On the Meaning of Sex 3(b): When Mothers Wage War

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]


Individuals are more than just clusters of properties. Human individuals have personal identities; they belong to the natural kind ‘humanity’; the members of this natural kind are fulfilled in the activities of knowledge, work, and love; and the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ express a real division of it. On this account, the difference between men and women is not invented or constructed, but simply recognized. It lies in the nature of things. Yes, of course, cultures try to nuance the difference between men and women in different ways, but that does not make the difference itself just a product of culture. And yes, not all women are more nurturing than all men, not all men are more assertive than all women, and so on. Even so, the fact that most women are more nurturing than most men is much more than an accident. It arises from a genuine difference in the underlying reality, the difference between womanhood and manhood as such. –On the Meaning of Sex, 50-1

I want to avoid misrepresenting Budziszewski’s Chapter 3 argument, so I’m starting this week with that block of text above, which represents its clearest distillation. In my last post, I called Budziszewski Steve Harvey with a PhD, by which I meant that he trades in broad caricatures of masculinity and femininity. But as the paragraph above shows, Budziszewski does in fact acknowledge individual differences, and he acknowledges that gender roles can be fluid, and that men can learn from and be changed by women (and vice versa).

Now, nowhere in the chapter does he account for those differences, or consider what they might mean, or what value they might have.

He does insist that even though a given man and a given woman might do the same thing, and might do it in the same way, there’s still a difference because…? I honestly don’t know.

For instance: men are called to “wage war,” Budziszewski says, though that fighting might take the form of lifting the fallen, helping the weak, or encouraging the faint-hearted (64).

But all he’s done there is taken a manly-sounding term (“waging war”) and applied it to tasks traditionally associated with women. Presumably, when a woman literally wages war, Budziszewski would also tell us that she’s “mothering.”

This reminds me of a thoughtful but confusing post that Devin Rose wrote in which he described his marriage using the traditional complementarian imagery of the husband as head and wife as the heart. But in that post, Rose acknowledged that his wife does as much of the “head” stuff (thinking, planning big things, etc.) as he does, and he does as much of the “heart” stuff. So what’s the point of the division? Why not just say that Devin is the Devin of the family? Why torture the metaphor by suggesting that the “head” of his family pumps blood and the “heart” of it thinks?

That post was Rose’s attempt to distance himself from the harsher complementarian rhetoric of folks like Mark Driscoll, but by doing so, he undermined his own logic. Budziszewski has the same problem: if the categories male and female don’t necessarily mean anything (that we can pinpoint) in our actual lives, then how can we say that they definitively tell us how we’re supposed to behave? And if they can’t, then what’s the point of this book?

But Budziszewski isn’t ready to give up his preconceived framework. There has to be some clear, definable, universal difference between men and women, right? Something that holds true in every case? After all, if we’re going to say that “the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ express a real division,” essential categories of humanity, then we have to be able to define those terms.

Should be easy. Gender is the first thing we notice about a person, Budziszewski assures us, as if no one has ever accidentally called a woman “sir.”

Funny thing: I first encountered this chapter of Budziszewski’s online in article form in the summer of 2012, during the buildup to the London Olympics. Maybe you remember that there was a controversy in those games regarding the South African runner Caster Semenya, a woman whose eligibility to compete in the games was called into question due to doubts about her sex. There were lots of thoughtful articles on the issue tracing the many ways that international sporting bodies have defined “woman,” and the various problems these definitions have presented. (The current standard is based on an athlete’s testosterone level, on the assumption that the hormone gives an athletic advantage.)

As it stands now with IOC, Alice Dreger reports:

They acknowledge there’s no one magical gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can do for us the hard work of sharp division into male and female leagues. Says the IOC in its latest declaration on the problem: “Human biology […] allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female, sometimes referred to as intersex.”

Anyway, the IOC should just make Budziszewski their commissioner, because he’s got it all figured out. He says: “We can say that a woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers.  The broad category here is human beings; an essential characteristic that distinguishes some human beings from others is the potentiality for motherhood.” (54)

BOOM! Problem solved. A woman is someone who, if all things are working properly, can become a mother. Budziszewski says that this doesn’t rule out infertile women, because he’s talking about potentiality in terms of design—in an ideal world, women wouldn’t be infertile.*

Okay, but where does that leave a person with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome? That’s one of the issues that the IOC has had to deal with. These are people who are genetically male—that is, they have X and Y chromosomes—but whose bodies have an inability to respond to male sex hormones, and so their bodies have developed from the womb as females.

Is she a woman by Budziszewski’s definition? Again, she’ll have male chromosomes (XY).  In most cases, she won’t have ovaries or a uterus, but she’ll have female genitalia and a womanly body.  She will likely have undescended testes.  She’ll grow up as a girl, be treated as a girl, identify as a girl. Have no idea she’s not genetically female, unless she’s had a genetic test performed on her. She might be on your daughter’s soccer team, running around with a cute little ponytail.  But she’ll have no potential to be a mother. In fact, if everything were working properly—in a world with no disorder—her potentiality would be toward fatherhood.

Readers, I want you to pay attention here to what I’m saying and what I’m not. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as gender. I’m not saying that there’s no meaning in gender identity. I don’t agree with Amanda Marcotte, for example, when she writes (in an otherwise excellent piece) that we should “stop seeing masculinity as a ‘thing.’”

But intersex individuals do challenge the meaningfulness of those categories for individuals.  If a girl has a female body, knows herself as a female, has grown up as a female, what does it matter that in an ideal world she would have the potential to be a father?  What does that tell us about how she should act here, in this world, where she is a girl?

What I am pointing out is that, to use a phrase I’ve used before, everything Budziszewski says breaks down in individual cases. Literally everything: Budziszewski can’t even define male and female without exceptions. Or, if he tries to make his language big enough to include all the possible permutations, he renders that language meaningless. So the question is, if individual cases keep wrecking his schema, why not put aside the schema and focus on individuals?

Budziszewski knows the weakness of his arguments. He knows he can’t show what he wants to show, so on page 52 he concedes that, in order to understand this, “one must see with the eyes of the heart.”

People like me, he says, are refusing to do that. Making ourselves a little blind. “How many more colors there are in the world because there are two sexes and not just one!” he says, in an example of the purest irony.

Why irony? Because he’s the one with the limited spectrum. In essence, all he sees are red and blue. When we point out that, hey, there’s also purple, and that light blue isn’t any better or worse than dark blue, or that pink is a great color, and OMG, there are also oranges and yellows and greens—when we celebrate all of those colors and refuse to put one above all the others—he interprets that as somehow undermining the essence of red and blue.

Next week: Why not put the individual first? Budziszewski answers. Stay tuned!

* He writes: “[T]he idea of ‘potentiality for motherhood’ needs explanation. One reason is that potentiality is often confused with physical possibility. Consider a woman who is infertile. Perhaps, by mischance, an infection has scarred her fallopian tubes. Although it physically impossible for her to be a mother, we should not say that she lacks the potentiality for motherhood. She has that potentiality as a woman, even though her potentiality cannot be physically realized because of the scarring” (55).

2 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Sex 3(b): When Mothers Wage War

  1. The British theologian Susannah Cornwell, who specializes in the theology of intersex conditions has pointed out correctly that the simple existence of intersex raises profoundly challenging questions for the whole of traditional Christian thinking on the whole nature of sexuality, gender and marriage. The problem for the Catholic church, with its exclusively male clergy, is particularly acute, as shown by the experience of Selwyn/ Sally Gross.

    Gross was identified at birth, based on external genitalia, as male, raised as such, trained and ordained as a Catholic Dominican priest, and became a professor of theology. In fact, it turned out that internal genitalia and hormones were entirely female, leading her to gender transition, taking the name of “Sally” instead of Selwyn. At this point, although the same person who had previously been good enough to teach Catholic theology, she was no longer regarded as good enough to be a priest, and forced to leave both the priesthood and the Dominican order.

    See http://queeringthechurch.com/2011/09/22/how-a-woman-became-a-dominican-priest-and-teacher-of-moral-theology/

    • Amazing. Thanks for that link. Has anyone tried to reconcile the existence of intersex individuals with traditional understandings of Church teachings? I never see it addressed by the George/Budziszewski types.

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