An Important Book, Part I (Review of The Genesis of Gender, by Abigail Favale)

 

(The following is Part I of a two part review of this important book)

 

In the valuable 2022, The Genesis of Gender, an academic rehearses her transformation from a Gender Studies professor into a Roman Catholic woman of faith. Her honesty in recounting the mistakes of her past teaching powerfully conveys her present convictions. Because she shows us how she got there.

 

Pleasured Learning
National Catholic Register

Dr. Favale writes beautifully, which makes her a pleasure to read. For example, she describes her students’ avoidance of sound argument in gender issues this way:

 

It disrupted my attempt to play the role of a placid, noble Socrates, gently nudging his eager student-ducklings toward truth. The reality was far more exasperating, like flailing around in a murky pond, trying to catch an eel with my bare hands (p54).

 

She voices her frustration with the person-destroying gender studies paradigm thusly:

 

By divorcing femaleness from the concept of ‘woman,’ this paradigm creates a schism between body and identity. Instead of body-identity integration, we are left with fragmentation, a picture of the human person like a Potato Head doll: a hollow neuter shell that comes with an assortment of rearrangeable parts (p122).

 

That is a sentence only a mother of many children would likely think of. So, I enjoyed learning from Dr. Favale many good things, especially in her thoughtful reflections as a woman of strong faith.

 

Salient quotations from gender theorists also show a broad mastery of that material. For example, she highlights the embrace of femaleness by the French feminists via quoting Helene Cixous:

 

 ‘I write with white ink,’ she declares, as if she’s sitting in her Parisian studio and dipping her fountain pen in breastmilk (p21).

 

She also moves competently and easily from scientific evidence to Catholic doctrine to ancient or European literary reference to logical presentation. She is a good teacher.

 

And she writes candidly. Her description of her post-partum depression (pp191-193), though gruesome, should be required reading for every new father. This is not just because Dr. Favale intelligently compares her disgust with her after-birth body to gender dysphoria. Even being quick to reassure us as she does that she doesn’t claim to understand true gender dysphoria, the likeness of trans-reports to what she describes is unforgettable. But the valuable account helps us understand this hardship of these weeks after a baby delivery—which no one writes about. Though not every woman’s trial, her’s can help us minister to our wives after the monumental task.

 

 

Hard Questions

The professor does not shy away from hard questions, such as the parsing out of desires:

 

…The body reveals the person. Nonetheless, in every desire can be found a desire for something good, even if that good desire becomes distorted or aimed at the wrong thing. Trans identities signal a longing for wholeness, for an integrated sense of self, in which the body does reveal the person. This desire is fundamentally a good one.

 

She also handily tackles the Intersex argument head on.  It is clear that she has spent time arguing with the next generation in her classroom:

 

This is by far the most common rejoinder I hear: “Sex is not a binary. Intersex people exist.” Foot soldiers of the gender brigade always make sure to carry the intersex card in a ready holster and are quick on the draw (p124).

 

But the most important hard question is how to avoid essentialism while valuing the body central to her project of defining women. She defines essentialism well:

 

Men and women are fundamentally, or essentially, different… [through] some distinguishing feature that all women have and men do not, and vice versa. (p117)

 

This way of defining women/men might seem reasonable at first. Upon reflection, the problem becomes identifying such a feature and immediately realizing some group of women or men that don’t share it. So, are they not real men or true women? I deal with this problem one way in enGendered. Dr. Favale’s solution, taken from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas, is to distinguish potentiality from actuality. She then defines woman in her potentiality to bear children, whether or not she, as an individual, lacks one thing or another for doing so.

 

This is My Body

Shaped by her Catholicism, this researcher centers on the body. As she says, “This book [is]…concerned with the erasure of sexed embodiment and the triumph of disincarnate gender.” (p231). In fact, the difference between Dr. Favale’s approach and mine is the direction of definition. She starts with the body, whereas I start with the soul. We both then go on to include the other. Starting from the body has its benefits. Its importance cries out to our cultural trans-moment. But from there it becomes harder to establish the covenantal meanings of gendered relationship. This “lively tension” Dr. Favale acknowledges, arguing for a definition of woman that is “rooted in the body but not reduced to the body” (p121). My soul-rooted basis, on the other hand, has little trouble being reduced to bodily functions, but must then labor to avoid “the triumph of disincarnate gender” and to include single people as part of the gender game. It can be done, just not as obviously.

Hence, I learn from her starting point and laud it.  But there is more to say….

 

(For the book’s most important strengths and weaknesses, tune in next week for Part II.)

 

2 Comments

  1. “in every desire can be found a desire for something good, even if that good desire becomes distorted or aimed at the wrong thing”

    Reminds me of a saying within the ministry movement for Christians who experience unwanted same-sex attractions, that homoerotic relating is “an attempt to get legitimate needs met in an illegitimate way.” (from Peter at hgnyc.org)

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