Our Bodies, Our Anger

By Kerri Christopher, published in First Things, March 2024

Our culture is full of angry women—angry at misogynist men, angry that careerism hasn’t brought the fulfillment it promised, angry that they might get pregnant, angry when they don’t, angry at toxic masculinity, angry at the mental load, angry about a whole host of grievances. In a reaction, perhaps, against therapy culture, many men—and women—are telling these angry ladies to get over it (a suggestion that, in the history of humanity, has never proved effective).

Why are women so angry? And why do we observe a rising cohort of girls who declare they would rather be men, while others aspire to be tradwives? Might all these disparate trends have the same catalyst?

Every angry woman has an origin story. Many of these stories truly are horrific, calling for sympathy and care. Others consist of small grievances that, left unaddressed, have over time become central to a woman’s identity. Some stories are products of a culture that neither understands nor appreciates a woman’s body or personhood.

It is this third category—illustrated by a recent proposal to use women in a persistent vegetative state as gestational surrogates—that I wish to address. Women’s bodies have been a problem since the Fall, not in themselves but because, like everything else in creation, they exist in a fallen world. Pain in childbirth and related difficulties, ranging from irregular menstrual cycles to life-threatening labors, uniquely affect women, over and above the universal bodily problems of postlapsarian existence, such as broken bones, aching joints, and cancer.

Having a woman’s body—being a woman—is a risky prospect. A few months ago I sat in a room full of mothers who were seeking support in raising children with healthy sexuality. I asked for a show of hands from anyone who had enjoyed going through puberty. There were none. The years of bodily and mental change endured by girls and women are no picnic.

Is puberty difficult for boys, too? No doubt. Every man has some embarrassing story about his voice cracking or the other indignities of adolescence. But for girls, puberty is the beginning of a lifetime of change. A woman’s body rarely settles into a stable size: Hormonal cycles and pregnancy mean that her body is designed to be shape-shifting (even amid cultural pressure to maintain a certain, slim, shape). That monthly cycle may arrive when she is barely a teenager and be her companion until her fifties. It’s nearly as embarrassing to bleed through your skirt at thirty-five as at fifteen. And menstrual cycling doesn’t simply end one day. Most women face years of perimenopausal and menopausal hormonal decline, accompanied by symptoms such as brain fog, hot flashes, weight gain, and bone-density loss. Menopause receives even less attention than puberty and fertility.

To say these things aloud, though, is verboten. We’re permitted to complain that it’s difficult to be a woman, but only because of our patriarchal culture—not because, perhaps, fallen nature has made it so. Instead of building a society that appreciates the beauty and strengths—along with the difficulties—of womanhood, we’ve decided to remake women in the image of men.

From a very young age, a girl is told by the culture, the medical community, and often her own mother, that her body is a problem, because her body can get pregnant. We give her a miracle pill: Not only will it prevent her from getting pregnant, it will cure her acne and relieve her painful periods. In fact, it will stop her from having a real menstrual cycle or understanding her body at all. By chemically sterilizing her, it will allow her to graduate with honors, pursue a career, and do everything she wants to do in life. This is what it means to be a successful woman: to abandon the natural functioning of the female body in imitation of the male body and its inability to bring forth life.

Of course, the Pill can’t cure heartbreak, but girls shouldn’t have that anyway. The key is to approach sexual activity with the disposition of an emotionally careless adolescent male. Girls should accept multiple sexual partners and understand that pornography, BDSM, and other forms of sexual exploitation are likely to be a part of any romantic relationship. Once, after speaking to university students about the dangers of pornography, including its ability to rewire the brainfuel sex trafficking, and normalize sexual violence, my husband was approached by a young woman who asked him whether it wasn’t normal that her boyfriend expected her to watch pornography and act it out with him.

This is the version of empowerment we are offering girls. Is it any wonder that so many would rather be boys? Transgenderism promises girls that they can conquer or transcend the physical and social stresses of adolescence. If girls can cut off their breasts, take drugs to avoid monthly bleeding, and free themselves of the possibility of pregnancy through massive doses of testosterone, they can avoid a lifetime of traumatic change, or so they’re told. (Never mind that many such girls grow into women who deeply regret their choices and fault the adults who helped them act out their adolescent fantasies, with permanent consequences.) What the Pill offered women chemically, “transitioning” now offers girls surgically: a female body that is like a male body.

This narrative continues well beyond the teen years. In order to compete with men, women are expected to dedicate their most fertile years to their careers. The most progressive workplaces will offer to freeze their eggs, ensuring that they need not offer paid maternity leave or any flexible working arrangement that a mother might actually enjoy.

If a woman does get pregnant? The solution is easy. Abortion is merely a “medical procedure,” which is why we silence any woman who dares to mention that she is experiencing major trauma or even physical complications for years afterward. Abortion used to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as an event that could precipitate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the American Psychiatric Association has since removed it from that category. Much (often politicized) debate concerns the existence of a “Post-Abortion Syndrome,” with symptoms similar to those of PTSD, but the women around the globe who attend Rachel’s Vineyards retreats or take part in the Silent No More Awareness Campaign will testify to its reality.

A similar silence surrounds miscarriage. If a woman gets pregnant “on purpose” (“by accident” and “on purpose” are the only categories by which we can understand a woman’s getting pregnant) and goes in to see her baby on the scan, only to find that the baby is not alive, she will be told that “the product of pregnancy” is not viable. In seconds, she has ceased to be a mother and become a person saddled with a defective “product.” In a culture that’s keen to accuse of everyone of gaslighting, this convention is strangely never criticized. How is a woman to understand the grief of miscarriage if she has lost merely a “product”? She must simply be too emotional, overreacting, irrational. The message remains: Get back to your career and don’t tell anyone what happened.

Is it any wonder that being a tradwife seems appealing? Young women on social media are flocking to influencers who celebrate the “traditional” gender roles of the 1950s. (In truth, the gender roles of the 1950s were a historical anomaly tied to postwar economic prosperity.) They forgo careers and jeans in favor of homemaking and floral dresses. They celebrate submitting to their husbands. They reject feminism in favor of femininity. In a learned nostalgia, they bake their own bread and raise their own chickens. And however their lifestyle may offend or puzzle modern sensibilities, it offers them freedom from many pressures under which modern women suffer: No need to freeze their eggs or hide their grief while they compete with men for corporate success.

Our supposedly “pro-woman” culture persists as women hit thirty-five or forty and recognize that they do, in fact, want children. They flush the pills and expect the magic to happen. Only, very often, it doesn’t. Decades of chemical sterilization can make it difficult to conceive. (Many women would struggle to conceive after thirty-five, anyway—another aspect of fertility that is too little discussed.) Fortunately, we’ve invented a very invasive, very expensive, and very emotional process for obtaining a child in the most unnatural way possible. IVF is a miracle! Never mind that it is also dangerous, bringing elevated risks of every pregnancy complication from ectopic pregnancy to preterm birth. Never mind that it may create multiple human lives, only to destroy them. Never mind that many children born from IVF have significant health issues, including heart defects and other malformations. And never mind that it often doesn’t work. Only 50 percent of IVF procedures for women thirty-five and under result in a live birth; and for women older than thirty-five, the success rate declines precipitously.

When it does work, IVF bequeaths to a child some uncomfortable truths: that he has his origins in an act of masturbation rather than sexual union; that doctors selected him from among his siblings as the most likely to survive; that his siblings were thereafter discarded, or remain on ice. He will spend his life wrestling with how his existence—something objectively good—could come from something so distorted. If his mother used a sperm donor, this child might spend his adult years trying to find his half-siblings, or even his father. He’ll be grateful to be alive, but deeply confused about what family means. For the rest of her life, his mother will carry these weights in her soul.

And of course, if the mother has a daughter, in about twelve short years the cycle of becoming a woman in this culture will begin all over again.

Our society has failed women badly and forbidden them to object. Is it any wonder that so many women are so angry?

What if, instead of handing girls the Pill, we taught them how their bodies are designed to function? What if we taught them to recognize their own hormonal shifts and adjust their behavior accordingly? In the 1980s, one woman tried this method with at-risk girls aged thirteen to seventeen. Her discovery? For 90 percent of the girls who had ended up in jail, it had happened during the premenstrual phase of their cycles. By learning to chart their menstrual cycles, the girls could identify how hormonal shifts were influencing their moods and behavior. Another study of adult women showed more frequent suicide attempts during the first and fourth weeks of the menstrual cycle. Shifting hormones are hugely influential for many women. Why not acknowledge this reality and give women the tools they need to understand their bodies?

What if we taught boys about the design of women’s bodies, too? If we want a world in which men respect, appreciate, and support women, it has to begin at an early age. In most schools, sex education takes a fear-based approach, focused on the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. When will we teach teens the awe and reverence due to sexuality and fertility?

Too many young people, girls and boys alike, grow up assuming that hormonal birth control is the answer to women’s problems. Rare is the teenager who learns about its side effects, which range from acne to blood clots to suicidal thoughts. Teen boys may not need to know every detail of the menstrual cycle, but teaching them the power of a woman’s body can only be a good thing. In 2014, data from Teen STAR, a program teaching teens about fertility awareness, showed that 40 to 50 percent of sexually active males discontinued sexual activity after going through the program. Having men who actually understand what a healthy female body is designed to do, and how babies are made, allows them to take responsibility for their own actions rather than leaving everything to women.

As fertility awareness becomes more mainstream—evidenced in the rise of fertility apps and even a digital pamphlet on the topic, offered by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—women are beginning to demand better healthcare. Some medical professionals are responding, with one group proposing the fertility cycle as the fifth vital sign for women. Knowledge of a woman’s cycle can give clues to wider health issues such as bone density, cancer, and mood disorders. If this knowledge can be spread widely, the average woman is less likely to hear her physician prescribe painkillers or a hysterectomy when endometriosis ravages or menopause gets uncomfortable. Doctors who understand what healthy fertility looks like can direct women to restorative medicines that seek to heal, rather than invasive procedures that seek to supplant.

Discussions of miscarriage are becoming more mainstream, too. A raw and powerful photo essay in The Cut explores the painful physical and emotional reality of miscarriage—though it exhibits some ambivalence in speaking simultaneously of “the baby” and “the tissue.” What if doctors and nurses simply acknowledged the reality of a tiny human? Many women would appreciate being able, as etiquette columnist Catherine Newman writes, to “dispel that strange sense of shame—as if the event were an embarrassing gynecological issue or a personal failure and not a devastating heartbreak.”

Being a woman in a postlapsarian world is difficult. Why deny it? The best responses to these difficulties can be seen in sinners’ choosing, by God’s grace, to become saints: men and women working together to build what John Paul II called a “civilization of love,” in which every individual is seen, loved, appreciated, and supported. Perhaps instead of telling women to get over their anger, we can talk with them about the difficult bodily realities they experience and the support they have every right to expect from their fellow (wo)man.

Kerri Christopher is co-founder and director of the Humanum Institute.