An easy way of making a Catholic gasp and recoil in horror these days is to utter the word “gender,”1 which in many cases is heard as being synonymous with “heretic.” Saying: “I work for gender equity,” is tantamount to admitting to drug dealing, human trafficking, or worse. What are “gender equity,” or the more widely used term “gender equality,” though? Here one of the best descriptions of it’s consequences - in my opinion - is the following:
“And what shall we say of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life? [...] As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.”Oh, but this doesn’t sound despicable!? If anything, it seems like exactly what every Catholic ought to be (and very often is) striving for! So, where does the opposition to anything to do with “gender” come from?
Let’s take a couple of steps back and look at the concept in isolation. In terms of etymology, “gender” derives from the Latin “genus,” which in turn means “kind” or “type” and which has since antiquity (at least since as early as Protagoras in the 5th century BC) been employed in the context of grammar, resulting in a categorization of nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter. While the application of such categories to human identity, behavior and social roles has traces in the Middle Ages, it is only since the middle of the 20th century that the term is consistently used to refer to a person’s identity or social role, distinguishing between male and female (and more recently a growing list of other types too).
In other words, “gender” refers to whether one considers oneself male or female and/or whether one is considered male or female by society, with all the implications that such (self)categorization entails. It “refers to the economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female,” as the United Nations put it.
So far, “gender” sounds like a fairly uncontroversial concept: men and women see themselves as male or female, where their being male or female also has consequences socially, economically and culturally. The term allows for distinguishing between biological sex and it psychological and social consequences and allows for highlighting inequality for which society rather than physiology is accountable for.
To a Christian, who professes that every human being is made in the “Image of God,” inequality needs to be fundamentally abhorrent and equal dignity, opportunity, recognition, rights and respect be seen as an inherent good. If you are a Catholic and feel a bit squeamish about any use of the term “gender,” get over it. And next time someone tells you they work for “gender equality,” congratulate them and support them. Period. Women today are at a disadvantage around the world - in many cases shockingly and criminally so, purely by virtue of being women. Gender equity - the striving for fair treatment of men and women - is an intrinsic moral good that is every Christian’s duty and a direct consequence of Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
So, is the kerfuffle around the term “gender” all just some big mixup or exaggeration?
There is another use of the concept of “gender,” where it becomes an ideology and where, I believe, it is distorted in ways that can lead to at least psychological harm. This ideology - “gender theory” - proceeds along the following lines: “Since gender is a social construct, and since I have self-determination, gender is not an intrinsic attribute of my self. Instead, it is something I “do” and I am free to choose arbitrarily. As a woman I am neither intrinsically female nor male. I become female or am made to behave according to female constraints that society imposes on me.” It is in this vein that Simone de Beauvoir says “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (The Second Sex) or that Judith Butler declares that “[r]ather than ‘woman’ being something one is, it is something one does” (Gender Trouble). And it is this ideology that Benedict XVI decries and sums up by saying:
“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. [...] Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. [...] From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be.”I believe that, in both of the above examples of gender theory statements, the motives for opposition to gender roles, as imposed by society and resulting in injustice, were positive. They were a revolt both against the misogynistic contortions of Freudian psychoanalysis, that posits female inferiority, and against social injustice perpetrated on women. The difficulty, to my mind, arrises neither from the well-justified analysis of social inequality, nor from the reactions against dubious models of female psychology. Instead, it lies with the conclusions drawn from them.2 The observation of unjust gender roles and models leads to their dissociation from sex, instead of to an attack on their injustice and a subsequent project for their rectification.
Instead of denying the link between the biological and the social, as tends to be the case with “gender theory” ideologies, I believe the answer lies in reforming unjust and inequality-fueling gender roles. Here, there are good examples of campaigns that foster awareness and work towards the changing of negative stereotypes, today imposing pressure both in peer groups and from the media. E.g., the UK-based “GREAT Initiative” has a “Great Men Value Women,” campaign where they work with teenage boys to challenge male stereotypes that foster gender inequality (e.g., being tough, even aggressive and not showing their feelings). Then there are: the “Men in Childcare” initiative, which promotes the involvement of men in childcare and related professions, one of the UN’s “Millennium Goals” focusing on gender equality, or the World Food Programme’s providing training sessions for fathers about maternal and child health and nutrition, just to name a few. These, to my mind, are pushing in the right direction. In contrast, the consequences of the sex-gender decoupling of “gender theory” range from the innocuous, albeit arguably exaggerated, protests against the ““pinkification” of girls’ toys” to the dramatically more worrying example of the raising of a boy as “gender neutral.”
Oh, and by the way, the opening quote of this post is from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to women” (§4)...
1 Many thanks to my überbesties YYM and PM for their nihil obstats.
2 In many ways this reminds me of Marxism3 (and apologies in advance for the great simplification of critiquing it in a single sentence here), which correctly diagnosed the serious problem of social inequality, but which applied to it a non-remedy: class war. The problem still persists to this day, but it requires an actual solution, mindful of human dignity, instead.
3 No, not of Martin Parr this time either.