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The classic dystopian novel Brave New World features a totalitarian society that has completely separated human reproduction from sexual activity. Human beings are mass produced and engineered into a caste system; from infancy, their desires are shaped and conditioned to keep them happily enslaved to the social system. Babies, naturally drawn to the beauty of the sun and flowers, are punished with electric shocks until they develop an aversion that will keep them “happy” in the industrious environment of the city. Adults are lulled into an
acquiescent state by the euphoric drug
soma, which provides a false happiness, a state of superficial pleasure that distracts rather than fulfills.

A social engineering feat like this depends upon the complete conquest of nature—not “nature” as in trees and bees, but “nature” as in human nature. Aldous Huxley was not a Christian, but the portrait he paints is deeply teleological. The dark mirror of Brave New World shows that the human person is not a blank slate, a tabula rasa awaiting social construction. The regime has to work against a pre-social nature that is continually threatening to reassert itself. The state in Brave New World has its own synthetic telos to impose, and because telos is connected with nature, the state must work tirelessly against human nature, systematically and violently undoing any enduring bonds of love between people, any natural inclination toward beauty and wholeness. Marriage has been eradicated, and indeed any form of committed monogamy is illicit. There are no natural family units, or any family units at all—the term “mother” has become an obscenity. 

Huxley’s dystopia springs to my mind regularly these days. Take the other week, when I was participating in what has become a standard ritual in the 21st century workplace: mandatory HR compliance training. In my ideal world, compliance training would be replaced by a simple email, sent annually, that reads: “Greetings. This is your yearly reminder from HR. Don’t be a jerk.” Instead, we cycle through a lengthy and tedious tour of the many possible ways of offending our colleagues, a tour that gets lengthier and more tedious each year, as the list of offenses continues to grow. This year’s training, for example, included a directive to stop associating gender with biology. “Instead,” the slide cheerily demanded, “say ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘pregnant women.’” As I re-read this slide in disbelief, I was reminded of Brave New World, where technology has conquered biology, where “mother” has become a dirty word. When it comes to sex, gender, and sexuality, our world too closely mirrors Huxley’s dystopia. The phrase “pregnant woman” is a microaggression, a slur, because it makes the now-transgressive assumption that only women can get pregnant. How did we get here? What is being rewritten? What has been unlearned? That is a complicated story—one I tell at length in The Genesis of Gender—but one important thread is the feminist movement’s ironic reluctance to answer this vital question: What is a woman?  

From the second wave onward, feminism has had an ongoing problem with both resisting and depending upon a stable definition of woman. On the one hand, the very term “feminism” indicates a focus on femmes, women. Yet feminism has also been marked by a deep suspicion toward the idea of a universal, timeless understanding of what a woman is. There is some good reason for this. Various cultures and historical moments have featured dehumanizing definitions of woman, denying women basic rights and access to education on the grounds that women are intellectually deficient and only good for producing offspring, ideally sons. Feminists have also pointed out the difficulty of finding a definition that is capacious enough to include all women:  What is the foundational denominator to which we can point? We can’t point to physical features, because that would exclude women who have had hysterectomies, women who can grow full beards, women who tower over the average man. We can’t point to motherhood, because not all women are mothers. We can’t point to character traits—compassion, gentleness—because we can all think of women who don’t exemplify those traits. 

Notice how this line of thought is circular? I am rejecting definitions of “woman” on the grounds that they don’t include all women. I am taking for granted, in my evaluations, that there is such a being as “woman,” and then I’m searching for a way to articulate exactly what distinguishes that being from other beings. What is the what-ness, the quiddity, of woman? 

The idea that all women share some intrinsic property that characterizes “woman-ness” is called essentialism. An essentialist perspective affirms that men and women are fundamentally, or essentially, different. This doesn’t
have to mean that they are polar opposites, different in every way, but rather that there is some distinguishing feature that all women have, and all men do not, and vice versa. In gender theory, essentialism is often contrasted with social constructionism, which is the idea that there are no differences between men and women at the level of being; any differences we perceive are products of society and culture. 

I saw my womanhood as an integral part of my identity, and I felt a longing to more deeply understand and embrace my dignity as
a woman specifically.

Feminist thought, for reasons described above, is overwhelmingly anti-essentialist, and to escape the tension caused by rejecting essentialism on the one hand, while retaining a woman-centered movement on the other, many feminists appeal to nominalism. Nominalism—which evokes the notion of nom, or “name”—is the idea that we can group things together in name only, without appealing to a universal essence that transcends culture. I can say, for example, that women exist, because the idea of woman exists as a mental and social construct. Feminist theorists write of using essentialism nominally and “strategically,” appealing to a catch-all category when it suits, rejecting the category when it doesn’t, and resisting any attempts to define that category. 

I was caught in this nominalist-essentialist loop as a college student. I was first drawn to feminism by an avowedly essentialist impulse: I saw my womanhood as an integral part of my identity, and I felt a longing to more deeply understand and embrace my dignity as a woman specifically. At first glance, feminism seemed to offer a space where I could do exactly that. I did not expect to have to reject the idea of womanhood in order to find my dignity. Once I became immersed in feminist thought, however, I quickly picked up on the fact that essentialism was an unforgivable feminist sin.    

I remember sitting in a feminist philosophy class as a college senior, bandying around possible definitions of “woman” with my classmates, always coming up short. I kept wanting to appeal to the body, to female biology, but was admittedly stumped by the exceptions. Are women who have had hysterectomies no longer women? I could see that idea was clearly absurd, but I couldn’t articulate why. Even so, I remained a closet essentialist, playing the nominalism card as needed, secretly holding onto the idea that womanhood was a core part of my nature, that “woman” named something fundamental and real, something deeper than a social fiction. 

I tried to confess this once to a male classmate. We were both taking the feminist philosophy class, both card-carrying, self-avowed feminists. One day after class, he asked me to articulate my perspective. “How do you understand your identity as a woman?” he asked. I don’t remember what I said; I only remember that I spoke honestly, and his response was incredulous: “You can’t think that! That’s essentialism!” The irony of having a male classmate reject my perspective in order to toe the feminist line is not lost on me. His response shows how the rejection of essentialism is a premise in most feminist philosophy, rather than a well-reasoned conclusion. I had only been a feminist for a hot minute, and already I was a heretic. 

The tool I lacked in my analytical toolbox was this: the crucial distinction between potentiality and actuality. I first encountered these concepts in the work of the philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who in turn adapted them from Aristotle. Potentiality (also called “potency”) refers to any inherent potential or possibility a thing has. Actuality (also called “act”) is the realization or actualization of that inherent possibility. Let’s play with some examples. 

Before I sat down to write this morning, I was looking at some of my daughter’s worksheets from kindergarten. She’s just learning how to arrange letters into words, based on sound. On one worksheet, she’s listed characters from the Christmas story: MRE, AJL, CING—aka Mary, Angel, King. There’s something awe-inducing about seeing her oversized, shaky, and often backward letters being arranged to create intelligible words. There is a potential within her—the potential to read, to write, to reason, to develop language—that is being drawn into actuality, and it is thrilling to see it unfold in real time. She’s been in kindergarten for only two months, and already she’s beginning to write and read. 

My cat, Kafka, also has some linguistic abilities. At least, he can communicate pretty well. Like his namesake, Kafka is full of feline angst; he meows loudly whenever he needs something, usually water, food, or attention, and he has a particularly deep and proud yowl to signal the presentation of a trophy, usually the corpse of a dead rat. Despite his intelligence and ability to communicate, if I sent Kafka to kindergarten, he would never learn to read. I could keep him in school until his nine lives ran out, and it would just never happen, because he does not have the inherent potential to develop literacy. There are plenty of animals more intelligent than Kafka, but none of them could do what my five-year-old daughter is now doing, because they lack the potential to do so, by their very nature. 

How does this help us define “woman?” In my prior and failed attempts to settle on a definition, I was working only with the idea of actuality, fumbling to find a characteristic that would be actually true for all women, at all times. I held the commonsense intuition that a woman is an adult human female but was unsure how to respond to the inevitable what-aboutery that springs up in response to any proposed definition: What about infertile women? What about post-menopausal women? What about women who’ve had mastectomies and hysterectomies? What about women with a Y-chromosome? 

Potentiality solves this problem. A woman is the kind of human being whose body is organized around the potential to gestate new life. This potentiality that belongs to femaleness is always present, even if there is some kind of condition, such as age or disease, that prevents that potential from being actualized. The very category of “infertility” does not undermine this definition, but affirms it. A male human who cannot get pregnant is not deemed “infertile,” because he never had that potential in the first place. A woman who cannot get pregnant does have that potential, and so she is considered infertile. Infertility names the often painful and devastating inability to actualize one’s procreative potential.

Maybe I have found a well-armored definition of woman, but doesn’t this definition reduce people to reproductive function? Isn’t that dehumanizing? The first response I have to this objection is that this definition is not about function per se, but about innate potential. This is an important distinction, because it affirms the reality that women who do not procreate are still fully women. 

My second response is to call to mind again that guiding principle of thinking like a Catholic: When we talk about people, we are always talking about bodies and souls, physical-spiritual beings. Our consideration of womanhood must include bodily sex, but must also extend beyond it to consider the whole person. That’s the lively tension we need to inhabit: to remain rooted in the body, but not reduced to the body. 

I recently saw a tweet from the brand Tampax that proclaimed, “Not all people with periods are women. Let’s celebrate the diversity of people who bleed!” This echoes the worldview behind the HR training I took that mandated the phrase “pregnant people,” rather than “pregnant women.” I’ve seen similar permutations elsewhere: people with a cervix, chest-feeders, birthing parents—linguistic somersaults to speak about female bodies without using the term woman, or even the word female. This strikes me as a denigrating, function-based approach. Instead of a term that evokes an integrated, personal entity—“woman”—we have phrases based on function, and then loosely attached to personhood, which is necessarily dehumanizing. “Birthing parent” is narrowly focused on the function of giving birth; “mother” evokes that role, but blooms far beyond it, encompassing so much more than one singular event or function. 

It is those who reject the connection between “woman” and procreation who employ function-based, rather than person-based categorization, thus reducing women and men to body parts and roles. Feminism has long had an uneasy relationship with femaleness, and the new gender identity paradigm takes this wholesale rejection of essentialism (even the slightest whiff!) to its logical conclusion: separating “female” from “woman” completely, and even separating femaleness from the body itself. Female is now a feeling, an opt-in identity, rather than an objective and unchosen organization of one’s entire physiology according to procreative potential. What we have long thought of as the female body is being unnamed, sent to the chop shop for linguistic dismantling. 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. 

We are on the cusp of Huxley’s dystopia, if not already tumbling over the edge. The technological conquest of nature has reached the frontiers of the human body itself. Human nature is not being rewritten so much as unwritten altogether. But in order to successfully deny the embodied reality in which we live and move and have our being, technology alone is not sufficient. Our words must be changed, just like in Huxley’s regime, realigned not to name the world as it is, but to usher in the brave new one. It is the apex of irony that a movement founded on the ideal of liberating women has led us to this cultural juncture, where the phrase “pregnant woman” is illicit. Feminism’s rejection of essentialism has proved ultimately to be a self-immolating move. The dignity of women can’t be defended if we are afraid to say what
women are. 

This essay is adapted with permission from Abigail Favale’s book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, recently published by Ignatius Press.

About the Author

Abigail Favale, Ph.D., is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.  Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Church Life, Public Discourse, and The Atlantic. Her spiritual memoir, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, traces her journey from evangelicalism to postmodern feminism to Catholicism. Abigail’s latest book is The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, released in June 2022 by Ignatius Press. 

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