Commentary: The Problem of Gender Feminism

Author: Dale O'Leary

Commentary: The Problem of Gender Feminism

Dale O'Leary

Currents of thought running counter to true advancement

The recent Document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the collaboration of men and women begins with a brief discussion of "currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women".

For the last half century, society has struggled over how to reconcile the fundamental equality of men and women with their undeniable biological differences.

During the 1960s women protested against laws and customs which treated women differently. Governments responded by enacting legislation guaranteeing women equal rights under the law, equal access to education and equal economic opportunity. Women quickly took advantage of these opportunities. The number of women pursing higher education increased, as did the number of women in the professions, and in elected and appointed government offices.

In the 1970s, the feminist movement which had encouraged these changes was co-opted by radicals who saw women as the prototypical oppressed class and marriage and "compulsory heterosexuality" as the mechanisms of oppression. This current of thought drew on Frederick Engels' analysis of the origins of the family. In 1884 Engels had written: "The first-class antagonism in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between men and women in monogamous marriage, and the first-class oppression with that of the female sex by the male".1

In her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone modified Engels' analysis of class struggle to call for a sex-class revolution: "To assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and seizure of control of reproduction:... so the end goal of the feminist revolution must be unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter".2

According to Firestone, "The heart of women's oppression is her childbearing and child-rearing roles".3 Those who accepted this analysis regarded abortion on demand, contraception, absolute sexual freedom, women in the workforce and children in government-supported day care as the necessary conditions for the liberation of women.

Nancy Chodorow in The Reproduction of Mothering argued that as long as women are the primary caregivers, children will grow up seeing humanity divided into two different and, according to Chodorow, unequal classes, and this is the cause of the acceptance of "class" oppression.4

Alison Jagger, in a textbook designed for use in women's studies programs, laid out the desired outcomes of the sex-class revolution: "The end of the biological family will also eliminate the need for sexual repression. Male homosexuality, lesbianism, and extramarital sexual intercourse will no longer be viewed in the liberal way as alternative options... the very 'institution of sexual intercourse' where male and female each play a well-defined role will disappear. Humanity could finally revert to its natural polymorphously perverse sexuality".5

A frontal attack on the family was risky.

According to Christine Riddiough, "Gay/lesbian culture can also be looked on as a subversive force that can challenge the hegemonic nature of the idea of the family. It can, however, be done in a way that people do not feel is in opposition to the family per se.... In order for the subversive nature of gay culture to be used effectively, we have to be able to present alternative ways of looking at human relationships".6

Sex or gender?

The problem faced by those promoting a revolution against the family was how to eliminate sex classes when these are rooted in the biological differences between men and women. The work of Dr John Money of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, U.S.A., offered a solution.

Until the 1950s, the word gender was a grammatical term indicating whether words were masculine, feminine or neuter. Dr Money began to use the word in a new context, coining the term "gender identity" to describe a person's inner sense of himself or herself as male or female.7

According to Money, a person's gender identity was dependent on how the child was raised and could be different from his or her biological sex. Money held that it was possible to change a person's sex and that children born with ambiguous genitalia could be surgically altered and assigned to a sex other than their genetic sex.

Money's theories were extremely influential, and in 1972 he offered what appeared to be conclusive evidence that gender identity depended on upbringing.

In his book Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, Money reported the case of an identical twin whose penis had been destroyed during a circumcision procedure.8 The boy's parents brought their baby to Money who advised them to have him castrated and to raise him as a girl.

The existence of an identical twin allowed Money to compare the twin raised as a boy with the one raised as a girl. Money reported on the success of the sex change and how the boy had successfully adapted to a feminine identity. The case appeared to resolve the issue of "nature versus nurture" in favour of nurture.

Even before he announced his famous case, Money's theories had found an audience among feminists.

In her 1969 book Sexual Politics, Kate Millet, referencing Money's previous work, wrote: "...there is no differentiation between the sexes at birth. Psychosexual personality is therefore postnatal and learned".9

The idea of gender as a social construct was incorporated into feminist theory.

Susan Moller Okin, author of Justice, Gender and the Family (1989), looked forward to "a future without gender. No assumptions would be made about male and female roles; childbearing would be so conceptually separated from child-rearing that it would be cause for surprise if men and women were not equally responsible for domestic duties...".10

During the 1980s the term "gender" became ubiquitous in women's studies programmes. With the introduction of the idea of gender as a social construct, the focus of the woman's movement shifted from the elimination of policies which harmed women to concern over anything which acknowledged that there were differences between men and women, in particular anything which supported women as primary caregivers in the home. A future without gender required a society that meticulously examined every aspect of culture for evidence of gender socialization.

Before 1990, documents published by the United Nations had stressed the elimination of discrimination against women, but around 1990 gender became a central focus.

A pamphlet from the U.N. agency INSTRAW entitled Gender Concepts defined gender as: "A system of roles and relationships between women and men that are determined not by biology but the social, political and economic context. One's biological sex is a natural given: gender is constructed".11

The dividing line between sex and gender was, however, left unclear.

Many of those who adopted the term "gender" had no idea of its ideological roots. Nevertheless, the U.N.'s 1995 Conference on Women in Beijing called on nations to "mainstream a gender perspective". According to the final text of its Platform for Action: "In many countries, the differences between women's and men's achievements and activities are still not recognized as the consequences of socially constructed gender roles rather than immutable biological differences".12

The problem with this statement is that some of the differences between women's and men's activities are clearly related to immutable biological differences, and the Platform made no accommodation for this.

For example, only women can become pregnant and nurse. As long as a significant percentage of women make motherhood their primary vocation by not working outside the home, by leaving the workforce for significant periods of time to accommodate family needs or by choosing work with hours or responsibilities which are compatible with family responsibilities, the achievements and activities of men and women will be significantly different.13

The gender perspective was unsupportive of women who chose motherhood as their primary vocation. In a 1975 interview with Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir summed up this attitude. When asked if women should have the choice to stay home and raise their children, she responded: "Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one".14

It was not simply that gender was constructed, but according to the gender perspective the construction of gender was done by men to the disadvantage of women. The very word "woman" was seen as a label that created "a fictitious being" and "perpetuates inequality".15

The unity of the human person

While the gender perspective was gaining acceptance, its theoretical basis was crumbling. In 1997, an article by Dr. Milton Diamond, an expert on the prenatal effect of testosterone on the organization of the brain, revealed that Dr. Money had not accurately reported the results of the twins' case.16

Dr Diamond had never accepted Dr. Money's theory that biological identity could be overridden by socialization. Over the years he had made various attempts to track down the twin on whom Money had reported and determine how the child had adjusted to adolescence.

Eventually, Diamond was able to contact a local therapist who had worked with the twin and discovered that the experiment had been a total failure. The twin had never accepted being a girl, never adjusted to a female role. By age 14 he was suicidal.

One of the many therapists assigned to help him encouraged his parents to tell him the truth. The moment that he heard that he was a boy he was determined to live as a male. He underwent extremely difficult reconstructive surgery and married.

The entire story of the twins' case has been documented in John Colapinto's book As Nature Made Him.17

Money's theories have been further discredited by subsequent research on brain development.

Research on prenatal exposure to hormones demonstrates that, even before birth, the brains of boys and girls are significantly different and this affects, among other things, the ways in which babies see movement, colour and form.

The result is a "biological preparedness" in boys for typically masculine toys and in girls for typically feminine toys.18

Women are, from the womb, being equipped with the sensitivity to the human person needed for mothering.

This research and other new information on the structure of the human brain suggest that biological influences and experience work together to create brain connections and are so inextricably interwoven that it is impossible to separate them.

Children are born into societies created by men and women whose perception of what is natural is influenced by the same combination of biology and experience. Boys will grow up to be fathers; girls, mothers. Hiding that fact through gender-neutral socialization will not change the reality of sex difference.

Other research on brain development has demonstrated the importance of the relationship between mother and child during the first months of life.

The baby who has heard the mother's voice in the womb comes into the world looking for the light in his mother's eyes. Secure attachment between mother and baby is crucial to emotional development.

Those who study early childhood development and the development of the human brain are concerned that their findings on the importance of the mother/child bond are being ignored by those who favour women in the workforce and babies in day care.19

If women are more sensitive to the needs of the human person and children need mothers who are sensitive to their needs, then presenting motherhood in a positive light is not perpetuating a negative stereotype but recognizing reality. There is no injustice as long as women are not prevented from choosing to work outside the home.

It is precisely because women and men are different, that women have a unique contribution to make in the greater society. The fact that women do have a choice causes some women to feel torn, but that is the price of freedom.

Unsupported claims of gender bias

The supporters of the gender perspective have cited numerous examples of how gender socialization is responsible for the abuse of women. The problem is many of these examples fail to stand up to careful investigation.

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism?, discovered that while the media promoted feminist claims that negative gender socialization caused 150,000 American women a year to die from anorexia, health statistics show that the number of deaths from anorexia in 1983 was 101. By 1991 the number declined to 54.

In 1991, the American Association of University Women released a study entitled "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America", which claimed that gender bias in the schools caused teenage girls to suffer a devastating loss of self-esteem.20 The study received major media coverage and numerous programmes were instituted to correct the problem.

After much effort, Sommers obtained a copy of the survey results and discovered that its measure of "self-esteem" was unscientific and that teenage girls were academically outperforming boys by most measures.21

The problem with unsupported claims of oppression made by feminists is that they divert limited resources from the real problems facing women and undermine the credibility of those dedicated to forwarding women's real interests.

Given the past reliance on flawed research, it is important to carefully investigate all evidence presented in support of the gender perspective. This is particularly true in the areas of abortion and homosexuality.

For example, those in favour of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples have cited numerous studies purporting to prove that there are no significant differences between children raised by same-sex couples and those raised by their natural parents in marriage. Those who analyzed the studies found them to be internally and externally invalid.22
According to Professor Lynn Wardle, "Most of the studies of homosexual parenting are based on unreliable quantitative research, flawed methodologically and analytically (some of little more than anecdotal quality), and provide a very tenuous empirical basis for setting public policy".23

On the other hand, numerous studies support the ways in which the presence of a father and a mother enhance the well-being of children. The importance of a mother's love has been widely accepted, but many newer studies demonstrate as well the positive influences of a father's love.

A review of the literature found that: "...the influence of father love on offspring's development is as great as and occasionally greater than the influence of mother love. Some studies conclude that father love is the sole significant predictor of specific positive outcomes".24

The future depends on the children and therefore society has an obligation to put the welfare of children first.

Women want what is best for their children, and every child needs a father and mother. Marriage alone secures the commitment of the parents to one another and to their children and thus every other arrangement carries risks for children and for women.

Patrick Fagan of Heritage Foundation has collected massive evidence on the importance for children of having a father and mother who remain married: "Children born out of wedlock or whose parents divorce are much more likely to experience poverty, abuse, and behavioural and emotional problems, have lower academic achievement and use drugs more often. Single mothers are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence....

"For children whose parents remain married, however, the benefits are real. Adolescents from these families have been found to have better health and are less likely to be depressed, are less likely to repeat a grade in school and have fewer developmental problems".25

Defending women

The Catholic Church cannot be neutral when attacks on the family, on marriage, on motherhood and fatherhood, on sexual morality or on unborn life are mounted in the name of women. The Church unequivocally condemns every abuse of women that takes place within the family, but the answer is not the destruction of the family.

When societies encourage sex outside marriage, abortion, the contraceptive mentality and divorce, it is women who suffer. When marriage is respected and chastity the norm, women's dignity is secured.

Solidarity between husband and wife in the family, between man and woman in society, is crucial for their fruitful collaboration. An endless sex-class struggle will not liberate women.
A flawed anthropology which denies the differences between the sexes leaves women in the unenviable position of either trying to imitate male behaviour or wasting their energy in a futile effort to turn men into pseudo-women.

A woman who understands and accepts the differences between the sexes is free to work with men without compromising her personal originality.

The gender perspective is a blind alley. Valuable resources are being squandered fighting women's natural desire to be mothers.

The promotion of fatherhood, motherhood, family and marriage in no way undermines the essential equality, rights and dignity of women. Recognition of the differences between men and women and the centrality of the family in society only sets the parameters for the discussion.

It will still be necessary to distinguish between real differences and demeaning stereotypes, still be important to protect the right of women and men to choose atypical careers, and still be important to protect women from injustice and abuse.

In this discussion, the Church has much to offer.

The Holy Father's repeated call for solidarity offers an alternative to endless class struggle. Those interested in creating a truly pro-woman society will find guidance in Love and Responsibility, written by the Holy Father while he was still a Bishop. John Paul II's condemnation of all behaviour which treats persons as objects will resonate with women, who rightly feel the burden of sexual and economic utilitarianism.

The fruitful collaboration of men and women must be based on the truth about the human person. Two sexes, different and equal, are a revelation of the image and likeness of God and are part of the goodness of creation. God, who made the human person male and female, who established marriage and family and set down the laws governing morality, is incapable of injustice.

Therefore, women have nothing to fear from a culture which understands and honours the differences between men and women.


1 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Property and the State. International Publishers: N.Y., 1972, pp. 65-66.

2 Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex. Bantam Books: N.Y., 1970, p. 12.

3Ibid., p. 72.

4 Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1978.

5 Alison Jagger, "Political Philosophies of Women's Liberation", Feminism and Philosophy. Littlefield, Adams & Co.: Totowa, N.J., 1977, p. 13.

6 Christine Riddiough, "Socialism, Feminism and Gay/Lesbian Liberation", in Women and Revolution, ed. by Lydia Sargent. South End Press: Boston, 1981, p. 87.

7 John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him. Harper Collins: N.Y., 2000, p. 69.

8 John Money & Anke Ehrhardt, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Md., 1972.

9 Kate Millett, Sexual Politics. Avon Books: N.Y., 1971, p. 54.

10 Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family. Basic Books: N.Y., 1989, p. 170.

11Gender Concepts in development and planning: A Basic Approach (INSTRAW, 1995), p. 11.

12Platform of Action, Beijing Conference on Women, 1995, Paragraph 27 in the final text.

13 According to Vigdis Finnbogadottir, President of Iceland: "As long as the private sphere remains largely women's concern, they will be much less available for men for positions of responsibility in economic and political life" (Speech at Council of Europe, Strasbourg, February 1995).

14 Simone de Beauvoir, "Sex, Society, and the Female Dilemma: a dialogue between Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir", Saturday Review, 14 June 1975, p. 18.

15 Peter Beckman and Francine D'Amico, Women. Gender and World Politics. Bergin & Garvey: Westport, Conn., 1994, p. 7.

16 Milton Diamond & H.K. Sigmundson, "Sex Reassignment at Birth: A Long-Term Review and Clinical Implications", Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151, March 1997, pp. 298-304.

17 John Colapinto, As Nature Made Him. Harper Collins: N.Y., 2000.

18 Gerianne Alexander, "An Evolutionary Perspective of Sex-Typed Toy Preference: Pink, Blue and the Brain," Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 32, 1, (February 2003) pp. 7-14.

19 Shore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, p. 540.

20 "A Call to Action: Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America" (American Association of University Women: Washington D.C., 1991).

21 Sommers, Who Stole Feminism, pp. 137-156.

22 Philip Belcastro, et al. "A Review of Data Based Studies Addressing the Affects of Homosexual Parenting on Children's Sexual and Social Functioning", Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. 1993, vol. 20, nn. 1/2, pp. 105-122; Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, No Basis: What the studies don't tell us about same-sex parenting (Marriage Law Project: Washington, D.C., 2001).

23 Lynn Wardel, "The Potential Impact of Homosexual Parenting on Children", University of Illinois Law Review, 833 (1997).

24 Ronald Rohner & Robert Veneziano, "The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence", Review of General Psychology. December 2001, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 382-405.

25 Features/Marriage/index.cfm#q1 F

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 November 2004, page 6

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