Guest speaker unpacks gender, dependence

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Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.
Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

Last Wednesday, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk spoke about gender identity in a lecture titled “Gender Identity: True and False.” In the lecture, Pakaluk, a professor of economics at the Catholic University of America, defined true and false gender identity and explained each in relation to dependence and liberty.

For her example of false gender identity, Pakaluk used “The Subjection of Women,” an essay written by John Stuart Mill in 1869. According to Pakaluk, Mill erred in arguing that individuals should not be held accountable for their actions if they do not directly harm the society. Dependence, or the ties one has to others that are inescapable — like that of a mother and child —  make that idea impossible.

Pakaluk cited Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” and Edith Stein as showing true gender identity. Wollstonecraft argued that men and women are directed toward the same human destination, but that each has a different role; each is complementary to the other.

Both authors embraced mutual dependency of the sexes, which Pakaluk used to make her final point about the relationship between freedom and dependency.

“We are never a solitary being,” Pakaluk said.

Dependence in a relationship implies a personal gift — often time or energy — which is a responsibility, and that creates a bond. In contrast to Mill, who argued that freedom is not being beholden to or dependent on anyone, Pakaluk argued that dependency is “characteristic of” one’s freedom, and that sexuality “signifies dependence.”

The theme of freedom and dependency in her lecture was striking because it aptly summarizes the conversation around gender identity.

You have probably heard the “none of your business” argument before, which argues that gender identity and sexuality are often expressed behind closed doors, and it should not involve other people. Unfortunately, dependency in relationships rarely affects only one or two people — and in the case of gender and sexuality, it may even affect future generations. It was refreshing to hear Pakaluk’s counter-argument, expressed eloquently and succinctly.

More broadly, I agree with Pakaluk’s proposal that sexuality and dependence are deeply related and that men and women’s roles are complementary. This can be most clearly seen in family life, where the mother has a distinct physical role in childbearing.  More feminine men or masculine women do not disprove this idea; Pakaluk included a quote from Stein explaining the individuality that is expressed in each person.

Pakaluk concluded her lecture by naming much of the recent thought on “gender heresies,” which constitute an opposition of natural differences and dependency.

“Heresies provide the opportunity to clarify what is true,” Pakaluk said.

Some proponents of a new definition of gender may reject natural differences by arguing that gender is meaningless or a social construct, but many of those who struggle with their gender seem to affirm the natural differences.

How so? Gender dysphoria or transgenderism is often explained as “feeling” like another gender that does not match one’s biological sex. If one can “feel” like another gender, does that person not affirm that there are differences that go beyond appearances? In addition, if someone asks to be called a different name or referred to with a different pronoun, he is acknowledging the change himself.

Much of the problem behind this topic is the ambiguity: what is femininity? What is masculinity? How are men and women’s differences manifested today? Hopefully by hosting more lectures and encouraging more conversation, the University of Dallas can help everyone dive deeper and find the answers.

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