A Common-Sense Theory of Gender
A critical analysis of third- and fourth-wave feminism
In The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, published by Ignatius Press in 2022, Abigail Favale reviews the four waves of feminism. The first wave was the movement for women’s suffrage, which emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, in the context of the denial to women of the right to vote, to own property, to serve on juries, to be witnesses in court, to have custodial rights over their children, to stand for election, and to attend most colleges and universities. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was based in the Declaration of Independence, declaring the self-evident inalienable rights of men and women. In the United States, the movement for women’s rights grew out of the movement to abolish slavery. And it had ties to the Temperance Movement to ban alcohol, reflecting the alcohol-related domestic abuse that women and children suffered. In the United States, the movement resulted in various states enacting laws to protect the right of women to vote, culminating in the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
Most first-wave feminists, according to Favale, were middle-class wives and mothers who did not want to transform the social system, but to gain representative and legal rights in the established system. The movement subsided following the attainment of the right to vote, although a remnant moved forward with a theoretical critique of patriarchy.
However, women’s attitudes were impacted by World War II. Women supported the war effort by working in factories and shipyards, fulfilling tasks that had been done by men prior to the war. And some women filled various other war-related roles, such as those provided by the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. By 1945, women comprised 37% of the workforce, and a quarter of married women worked outside the home. The phenomenon stimulated a cultural change that could not be rolled back following the war.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, became a catalyst for a resurgence of feminism, giving rise to the second wave of feminism, which erupted in the late 1960s and continued for two decades. The book expressed women’s deep dissatisfaction with confinement to the domestic role. The second wave, going beyond the legal equality demanded by the first wave, envisioned broader social and political equality and rethought women’s roles in the home and in the workforce. This included a renewed emphasis on “reproductive freedom,” by which was meant unlimited access to birth control and abortion, reflecting an ideology of control over one’s body. The movement early in the second wave had been divided over the issue of abortion, a legacy of the fact that most women of the first wave were opposed to abortion. However, during the second wave, there emerged an alliance between feminism and the pro-abortion movement, such that “abortion is now the central and immovable plank of the mainstream feminist platform.”
Favale recounts that in the 1980s the so-called “sex wars” broke out in the feminist movement, dividing feminists who opposed pornography and prostitution as forces of feminine oppression, and the “sex-positive” feminists who viewed them as liberating. In the 1990s, the third wave emerged, taking the “sex-positive” line. The third wave emphasized unlimited sexual freedom. Consent became the standard for sex to be considered licit; as long as sex was between consenting adults, it was ok. Thus, individual choice and freedom was the key characteristic of the third wave, which also had some tendency toward post-modern playing with gender norms and expectations.
The fourth wave, in Favale’s account, began around 2012. There emerged a level of ambivalence toward unrestrained sexual license, due to increasing recognition that women can be mistreated in relations that are supposedly consensual. #MeToo emerged. At the same time, fourth-wave feminism began to focus on the intersection of various forms of oppression, particularly with respect to racism and sexism.
In addition, increasingly embracing a notion of gender plurality, the fourth wave rejected the idea that a woman is, by definition, a biological female, which was inconceivable during the first and second waves. Although not explicitly accepted until the fourth wave, this separation of “woman” from biology had roots in the post-modern turn that began in the early 1990s. The second wave had emphasized a distinction between sex and gender, in which sex refers to a biological fact and gender refers to the socially and culturally prescribed roles associated with the sexes. This was a useful distinction for feminists of the second wave, because it implied the possibility to change the cultural expectations associated with the sexes. However, in the post-modern turn during the third wave, the distinction between sex and gender grew into a schism. “Woman” is no longer a sex, but a gender, and as such, it is a cultural construction that has a tenuous relation to bodily sex.
Therefore, in a few decades, gender became entirely disconnected from sex, such that today there is proliferation of meanings of gender, in which the various definitions of gender are based on a subjective sense of identification, on how one feels. Accordingly, Favale maintains, feminist theory gave birth to the concept of gender, which ultimately has eroded feminism by “turning ‘woman’ into an identity that can be freely appropriated by men, regardless of material reality.” For further discussion of Favale’s analysis of postmodernism and its impact on feminist theory and the theory of gender, see “The Anti-Marxist Left: The US Left today is postmodern, not Marxist,” August 30, 2022.
The first and second waves of the feminist movement were on the right road, even if at times the movement was unnecessarily conflictive. The first and second waves sought the expanding and the deepening of the meaning of democracy, seeking the fulfillment of the American promise of liberty and justice for all, proclaimed at the founding of the nation. This was the approach taken during the same period by the African-American movement, which demanded the application of citizenship rights to blacks, and it sought to deepen the meaning of democracy to include socioeconomic rights and the rights of ethnic groups and nations. And it was the approach taken by the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the colonized regions of the world, which have proclaimed the need to implement fundamental Western democratic principles, such the rights of nations to sovereignty and to decide on their own plan for post-colonial economic and social development.
In contrast, third-wave feminism made historic errors. Its fundamental error was its Eurocentrism. In its quest for intersectionality, it did not look to the Third World revolutions that were seeking the sovereign equality of nations in a neocolonial context, and which were seeking to find a way for the state to direct the economy in a manner that would guarantee the provision of the fundamental human needs of the people with respect to health care, education, nutrition, and housing. In short, third-wave feminism was expressing its indifference to a global movement against Western imperialism in defense of the poor of the world and in opposition to imperialist war.
In addition, third-wave feminism did not embrace the nation’s history. It totally rejected the previous period of patriarchal rule, and in doing so, it implicitly treated as without legitimation and without potential salvation the historic effort of the nation to establish a republic. It did not seek a feminist rewriting of American history, redefining the meaning of the American experience in a quest for the fulfillment of the American promise of liberty and justice for all. It did not see that social change can only be attained with the backing of the people, which is marshalled not by rejecting the premises of national consciousness but by a critical analysis that seeks the redemption of the nation.
In committing the second historic error of symbolic rejection of the nation, the first historic error of Eurocentrism was influential. Inasmuch as third-wave feminism was not observing the social struggles of the peoples of the world, it did not know that the peoples’ struggles against Western imperialism embraced Western democratic values, even though the Western democratic revolutions contained colonialist thinking and practices. The anti-colonial movements saw no other practical road. The process of colonial domination had penetrated so widely and deeply that it was not possible to return to the pre-colonial civilization, empire, and society. The only practical possibility was to embrace the principles that the imperialist powers themselves had proclaimed, but deepening and expanding their meaning from the vantage point of the colonized. With this perspective, the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements have sought to bring the Western democratic revolutions to a more advanced global stage.
In not seeing this Third World revolution of its own time, third-wave feminism was acting just like white men. And it was missing a lot, because the Third World revolution was (and is) announcing a new era of multipolar civilizations and of human peace and prosperity. In this ongoing process, the Third World revolutions have been demonstrating that, with their need for the active and committed participation of women, the revolutionary processes include the transformation of patriarchal structures, a tendency pushed by women who are forging “a revolution within the revolution.”
In its total rejection of patriarchy, the third wave possessed an element of impracticality. Social change is just that. It is a process of changing existing structures, totally dismantling some of them, but merely tweaking others. It involves definitively but gradually transforming what has been inherited, with practical common-sense intelligence combined with a long-term view. It does not expect or demand that attitudes that have been centuries in the making can be transformed overnight. It is committed to the patient education of the people.
The impracticality of third-wave feminism was implicitly unpatriotic. It was not interested in formulating a new understanding of the nation. It was not interested in bringing the nation to a more democratic stage in defense not only of women but also of others excluded or marginalized not only in the nation but also in the world. It did not seek to redefine the meaning of America. It was indifferent to the meaning and purpose and future of America.
But the impracticality of third-wave feminism for the nation was no problem for its formulators. Their theories had a practicality for them. Their clever ideas were earning them privileged academic careers in the prestigious and not-so-prestigious academic institutions of the nation.
All this had to go somewhere, and where it went was a journey toward the absurd. Favale describes this well. It culminated in a postmodern approach to gender that, in violation of the common-sense beliefs of centuries of human civilizations, proclaims that people have a fundamental human right to change their sex. In my last commentary, I summarize Favale’s insightful critique of postmodernism and its impact on gender theory and on transgender activism (see “The Anti-Marxist Left: The US Left today is postmodern, not Marxist,” August 30, 2022).
A common-sense theory of gender
Favale wants to put the absurdity behind us. A convert to Catholicism, she searches for a Christian theory of gender. She makes good progress in her quest. But what she comes up with is more than a Christian theory; it is a common-sense theory. Her premises are the common-sense assumptions embraced not only by Catholics and Christians but also by Muslims, by the founders of the American Republic, and by Marxists and socialists throughout the world. Their common assumption is that there is a reality that has been given to us, a reality consisting of the universe, the planets, and all the species that are found on the earth, which possess evolving natural characteristics. And their assumption is that we have inherited a historical and social reality, shaped by historical and contemporary efforts to construct human civilizations and to dominate and exploit other peoples, nations, and societies. Their common assumption is that we must seek to understand this natural, historical, and social reality; and that any society we construct occurs in the context of this reality. We do not construct society merely in our imaginations, without regard for our given and inherited reality; we construct by acting on our given and inherited reality. When we understand that reality well, we act intelligently and in accordance with the requirements of that reality, thus providing the foundation for a sustainable future.
Favale maintains that a woman cannot understand herself without accepting the biological reality of her body, which is a body that is designed for reproduction. It is not that a woman must reproduce, or that reproduction is her central role. But she must accept that biological reality, the reality that her body is designed for reproduction. Her body has several characteristics in accordance with its reproductive design, even when a particular female body does not reproduce, due to individual choice, birth defect, or age.
Favale suggests that a particular woman may want to do things that men stereotypically do; she may dress in ways not defined as feminine; she may present herself as man; or she may be sexually attracted to women. But in all these cases, she remains a woman, in that her body is organized for reproduction. And the converse it true for men. To deny this is to deny reality, which has negative consequences with respect to individual mental health, social norms, and accepted medical treatments. We must accept the binary design of nature, which has been understood by human civilizations for thousands of years and is denied today only by postmodern anti-empirical absurdities.
Favale wrestles with the issue that she characterizes as love versus truth. As a Christian, she wants to accept all persons and welcome them with compassion. But as a Christian, she must speak the truth. She observes that when she uses pronouns that conflict with sex, she is assenting to an untruth; through her words, she is actively participating in a lie.
She concludes that we must speak truth, but with love and compassion. Accordingly, with a commitment to truth, we must use reality-based language in discussing men and women. The new gender paradigm distorts reality, particularly the binary sexual reality of humans, in contradiction with scientific consensus and common sense.
Do we need to go back to the second-wave basic distinction between gender and sex, without the post-modern detour? Do we need to create a feminist intersectionality that is worldwide in consciousness? Do we need to connect the movements of the peoples of the United States to the movements of the world’s peoples against poverty and imperialist war? Do we need to reconnect to our given and inherited reality?
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