Willows Academy is proud to welcome our ’23-’24 keynote speaker Abigail Favale, Ph.D for “The Genius of Women: Why Girls Matter” as part of our Raising Great Girls series. The event will take place Friday, March 15th at 7PM.
Abigail is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She has an academic background in gender studies and feminist literary criticism, and now writes and teaches on topics related to women and gender from a Catholic perspective. Her latest book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory was just released in June 2022 by Ignatius Press. Her conversion memoir, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, traces her journey from birthright evangelicalism to postmodern feminism to Roman Catholicism. Abigail’s essays and short stories have appeared in print and online for publications such as First Things, The Atlantic, Church Life, and Potomac Review. She was awarded the J.F. Powers Prize for short fiction in 2017. Abigail lives with her husband and four children in South Bend, Indiana.
What is your connection with the Willows?
I first learned about Willows Academy through a sister school in MA, Montrose Academy, where I’ve visited and spoken previously.
Why do you think a school like the Willows is important in today’s educational landscape?
I think, more than ever, we need schools that are focused on the development and needs of girls in particular; schools that can think deeply about the unique challenges girls face in our society, and how to draw out their full potential as female human beings, made in God’s image.
What will your talk, “The Genius of Woman: Why Girls Matter,” focus on? What do you hope parents walk away with from this event?
My talk is about my own journey to better understand the “gift” of being a girl, and how I discovered a rich vision of that giftedness within the Catholic intellectual tradition. I hope the girls and parents walk away with a sense of wonder and gratitude about the gift of being a girl, and a calling to bring that to the world.
What are your major Catholic sources of inspiration in your work and thinking?
There’s such a rich treasure trove of resources for thinking about women’s genius from a Catholic perspective. I’ve been most influenced by Edith Stein, John Paul II, Adrienne von Speyr, Gertrud von le Fort, and Sr. Prudence Allen.
You write and engage a lot with fairly controversial topics for the modern world. What are some of the most common or overarching issues you feel like you’ve come across in debates and conversations regarding the topics you specialize in?
My current work is focused on developing a deeper theology of woman from a Catholic perspective, and with a literary sensibility. Who is woman in the Catholic imagination? This question touches on cultural debates about gender and feminism, as well as women’s roles in society and the Church.
Our culture talks a lot about women’s empowerment, but underneath that, I think there’s actually a deep discomfort with femaleness and the implicit belief that women should become as a much like men in order to be successful and free. Our culture tends to see the female body as a burden or a threat, rather than a gift.
What changes or trends in the discourse have you noticed over the years that you have been in the field?
I would say the most notable and shocking change is that it is now controversial to say that women are female. While debate about women’s place in society has been around for millennia, it’s never been so controversial or countercultural to say what a woman is. That’s new.
It’s also been surprising to see how the definition of womanhood that’s not grounded in femaleness tends to be grounded in stereotypes that used to be considered limiting and regressive.
What do you think are the most challenging aspects of being an adolescent girl today? What do you think are ways to address these challenges?
I think it is incredibly difficult to develop a strong sense of self-worth and healthy independence in the age of social media, where we are constantly bombarded with false images of what girlhood and womanhood are supposed to be, which can create a sense of inadequacy and an increased need for external validation from others. This is a hard thing to navigate in adolescence anyway, but social media has increased the intensity and scale of those influences.
I also think young people today suffer from a sense of “burdened agency”; in other words, we have more choices than ever, because everything is up for grabs—nothing is rooted or given, not even (so our culture tells us) our gender. Everything is up for grabs, which is not freeing, but totally paralyzing! Returning to a vision of reality where there is loving divine order to reality, and some natural “givens” or limits, is actually more restful and freeing than a vision of reality where nothing is sure, nothing is given.
How did your growing family shape your career trajectory?
I think, in American culture, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of centering one’s life on a career, on worldly success. Have multiple children forced me to re-center my world on my primary vocation of marriage and motherhood; I had to intentionally re-order my priorities and learn when to say no to certain opportunities for the good of family life. Right now, that means traveling a lot less. I think it’s important to embrace and lean into each season of life. There will be seasons of my life when I’m able to have more independence, but right now I’m in a season where need to prioritize stability and presence while my kids are still at home.
How do you feel like the “mom you were” to your first few kids is different from the “mom you were” to your later ones? How would you describe the factors that affected this change?
Oh my goodness, I am more aware of my flaws and my own woundedness that can sneak in and co-opt my parenting. I’m a bit better at recognizing when that is happening, and being less reactive to the moment. I’ve had to be much more intentional about cultivating (and praying for) patience and gentleness, two virtues that don’t come easily to me. Motherhood is an excellent school for virtue.
Have you felt a big difference in raising your boys vs. your girls? What are examples of different kinds of approaches (if any) you have taken to parenting them?
I have three boys and one girl, and they are all very different. Each child is like his or her own masterpiece that you have to learn, slowly, how to play, in terms of parenting well. And the song is always dynamic and changing! I have observed how the natural aptitudes of my children have helped their siblings develop in interesting ways. For example, when my oldest son was a toddler, he played with toys but never animated them. He never made them speak or act out little dramas. He would just arrange them in rows or tableaus. He played with them like they were objects, not people. When my daughter came along, she animated everything. She played with toys like they were people—she did this naturally, no one taught her to do that. But once my son and daughter began playing together, my son starting animating toys as well. She taught him to expand his own range of creativity. This is how I often see the complementarity of the sexes play out: we help each other develop our full humanity.
What do you think it takes to “raise a great girl” today?
I have one daughter, and I think about this a lot. I don’t have all the answers. That’s the thing about motherhood; you learn so much “on the go.” But I would say that it’s important to pay attention to the unique giftedness of each girl, to really try and see her for who she is, and develop those natural talents and passions that she has, while also teaching her to acquire virtue to safeguard her potential and develop it in the right direction: toward what is beautiful, true, and good.
Join us Friday, March 15th at 7PM for “The Genius of Women: Why Girls Matter” featuring keynote speaker Abigail Favale.