Gender danger?

22 January 2013, 10:58 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew SOROKOWSKI

Lately the notion has arisen in Ukraine that gender studies, which has been introduced into university curricula around the world, will lead to the relativization of sexual orientations and thus to feminism, abortion, the dissolution of the family, and the propagation of homosexuality. Gender ideology was criticized last November 27 at a conference seminar on Gender Theory at the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv. Maria Luisa di Pietro, an endocrinologist and specialist in bioethics from Italy, cited the negative consequences of the sexual revolution, pointed to the reasons for the emergence and development of gender ideology, traced its distribution, and described its negative impact on society. She advocated education of children not only in sex, but also in abstinence, moral sense and moral maturity. Bishop Iaroslav Pryriz of Sambir and Drohobych, head of the Theology Department of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, added the following thoughts:

“Until recently, the term ‘gender’ was completely unknown by the general public, not only in Ukraine but in the whole world. But suddenly it became one of the leading principles of certain ideologies. The aim of gender ideology is to create a new type of man who is endowed with the freedom to choose and implement his sexual identity, regardless of biological sex. It is clear that such a position is unacceptable from the point of view of Christian morality. But even more disturbing is that gender ideology is protected by national and multinational institutions, and traditional moral values are discriminated against and persecuted.”

Bishop Iaroslav is evidently right about the role of certain governments and multinational organizations. For example, Professor Judith Halberstam of the University of Southern California admits that the United States, acting through non-governmental organizations, exports radical feminist theories of gender and sexuality in the course of supporting human rights and sexual tolerance. (Dzhudyt Halberstam, “Transfer genderiv,” Krytyka No. 1-2 (171-172), January-February 2012, p. 32.) American sociologist Alexandra Hrycak has observed that the availability of U.S. grants has created Ukrainian client organizations all too eager to accept the feminist ideologies of their grantors, regardless of whether these are appropriate in Ukrainian conditions, while groups taking other, more traditional approaches are sometimes neglected. See Alexandra Hrycak, “Foundation Feminism and the Articulation of Hybrid Feminisms in Post-Socialist Ukraine”.

Critics fear that gender studies will lead to the notion that sexual distinctions are socially constructed, not biologically determined, and therefore can vary from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. In other words, they fear that “male” and “female” will become only relative terms, not absolutes. That is, indeed, the position of radical feminists. But it is important to remember the difference between sex and gender. Sexual difference exists in nature; it is gender that is socially constructed. For example, the fact that it takes a man and a woman to produce a child pertains to sex, while the idea that a child is best brought up by a male and a female parent pertains to gender.

It must be pointed out that Gender Studies and the “gender approach” are not the same as the “gender ideology” that Dr. di Pietro and Bishop Iaroslav criticize. Gender Studies does not necessarily promote gender ideology – any more than sociology promotes socialism, or military history promotes militarism. As Dr. Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak remarked last September 1 in a lecture inaugurating UCU’s Women’s Studies program, gender is a concept that enables us to look at male-female relations broadly, rather than focusing exclusively on sex. The gender approach is “another attempt to humanize scholarship, to bring the human being back to the center of the study of our life.” It is, she stressed, descriptive, not prescriptive: it studies the changing roles of men and women in society, but does not try to alter them by propagating a particular ideology.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that the very approach of gender studies, which devotes equal attention to traditional and non-traditional gender roles for men and women, implies that any and all roles are possible for them. By allowing for the possibility of variation in gender roles, it promotes the notion that they are interchangeable. That seems to be the crux of Bishop Iaroslav’s objection. And it is true that the academic discipline of gender studies, as pursued in secular universities, does not favor the Natural Law-based Catholic idea of gender roles (with women acting chiefly as wives and mothers, for example) over others (e.g., with men staying at home with the children while women work outside, or with women serving in combat roles in the military). The difference between the Catholic and the secular approach to such a field is that in the former, Christian concepts are treated as normative. Thus, by way of analogy, a course on economics at a secular university might assume that capitalism is superior to all other systems, while a course on the same subject at a Catholic university might evaluate each economic system in the light of Catholic social teaching. Similarly, students in a Gender Studies course at a Catholic university may study the differing gender roles that men and women have assumed throughout history and across societies, but will also learn why the Church teaches that males and females should naturally gravitate towards some roles and not others.

As for feminism, certainly that is a subject that is covered by Gender Studies. But while Gender Studies is an academic discipline, feminism is an ideology or at least a movement. To study it is not to advocate it. Besides, there have been many kinds of feminism, and at least three stages.

In the nineteenth century in the West, first-wave feminism was concerned with socio-economic equality, women’s suffrage, temperance, and divorce. In the twentieth century, second-wave feminism focused on equality in education, the workplace, and the professions — and also, controversially, on abortion. Today, radical feminism condemns males as oppressors, and marriage as slavery. Eco-feminism posits a Mother Earth raped by destructive men, while some feminist anthropologists posit a prehistoric golden age of matriarchy. The late feminist theologian Mary Daly of Jesuit-run Boston College actually opposed sexual equality because, in her view, women should dominate men. She lost her teaching position after excluding men from one of her advanced classes because, she felt, their presence would inhibit free discussion. Some radical feminists see procreation as male violence against women. Not surprisingly, radical feminists usually see religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, as a structure of patriarchal oppression that should be eliminated. Here, Bishop Iaroslav has cause for concern.

In fact, while his anxiety about Gender Studies seems misplaced, with regard to radical feminism it is understated. For radical feminists see not only gender, but sex itself, as socially constructed rather than determined by nature. American radical feminist and “queer theoretician” Judith Butler challenges biological accounts of binary sex, conceiving the sexed body as being culturally constructed by society’s regulative discourse. In the first portion of a June 2011 lecture at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, her colleague Judith Halberstam exhibited either an inability or a refusal to understand the Natural Law theory of sex and gender, trotting out the usual lame arguments against a heterosexual norm (such as the existence of hermaphrodites in nature – as if the exception could overturn the rule) (“Transfer genderiv,” pp. 28-33). In her ensuing discussion of gender and politics, queer politics and queer studies, Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, she made some interesting claims, e.g., that a woman’s masculinity is not less authentic than that of a man, which is no more real than that of a woman (id., p. 31).

It is not surprising that back in the 1980s, when the British satirical magazine Private Eye ran a fortnightly column entitled “Wimmin” (a feminist term designed to avoid the odious root “men”), specializing in “loony feminist nonsense,” it never seemed to lack for material. In fact, radical feminism is ultimately self-contradicting. As noted above, Mary Daly was actually opposed to sexual equality. Judith Butler’s view of sex as socially constructed leads her to the conclusion that there is no “male” or “female” essence. If there is in reality no such thing as “male” or “female,” how can there be feminism? But perhaps radical feminist ideology only seems illogical and contradictory to men, and those who think like them. Perhaps logic itself is a male construct, reflecting the masculine brain. After all, Plato and Aristotle were men. Perhaps we should therefore discard 99% of the world’s philosophy and religion and start all over again. Radical feminists might like that.

It must not be assumed, however, that contemporary feminism is all radical. In the United States, at least, there are conservative feminists too. The organization Concerned Women for America regards women primarily as wives and mothers. It is decidedly pro-life. (Louise A. Newman, "Talking about a revolution: new approaches to writing the history of second-wave feminism," reviewing, inter alia, Ronnie Schreiber, Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics, 2008, in Journal of Women's History, vol. 23 no. 2, pp. 221-22.)

Ukraine has its own history of feminism, some of which has been recounted in Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak’s ground-breaking monograph Feminists Despite Themselves (1988). By contrast with other feminisms, which condemn nationalism as a male project of domination, Ukrainian feminists have often been ardent nationalists. Today, Ukrainian post-feminism seems to have gone beyond radical feminism — or rather, seeing that it is a blind alley, strikes out in a different direction. Eschewing an “us against them” approach, they disdain feminist ideology. According to Maria Rewakowicz, Ukraine’s young post-feminist writers see woman as first of all a human being. The three authors she discusses in a recent article reflect the perception that feminism in Ukraine has gone out of fashion, for its goals have been achieved – at least for the privileged. It appears,  however, that these authors describe lives that, while “liberated,” are not particularly happy. Novelist Irena Karpa’s heroines are sexually promiscuous and avoid commitments — yet desire them. It seems that Karpa herself wants both family and career. It makes one curious to read her novels to discover how the promiscuous morph not only into successful careerists (not an inconsistent goal), but also into faithful spouses and devoted parents. In “Siomha” (“The Salmon,” 2007), Sofiia Andrukhovych  describes a world of distrust and passionless sex. Oddly enough, the heroine is unable to discover the essence of her own femininity. In Tania Maliarchuk’s collection of stories, loneliness is a chief theme. (Maria Rewakowicz, “Syl’ni zhinky perezhyvaiut’ feminizm,” Krytyka No. 3 (173), March 2012, pp. 18-20). Thus, in  replicating the Western “sexual revolution” of the 1960s-1970s, Ukrainian post-feminists also replicate its doleful consequences. (See Anthony Esolen, “All the Lonely People: The Corrosive and Far-Reaching Fallout of the Sexual Revolution,” Touchstone, Vol. 25, No. 4, July/August 2012, pp. 30-33.) Perhaps it is time for them to consider whether sex has any purpose other than temporary mindless self-gratification. And if it does, what are the social and ethical implications? This, too, is a topic for Gender Studies.

Thus, Gender Studies explores feminism, but does not sanction it. The same response applies to the objection that gender studies will encourage the practice of abortion. It is true that the so-called “right to abortion” is a major element in the contemporary feminist program (though not all feminists support it). But again, the question is not whether one should study this phenomenon – it would be foolish to ignore it – but how one studies it. Critical analysis of the feminist position on abortion would show that while feminists see it as an issue of only one person – the pregnant woman — Catholics take a broader, more inclusive view, seeing it as a matter of the competing rights of two persons: the woman and her child. Abortion is both a moral and a legal issue: whether a woman has a moral or legal right to terminate the human life within her (however it may have arisen), and whether that human life is endowed with a moral or legal right to protection. By seeking the answers to these questions, while considering them in their social, economic, and cultural context, Gender Studies could help to relegate abortion to the barbaric past.

Will Gender Studies lead to the dissolution of the family? To be sure, feminism has challenged the notion that women should primarily be mothers, and radical feminists reject the traditional notion that the nuclear family consisting of a man and a woman and their children is the basis of society. In fact, the nuclear family has not been dominant always and everywhere. The breakdown of the family in the United States is a well-known trend, and the institution of same-sex marriage is gaining ground internationally. But none of this can be attributed to Gender Studies. These are broad societal trends. Gender Studies examines all such phenomena. But Catholic Gender Studies would attentively consider the reasons why the “traditional” family should be the norm.

Does Gender Studies promote homosexuality? Homosexuality has existed since time immemorial, and it is unlikely that the advent of Gender Studies has caused an explosion in homosexuality. By studying this phenomenon, of course, Gender Studies recognizes that it is widespread and persistent. But to acknowledge is not to promote. Of course, Gender Studies might promote toleration of homosexuals. But while Catholics oppose toleration of homosexual conduct, they are ethically bound to oppose unfair discrimination against homosexual individuals.

In fact, there are good reasons why Gender Studies is being taught at Catholic universities. The relationship between feminism and religion is varied and complex. Recently, a member of the Russian feminist group Pussy Riot, well-known for their theatrical demonstration in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, stressed that she was not against religion, but only against the politicization and corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, a member of Ukraine’s FEMEN, who are notorious for their cutting down of a wooden cross commemorating the victims of the Stalinist famine, stated her opposition to all religion, and FEMEN’s recent slogans in Paris indicate that this is their collective stance. (So much for the notion that Ukrainians are more religious than Russians!) Catholic theology is gendered: God, His apostles and their successors are male, while the Church is female, with special veneration for the Mother of God. Gender Studies also provides a means of understanding the Church’s relationship to contemporary society. Pursued in the light of Catholic teaching, Gender Studies, far from posing a danger to the Church, is the best antidote to “gender ideology.”

Will Gender Studies lead to radicalism? In a sense, yes. It may lead to Christian radicalism, which is a good and necessary thing. For in order to live out the Christian vision of the good life, we must radically re-order society – whether in Ukraine or in America – particularly with regard to the roles of men and women. For example, in the current socio-economic system of advanced industrial countries, the male-oriented pattern of life requires women to complete their education and start their professional careers in the natural child-bearing and child-raising periods of their lives. Consequently, many women feel compelled to defer marriage and children until after they have completed their college or advanced degrees and made some initial progress in their careers – often after the age of thirty. Meanwhile, many engage in behaviors inconsistent with morality. And too often it comes down to a choice between family and career. But taking advantage of available technology, Christians could work to re-order society so that women could lead truly fulfilling lives. What if a woman could marry, bear and raise children while earning higher degrees through an on-line distance education program, part-time over a period of eight or ten years, then commence her career as a telecommuter until her children are sufficiently grown? She could thereafter work full-time on site for another two or even three decades if she wished. And what if society treated both her education and her career pattern as fully equivalent to the traditional kinds, and furthermore compensated her for the work of raising her children?

Such a possibility will not please feminists who are determined to sever gender from biology. But it is only a theoretical example of the kind of ideas that students of Gender Studies – both female and male – might develop as Catholic alternatives to women’s current social roles. Yet they can only develop such alternatives on the basis of the scholarly study of women in history, culture, society and economics – in other words, on the basis of Gender Studies.

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