The “Defectiveness” of Women, According to Thomas Aquinas

The “Defectiveness” of Women, According to Thomas Aquinas September 7, 2015

market woman
Statue of an old market woman, 1st century CE, Rome


[Edit: my original post was much longer, and discussed what I thought was an even more serious problem with Aquinas’ views here. However, in a subsequent discussion with someone else, I realized that virtually my entire criticism here was based on an erroneous/misleading translation of the Latin text that I had been using. (From here on I’ll mostly quote from the translation of Freddoso.) I feel pretty embarrassed about this, because this is precisely the type of mistake that I pride myself on not making. I think I’ve removed all offending material now; though in its current state this post might be a shell of its former self, with a pretty big gap that I haven’t been able to bridge.]

An older article by Michael Nolan has been circulating again recently, entitled “What Aquinas Never Said about Women,” and originally published in the journal First Things. In the article, Nolan seeks to defend the preeminent medieval Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas against a (claimed) misconception that he had categorically adopted an argument—traced back to Aristotle’s biology and metaphysics—that women are just “defective” men.

Nolan’s point of entry to this is a section in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, wherein Aquinas builds on the Aristotelian view. Quoting Aquinas, from his own translation:

With respect to the particular nature the female is something defective and occasionatum, for the active force in the male semen intends to produce a perfect likeness of itself in the male sex; but if a female should be generated, this is because of a weakness of the active force, or because of some indisposition of the material, or even because of a transmutation [brought about] by an outside influence . . . . But with respect to universal nature the female is not something occasionatum, but is by nature’s intention ordained for the work of generation. (Summa I.92)

Now, we can see that in Nolan’s quotation, he’s left a Latin word untranslated: occasionatum. This means “accidental” or “unintended,” and will be important part of Aquinas’ argument that I’ll discuss in a second; but first, it’ll be helpful to look at Nolan’s explanation of the opening words of Aquinas here:

The phrase “with respect to the particular nature the female is something defective” may suggest to ears unused to scholastic language that the particular nature of the female is defective. But “particular nature” means the power or force in a particular thing, and here the particular nature is the power in the male semen. There can be no doubt on this point, for in his Summa Contra Gentiles (3, 94) Aquinas explicitly states that the particular nature is the power in the semen.

So for Aquinas, this defectiveness had originated with the male in some sense, too. Nolan is content to leave it at that; but we might rightfully ask what this qualification has really accomplished. Is the idea that women are “defective” really mitigated in any substantial way by the mere act of pinpointing when or where along the line this defect has arisen?

The other crucial element of Aquinas’ argument, however, was the qualifying line “…but with respect to universal nature the female is not something occasionatum.” In his monograph Femina Ut Imago Dei in the Integral Feminism of St. Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Hartel states the two steps of the argument here that, on one hand, “Thomas is saying, that, on the biological level, woman is both something accidental and defective”; yet “[a]ccording to universal nature, woman is not something misbegotten or accidental. She is not a mistake of nature because universal nature intends her generation” (108-109; emphases mine).

But what really is this “universal nature,” and furthermore how exactly is the woman’s generation intended?

The notions of “particular” (or “individual”) nature and “universal” nature also have their roots in Aristotle. They rely on what’s almost an anthropomorphization of sorts, where individual things (like a cat) are understood to have a certain an inborn impulse/intention toward action; but then also “nature” itself, broadly construed, is understood to have something like this, too. (See Summa I.85 for more on this.) This sort of metaphysics of course raises a host of questions that I don’t have room to get into here, but the salient point is that Aristotle and Aquinas largely agree on this particular issue, though they make use of it for different ends. Nolan emphasizes that, in Aquinas’ theological perspective,

The female may not be intended by the male semen, but it is most certainly intended by nature. And since God is the author of nature, the female is intended by God

Nolan leaves these arguments of Aquinas behind far too quickly, to where we’re left struggling to fill in the pieces (and struggling to be convinced); yet he doesn’t hesitate to conclude his article by stating that “those searching for evidence that Christianity has viewed woman as defective to man will have to look elsewhere than to Thomas Aquinas.”

But nothing of the sort has been made clear; and indeed quite the opposite.

Now, the idea of God’s mysterious guiding hand, manipulating terrestrial events in a way hidden to human understanding, and/or with an unexpected outcome, is simple enough. This has one of its earliest and most classic expressions in the Biblical story of Joseph where, following his plight at the hand of his brothers, Joseph unexpectedly comes into great fortune in Egypt; and upon the eventual reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph announces to them that “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

But Joseph’s brothers had done things that really had resulted in “harm” to him, despite what happened later. Similarly, even though in Aquinas’ theology, woman becomes the perfect complement to man—in their marital union and in terms of her role in family life, etc.—this does not change the fact that she is held to be genuinely “defective” in an essential way. Or to take another analogy here: does an originally unwanted, unplanned pregnancy/birth that nonetheless eventually ends up becoming a great joy in the parents’ lives mean that it was not originally an unwanted unplanned pregnancy/birth? (And, as we shall see later, some of the conclusions that Aquinas draws from women’s “defectiveness” suggest all too clearly that some of Nolan’s distinctions here are unwarranted.)

If the attempted mitigation of (or even equivocation about) the “defectiveness” of women here is deemed problematic in light of these observations, we might wonder how one could propose a sort of Thomist argument here that would take the sting out of this troublesome doctrine.

The most obvious variant of this defense—obviously related to the theology outlined in the last few paragraphs, via the Joseph story—seems to be “God somehow needed (or wanted) women to be ‘defective’.” This obviously doesn’t seek to challenge the idea that woman herself is “defective,” in whatever sense that we might construe this; and the only thing we might say is not “defective” here is God’s will.

*Here was where the long section that was removed was originally.

Upon some further research, however, there’s actually much to salvage from what I had originally written, and I think I’ll be making it into its own post. The crux of the matter, though, was that at several points it seems that Aquinas was at pains to demonstrate that woman was created by God to be naturally subordinate to man, but also that aspects of her nature and subordination only came about after the original sin. That is, Aquinas is at pains to demonstrate the truth of these two proposals without conflating them—without, say, ascribing to the creation of “original” female nature an aspect that only could have emerged after the sin (a “nature” which is itself extrapolated, of course, from both historical and contemporary observations about this, as were known to or gleaned by Aquinas).

I had mentioned that those like Augustine were also vexed by certain aspects of this problem (cf. also Aquinas, Summa I.92.1 ad 2 and II-II.164.2 here). And while I had indeed misread sections of Aquinas’ arguments here, we do read elsewhere in Aquinas things like “Adam was formed first . . . and woman second, like an imperfect/incomplete thing that takes its origin from what is perfect/complete [sicut quoddam imperfectum a perfecto originatum].” Yet, as we saw earlier, Aquinas had explained the (post-Fall) birthing of women on the basis that “the active force in the male semen intends to produce a perfect likeness [simile perfectum] of itself in the male sex; but if a female should be generated, this is because of a weakness of the active force,” etc.—the very basis of the idea that woman is “defective” in her particular nature (though, again, Nolan had attempted to avoid this implication).

Here we might rightfully question if these are really not conflated, as both of these statements seem to suggest the same sort of (“imperfect”) female nature existing both pre- and post-Fall, even though Aquinas (presumably) sees a causal relationship between sin and the mechanism that leads to this imperfection or weakness.

Gössmann explains that “Aquinas was convinced of a double kind of woman’s subordination, a softer one from creation and ‘by nature’, and a more oppressive one as a consequence of sin.” (Cf. her essay “The Image of God and the Human Being in Women’s Counter-Tradition.”) Augustine follows a somewhat similar route, at least in terms of thinking that women were naturally created subordinate; and he may actually tend toward an explanation where this is justified based on the sort of retroactive consequences for their later sin.

Again, Aquinas is obligated to accept the principle that God’s original creation (of humans) was perfect before the taint of sin. Wouldn’t there then be a problem of how females were ever generated, if their generation depends on some imperfection? This is precisely the problem that Aquinas addresses in I.99.2: “In the state of innocence would any females have been born?”

It’s interesting to see the Sed contra to this:

Nature would have proceeded in generation in the way that God had instituted it. But as Genesis 1:27 and 2:22 say, within human nature God made them male and female. Therefore, in the state of innocence males and females would likewise have been generated.

Here the two creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 are conflated. (Though Genesis 2:22 does little to help this, as this verse follows woman’s creation from Adam’s rib.)

More on that in a second, perhaps; but a bit more on what I had first mentioned at the beginning here: in the responses to I.99.2 Aquinas puts forth several explanations to try to explain all this. He suggests the Aristotelian explanation that the generation of males vs. females may sometimes be due to the differing influences of the northern and southern winds, the latter of which was thought to favor the generation of females. But can we really call a creation “perfect” if there are external forces that invariably produce imperfection?

Both here in I.99.2 ad 2 and in I.92.1 ad 1, however, it seems that Aquinas does not make a differentiation is his putting he putting forth potential explanations for 1) the origins of females in the original “state of innocence” and 2) the general and ongoing birth of females (in post-lapsarian reality): cf. I.92.1 ad 1, “the fact that a female is generated is due either to a weakness in the active power, or to some indisposition on the part of the matter, or even to some transformation from without, e.g., from the southern winds (a ventis australibus), which are humid, as De Generatione Animalium says.” In both I.92.1 and I.99.2, Aquinas is answering objections specifically about the prelapsarian reality (in the former it is in prima rerum productione, “in the initial production of things”; in the latter it is in primo statu or in statu innocentiae: “in the initial state” or “in the state of innocence”²); though in the responses he seems to assume the reality of the latter.

Here was one source of my original confusion, though: what Aquinas actually says in I.99.2 ad 2 is “The generation of a female does not occur solely [solum] because of a defect in the active power or because of the matter’s indisposition, as the objection implies. Rather, it sometimes occurs because of an extrinsic accident…” This “[t]he generation of a female does not occur solely [solum] because…” is actually not translated properly in the original translation I had been using, which leaves out “solely” altogether.

In I.99.2 ad 2, Aquinas also suggests, though, the unusual idea (not mentioned in I.92.1) that

the generation of a female sometimes occurs because of a thought on the part of the soul (ex conceptione animae) at which the body is readily changed. This could have happened especially in the state of innocence, when the body was more subject to the soul, so that the sex of the offspring might be determined by the will of the one generating. (I.99.2 ad 2)

In all this, it seems very transparent that Aquinas is reaching for some solution to this theological problem. His last explanation is perhaps the least theologically problematic—though obviously intolerable in light of modern knowledge.

Yet precisely because of the fact that in I.99.2 ad 2 Aquinas is answering an objection relating to the original creation (“since in the state of innocence the male’s power would not have been defective and the female’s matter would not have been indisposed, it seems that males would always have been born”), and also because, in his response, we have the non solum line as well as the qualification “the generation of a female sometimes [quandoque] occurs because of a thought on the part of the soul,” it seems that Aquinas really does think that there was some defect (defectus [ex defectu…], I.99.2 ad 2) present even in the beginning of generation. The most we can say in defense of this, then, is that this was a divinely ordained “defect.”

[Note: cf. also Unde etiam mors, et omnes defectus corporales consequentes, sunt quaedam poenae originalis peccati: “Hence, death and all the accompanying bodily defects are punishments of original sin” in II.85. Sed contra of I.99.1: “Every generated thing is imperfect before it becomes perfect.”]

On one hand, it might be easy to think that all of these issues are largely just matters of academic pedantry; but on the other, Nolan’s article seems primarily intended to redress a wider phenomenon in religious debate, wherein Thomas Aquinas is cast as a sort of representative of the legacy of Catholic sexism. But Nolan does this haphazardly.

The final line of Nolan’s article was that “those searching for evidence that Christianity has viewed woman as defective to man will have to look elsewhere than to Thomas Aquinas.” As demonstrated above, the error that Nolan sought to redress is not nearly as erroneous as Nolan has made it seem.

Regarding the sort of pedantic equivocation or re-framing that was necessary to turn (what is in my view) warranted conclusion into (what was in Nolan’s view) “error” here, there could in fact be another close parallel drawn, with the Catholic doctrine of Eucharistic transubstantiation. Here, the consecrated bread and wine are held to become Christ’s body and blood not just in a figurative sense, but in a genuinely literal sense. Of course, in order to retain the “truth” of this in the absence of any indications whatsoever (chemical, etc.) that the bread/wine had assumed any properties of a normal flesh-and-blood human body (such that Christ had), defenders have to equivocate about what it means for the bread/wine to have “become” Jesus’ “actual” body/blood.

Similarly—even if, as Aquinas insists, “God is powerful enough to order every evil toward the good”—it’s hard to differentiate the genuine reality of (purported) female defectiveness from, well, the genuine reality of (purported) female defectiveness, especially as the definition otherwise is largely predicated on a hypothetical divine perspective.³

Further, far from needing to look elsewhere than to Aquinas to find similar ideas about women’s intrinsic defectiveness (as Nolan suggested), we only need look elsewhere in Aquinas to find these. In Summa II-II.164, we read that “the ‘subjection of woman to man’ results from the perfection [perfectionem] of the male, and the imperfection [perfectionem] of the female sex”; and in III.31, the “male sex is more noble than the female.”¹

If these weren’t sufficiently parallel to the sections that Nolan had focused on, elsewhere Aquinas explores some of the broader ramifications of the Aristotelian concept of women’s “bodily” defectiveness: for example, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas notes

[Aristotle] offers the example of women in whom, for the most part, reason flourishes very little because of the imperfect nature of their body. . . . Hence wise and brave women are rarely found…

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] A recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Carrasquillo and Romero, “Aquinas on the Inferiority of Woman”) is similarly unpersuaded by the general rhetorical thrust of several of Nolan’s articles. The authors outline four claims that have been ascribed to Aquinas:

(1) Woman is a deficient male; (2) Woman was created only for the purpose of procreation; (3) Woman is inferior to man; (4) Woman must submit to man.

Although, in contrast to what I’ve suggested here, at one point the authors write that, in terms of defending Aquinas against these charges, “Nolan makes . . . a convincing plea on behalf of Aquinas regarding claims (1) and (2),” they nevertheless go on to suggest that “while the first two claims may be in themselves plausibly interpreted in a non-sexist way, as Nolan did, it is difficult to hold this interpretation in the context of the other claims; and that claims (3) and (4) are so clearly and deliberately expressed by Aquinas that it is impossible to exonerate him from the charge of sexism as we have defined it.” (That is, as for claim (1), “Nolan reads this claim as not meaning that woman in herself is defective, but that the process whereby she is generated is a defective process.” Carrasquillo and Romero dispute this; and also, they later write that “we see Aquinas using the claim that woman is misproduced (claim 1) as a premise for concluding that she is inferior (claim 3).”)

[2] Though, curiously, Freddoso translates the former as the latter on several occasions.

[3] Considering Aquinas’ arguments about the extent of God’s direct and universal “authorship” of nature, we might recall my earlier question:”does an originally unwanted, unplanned pregnancy/birth that nonetheless eventually ends up becoming a great joy in the parents’ lives mean that it was not originally an unwanted unplanned pregnancy/birth?” So, re: this claimed dichotomy with “particular nature,” could God even retroactively “change the definition” here, in the way that Nolan might inadvertently be necessitating—if not Aquinas? Is this dichotomy coherent at all?)

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