By Megan Jacobs
On September 30, 2021, Abigail Favale, doctor of gender studies at George Fox University, came to Hope College and gave a lecture titled: “The Genesis of Gender: Christian and Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.” When I (Megan Jacobs, ’22) first saw the talk advertised, I was excited to attend, as it was an intersection of my two majors: Women and Gender Studies and Christian History and Theology. However, as the event approached, I began to hear more about the speaker and I received a couple of emails warning members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community that this lecture could be triggering and/or harmful to their wellbeing, as Dr. Favale has written previously against trans-inclusive feminism. Because of this, I felt compelled to attend the event to not only listen to what she had to say regarding gender and Christianity, but also be an ally in hopes of pressing Favale with important questions of marginalization and the importance of intersectionality in feminism. Although this event has become quite controversial within Hope’s community, I am hoping to reflect on this lecture in an honest and open way that shares about how it has matched with, or not matched with what I have learned thus far about the intersection of religion and gender studies.
Favale began the lecture by introducing two paradigms that she called the “gender paradigm” and the “Genesis paradigm.” In her discussion of the gender paradigm, she shared research that she had done around the history of the word gender. She shared works from John Money, discussions of second wave feminism, and perspectives from Judith Butler on gender. After providing this brief overview, she stated, “The concept of gender has been helpful, but it has driven a wedge between body and identity.” I find this statement interesting because I don’t disagree, but I also do think that the rest of this lecture could have gone a different direction to try to understand how to find our bodily identity in God. Instead she used this point to make an argument for the Genesis paradigm, where we are to build our bodily identity in our male or female-ness.
To introduce the Genesis paradigm, Favale explained that she chose to use the book of Genesis because it is our origin, showing us our identity and purpose. Something that I found to be startling about her discussion of the Genesis paradigm was the way in which she chose to organize her slides. Rather than presenting the Genesis paradigm in the same manner as the gender paradigm, she chose to present it by way of comparison, so that we could see the difference between each paradigm. She presented several slides, each of which had two sections: one in dark blue, representing the gender paradigm, and one in white, representing the Genesis paradigm. For example, on one side of the screen we would see a dark blue section that read “Humans create reality, so reality is a construct” while the other side of the screen in white read, “God creates reality, so reality is a gift.” Another slide had the gender paradigm point of view saying “Body as an object” while the opposite side of the screen read “body as a sacrament.” This made it seem as though the way that we should deal with gender as Christians should be black and white.
When dealing with most of scripture, we see that not much is black and white, and the same applies to gender. I understand that we all have different points of view, and I think that should be welcome into discussion at Hope and in every academic/religious sphere. However when one option is presented as the superior or only option, I think that is where we should take a step back and remember that not everyone is an adherent of the Catholic faith. By presenting her ideas in a black or white structure, I think it promotes even more division as we debate about how to define gender. We begin to take sides and forget that there are other ways to refer to it. As I reflect on the event further, I am upset at how the Saint Benedict Institute decided to run the lecture. After Dr. Favale was done giving her lecture, there was a question and answer session wherein listeners were able to submit questions for her to answer concerning the lecture. The questions were submitted to Dr. Ortiz, the executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute, to choose from and present to Dr. Favale. I submitted six different questions. However, only two of my “safer” questions concerning what she thought of feminism were presented to her. While I understand that there was a limited amount of time for questions, I think there should have been someone else who was not from the Saint Benedict Institute facilitating the Q&A session, in order to promote a more open and well-rounded discussion in which attendees do not feel their questions are being cherry-picked to avoid controversy.
I also found Dr. Favale’s definition of feminism to be reductive and non-inclusive. The event was advertised as being the thoughts from a Christian and feminist perspective, so the first question that I submitted was about her views as a feminist. I wrote: How can you consider your feminist perspective to truly be feminist when it is so exclusive? To this, she replied that she is a feminist for women, saying,“If woman is purely a linguistic identity, then I don’t think there’s a point to feminism.” Frankly, I was taken aback by this statement. From what I have been studying in my gender studies classes for these past three and a half years, I have learned about the importance of intersectionality in feminism that is inclusive to communities that have been marginalized on the bases such as socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. In my eyes, Dr. Favale has created an incredibly narrow definition of what it means to be a feminist based purely on the linguistics of the word ‘woman.’ From the classes that I have taken here at Hope, it has become abundantly clear to me that being a feminist involves so much more then simply wanting to defy gender norms. While that is an important aspect of feminism, it is also crucial to acknowledge how this damaging system of patriarchal culture has affected all people.
Ultimately, I feel as though I could say quite a bit about what else in Dr. Favale’s presentation did not reflect what I have learned these past three and a half years in my study of the intersection of gender studies and religion here at Hope. Despite the fact that I didn’t agree with Dr. Favale on some of her points about gender, I believe that discussing gender is an important conversation that should be ongoing and welcomed at Hope College. I am hopeful that there will be other lectures in the future about Christian thought on gender that will be holistic and open to a wider range of more difficult questions. I think it’s important to have more events that aren’t strictly limited to a specific ideology. Gender is not black and white and our views on it should be built off of more than one person’s ideas of it.