Suzanne Venker recently wrote a blog post on Fox News.com, which noted that women today are unhappier than ever, and argued that the feminist movement is to blame. Women have put their careers first. This has derailed their desire to live a "balanced life" (by which Venker seems to mean "have babies"), and has made men thoroughly "pissed." We men just want to protect, love and nurture women, but women won't let us! Fortunately, Venker says, women can make their lives right again. "All they have to do is surrender to their nature -- their femininity -- and let men surrender to theirs."
As a man, there is a lot for me to object to in this article. Venker implies that if I support feminism, then I am violating my nature. I am less of a man. As a thinking being, I could note that I am not exactly sure which accomplishments of feminism Venker would like to roll back: The right to vote, play school sports, not get beat up by their husbands, receive equal pay for equal work, or to prosecute rape without having witnesses to the act? Like a lot of individuals, Venker seems to make "feminism" an intellectual bogeyman -- something for us to be scared of but not think too much about. But it is as a Christian theologian that I find Venker's argument especially egregious. Her essentialism makes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ only halfway salvific.
When I posted Venker's article on my Facebook page, a number of my more conservative friends said they opposed feminism because it was too "radical," but they supported equal rights for women. Personally, I am not sure there is much of a difference between the two. If they do not like the word "feminism" because it connotes bra-burning radicals who feel they are superior to men (or whatever), I might point out that it is rarely a good idea to define a movement by its most extreme elements. That does not mean I agree with everything I have heard every feminist say, just like I do not agree with everything I have heard every Christian say. I sometimes hesitate to call myself a feminist because it feels a little disingenuous. I have benefited from male privilege, so I think calling myself a feminist would be a bit like calling myself a black liberation theologian (but my feminist friends tell me I need to get over it). On the whole, I do not think Christianity has much to fear from feminism because feminism is not a monolithic or radical movement, only a collection of ideas, some of which can be very helpful for understanding the rich theology that 2,000 years of tradition has bequeathed us.
One thing feminist theory has helped point out over the past few decades is that there is a difference between gender and sex. Sex refers to biology, while gender refers to the roles we assign to biology. Sex means baby boys and baby girls have different parts. Gender means that if we see princess pull-ups on our left, and superhero pull-ups on our right, we know which one is for boys and which one is for girls.
To put it rather simplistically, someone who does not recognize a difference between sex and gender is an "essentialist." Venker seems to be one of those people. Thus she implies that women and men have different "natures." Each gender has an "essence," and failing to live into that essence is the source of our mutual unhappiness.
Essentialism is contrasted to constructivism. A strict constructivist is someone who believes that there is no inherent relationship between sex and gender. Our gender identities are completely "constructed" by the expectations of society.
I fall somewhere between the two. I am not a strict constructivist because I think there are compelling reasons to believe that at least some characteristics we identify with gender have biological origins. Girls seem to be more "subject-oriented" from an early age, while boys seem a bit more "object-oriented" (constructivists would argue that these difference are cultural in origin, too). But I cannot get on board with essentialism, either. Not only do I think it is socially and scientifically problematic, but it results in Christological heresy.
"Christology" refers to that branch of theology that tries to figure out who Jesus is and how he "works." In other words, Christians believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, suffered on a cross, died, and then rose on the third day. Christology asks, "So what?" Sometimes theologians differentiate between "Christology" (who Jesus is) and "soteriology" (the work Jesus does), but I fail to see a difference between these two things.
There are many different theories about how Jesus' life, death and resurrection are salvific, but among orthodox Christians there has always been consensus that if Jesus Christ must be "fully-God" and "fully-human." Sometimes, I have heard students say Jesus is "half-God" and "half-human," but that is completely wrong. Jesus is 100 percent God and 100 percent us.
Our tradition has never been very good about explaining how Jesus' humanity and divinity relate to each other, but we nonetheless believe that if Jesus has to be fully-God and fully-human in order for humanity to be redeemed. To quote St. Gregory Nazianzen, "What is not assumed is not saved." That means, what Jesus Christ does not make a part of himself cannot be included in salvation. If Jesus only takes on part of our nature in the crucifixion, then only those parts of our nature are glorified in the resurrection.
The problem with Venker's essentialism is that it means that only half of humanity can be saved because only half of humanity was assumed by Jesus. Jesus Christ is a man. Thus he assumed male nature. Women, I'm afraid, have yet to be redeemed. They must still await the coming of their Christa.
Of course, there are ways around this. One could follow the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and say that women are really just incomplete men. Christian theology does teach that Jesus Christ took up only what is essential to humanity (things like suffering and death are excluded). Thus, one could argue that women are not essentially human. When they get to heaven, they get to be men.
St. Gregory of Nyssa expresses the Eastern Orthodox consensus on this issue (such as it is), when he says that sex is not essential to our humanity. He had to go through some intellectual gymnastics to explain the different parts of Adam and Eve, but I think Christians who find themselves nodding along with Venker should duly consider his larger point: There really cannot be any such thing as male nature or female nature, only human nature. Even if some gender differences have biological origins, the parts we are born with do not define who and what we are.
As a Christian theologian, I can agree with Venker that women and men have to surrender to their nature, but their nature is Jesus. Christians believe Christ is our prototype (the mold for what it means to be human). This means men are free to display the meekness of the one who told us to turn the other cheek, women are free to demonstrate the anger and assertiveness of the one who made a whip of chords and chased the moneychangers out of the Temple, and neither is less of a man or woman because of it. They are just human.
Follow David J. Dunn, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDavidJDunn