiritual maternity? What specific gifts and flaws do I have as a unique individual? What virtues do I need to habituate to balance my flaws? Courage? Patience?
I think the work of philosopher, martyr, and saint Edith Stein is so helpful here. She writes about how we need to develop our full potential as a human, as a woman, and as an individual person, with help from God’s grace. All of these dimensions of personhood matter and carry their own range of potencies that can be activated and developed. Not all women are exactly alike—and that variation is beautiful.
SS: I know a handful of young women who desire to be God-honoring wives and mothers, but many of them have not found good Christian men. What would be your advice to young, unmarried women who want to honor God as women?
AF: In much of Christian history and tradition, marriage was not seen as the default ideal state of life for men and women. (See, for example, the Apostle Paul’s comments about the advantages of remaining unmarried.) Our modern moment has unfortunately conflated fulfillment, success, personal happiness, etc., with marriage.
I think it is better to think about one’s vocation more broadly: “I am called to give and receive love; that’s what I’m made for—how do I live out that call in my life and current circumstances?” For some, that might entail marriage; for others, it won’t. And that’s okay. Both the married state of life and the celibate state of life each come with their own gifts, struggles, and freedoms; I think it is important to embrace those gifts and struggles in whatever state or season of life you find yourself in today. Seek to make this time of life fruitful, as you discern whether marriage is also part of your vocation, and entrust that part of your life to God.
SS: You’ve spoken in an interview about motherhood – in your own life – as a force that countervails the “religion” of feminism. Over the years that you have been a mother, how have you learned from motherhood?
AF: Motherhood is intense. It is an excellent school of virtue and sanctification. Nothing else has been so effective at revealing my own wounds and weaknesses.
Right now, motherhood is teaching me patience. I am not a patient person, so I am praying for the grace to grow in that virtue and intentionally trying to practice it in relation with my children. Three years ago, I felt led to pray for gentleness—a virtue that is perhaps associated with femininity, but that does not come easily to me. I had to work and pray at it to see that virtue bear fruit. Yet now I am more gentle, on others and myself.
When I first became a mother, the experiences of pregnancy (which was awful and hard), childbirth (awful and awesome), and lactation (burdensome and wonderful) revealed to me many things.
First, the brute reality and power of my femaleness. Womanhood is not a disembodied social construct, but an embodied reality that is not wholly under our control.
Second, I learned the limits of autonomy. In truth, human beings are interdependent—all of us—and the focus on autonomy and independence within much feminist thought has created a suspicion toward femaleness and motherhood.
Third, I learned that the tiny 12-week unborn baby I first saw on the ultrasound was undeniably a living human being, a person: sucking his thumb, kicking around in circles. Undeniable.
SS: You’ve also spoken about the feminist “hermeneutic of suspicion” and how it damages our reading of Scripture. In our cultural dialogue of “intersectionality” today, it seems that the hermeneutic of suspicion extends beyond sexism and feminism, creating suspicion around the things of God on multiple different fronts of identity. How do we respond to this wide-ranging attitude of suspicion in our cultural dialogue today?
AF: Perhaps the fundamental question is this: is scripture divinely revealed or not? If the answer is yes, then it is scripture that should be examining us, speaking authoritatively into our hearts and minds, rather than the inverse.
It is possible, of course, to have substantive and faithful conversations about how to interpret scripture well, with an awareness of cultural context, etc. But that is different from dissecting scripture according to our preferred ideological commitments.
Bringing a hermeneutic of suspicion to scripture puts oneself in the seat of judgment and authority; I get to decide what’s true here and what’s problematic. This posture silences scripture, reducing it to just a man-made object, rather than an incarnational self-disclosure of God through human words and concepts. Scripture does not need to be read only literally or at face-value—but it should be read reverently, from a posture of humility, an awareness of our limits and finitude, and our need for salvation. Reverence and suspicion are at odds.
SS: Similarly, you write in The Genesis of Gender about those harmed by gender ideology and trans-ideology. How should Christians respond to individuals struggling with/under the reigning gender theory of our culture?
AF: I think it is best to take a personalist approach—seek to better see and understand the person, what he or she is experiencing and going through, and walk with them in that as a friend. Ask genuine questions and discern thoughtfully when to contribute your own opinions or perspective; seek to build a genuine friendship. Don’t push or pressure; we humans are so impatient! But God works slowly, often imperceptibly. He plays the long game.
So develop a genuine relationship and commit to praying daily for this person, that they will encounter Christ and his love. And, as always, pay more attention to that plank in your own eye.