Three years ago, I interviewed Abigail Favale about her book Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion (Cascade Books, 2018), a work that I described as “a moving, insightful, and vulnerable account of her journey from the Evangelical Protestantism of her youth through feminism and then into the Church.” Favale, who has an academic background in gender studies and feminist literary criticism, has written and spoken widely on topics related to women and gender from a Catholic perspective since entering the Church. After teaching for several years at George Fox University, she is now a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She lives with her husband and four children in South Bend, Indiana.
Her new book is The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius Press, 2022), an analysis and critique of gender ideology and the gender paradigm. Favale recently corresponded with me about the feminist roots of the transgender movement, the difference between “sex” and “gender”, the importance of the Book of Genesis, and articulating a Catholic response to transgenderism.
CWR: The opening chapter of The Genesis of Gender describes some of your journey from Fundamentalist Protestantism to Evangelical Feminism, with the latter leading to “a reductive and bifurcated understanding of Church history” and a naive feminism “characterized by enthusiastic cherrypicking.” Is there a sense in which you, in your twenties, traded one form of fundamentalism for another?
Abigail Favale: There’s a sense in which that’s true, but there’s also a sense in which that’s overly simplistic. For one, I rode a bit of a merry-go-round with faith and doubt during my evangelical upbringing, at least once I hit adolescence.
With feminism, I was more of a “true believer,” eager to evangelize for the cause and to offer apologetic defenses of feminism as needed. There might have been fleeting moments of doubts or uncomfortable questions, but I mostly brushed those aside. As an evangelical, I had those niggling thoughts… What if this isn’t true? But during my postmodern feminist heyday, I didn’t really question whether I might have something wrong.
CWR: In recounting the various stages of feminism that you embraced and then left, you set the stage for your discussion of sex and gender. How important is it for the average reader to have some sense of the history of feminism and the various philosophical and cultural streams therein?
Abigail Favale: I think it is helpful, even vital, to have a clearly articulated worldview—and part of this process is developing an ability to assess other claims and perspectives at the level of worldview. This is not something I was taught to do in graduate school; I was implicitly trained in a worldview perspective (in this case, secular postmodernism) without ever being asked to step back and ask: what are the underlying premises here? Do I really think those are true?
The current conversation about gender seems to come out of nowhere, but is really the fruition of other cultural and philosophical shifts that have been happening for a while, and many of the premises taken for granted in this new gender paradigm are ones that most people would find hard to accept. So in this book I wanted to provide a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made.
CWR: There is, you state, “a danger in dismissing feminism too hastily…” You’ve been criticized in some circles because you propose a Catholic feminism. In what ways does your book explain and present a Catholic feminism? What are the biggest misunderstandings or misrepresentations of it?
Abigail Favale: Human beings are prone to reactionary, totalizing thinking—if feminism misses the mark, it must be all bad. But the feminist movement, in its various “waves,” was seeing and responding to some real problems, real barriers to realizing the full dignity of women in society. It also created some very real problems and new barriers!
Feminist thought has never had a robust metaphysics—an account of what is real. For that, feminist theorists often turn to other philosophical systems. This feminism is so various in its viewpoints and approaches; it is grafted onto other philosophies, like liberalism, or Marxism, or postmodernism.
I do think it is possible to have a feminist perspective that is rooted in a Catholic worldview, one that is concerned with cultivating and celebrating the dignity of women and highlighting ways in which that dignity is threatened.
CWR: I suspect some readers might be surprised that you focus (in the chapter titled “Cosmos”) so much on cosmology and the Book of Genesis. What are some basic foundations you seek to present in that section?
Abigail Favale: Origin stories are incredibly important—not because they merely tell us where we come from; more importantly, they articulate who we are, and our ultimate purpose. Our contemporary moment is obsessed with the question of “identity,” and trying to root our identity in some solid and meaningful ground.
For the Christian, the conversation around identity must begin with our cosmology, which is found in Genesis. The first three chapters of Genesis layout the essentials of a Catholic anthropology: human beings are unities of body and soul, and we are made in the image of God.
Moreover, sexual difference—our maleness and femaleness—is the crowning flourish of creation, part of how we uniquely image the interpersonal and life-giving love of God. Any Christian theory of gender has to spend some time camped out in Genesis.
CWR: The history of “three waves” of feminism is complicated, but you take pains to unpack some key elements. What are some aspects of those “waves” that eventually lead to the current controversies over gender and trans-ideology?
Abigail Favale: As I noted earlier, feminist thought tends to be grafted onto an underlying philosophy. The first wave of feminism was grafted onto political liberalism, concerned with legal equality under the terms of a liberal democracy. Second-wave feminism was influenced more by Marxist thought, and third-wave feminism took a postmodern turn.
On the popular level, today’s conversation about gender borrows heavily from all three of these philosophies, blending them into a dizzying cocktail—appeals to rights and autonomy (liberalism); appeals to oppression-based identity categories (Marxism); appeals to the social construction of reality and open-ended self-definition (post-modernism).
CWR: You argue that the “implicit worldview” of feminism today “is what I am calling the gender paradigm”, and: “First and foremost, this paradigm is a godless one.” What is “the gender paradigm”? And what qualities of this feminism reveal its godless character?
Abigail Favale: The gender paradigm is one that sees “truth” and “reality” as exercises of social power. This paradigm rejects any appeals to “nature” or the “natural,” as in an inherent state of being. There is no God or creator, and thus we are not created beings. Instead, we create ourselves. We do not receive our sense of identity or meaning from the world; we impose it onto the world. Our bodies are blank slates; they do not carry any intrinsic meaning, and we should wield technology to overcome any supposedly “natural” limits that impinge on our autonomy.
CWR: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, at this point, the question: “What is a woman?”
Abigail Favale: A woman is the kind of human being whose whole body is organized around the potential to gestate life within oneself. A man is the kind of human being whose body is organized around the potential to create life in another. The word “potential” here is important: a potential exists even if it’s not able to be actualized. This definition, then, includes infertile men and women. In fact, the very category of “infertility” signals an inherent potential that is not being realized.
Being a woman is not merely a matter of biology, but it necessarily includes biology. But because woman is a personal category—i.e. referring to a whole person—it also has psychological, spiritual, social, and experiential dimensions. On a deeper level, womanhood (and manhood) has sacramental meaning; our sexual differentiation as male and female is an icon of the Trinitarian God.
CWR: How did the term “gender” arise and evolve? And how has it become separate (or even antagonistic toward) the word “sex”?
Abigail Favale: In the mid-1950s, psychologist John Money borrowed the term “gender” from linguistics to articulate his theory that sexed human identity is a matter of socialization rather than biology. He coined the term “gender role” and make a distinction between what he called “gender” (the social expressions and norms attached to sex) and sex itself.
Second-wave feminists adopted this terminology, and it quickly swept through the humanities and social sciences. This sex/gender split, while useful in some ways, ultimately drove a wedge between body and self, between female and woman. In the postmodern turn of feminism, Judith Butler upped the ante by positing that sex itself, not just gender, is also a social construct. This move paved the way for a bewildering reversal of the sex/gender distinction.
In our time, sex is the construct, and “gender,” the subjective sense of oneself—is what’s truly “real.”
CWR: Why do you think we are witnessing such an explosion of “trans-” individuals? And such a widespread embrace and promotion of transgenderism?
Abigail Favale: I think we are witnessing a complex phenomenon fed by many cultural trends and ailments. Most of the “explosion” we are seeing in trans-identification is among young people, which is a novel development. We are also seeing a broad mental health crisis among young people, and a wide range of complex kinds of suffering and angst are being funneled into this simplistic framework that purports to reveal the source of the suffering and the solution: change your body and you will be happy.
I also think young people are unconsciously rebelling against negative and reductive narratives about womanhood and manhood. Increasingly, our cultural understandings of gender are shaped by pornography, and the idea of men as domineering predators and women as victims.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, this trend began to spike alongside the rise of social media. Young people increasingly live online lives—and the internet is a disembodied, fluid world, where it’s possible to construct your own unique avatar. Moreover, social media is full of influencers who are peddling transition as a panacea and providing guidance and scripts for young people to follow.
CWR: What can Catholics do to not only respond to what I call “the tyranny of trans”, but to help people see that our sexuality is a gift from God?
Abigail Favale: Well, don’t panic and overreact by reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. Instead, shift the focus to embodiment and the goodness of the body. Help young people develop their own unique personalities while also affirming the goodness of their sexed identity.
Pay attention to language—use reality-based language and, whenever possible, quietly opt out of requests to use language that is at odds with reality. But also be careful to maintain the distinction between the flawed framework of gender theory and the real people who are caught up in that framework. Make every interaction a loving one, focused on the individual person in front of you, not an abstract identity category.
Listen, love, and speak the truth when called upon. And remember, we’re all works-in-progress, and God is infinitely patient with us.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Abigail Favale: Be not afraid. That’s always a good one to keep in mind.
(Editor’s note: This interview was originally posted on July 12, 2022.)
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Thank you, Madame Favale, for sharing your clear and incisive thoughts on the insanity that has engulfed our nation.
Seeing the logical progression from relativism and feminism to the sundering of self from reality that is “gender” mythology is most helpful in combating this diabolical assault on humanity.
How ironic — and yet somehow, how appropriate— that the end result of feminism is the total elimination of women.
Access to simple, direct, irrefutable —and, therefore, verboten — perspectives like yours are why I frequent CWR.
The image of the book cover is really immodest and ought to be changed. While I should be able to offer an extended critique of this article, this is what is most important to relate now.
The chest, back, and “inner limbs” (to elbows and knees) of every human ought to – at a minimum – be loosely (especially for females) covered at all times in public. The garment neckline must not be more than two fingers width from the pit of the throat all the way around. Furthermore, strictly speaking it is likely that private deviations from this standard are remote occasions of sin.
The differences between males and females with regards to dress is that females must have a garment where the space between the legs is covered with cloth that is solid (i.e. no “indentations” or cut outs) and has a hem parallel to the ground while she is standing (i.e. a skirt).
The standard of dress described above is applicable to humans at every age and in every circumstance. No exceptions are to be made for sports or age.
There has been and is a Satanic plot to subtlety change the extent to which humans cover their bodies in the direction of increasing immodesty. The precise machinations are unclear (without a lawsuit or deep investigations), but the good news is that it needn’t be exactly discovered – provided that good standards are put into ENFORCED law.
The apparel itself can be critiqued by objective standards. One can even find – like me – that scientific research is supportive of this. At least, there is a “line” (i.e. percentage of skin showing) that has been drawn with regards to what is modest. Whether that line is correct or not is another question, but the fact that it exists in the minds of men explodes the “modesty is a matter of custom.”
I recently had a very revealing experience that I will relate. While I was being criminally treated as a criminal (i.e. involuntary “mental health” commitment) I had an occasion to talk with two women “ambulance workers.” One of them suggested that she cover my lower legs with linen. I agreed and she made a comment along the lines of that she didn’t believe in offering “free shows.” I have never had any clearer direct proof that some women are especially concerned with and know of the effect that exposed skin can have on others. Of course, I don’t know where the woman’s understanding of modest dress came from.
The cover of THE GENESIS of GENDER depicts Adam and Eve. Is the author of this comment familiar with Christian art? Although I recognize part of his rules in statements by Pope Pius XII, his standards look more like Muslim hijab requirements. What? No covering of women’s hair or faces?
We needed that…we need more of that.
Thanks to CWR and Mr. Olson and especially Abigail Favale.
Yes, thank you Mr Olson, another example of why I love CWR. There is so much that is positive in this article. Under you editorship Mr Olson, CWR, remains a loyal, balanced outpost of all that is happening in the Catholic world. The same cannot be said of many other ‘Catholic’ publications and I don’t just mean the liberal ones. It is more important than ever that a reasonable oasis remains, because I think we are going to see a drip feed of people returning to more traditional (not fundamentalist)teachings. Some sites touting themselves as Conservative have in recent months suggested women should be denied the vote. One site today features an article almost saying Salman Rushdie ‘had it coming,’ echoing Pope Francis awful suggestion that an islamic attack wasn’t that different to someone avenging their insulted mother. A modern woman searching for an oasis of truth (not compromise) will turn away very disheartened, should she search and find bitter fruit, and the future can only get better, if men and women are united as their creator intended them to be.
Abigail Favale has done some good and important work regarding gender ideology nonsense. Nevertheless, she along with many other people of good will opposed to the bogus claims of the “transgender” crowd concede way too much to the likes of John Money and Judith Butler in their abuse of the term ‘gender’ when she states in the interview:
“This sex/gender split, while useful in some ways, ultimately drove a wedge between body and self, between female and woman. In the postmodern turn of feminism, Judith Butler upped the ante by positing that sex itself, not just gender, is also a social construct. This move paved the way for a bewildering reversal of the sex/gender distinction.”
Favale’s conclusion that the sex/gender split is “useful in some ways” is seriously misguided and helps open the door to much of the “transgender” idiocy currently afflicting the world. Equally disappointing is her reference to Butler’s abuse of the word ‘gender’ by declaring it “paved the way for a bewildering reversal of the sex/gender distinction.”
However, when it is rightly maintained that biological sex and gender are synonymous terms and should always be viewed and used this way regarding human males and females, the modest would-be legitimacy to some separating of the two terms as advocated by Favale and others completely crumbles, and rightly so. There is Not a useful split between gender and sex in this regard, and there is No bewildering reversal involving a distinction between sex and gender that Favale unfortunately accepts, because there is no such distinction in reality.
Now it is true that one use of the term ‘gender’ refers to how it is used grammatically, but note even here that gender is broken down into masculine nouns which pertain to biological males (men, boys, etc.), feminine nouns that pertain to biological females (women, girls, etc.), or neuter nouns that are neither male nor female, like a rock or piece of wood. As such, even the grammatical use of gender is directly tied to biological realities when it comes to things male or female.
More importantly, if good people like Favale, Matt Walsh, and Trent Horn would check the actual etymology/history of the word ‘gender’, they would find out that it has been used as a synonym for biological sex since at least the 12th century, and this became more prominent as a synonym for biological sex beginning in the 15th century. As such, this rightful understanding of gender as synonymous with biological sex must not be surrendered to the “transgender” movement since these wayward advocates and their fellow travelers use their preferred yet still false definition of gender as a social construct and/or feelings a person has that may or may not coincide with their biological sex/gender to further promote their horrific agenda.
Indeed, in this most serious culture war, we must always insist that gender and biological sex are synonymous in order to definitively demonstrate the folly of the “transgender” movement that proudly proclaims biological sex and gender are different. Granting even a little bit of ground involving the use of the term ‘gender’ as Favale and others do is not clever or wise, and, though unintentional, it does aid the overall “transgender” movement that relies in large part on word manipulation and getting people to accept their definitions of terms as much as possible.
“A woman is the kind of human being whose whole body is organized around the potential to gestate life within oneself”.
An older and shorter definition of woman in three words: Mulier: Quod circum uterum.
A woman is what is around a womb.
I heard a scientist on the radio quite recently stating that man-made wombs will come into existence within the next ten years. One of the questions asked by the interviewer was at what point will you decide when a new life has come into existence?
Response; at Conception.
kevin your brother
Not only will artificial wombs be available eventually, but experiments already successful in mice can turn skin cells into sperm or ova that lead to healthy baby mice. Thus, trans individuals could produce gametes of the sex they “identify” with to fertilize either natural or fabricated gametes and procreate children. Indeed, they would be able to make babies all by themselves; no opposite sex partner needed.
Another aspect of the gender wars not much covered in Abigail Favale’s book is the role of adult biological men claiming female identity to invade women-only spaces–with or without surgery. The most vicious attacks on actual women have been driven by such people. “Kill the TERFS” is their battle cry.
Amy Welborn’s blog has done great work covering these issues:
I am and have always been a female human being. I will not allow my identity as a woman and mother to be erased by misogynist nonsense!
Good reflections, Sandra. As I have written elsewhere, don’t even give in a smidge on adopting/using the terminology of the “transgender” movement and their fellow travelers. In writing, always use quotation marks around the terms “transgender,” “trans,” “transition” (in reference to the false claim that a person can “transition” from one sex to another sex), and the like to demonstrate that such terms refer to mere fantasies with no basis in reality, and also make it clear in speaking that such terms are bogus. As the late, great Monsignor William Smith put it: “All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering.” This is why we must be vigilant and extremely careful to avoid the use and acceptance of any terms without qualification that are part of the agenda favored by those who seek to undermine God’s creative order of male and female.