Reading Stephanie C. Gordon’s Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide to Femininity feels like a meandering stroll down a familiar lane. I was raised in conservative evangelicalism, and Gordon echoes many of the messages I heard about women in my youth: namely, that women shouldn’t work outside the home and that they owe unilateral obedience to their husbands. If this book were simply another spin on evangelical complementarianism, I wouldn’t have read it, and I wouldn’t be writing about it.
But Gordon claims that her book presents the “timeless teaching” of the Catholic Church and attempts to bind the consciences of her female readers to a one-size-fits-all authoritarian model of marriage. I was originally drawn to Catholicism because of its rich, beautiful, and dignifying account of womanhood; I had long been on a quest to understand my vocation as a woman, dissatisfied with the impoverished accounts offered by Protestantism and secular feminism alike. To my surprise, the Catholic Church alone held the wisdom I sought, and seeing a Catholic author trade those gems for cheap counterfeits calls for a response.
Many proof-texts, no context
Gordon’s view of femininity and marriage has all the hallmarks of the fundamentalist complementarianism of my upbringing, in both content and method. First, she makes no attempt at a coherent theology of marriage or womanhood; instead, she proof-texts, pulling quotes from scripture, magisterial texts, and random websites (gotquestions.org?) to support her claims. She reads the Bible like a good fundamentalist: literally and legalistically. Verses are not contextualized in the scope of scripture as a whole, or even within the biblical book itself.
Magisterial quotes are similarly wrested out of their overarching textual and historical context, and no account is given of how tensions or apparent contradictions among these texts might be fruitfully embraced. Gordon doesn’t seem to consider whether Pius X and John Paul II could both be contributing to the Church’s deepening understanding of marriage amidst shifting socioeconomic contexts. If Pius is right, she reasons, John Paul II is wrong; in all ways, Gordon prefers the either/or to the both/and.
Gordon also privileges doing over being—she never delves into the sacramental significance of manhood and womanhood, a significance that can be lived out in a variety of contexts, within and beyond the home. Neither does she discuss the shared vocation of women and men, as expressed in Genesis 1:28: to be God’s image, to be fruitful, to steward the earth. Instead, Gordon is preoccupied with rules and roles, and the sexes as cartoonish opposites.
In classic cherry-picking mode, Gordon overlooks Genesis 1-2 altogether—the language of mutuality and reciprocity would not serve her argument—skipping straight to the curse in Genesis 3 and reading that as divine design. Thus, she misrepresents the fallen dynamics of conflict and domination as God’s original intention.
Like the Protestant complementarians, Gordon claims her oppositional, hierarchical view of the sexes constitutes complementarity. In truth, she arguing for a sex polarity perspective. She describes men and women as puzzle pieces that each supply what the other is missing: “the male and female psychology lack and crave one another in all ways.” In all ways: there is no overlap in her Venn diagram of masculinity and femininity: men are strong; women are weak. Men are leaders; women are followers. Men are active; women are passive. Women, she writes, “cannot be the more beautiful, dainty, pampered, and receptive sex unless there exists a more assertive, stronger, and expressive sex on the other side of things.”
Aristotle over Genesis
Gordon draws her sex polarity view from the work of Aristotle. While Aristotle’s concept of hylomorphism has proven fruitful in the development of Catholic anthropology, his understanding of women per se is based on flawed metaphysical assumptions that the sexes are “contraries”—complete opposites—and that one contrary is always a privation of the other. Aristotle works from these presuppositions to posit a single-seed theory of generation, in which the male provides the form and the woman provides the matter, as well as an entire theory of sex polarity that regards woman as defective men: sterile, irrational, and made to be ruled.
Gordon embraces Aristotle’s understanding of the sexes, presenting it unproblematically as the Catholic view, even though it contradicts Catholic doctrine about God (not man) providing the soul, and the biological reality that both sexes contribute seed. Moreover, Aristotle’s notion of the sexes as contraries and woman as inferior is difficult to square with Genesis 1-2—perhaps this is why Gordon chooses not to discuss it. Following Aristotle, rather than Genesis, Gordon connects her oppositional understanding of the sexes to fixed, polarized roles, stating that any role swapping is “subtle marital transgenderism.” Again, she reduces being (what a woman is) to doing (what a woman does).
Gordon’s anthropological argument runs into further problems when brought into the light of Catholic tradition and practice. Gordon claims that modern women have transgressed nature and “appropriated the manly virtues such as assertiveness, boldness, and leadership.”
How can she present this as the Catholic view, when the Catholic Church has a legacy of holy women in leadership roles as preachers, teachers, writers, prophets, administrators? St. Catherine of Sienna rode to Avignon and challenged a cowardly pope; St. Hildegard of Bingen exhorted her brother priests and bishops to holiness during the investiture crisis, often in strident tones. St. Joan of Arc led an army. Most of the Church’s female saints do not fit Gordon’s restrictive definition of femininity.
Gordon tries to duck out of this tension by saying that it’s permissible for an unmarried woman to work beyond the domestic sphere, but this undermines her argument that women are by nature designed for housewifery: “feminine virtues are narrowly tailored, by nature, for homemaking,” she writes. Wouldn’t this imply that a lay consecrated virgin who works in a professional setting, for example, is defying her own nature? And what about the tradition of Marian consecration, which has been formulated and propagated primarily by male saints, such as St. Louis de Montfort, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and St. Maximilian Kolbe? Are these holy men committing a form of “soft transgenderism” by submitting themselves entirely a woman’s continual guidance and leadership?
Speaking of Mary—in an interview about her book, Gordan and her husband make the absolutist claim that “women cannot teach men,” and they apply this even to the Blessed Mother. Once again, this statement is out of step with the longstanding tradition of the Catholic Church and salvation history. Why would female saints be declared “doctors” of the Church if their writings had nothing to teach us? The very honorarium “Doctor of the Church” is given to a person whose teaching has been deemed theologically sound and beneficial to the Church. Why would St. Hildegard, one of those doctors, have been so lauded as a preacher and spiritual leader in the 12th century? Why does St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection, portray his sister, St. Macrina, as his wise teacher, guiding him into deeper understanding of Christian theology?
Scripture is likewise full of holy women who teach, lead, prophesy, and evangelize: Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, Esther, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia. The Samaritan woman at the well evangelized her whole village. Women were the first witnesses to share the news of the resurrection. Forty percent of the people St. Paul names as his coworkers in Christ are women. The biblical passages cited by Gordon to support her view should not be disregarded—I share her distaste for the shortened reading of Ephesians 5 in the lectionary. But these passages should be read in light of scripture as a whole, not plucked out and strung together to create a distorted picture.
Selective magisterial sources
This strategy of cherry-picked proof-texts also applies to Gordon’s account of Catholic magisterial tradition. First, she takes an ahistorical approach to early and medieval Church fathers, reading their descriptions of women’s labor in those eras as timeless prescriptions. She overlooks altogether the changing nature of work, for both men and women, over the last two millennia. At earlier points in human history, distinct spheres of labor were more directly connected to sexual dimorphism; it made sense for men to do the harder physical labor of plowing a rocky field, for example. But many modern work situations, such as Timothy Gordon’s, have no intrinsic link to biological sex differences; in fact, Stephanie Gordon describes in her book how she helps produce her husband’s content, often working the tech behind the scenes.
The only magisterial sources that seem, at first glance, to directly support Gordon’s rule against working wives were produced between the years of 1891 and 1937. The historical backdrop of these documents is crucial to understanding their meaning. In Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII pushes back against abusive labor practices in the industrial era, rightly urging that “work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child.” In this era, women were forced by economic necessity to work in factories in dehumanizing conditions, often alongside their children. Leo’s statement that women are “fitted for home-work” must be read against this backdrop of unjust labor. Similarly, Pope Piux XI’s encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Divini Redemptoris (1937) expand Leo XIII’s critique of industrial-era working conditions to include the inverse dangers of communism, in which both men and women are forced into “collective production” and the domain of the family is ceded to the state.
In all of these magisterial texts, the Popes are critiquing contemporary abusive labor and social practices that undermine human dignity and the well-being of the family. They write about women’s work outside the home in a time-bound way, addressing real and harmful social practices in their particular historical moment. Gordon’s proof-texting approach elides this fuller meaning.
This is also the case in Gordon’s treatment of Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubi (1930) an encyclical on Christian marriage. Pius does discuss spiritual headship in marriage, but in a far more nuanced perspective than Gordon holds. Most importantly, he acknowledges—which Gordon never does—that there is no rules-based, one-size-fits-all way this headship is lived out in practice. Rather, “its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time” (28). Pius XI leaves room for a couple’s human freedom and active discernment within their particular circumstances.
The other magisterial sources cited by Gordon either do not provide direct support for her key premises about strict marital roles or else they actively undermine them, using language of mutuality and harmony instead of polarity. For example, her quote from the current Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the education of children as the shared vocation of both parents, and does not delineate bifurcated roles in that vocation.
Most significantly, there is no clear magisterial support for her hardline views past the 1930s. Gordon is aware of this problem and provides a schismatic explanation for it, claiming there has been a widespread apostasy:
The Church teaches perennially—up until a recent silence on the matter—that married women are to submit themselves to the authority of their husbands. As part of a larger twentieth-century apostasy, unfaithful churchmen abandoned the longstanding teaching of Holy Mother Church.
This is crucial to recognize: Gordon disregards any Church teaching on women and marriage produced over the last century, including all of St. John Paul II’s encyclicals, letters, as well as his rich catechesis known as the theology of the body, arguably the most in-depth theology of sexual difference in Catholic tradition. Yet Gordon sweeps this all aside, claiming the Church has fallen into “silence.” She cuts off the Church’s conversation about women’s work outside the home at the exact historical moment the question becomes pressing and the Church begins to deeply consider it.
As the Gordons’ own situation shows, with their work-from-home apostolate, it is possible in our time for more gainful employment to be centered in and around the home. What we need are guiding principles, rather than legalistic rules—if the principle is that both the husband and the wife must prioritize their marital vocation and the good of their family, what that looks like in practice will vary, depending on a couple’s circumstances.
Truly Catholic alternatives
One of the stranger sections of Gordon’s book is her attempt to account for St. Gianna Molla, a canonized female physician. Gordon reads Gianna’s story as a Paul-like conversion; Gianna turns from the “sin” of having a profession like Paul turned from the sin of persecuting Christians (sins that she bizarrely says “differ only in degree not in kind”). This reading is pure extrapolation, of course. Unlike Paul, Gianna does not repent of her life as a working mother, nor has any Church document ever characterized it as a failing.
Rather, the Vatican describes St. Gianna in this way: “With simplicity and equilibrium she harmonized the demands of mother, wife, doctor and her passion for life.” Such harmonization, for Gordon, is never possible and sinful to attempt. In Gordon’s account of Gianna’s life, she describes how Gianna and her husband were discussing the prospect of Gianna staying home after their fourth child’s birth. Gordon faults Pietro Molla for not given his wife a “direct order” to quit her work as a doctor, apparently unable to recognize that Gianna and her husband are discerning together what would be the best for their family, and that is a beautiful thing.
The writings of 20th-century saint and philosopher Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) provide a truly Catholic alternative to the Gordons’ myopic legalism. Stein, writing in 1931, recognizes that “we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and man the struggle for livelihood” (Essays on Woman, 78). We now find ourselves in an era where, “more nowadays than in former times, both husband and wife will work” (110). This is neither wholly good or wholly bad; this cultural shift brings some benefits, as well as very real challenges.
On the one hand, woman’s professional activity can aid in her personal development, counterbalancing “the risk of submerging herself all too intimately in another’s life and thereby sacrificing her own” (78). On the other hand, “there is danger that her work outside of the home will so take over” that it becomes “impossible for her to be the heart of the family and the soul of the home, which must always remain her essential duty” (110).
Yet there is a parallel danger, in post-industrial capitalism, for a man to become “completely absorbed in his work” and “neglect his family duties as father” (110). “It seems to me,” writes Stein, “a contradiction of the divine order when the professional activities of the husband escalate to a degree which cuts him off completely from family life” (80). Gordon ignores this as a possibility, arguing that a man should work multiple jobs if necessary to make sure his wife never works. Gordon is right that modern American feminism has too often embraced consumerist ideals and denigrated the domestic sphere. But it is consumer-driven careerism, that damnable Protestant work ethic and spirit of capitalism, that endangers the vocation of family life, not feminism per se.
In the Catholic view, one’s vocation should never center on a career; it should be centered on self-giving love. For both husband and wife, that vocation is marriage; the force of gravity, for both of them, should be rooted in the home. And it takes flexibility, creativity, honesty, and self-sacrifice for both of them to discern how best to live out that calling in the context of our work-driven culture. This requires surrender, yes—not simply of wife to husband, but both to Christ. As Stein puts it, “only those who surrender themselves complete into the Lord’s hands can trust that they will avoid disaster between Scylla and Charybdis,” between the demands of domestic life and the demands of professional work (78).
Ask Your Husband is an earnest attempt to respond to some real problems in our culture, ones that plague many marriages. Yet Gordon’s approach is legalistic and ideological; she snips and twists scripture and tradition to align with her preconceived views, and is ultimately unable to escape the same trap that often ensnares feminists: a tendency to see man-woman relations primarily through the lens of power. Her proof-texting approach might work in a fundamentalist Protestant context, but it falls far short of expressing a Catholic hermeneutic, which always holds the totality of scripture and tradition in view.
Gordon writes from a place of good will, but apparently has not been formed in the fullness of the faith. If she desires a truly Catholic understanding of femininity, she might need to ask someone other than her husband.
Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide to Femininity
By Stephanie C. Gordon
TAN Books, 2022
Hardcover, 340 pages
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!