The Concept of Woman, Volume 3

The Search for Communion of Persons, 1500-2015

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Prudence Allen
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     574 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the third and final volume of Prudence Allen’s The Concept of Woman, she offers a sustained historical survey of the development of the concept of woman from the year 1500 to 2015. At the same time, she completes a project which began over thirty years ago with the publication of Volume I. Throughout the three volumes, Allen has asked two key questions: (1) Are women and men of equal worth and dignity? (2) What is the relationship between men and women?

Allen writes in the introduction that the current volume provides not merely a historical analysis, but also a definitive and systematic answer to these questions. Her primary argument throughout this book and, in some sense, throughout all three volumes of The Concept of Woman is that yes, women and men are of equal dignity and worth, and that the relationship between women and men is best understood as a form of integral complementarity. Volume III might best be described as part historical survey, part systematic argument.

Methodologically, while Allen does deal with questions of sex ideology—Alfred Kinsey and John Money are singled out—and gender ideology—principally Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Daly—she refrains from using the same kind of language as many contemporary theorists. Or, rather, she uses the terms that are common in discussions of gender and sex, but wants to retain more traditional meanings. For instance, she uses both sex and gender to refer to what she calls two types of the human person, male and female. Even while acknowledging that many people make what she considers to be artificial distinctions between sex and gender, Allen argues that this does not mean someone with a more traditional view of these terms must succumb to a new use of language. In many ways this book is an elaboration on how the current debates about gender and sex are rooted in historical views that go back as far as Aristotle, but which have developed in new and sometimes unexpected directions.

One of the strengths of Volume III is that, because of the time period, Allen is able to include far more female authors writing about femininity, or reflecting satirically against some of the dominant views of their day. She is also able to include writers who were in conversation with one another, such as Jacques Maritain and Raissa Maritain, and de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre.

Throughout Volume III, Allen highlights in a particular way the life of St. Teresa of Avila, who was constrained in many ways by prevailing assumptions about the weakness of women, but who nonetheless demonstrated that women could attain to “masculine” ideals such as advanced education and mental toughness. Indeed, Allen notes that the time-period of Volume III may be rightfully called the Carmelite Age in that the vision of integral complementarity between men and women developed in a special way through the thought of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Edith Stein, and St. John Paul II.

In addition to the Carmelite spirituality, two other figures form a major part of the book, each in a unique fashion: Aristotle and Cardinal John Henry Newman. Allen shows, through an insightful selection of texts from key figures, how the Aristotelian notion of woman as a “misbegotten man,” and especially his now-disproved theory that only the male contributes seed to generation, threatened the metaphysical integrity of the human person, leading to an emphasis away from hylomorphism, and also, in a particular and more pronounced way, led to a persistent and recurring view of women as inferior to men. Newman is referenced throughout the book with respect to his essay on the development of Christian doctrine. Allen argues that Newman’s seven criteria for authentic doctrinal development can be seen in the discussion of the concept of woman, and in particular, through the notion of gender and sex ideology.

The major paradigms that Allen identifies as possible answers to the relationship between men and women are unisex theories including no distinction between the sexes, polarity theories where one sex is superior to the other, and either fractional or integral complementarity. Her argument is that the history she has traced in all three volumes demonstrates, through the criteria of Newman, that integral complementarity between the sexes is the most metaphysically sound answer to the question of how the sexes relate. In this vein, Allen argues that the radical feminism, as well as rapid developments in gender and sex ideology in the second half of the twentieth century, do not represent an authentic development of the idea of woman or gender or sex but rather, they stand as corruptions which have not gained any real traction. She argues that only small groups of people have really put forward progressive arguments in this arena and that, more importantly, they are founded on poor data from scientific studies by Kinsey and Money from the 1950s through 1980s. In addition, Allen claims that the resilience of deeper answers and theories about women, and the relation of women and men by the likes of John Paul II have shown that integral complementarity is the only satisfactory answer.

While Allen’s scholarship is certainly impressive, there are a few minor criticisms. One is that she uses charts to summarize complex argument—and does so frequently. At times, the charts are clear and helpful, but at other times they can clutter the flow of the text or the argument she is making. A more significant critique is that—especially toward the end of the book—she dedicated fewer words to theorists that she disagreed with. In her discussion of sixteenth-century dualists, for instance, Allen elaborates at length, even though she clearly is not a dualist herself. Yet when arguing against Daly or Kinsey, her treatments of their positions are remarkably short. Furthermore, in some instances she seems to equate moral failures on the part of a particular author such as Money to a de facto problem with his arguments and positions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Luke Arredondo is a Ph.D. student in religion, ethics, and philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Prudence Allen is professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Denver Colorado. She has spent more than twenty-five years engaged in research on the concept of woman in relation to the concept of man in philosophy.


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