The persistence of ‘masculinism’ at Franciscan University

by Elizabeth Magaletta

Kathleen van Schaijik’s recent article on polygamy seemed, at first glance, of questionable relevance. After all, nobody here in Steubenville is campaigning for a return to the harem. But does that mean that we have among us no threat to the freedom and dignity of women? Nobody can be found to say, “Men are superior to women.” But I suspect that, to some readers, “perfect equality” will not mean what it does to Mrs. van Schaijik, and there lies the problem. My own comments are intended not so much as a response to hers as a seizing of the occasion they provide. What about the intellectual life of Franciscan University makes her piece relevant, as it indeed is, the non-issue status of polygamy notwithstanding?

Van Schaijik draws an analogy between polygamy and black slavery. The imaginary argument in favor of slavery runs thus: “Since the white race is on the whole more intelligent than the black, whites are evidently made to dominate, and therefore, according to natural law, there is nothing wrong with slavery.” This is a rotten argument all ‘round, but although whites are not, in fact, smarter than blacks, the hidden premise that the more intelligent are entitled to enslave the less so is by far the weaker point in the argument. Why? Simply because people of subnormal intelligence are human beings nonetheless. As a philosopher might say, they are equal to the rest of us, not with respect to intelligence, but rather in metaphysical dignity.

You have heard the phrase before. When making comparisons between women and men, people often say, “Men and women are equal in metaphysical dignity, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same.” It is certainly true that men and women are not the same; but in light of the analogy with slavery, “metaphysical dignity” seems to say too little. The feminine nature is not some grave handicap, in the face of which we must be hastily reassured that its possessors are human beings, nonetheless. In fact, that men and women are equals is so perfectly self-evident that to discuss it as though it were one of the great discoveries or fine points of philosophy is an insulting condescension.

Why is whether women are men’s equals a matter for discussion at all?

Notice that I say, “men and women are equals”—not “equal.” This distinction is helpful in two respects. First: to say that men and women are “equal” might seem to suggest an equivalency and sameness between them. This is not my position, although I should like to stress the unifying power of common human nature as a corrective to the heavy emphasis laid upon “difference” and “complementarity” at the University. Second: “equals,” as a substantive rather than an adjective, suggests acting persons in the real world instead of passive objects of intellectual comparison. Too frequently our actual experience of the range of human personality is abandoned in favor of abstractions which ultimately become caricatures of reality.

Take what is probably the complementarians’ single greatest theme: receptivity. In two years here, I have passed no period longer than a week without hearing some mention of feminine receptivity. It is, obviously enough, an insight drawn directly from the realm of genital sexuality. This might not be so bad; it is precisely the sexual difference which is under discussion. But to take sexual intercourse as the paradigm for this difference is to consider woman, not only in the moment when her dissimilarity from man is most pronounced, but also from an exclusively male standpoint into which women themselves can enter only vicariously. The masculine experience is thereby given normative status, and women are measured against it. What seemed to be a discussion of the difference between men and women turns out rather as one of the difference of women from men.

Receptivity is a good thing, and it may seem strange that I complain of its being attributed to women. But in thought and practice, receptivity means more than receptivity. The stress on woman’s capacity to receive obscures and belittles what she has to give. Similarly, the emphasis on her “subjective orientation” calls into question her fitness for objective achievement; her “nurturing” aspect is wielded in cutting her out of spheres where emotion is not of primary importance. And so forth. I do not mean that these observations about the feminine nature are (necessarily) wrong, but their use for the prescription of social roles depends on a false alternative.

One of the most striking things about women is the capacity for motherhood. While the father’s role is of great importance, the maternal presence seems, somehow, to cut a wider swath through the lived experience not only of the individual child but of the family at large. Catholics of both sexes have watched with horror as the breakdown of the family has torn men from women and children from their parents, especially their mothers, even to the point of abortion. In response, there has been a reassertion of values such as family unity, parental authority and the strong, continuous presence of the mother in the home. Nobody doubts the immense value of these things. Yet somehow, in the midst of this commendable movement, many Catholics have developed the atavistic and wholly illogical notion that a traditional domestic role is the only one (short of religious life) for which women are, at rock bottom, really suited.

One cannot coherently admit that women have the intelligence, psychological stamina and so forth, which the various professions require, and at the same time maintain that they ought not to enter them. In order, then, to dictate to them an exclusively domestic role, it becomes necessary to paint up the kind of deficiencies which then require the metaphysical-dignity disclaimer. Men are claimed, for example, to be “more analytical” than women. But then how explain, for instance, the several girls I knew growing up who mastered calculus before they had finished middle school. Call such women “aberrations,” if you like, but there is nothing normal about boys’ doing higher math in middle school, either. Granted, there are more good mothers than women mathematicians; but that there are women mathematicians at all should settle the issue. By denying the full range of women’s gifts, the Steubenville gender-difference enthusiasts are doing more than just reacting to feminism; their view is a clear and unmistakable masculinism.

This is what I mean: feminism is a movement especially aimed at defending the rights and dignity of women against the aggressions of men. We take exception to radical feminism because in it the special focus on women has subsumed everything else. We have never needed a defense of the rights of men against the aggressions of women; and so I use “masculinism” expressly to designate that view of life in which the concerns of men subsume everything else. Male superiority is not so much a part of this view as its governing principle.

I do not bring this charge lightly. I realize that in discussions of the gender difference many good things are said about women. In fact, most of the things said are said about women; and the things said about men are only occasionally positive. This is a false humility, though. Masculinism survives only by disguising itself, and focus on masculine virtues would be glaringly offensive; only because women are already perceived as at some disadvantage can their “praises” be sung so loudly without anybody’s thinking it an attempt to establish female supremacy. If we met a person who spoke with great admiration of black people’s religious fervor, but who also let drop the occasional reference to their mental dullness, he would not impress us as someone with a great appreciation for blacks, but rather as a condescending bigot; and even his choice of religious fervor as the object of praise would become suspect.

The most hurtful aspect of the Catholic masculinism phenomenon is precisely, as Mrs. van Schaijik has brought out, its presenting itself as Catholic. Everybody acknowledges that the sexual difference is part of God’s plan for creation; but Catholic masculinism has replaced, in that formulation, the sexual difference as such with a specific interpretation of the meaning and practical ramifications of the difference. The differentiation into two sexes is the very mystery into which we are, all of us, created; and by an appropriation and pretended intellectual mastery of it, the masculinists presume to lift themselves out of and rise above the mystery, dictating to other individuals and families their place in it. It is such irreverence, not respectful and serious discourse (and certainly not any family’s chosen form of life) which I protest.

Elizabeth Magaletta is a junior majoring in philosophy and classics.