Man and Woman: An Old Story

First Things, November 1991.


Man and woman. What are they, and why—each alone and both together? How are they alike and how different? How much is difference due to nature, how much to culture? What difference does—and should—the difference make? What do men want of women or women of men? What should they want? Do they really need each other? If so, why? Which beliefs, customs, and institutions governing sexuality best promote their human flourishing?

These very basic questions are, nowadays, rarely asked, yet their subject is passionately and widely debated. Indeed, no important matter of human life generates today as much talk and controversy. Regrettably, much of our discussion of man and woman is not especially illuminating, because, being political and disputatious, it seeks victory rather than understanding. Traditional notions, held to be merely traditional, are in retreat, ironically, especially in religious institutions. In the academy, humanists are going wild over gender: legions of scholars are making their careers exposing the sexist bias of all European literature, philosophy, and theology, preaching the “cultural construction” of gender, or advancing the (anti-intellectual and self-undermining) doctrine that everyone’s thinking is decisively determined by accidents of birth—not only gender, but also race and class. Politically correct thinking throughout our society denounces patriarchy, neuters pronouns and other allegedly sexist speech, integrates locker rooms, sends mothers of infants to fight in Kuwait, and prosecutes vigorously yet almost always one-sidedly the war between—or is it now against?—the sexes.

First Things