When I set out to write this I didn’t think that it would be relevant for some of you. I had thought that unless you grew up in the type of town, place, and community as I did, or went to my church or attended my school… that these things I’m thinking through would look weird, or archaic, or inapplicable. But that simply isn’t true. We children of Western culture and our ideas about womanhood are largely shaped by the very same streams of philosophy and theology that precede us.
And what we collectively think about Woman shows up in things like our current 77.4 cents to every dollar wage gap between the genders. Women are generally paid less, even when their education rates are generally higher. Why?
What we think about women shows up in the way we portray them in popular media and advertising. The feminine image is increasingly infantilized in our culture, but why?
What we think about gender leads highly respected Christian leaders to articulate conclusions like “Christianity has a masculine feel to it.”
Because they represent, at least in part, the philosophical fruit of seeds planted along the path of history. The vestiges of our intellectual ancestors remain with us; not just in print, but in our prejudices, opinions, and ideas about who we are.
Ideas like the primacy of Woman’s baby-makin’ purpose.
Thomas of Aquinas was a 13th century theologian who influenced the Western Scholastic world in arguably deeper ways than any other. His book Summa Theologica was a massively important work of systematic theology in which he drew heavily and freely from the writings of “The Philosopher” Aristotle. Although Thomas didn’t set out to provide justification for the subordination of women, Thomas’ ideas certainly lent it credibility.
Thomas’ Greek hero, Aristotle, insisted that “the essence of a thing must be identified with its function.” This idea, coupled with the notion that lower things in the order of the universe exist primarily for the higher, led Aristotle to defend the natural subordination of women according to purpose. He believed their functions were not as high as their male counterparts; women were intended for baby-making and men for industry. Women were for procreation and men for “intellectual operation” (ST Ia, q. 92).
During conception, the female contributed to the infant a body and the male contributed its soul.
Thomas further developed this dichotomy of the sexes. In one example , he taught that the law of reciprocating conjugal marriage rights was denied to women during their menstruation, in order to protect any possible conception. Such, however, were denied to women only; conjugal rights were given to the man at any point he demanded them, in order to prevent his own falling into temptation. The preservation of the man’s righteousness was far more important than the good of the child or the fulfillment of the woman’s primary purpose as child-bearer.
Ideas like Woman as the “other” gender.
Thomas agreed with Aristotle that women were actually “misbegotten males.” They believed that something went wrong before or during pregnancy which caused the intended-males to become somehow messed up and female. In a famously comical teaching by modern standards, Thomas quotes The Philosopher explaining environmental factors which might cause a defection of the male seed, among which were a blowing “south wind, which is moist…” (ST Ia, q. 92, a. 1, ad. 1). If this wind blew during conception, you just might create a woman.
Women were, from the start, definitively “other.”
The concept of woman as “other” was picked up almost three centuries after Thomas by two monks and their infamous Hammer of (Female) Witches; a medieval handbook on the discovery, torture, and general philosophy/theology concerning witches.
They insisted that Woman was the product of a crooked rib taken from Adam (the first male), and that this defect made her “more carnal.” Her carnality defined her as imperfect and caused her to “always deceive.” Woman’s personhood was just as Adam’s rib, crooked, and her physiology derivative; she was “other” than normal.
Ideas like the proclivity of Women toward evil.
An entire portion of the Hammer of (Female) Witches is dedicated to the reasons why women were “chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions,” an assertion supposedly backed up by “actual experience.” At one point, the monks suggested that “the most prolific source of witchcraft is the quarrelling between unmarried women and their lovers.”
The truth is, more women were historically investigated, tortured, and executed for witchcraft than men. But why?
Here are a few of the reasons and quotations of academic authorities given in the witch-hunting handbook-
Learned men say that women “know no moderation in goodness or vice.”
John Crysostom; “What else is woman but… an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation.”
Cicero; “The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins.”
Ecclesiasticus; “there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman.”
Seneca; “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
Add to such a pedigree the ideas that women were extremely impressionable and possessed “slippery tongues,” and you have one evil-prone gender.
Our Western intellectual and theological inheritance is a Womanhood whose purpose exists primarily for procreation, whose status is “other,” and whose proclivity is toward error. This might be old news for some of us, but as long as women are paid less than men, femininity is portrayed disparagingly by popular media, and leaders proclaim a male-centered Christianity, it’ll remain a wound in need of continuing sterilization and constant redress.