I’m doing some reasearch on women in science and wondered what your thoughts were on what Thomas’ views on women were. Were they similar to Aristotle’s?


The most common reference to the views of Aquinas and Aristotle on women cites Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 92, a. 1, Obj. 1. The question is whether woman should have been created in the beginning of the world, before the Fall of Adam and the introduction of sin into the world. Aquinas entertains the objection that, because of her imperfection, woman should not have been part of the original creation.

Objection 1: It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things. For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that “the female is a misbegotten male.” But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.

Aquinas’ basic reply is “yes,” woman should have been produced in the Eden, since she is necessary for the generation of the species. Having answered thus (and upheld the reasonableness of God’s actually having created woman in Eden), he has to contend with the objection which cites the leading scientific authority of the time, Aristotle. He does so by conceding Aristotle’s point that woman is “misbegotten,” but only considered as an individual and only with respect to the body or matter, and not the soul. (By the way, Aquinas’ words which are usually translated as “defective and misbegotten” are in Latin deficiens et occasionatus, which can mean “unfinished and caused accidentally.” Some have argued that, because of this alternate reading, Aquinas is free of the negative connotations which attach to some translations of his works.)

ST Ia q.92, a.1, Reply to Objection 1: 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 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.

Thus, in spite of Aristotle’s biology, Aquinas believes that woman is perfect in her nature as directed to the generation of the human species. This hardly makes him a champion of the rights and dignity of women; he does seem to suffer from the view (quite universal at the time), that women are inferior to men in both mind and body, and are naturally subject to them. His version is somewhat enlightened, though; he did not believe women are the slaves of men.

ST q.92, a.1, Reply to Objection 2: 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.

Aquinas does even have a few words to say in favor of the fact that women are equal in dignity to men. Defending the fittingness of God’s making Eve from the rib of Adam, Aquinas takes Scripture in an allegorical sense to signify the equality between them.

I answer that, It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man. First, to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither use authority over man,’ and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet.

ST, q. 92, a. 3

Being made from his side, she is his equal, though still subject to his direction. I don’t think Aquinas was a rabid misogynist (as I have sometimes heard it alleged), but neither was he much ahead of his time. He does not seem to have had as low an estimation of women as others in the Middle Ages, though.

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