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.