As a world riving in the wake of that well-known French call to arms, it is almost unthinkable to question the equality of everyone. Everything has been so efficiently equalized, not the less so with postmodernity, which has only distributed equality around more broadly, more evenly, between cultures, and species no less, through its unmasking and breaking up of all the old universals and their hierarchical "binarisms." The American "all men are created equal" effectively drove the creation of a new nation, so captivating was its content. And if the first century of that nation's existence was marked by a reveling in the lack of class distinction so characteristic of the ancienne regime and then in the long struggle to overcome the racial divide, the second century would add the struggle of including women among those already equal to men.
What is it that is so desirable about equality? It hardly needs saying that no human being likes to be treated as inferior to others. Given the widespread experience of "power struggles," it should come as no surprise that when one catches a glimpse of the fundamental and equally distributed dignity of being human, and when, moreover, one feels something new in the air that recognizes that dignity, the desire to move toward it and away from everything that calls it into question is irrepressible.
When the equality in question is between men and women, certain things come to mind almost universally. On the positive side, equality affirms that "women are fully human and are to be valued as such," (1) and that each person is to be allowed "to come into his or her own" (2) in a movement toward their destiny of "human flourishing." (3) On the negative side, "whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women" is opposed, and theologically speaking, any such diminution is judged "not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine or the authentic nature of things." (4) In short, and in the words of one feminist, equality between man and woman means "a concomitant valuing of each other, a common regard marked by trust, respect, and affection in contrast to competition, domination, or assertions of superiority." (5) Commonplace and uncontestable meanings of "equality" such as these are put forth today without much ado, even if in the past much ado has had to be made, and not over nothing.
I. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY
One cannot, however, talk about "equality" without setting off certain alarms. By ancient definition, equality is the contrary of "the greater and the lesser" and is achieved by a kind of standing in between them--as an intermediary, as it were--equalizing them, taking something from the greater and giving it to the lesser. (6) It can be seen at work, for example, at the level of quantity (more or less/fewer) or at the level of a certain quality (hot or cold), where "equal" would mean that two children have the same number of jelly beans or that two glasses of water are of the same temperature. Equality is no happy bedfellow with differences. Now, as if proof was needed, the unhappy marriage of the two is plain for all to see in today's culture, which in its race toward equality must always play down, on pain of excommunication, obvious differences of the truly "greater and lesser" sort--real inequalities, which undeniably exist between human beings at the level of mental, physical, and moral capacity and achievement. If the denial of obvious differences (of the unequal kind) was not painful enough, what is worse is that when it comes to the kinds of differences that mark and define interpersonal relations between a son or daughter and his or her mother and father, and that between a man and a woman, "equality talk" invariably has a way of short-circuiting important differences, the uniqueness of one with respect to the other, the distinct needs, and the respective responsibilities that are called forth on account of these distinct needs. Mothers and fathers become generic "parents"; husbands and wives become "partners," or even "party A" and "party B"; boys, girls, and friends become just plain "people." With this kind of equality comes rights that more often than not serve to sever natural bonds, as, for example, with abortion rights, sexual rights, and children's rights.
That such a tendency toward the "evening out of things" should happen in the name of equality should come as no surprise, since, as mentioned, equality understands the distinction between the things alleged to be equal as a distinction of the greater and lesser sort. In fact, equality always operates on the assumption that the two things which are "equal" must be able to be by nature greater or less! (7) On this assumption, when it comes to the equality of women and men, the unique differences that can be found at the most basic level of the "division of labor" between them, such as the fact that only men can "beget" and only women can ovulate, carry, give birth to, and nurse a child, must be played down. (8) For to possess "more of something" (unequally in the case of commonly held traits, such as physical strength or empathy, for example, or exclusively in the case of certain anatomical features and processes) necessarily suggests diminishment of the other or that something has been "taken away from" the other, thus putting into question his or her equal dignity and worth and unleashing the various envies and fears. Freud's envious female comes to mind, but also the more recently discovered male, driven as he is by "womb envy" and fear. (9) It was not for nothing that the Grand Dame of postmodern "difference feminism," Luce Irigaray, dumped the language of equality altogether when she asked insubordinately, "Equal to whom?" (10)
With the assumed, albeit unacknowledged, "hierarchy" of superiors and inferiors in the background, equality does not only mean "evening things out" or "giving everybody a chance" to do what only some did before. If equality means "equal access," it does so only as it looks toward the total interchangeability of the equal parties and their consequent independence one from the other. (11) This is no mere by-product of "equality," as can be seen in the speeches of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneer of the American suffragette movement, who exhorted women to resist their natural tendency to "lean on men," and instead, in the more masculine spirit, "make the voyage of life alone." (12) Egalitarian equality is the big erasure of dependence. It belongs to that movement of equal brothers--now siblings--who need no longer make reference to their dependence on a common Father. (13)
None of this conflicts substantially with those who, in opposition to the "over-against-ness" and "either-or-ness" of the patriarchal past, propose a feminism of "relationality" and other such synonyms like "mutuality," "reciprocity," and "connectedness." (14) For even as bad male (egocentric and detached) autonomy is eschewed, (15) what is put forth in its stead is a "relationality" that is quite carefully and consistently put at arm's length from any implied constitutive (intrinsic) dependence, which the element of unique non-interchangeable differences puts into evidence. (16) This is particularly clear in that very unique feminist brand of exuberance over the Trinity (which Christians generally agree to be the fount of human relations). Feminists such as Elizabeth Johnson speak rather tamely about reconceiving Trinitarian relations, (17) while others speak more honestly about a "total revision ... in light of contemporary thought patterns." (18) Such a "revision" would purge the Trinity of its alleged "subordinationist elements," (19) by which is meant the entire apparatus that, prior to revision, had upheld the much-desired relationality, namely its "order," "hierarchy," "relations of origin," "processions," and the unique "hypostases," which those relations are understood to posit. (20) And what is left? "[A] relational pattern of mutual giving and receiving according to each one's capacity and style," (21) where each, no doubt, gets to do everything. (22) A more "updated" Trinity allows "relational feminists" to make a move that would let all members of all other (non-divine) relations have their cake and eat it too, so to speak, granting them "friendship" (23) while at the same time preventing the relationship from making any claims on or limitations of the parties in question. This it seems is what Johnson means by "relational independence" and the "reciprocity/independence dialectic." (24)
All of this effort simply illustrates the problem equality has with difference. It would take something really out of this world to at least hold them together in a paradox. Indeed, only in the wake of that Christian novelty of creation could it be said that all men (inclusively speaking) were equal on account of their common dependence on the Creator, in whose image they were all created. (25) Moreover, it was in view of the disclosure of the inner life of the Creator--in whom equality, if it did not exist on account of the distinction of Persons (the East), coincided with it (the West)--that certain fundamental distinctions between human persons--distinctions that sexual difference sets up between men and women and between them and their children--could be understood in terms other than greater-and-lesser or superior-and-inferior. Even if the Christian tradition has, with everyone else, had difficulty affirming the equality of men and women as such and in their relation to each other, (26) the elements are there (and perhaps only there)--as has been shown by several recent nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures such as M.J. Scheeben, E. Pzywara, and H. Urs von Balthasar, (27) all of whom, reaching into the deposit of the Faith, have brought such distinctions to bear on precisely those relations. More recently, Pope John Paul II has enshrined the move within the magisterial teaching of the Church on the doctrine of the imago Dei, all on the basis of that ancient treasure of newness. (28)
Strangely, however, this recent "resourcement" relative to questions about sexual difference ("new feminism") has been met with the almost unanimous response among old feminists of "Not satisfied!" (29) Neither adamant apologies for the misogyny of the past, (30) nor emphatic affirmations of the equality of men and women as human beings and as images of God, (31) nor even the assertion of a certain "priority" of the woman in the "order of love" (32) seem capable of putting to rest the indignation over all the alleged misdeeds done to women.
In a nutshell, even if men and women were equal as such, the Christian tradition does not grant this equality outside of relations. In relationships, the differences between the sexes and the "limitations" these differences imply (33) turn a man and a woman toward the other to recognize in the other a constitutive dependence to which each owes his or her life. (34) This is the stumbling block. Everybody has trouble with it. Generic "mutuality" and "friendship," where everybody "gets to do everything," is one thing. It is quite another thing when equality has to be established within relations inscribed in sexual difference, where the sexes are related to the other in uniquely different ways. The latter is clearly more problematic, though perhaps a little more interesting and fruitful in the end. Critics of the "new feminism," and apparently Genesis 2, see these uniquely different manners of being in relation as incompatible with equality. (35) One of these, in a critique of Balthasar, writes:
Balthasar wants equality of male and female but the [biblical] text displays the priority of the male; he wants the priority of the male but the text insinuates an equality with the female, so we have the "relative priority of the man", which only whispers the relative equality of the woman. (36)
The judgment of the more venerable feminism seems to be that all the "new feminist" talk about equality is a bit of a sham so long as equality is left within the "old wineskins." (37) Equality, it seems, can only be had on the condition that it be wrested away from any context of dependence, and more specifically, reception from and gratitude toward another. Equality, it seems, must be taken--it must be "grasped at." (38)
It is in view of the problematic condition lurking underneath the otherwise uncontestable and good surface of equality that we attempt something of a solution. Such an attempt, moreover, will be made in two moments. In the first, the assumptions underlying the feminist idea of equality will be brought into sharper focus. In the second, what is alleged by feminism to be the very "stumbling block" on the path towards equality will be taken up as a possible condition for moving closer to it.
II. GRASPING FOR EQUALITY
The very phenomenon of feminism illustrates not only the fact that equality generally comes up in the context of "the greater and the lesser," but also the fact that those seeking equality are generally those who see themselves as belonging to the party of the "lesser"--and that, by contrast, those belonging to the party of the "greater" generally do not seek equality with much enthusiasm. Indeed, the first flames of feminism were and continue to be fanned by the perception of the insignificance of the often repetitive, unrecognized, and undervalued nature of "women's work"--housework, childrearing, and other "drudgery." (39) This is compared to the perception of the gratifying character and publicly recognized nature of men's work--writing novels, painting masterpieces, and things like raping Sabine women. (40) Leaving aside the fact that most men do not write great novels or paint masterpieces, and that all work--including writing, painting, and founding great cities with foreign women--has its drudgery, it is tempting to think that the man has generally had the better part. (41) This is especially relevant if you are a privileged woman living and writing in the 1950s with its "bored" and lonely suburban housewives, who no longer have food to can, quilts to piece, pigs to slaughter, or barns to raise (all in the company of a host of neighbors). (42) There are fewer excuses, however, when one looks at that one "job" that only a woman can do, namely that of bearing a new life into the world. Simone de Beauvoir's description of this is at best curious:
Woman experiences a more profound alienation when fertilization has occurred and the dividing egg passes down into the uterus and proceeds to develop there. True enough, pregnancy is a normal process, which, if it takes place under normal conditions of health and nutrition, is not harmful to the mother; certain interactions between her and the fetus ... are even beneficial to her. In spite of an optimistic view ..., however, gestation is a fatiguing task of no …