Dr. Abigail Favale, PhD connects contraceptive mentality to modern gender theory

Notre Dame Right to Life (NDRTL) invited Dr. Abigail Favale, dean of the College of Humanities and professor of English at George Fox University, to deliver a lecture on April 7. Favale’s talk, titled “Contraception and Gender: Where Are We Now?”, was the fourth and final event in the club’s Humanae Vitae lecture series.

Favale identified two parallel historical developments in the 20th century: a conceptual revolution in which the concept of gender developed and a “contraceptual” revolution brought about by the increased availability and cultural acceptance of birth control. She argued that the widespread availability and normalization of birth control led to contemporary debates about transgenderism and sexual ethics.

“This contraceptual revolution significantly altered the material conditions of women’s lives. And I think it in turn fueled the conceptual regime change that was also underway around the same time,” Favale said.

Favale traced the development of the concept of gender throughout philosophy, psychology, and medicine, drawing upon the thought of Simone de Beauvoir, John Money, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault. Philosophy of language, she argued, lies at the core of modern conceptions about gender.

“In the postmodern perspective, truth is suspended in air quotes as ultimately unknowable, or even nonexistent. All that remains is power. Knowledge, then, is not a matter of discerning or recognizing what is true, because truth itself is a construction of power,” Favale explained. “Judith Butler would go so far as to say that there is no reality behind our language, whereas I would say that language does shape our perception of what is real, but reality pushes back. Coming from a Catholic perspective, I see the purpose of language as that which names what is real, and our language is more true or less true insofar as it corresponds to what is real.”

Favale identified a paradox in modern secular gender theory. “The gender paradigm depends upon a radically constructivist, anti-realist view in order to dismantle categories and create new ones. But then there’s this pivot, and those new categories are reified as actually really true,” she said, referencing truth claims borne of the gender paradigm like “trans-women are women” and “sex is a spectrum.”

After tracing the conceptual development of gender in the twentieth century, Favale began her discussion of the contraception revolution by comparing the autobiographical experiences of two men who underwent medical gender reassignment in the 1930s and 1950s, respectively. Lili Elba, born Einar Wegener, desired the procreative capacities of a woman and died after his immune system rejected a uterine transplant. Christine Jorgensen, born George William Jorgensen, Jr., wanted to physically present as a woman and took cross-sex hormones, but did not attempt to obtain the procreative capacities of a woman.

Favale used these case studies to illustrate the development in the societal understanding of womanhood: “In 1930, the pursuit of womanhood involved adopting the female procreative role. But by the 1960s, womanhood had become simply a matter of reshaping one’s appearance and affect. So what is behind this shift? What unfolded in the intervening decades between the 1930s and the 1960s? The widespread normalization of contraception.”

She continued: “We now live in a state of perpetual dissonance. […] We now think of sex as recreational, rather than procreation. The connection between sex and the possibility of new life has been severed. We think of women—and women often think of themselves—as naturally sterile beings. Pregnancy is often seen as a sexual mishap, a case of sex gone wrong, rather than that very outcome that sexual intercourse is designed to bring about.”

This disconnection of sexual union from procreation, Favale explained, had downstream effects: “Biological sex has been split off from gender, woman from female, men from male, body from the desiring will. These schisms are both conceptual and technological, facilitated by experimental treatments, hormones and surgeries that have not been rigorously studied.”

Favale’s lecture concluded the lecture series, which was inspired by Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The series was conceived by Sean Tehan, Co-Director of Education for NDRTL, in order to fill the gaps in student knowledge and university programming. The previous three talks were titled “How Far is Too Far: A Guide to Fruitful and Loving Dating,” “Contraception and the Sterile Life,” and “Natural Family Planning: Catholic Contraception?”.

“During my time here at Notre Dame, I have been more and more convicted of the devastating consequences of the sexual revolution on society. To university students, it is just the water in which we swim, so we have never thought to question it,” Tehan said.

“Dr. Favale’s thesis illustrates how the contraceptive mentality brought about so much of our current ‘gender confusion.’ When we sterilize our procreative capacity, we destroy the very constitutive meaning of man and woman,” he said. “Dr. Favale analyzed the ‘water’ we do not notice and eloquently traced the roots of our contemporary divorcing of sex and gender to the very heart and foundation of the sexual revolution: contraception. We were honored to have her speak and are greatly enlightened by her scholarship.”

Favale’s new book The Genesis of Gender, which “traces the genealogy of gender to its origins in feminism and postmodern thought, describing how gender has come to eclipse sex, and how that shift is reshaping language, law, medicine, sexuality, and our own self-perceptions” is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

Mary Frances Myler is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. She looks forward to rediscovering reading for fun after graduation and has added Humanae Vitae, The Genesis of Gender, and Favale’s memoir, Into the Deep, to her summer book list. Add to her reading list by emailing mmyler@nd.edu.

Photo credit: Notre Dame Right to Life, used with permission