No Thank You, Aquinas: Women Are Not Misbegotten

Depiction of Thomas Aquinas by Gentile da Fabriano, circa 1400

Thomas Aquinas was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. His Summa Theologica is quite possibly the most influential theological tome of all time. Christians of all stripes certainly have much to gain from reading the works of Aquinas.

However, my opinion of Aquinas is decidedly mixed. He introduced some great ideas into Christianity, but also some unfortunate errors that have resounded down to the present day. One such concept is the notion of “redemptive suffering”, which I have recently been studying. Aquinas was not the first person to teach this idea, but he certainly helped to lay the groundwork for a theology in which human suffering could itself hold salvific power.

Another place where Aquinas introduced erroneous thinking into Christianity is naturally rather important to me: his beliefs regarding women. The problematic section comes in Part One, Question 92 of the Summa. The first article he considers is, “Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?”

As is typical in works of scholastic theology, Aquinas begins by listing three objections that he will attempt to counter. He then says the following.

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a “helper” to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.

Yes, according to Aquinas, a woman’s role as “helper” only has to do with her reproductive function, since pretty much anything else can be done better by a man. It is unclear whether he would add to this certain “nurturing” activities commonly associated with motherhood. This limiting of the woman’s role does not even make sense in the context of Aquinas’ own logic, for he goes on to note that certain species are capable of reproducing on their own. Therefore, God could have presumably made man in that way and chose not to do so because there is some other reason that the woman is necessary.

However, it is not all that odd that Aquinas should make such an argument regarding women, as the majority opinion in his day (and an unfortunate minority opinion in our own) is that women are indeed placed on this earth for the purpose of propagating the species and little else. If that offends you, just wait.

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from the defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.

“Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas” by Benozzo Gezzoli, circa 1471. He is shown between Plato and Aristotle, which seems most appropriate given his adoption of their ideas.

This is a classic example of medieval academic hair splitting. Aquinas attempts to differentiate between the “individual nature” and “human nature in general”. In regard to the first, he endorses the view of Aristotle that women are essentially misbegotten men. The idea is really that, during pregnancy, some influence – “such as that of a south wind” – causes the child’s anatomy to change and effectively turn inward. Yes, that means what you think it means. This idea actually came from Galen, who said, “Turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak, and fold double the man’s, and you will find the same in both in every respect.”

Therefore, it seems that Aquinas is agreeing with the views of the ancients, while at the same time saying that women were part of God’s divine plan for procreation and not a mistake on a cosmic scale. Do you feel any better, ladies? Yes, your lady parts are the result of a hideous deformation, but God meant for it to happen so that we could have babies. Oh dear, oh dear. But Aquinas isn’t done! No, he puts forward an argument that may sound all too familiar to us in this day and age.

Subjection is twofold. One is servile, by virtue of which a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit; and this kind of subjection began after sin. There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.

Here is another semantic distinction between “servile” subjection and “economic or civil” subjection. (Brad Mason has pointed out how this type of reasoning can be used to excuse slavery, among other things.) Aquinas says that the latter means that “the superior [i.e. the man] makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good”. He writes that this existed before the Fall. He differentiates this from making use of a subject “for his own benefit”, i.e. for the man’s own benefit. Therefore, Aquinas concludes that women were subject to men by design, but it was for their own good.

Why did Aquinas believes this was the case? He attributes it to the superiority of the male intellect. Notice that he says order would have been lacking in human families “if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves”. He makes no pretense of saying that women are likewise intelligent, but asked to lovingly submit. No, a “woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates”. In other words, women are flighty and emotional, while men are capable of cool, analytical thinking. Oh dear, oh dear.

Another depiction of Aquinas, this one by Carlo Crivelli, circa 1476

Aquinas goes on to say some other things about women that are less objectionable, and he does better when he makes his appeal to scripture rather than Aristotle. Nevertheless, the presence of so many problematic ideas in such an influential work of theology could go a long way to explaining how they have seeped down to the present day. Yet, I should not be too hard on Aquinas. He is but one of many men in history who have trumpeted similar ideas. Consider this real gem of a passage from Tertullian, written to women.

Do you not know that you are (each) an Eve?  The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.  You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.  You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.  On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.[1]

I can only conclude that Tertullian had not read the writings of the Apostle Paul, who stated that “through one man sin entered the world”. (Romans 5:12) This quote of Tertullian’s is so outlandish that I included it in the very first chapter of my first novel as an example of extreme misogyny that the main character could put down with the phrase, “If it be true that I am the devil’s gateway, I shall be glad to welcome you to your eternal home!” Tertullian makes such a nice punching bag.

We see a great many theologians taking leave of their biblical senses when it comes to this issue, making assertions based more on pagan thinking than scriptural truth. However, despite all his many flaws and prejudices, I have to give credit to Martin Luther for something that he wrote. (Note that he was no great fan of Aquinas.) He debunked the notion that women were misbegotten males.

This tale fits Aristotle’s designation of woman as a ‘maimed man’; others declare that she is a monster.  But let them themselves be monsters and sons of monsters – these men who make malicious statements and ridicule a creature of God in which God Himself took delight as in a most excellent work, moreover, one which we see created by a special counsel of God.[2]

Not everything Luther had to say about women was golden, but at least in this case he succeeded where Aquinas had failed. That’s progress, people! This is why thinking women reads the Reformers, and to Aquinas we say, “We like some of your stuff, but your comments on our sex, no thank you.”

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women. Book I – Chapter I, translated by Rev. S. Thelwall. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.iii.iii.i.i.html.

[2] From Luther on Women: A Sourcebook, By Susan C. Karant-Nunn, 2003, Cambridge University Press, page 26; Quoting from Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis (1535)”, in Luther’s Works, vol. I, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 1968, Concordia Publishing Company, page 70.

5 thoughts on “No Thank You, Aquinas: Women Are Not Misbegotten

  1. Pingback: No Thank You, Aquinas: Women Are Not Misbegotten - The Aquila Report

  2. Amy, I love your writing style. I think you’re being too hard on Aquinas though, an undisputed genius, for relying on what was considered the science of his day. Don’t forget that the Western church which owes so much to Aquinas greatly honors one particular woman and what her childbearing achieved, and Catholic ‘home and family’ blogs give great respect to the position of a mother as a reflection of this. For balance, if you want to read something anti-woman, go to Scottish Reformer John Knox and his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet’. And ask women in Reformed denominations whether they feel, at best, invisible. Perhaps also take a look at the recent research of Valerie Stubbs…

    • Thank you for visiting, Katherine! You are correct that all historical figures need to be considered within their own context. My point is not that Thomas Aquinas was evil, but that he was wrong. He may have been wrong because of the mistaken thinking of his day, but he was still wrong. Is he single-handedly responsible for the sexism that still exists in modern society? Of course not! I merely wanted to look at this portion of his most famous work almost as a snapshot in time. You can see how he was influenced by those before him and how he in turn influenced everyone after him. As for John Knox, you are absolutely correct. In fact, I almost mentioned that pamphlet in my article. It’s far worse than anything Aquinas wrote, and he ended up paying for it, which lends some humor to the story. I also think you make a good point about Catholicism and discussed that in an essay a few years ago: http://amymantravadi.com/2013/10/03/are-women-better-off-catholic/. Rest assured: Aquinas’ reputation as one of the greatest Christian thinkers is very much intact and will not suffer too much on my account. Once again, thank you for your comment.

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