Thomas Aquinas on Women

by Frank A. James

I have long been something of a fan of Aquinas. For many years I have told my students that Protestants have not given Aquinas his due. However, when it comes to his view of women, I have to respectfully demur from the Doctor Angelicus.

Aquinas’ views on women are well known indeed. Also well known is that Aquinas was indebted to Aristotle for his views of women. The most common reference to the views of Aquinas on women are from his Summa Theologiae (1a, q. 92, a.1, Obj.1). The question under consideration there is whether the female, because of her inherent imperfection, should not have been part of the original creation.

Aquinas replies that “woman should have been produced in the Eden, since she is necessary for the generation of the species.” He then goes on to cite with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” (De Gener. ii, 3). Aquinas himself declares that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten. (ST Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1)

And there is more.

In reply to the question of whether the female should be subject to the male, Aquinas asserts that females are inherently subordinate to males and that this “subjection existed even before sin.” Female subordination, for Aquinas, is not a result of the fall, but part of the created order. Such female subordination, he argues, is actually “for their own benefit and good.” (This sounds eerily familiar.)

Following Aristotelian logic, Thomas adds that without female subordination, “good order would have been lacking in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates. (ST q.92, a.1, Obj. 2).

We learn two things from this little waltz down memory lane. First, that women are by nature “deficient and misbegotten.” The essential value of her creation is “for the generation of the species.” Women are important not for any inherent value or virtue, but for their ability to reproduce. For Aquinas, women are merely a means to an end. That the female is described as “misbegotten” is a pejorative term probably referring to Eve’s eating of the fruit in the garden of Eden. To be “misbegotten” carries the connotation of contempt and disgust. Second, we learn that the female was an inherently subordinate and inferior being (inferior in intellect and reason).

I say all of that to say this: It is quite clear that Aquinas did not believe females were made in the image of God in the same way as males. The simple fact of the matter is that Thomas was both a product of his times and a casualty of his devotion to the pagan Aristotle.

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5 Responses to Thomas Aquinas on Women

  1. “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.” Aquinas, Summa Theologica

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  2. Yep. I just wrote a paper a couple weeks ago about “men, women, and authority in the church.” In my research I found that Aquinas was one of the early church fathers who had a distorted view of women that was based in pagan philosophy and not scripture! The problem is that this tradition (concerning women) has been passed down in the church as being biblical when in fact it is not. Furthermore, most laypeople do not study the original languages so they take English translations of words like “submit” “authority” and “head” and take it to mean something that Paul did not actually mean in his epistles. Definitely need to get this word out to more pastors!

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  3. Lori says:

    Thank you for this post.

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  4. Carolyn says:

    TA's words may be at least one influence that helps to explain why church teaching regarding women's roles historically has often centered on childbearing and mothering—which limits women to certain events and a season of life and leaves out all the rest of a woman, as well as excluding women who never give birth.

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  5. FAJ says:

    Sarah:

    Thanks for your comment. I want to be careful not to get us sidetracked on an academic debate when the issue of spiritual abuse is so much more important. But I will make one final effort to address the issue.

    As we all know, scholars differ among themselves on most issues—even about how to interpret Aquinas. We need to be honest and recognize that scholars/
    theologians have different motivations and agendas behind their particular interpretation. So for instance, if you are a devout and conservative Catholic scholar in 21st century America, you may be predisposed to avoid portraying Aquinas (who is perhaps the greatest Doctor of the Church) as a misogynist.

    However, when one actually reads Aquinas—it is rather clear that Aquinas was very much aligned with most other medievals in having rather unfortunate views of women. No serious modern scholar denies that.

    As for your citation, it is helpful to realize that Aquinas is distinguishing between the “individual” nature of a woman in contrast to womankind in a more “general” sense. Aquinas is quite clear that women as individuals ARE defective and misbegotten—that is precisely what he says. At this point, he is following Aristotle as well as the prevailing misogyny of the medieval era.

    When Aquinas then adds that womankind in “general” is not misbegotten (i.e., your citation), he is merely stressing that God did not make a mistake in creating the female of the species. Like most Christians, Aquinas believed that God did not make mistakes. The nub of the matter for the Doctor Angelicus is that the creation of womankind (in the general sense) was no mistake because the feminine was necessary to Gods sovereign plan—to produce babies. God did not make a mistake in creating the means by which humanity could reproduce itself. Another way of putting it, is that for Aquinas, the reproductive function was not misbegotten, but women in themselves ARE misbegotten.

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