Published July 28, 2022
We live at a time of deep confusion about what it means to be human and about who we are as embodied creatures, male or female. With The Genesis of Gender, Abigail Favale offers a thoughtful effort to recover some sense of clarity about ourselves and the moment we inhabit.
The book’s main strength is its thoroughness and complexity, as Favale contrasts the internal contradictions of feminism and gender theory with a coherent account of human nature and the givenness of our bodies. She considers subjects that modern authors handle often: feminism, equality, sex, gender, and religion. But her treatment of them is close to brand-new, weaving a compelling narrative that helps readers understand how we came to be uncertain about some of the most basic realities of life, truths that were taken for granted by our parents and grandparents.
The Genesis of Gender is part history of feminism, part case for a Catholic feminism, part spiritual memoir. Favale shares her own philosophical and theological deliberations across many years, inviting readers to walk alongside her on a journey of curiosity, self-discovery, and maturation. Her background gives her unique insight: She was raised as a traditionalist Protestant, discovered modern feminism in college, and wound up getting a doctorate in gender theory, which she then used to teach undergraduates.
But once she found herself in a teaching role, Favale slowly began to question her own material, wondering whether she herself believed the progressive dogma even as she shared it with her students. In her quest for answers, she found far more than she bargained for, including the Catholic Church, which she joined even before she was able to get on board with all of its teachings.
Her meandering intellectual and personal journey provides a strong foundation for her argument, which is at once comprehensive and accessible. Steeped in feminist philosophy and gender theory, Favale is well equipped to articulate a holistic vision of the human person, one that keeps in mind the goods sought by feminists while rejecting the impoverished aspects of their worldview.
Favale traces a brief explanatory history of the feminist movement over the past century, pinpointing precisely where its quest for equality and dignity went wrong — a critique bolstered by a parallel narrative, the coherent account of womanhood and human nature on offer from the Catholic Church. Particularly clarifying is her charge that major feminist thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone, seemed to despise the female body, establishing maleness as the ideal form, a misstep that has wrought decades of devastation.
Favale deals with far broader themes than politics, but in the course of her argument she ably reveals the deficiencies and contradictions hidden within progressive beliefs about human nature, particularly as they relate to sex and gender identity. To take one example: Gender theorists note the problems with rigid male and female stereotypes, such as the contrived notions that women should be confined to housework while men work outside the home or that little girls must play with dolls while little boys play with trucks. But many who are rightly dissatisfied with this simplistic schema in turn insist that, if a little girl prefers to play with trucks, for example, this can be taken as evidence that she somehow is a little boy, as if her choice of a toy steamroller said something meaningful about who she really was on the inside.
Favale, in one of the most original parts of the book, focuses her critical gaze on contraception, identifying it as the necessary step in removing men and women from an intrinsic aspect of their bodies: the capacity to bring new life into the world. A major key to understanding who we are as a man or a woman, in other words, is the distinct way in which we are ordered toward reproduction. Contraception rendered this capacity optional, hampering our awareness of the truth that our embodiment as male and female carries meaning and significance, that it reveals something about our nature.
She introduces an argument unsurprising to those acquainted with conservative critiques of modern feminism: Contraception is anti-woman, an invention flowing from the belief that female fertility is a disease rather than the result of a woman’s body functioning as it should. But she pushes the argument even further, advocating fertility-awareness-based models of family planning as a means of enabling women to embrace their bodies as they are and encouraging society to do the same. In a striking passage, she notes how dependent the very notion of “gender reassignment” is on contraception’s power to sever human sexuality from procreative potential; in a world where the female capacity for pregnancy has been rendered entirely optional, almost an after-thought, empowering a man to “become” a woman seems far more possible.
It is in the realm of gender ideology that Favale’s expertise shines most. She knows the contours of every twist and turn of this dogmatic worldview, which progressives have adopted as the truth about what it means to be human. With this familiarity, she is able to expose each logical and anthropological flaw with great precision, illustrating that the entire framework is an unstable house of cards, easy to topple with the slightest breeze.
One need not be a Catholic or, indeed, religious at all to appreciate Favale’s alternative: a sound moral anthropology based on the equal dignity of men and women, created in the image and likeness of God. Rather than viewing human nature as malleable and in need of remaking, Favale hews to the Catholic tradition, arguing that our ability to participate in co-creation is an essential aspect of what it means to have been created in God’s image and likeness. It is the very givenness of our bodies as male and female that shapes our knowledge of who we are and helps us to understand what it means to flourish as human beings.
EPPC Visiting Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on abortion policy and the pro-life movement, as well as on other key topics at the intersection of politics, culture, and religion.