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The Position of Women:
The Teachings of the Theologians

The seed of misogyny that was implanted in the Christian psyche by the Bible was brought to its full flower by the fathers of the church. The hatred of women is found almost without exception in all the major Christian theologians throughout Christianity's early formative centuries.

St. Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215), the Greek Father of the Church, had such a contempt for women that he believed such a feeling must be universal. He wrote, in his book Paedagogus that in women, "the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame." That women is clearly inferior to men, Clement has no doubt. As a form of exercise for this "weaker sex", he suggested that, "Women should also fetch from the pantry things that we need." [1]

Tertullian (c160-c225), the African Father of the Church, called women "the devil's gateway." His reasoning, based on the story of The Fall in Genesis, is theologically impeccable:

Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated that fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die! [2]

The famous and influential theologian, Origen (c185-254) is well known for his hatred of sex and women. At the tender age of eighteen, he castrated himself in his quest to achieve Christian perfection. Origen's teaching weaved together the Christian hatred for women and abhorrence for the sexual act into one system. According to him, women are worse than animals because they are continuously full of lust. [3] Origen does not approve of the sexual act even in marriage and taught that although widowers can remarry, they are by no means crowned for this. [4]

St. Gregory of Nazianzum (329-389), the Bishop of Constantinople had this to say about women, "Fierce is the dragon and cunning the asp; But woman have the malice of both." The other St. Gregory (330-395), Bishop of Nyassa, taught that the sexual act was an outcome of the fall and that marriage is the outcome of sin. [5]

St. Ambrose (c339-397), a Doctor of the Church, and Bishop of Milan reminded believers that the way women was originally created confirms her second class status: "Remember that God took the rib out of Adam's body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man." [6] Like all Christian misogynists, Ambrose glorified virginity. To him virginity was the Christian virtue. He advised that marriage was to be avoided like a burden. For those who do marry, he forbade intercourse for any other reason except the procreation of children. Naturally, Ambrose taught that old couples, in which the woman can no longer conceive, should not have sex at all. [7]

St. Jerome (c342-420), the well known Biblical scholar and translator of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) have a simple view of women. To him "woman is the root of all evil." [8] Like all the early Christian theologians, Jerome glorified virginity and looked down on marriage. He reasoning, was also rooted in Genesis: "Eve in paradise was a virgin ... understand that virginity is natural and that marriage comes after the Fall." [9] The marital act to Jerome cannot be good because it only acts as a relief valve: "Thus it must be bad to touch a woman. If indulgences is nonetheless granted to the marital act, this is only to avoid something worse. But what value can be recognized in a good that is allowed only with a view of preventing something worse?" Jerome wrote that the only good thing about marriage is that "it produces virgins." [10]

St. John Chrysostom (c347-407), Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Constantinople, said that women are, in general, "weak and flighty." He neatly put together the twin theological ideas of anti-women and anti-sex in this passage: "It does not profit a man to marry. For what is a woman but an enemy of friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a domestic danger, delectable mischief, a fault in nature, painted with beautiful colors?" [11] To help believers overcome the temptation of women, Chrysostom devised the following description: "The whole of her body is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food ... If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and the cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is only a whitened sepulchre." [12]

In a way, the previous theologians we have seen merely prepared the ground for the misogynist par excellance, St. Augustine (354-450), Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Hippo. Augustine skilfully weaved the story of The Fall with the theology of the Original Sin. The main casualty of his theology was the position of woman in Christian society.

Augustine elevated the hatred of women and sex to a level unsurpassed before. To him, women's inferiority to men was so obvious [13] that he felt that he had to ask the question: "Why was woman created at all?" [14] His own answer to this question is a fine example of Christian misogyny:

I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate? [15]

Thus, Augustine concluded that woman was created purely for procreation and for nothing else. Furthermore, it was sexual pleasure that carried the original sin from generation to generation. [16] Now sex between husband and wife, Augustine taught, for any other purpose except procreation is mortally sinful and should be avoided. Sex for procreation, while still sinful, is pardonable. [17]

Augustine also blamed women for the Fall. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, according to him, was purely the fault of Eve. He taught that Satan, in the form of the serpent, tempted Eve because she was more gullible than Adam: "[Satan turned to] the inferior of the human pair ... supposing that the man would not be so easily gullible, and could not be trapped by a false move on his own part, but only if he yielded to another's mistake." [18] Thus, concluded Augustine, it was the love of Eve that brought ruin to Adam.

Augustine had laid down a completely misogynous theology: women are created purely for procreation, yet the act of procreation itself, when a man come together with a woman, is sinful. The only use of a woman that Augustine was willing to concede necessarily involved sin! Furthermore, the blame for present state of mankind falls squarely on the woman, for it was Eve who allowed herself to be tempted by Satan.

As a misogynist, Augustine practiced what he preaches. His friend Possidius described his conduct thus: "No woman ever set foot in his house, he never spoke to a woman except in the presence of a third person or outside the parlour, he made no exceptions, not even for his elder sister and his nieces, all three of them nuns." [19]

This theology of misogyny continued unabated into the "golden age" of theology, the thirteenth century. The Dominican theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Albertus Magnus (c1200-1280), was a great despiser of women. His view of women can be aptly summarized by his own writing:

Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behavior. For the woman contains more liquid than man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily and to hold unto them poorly. Liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious. When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time. Woman knows nothing about fidelity. Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed. Trust an experience teacher. For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives. Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. If I could say what I know about women, the world would be astonished ... Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil. Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. [20]

The greatest scholastic theologian of all was the "Angelic Doctor", Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In line with the position of his teacher, Albertus Magnus, Aquinas was equally convinced of woman's inherent inferiority to man. To him, woman is a product of environmental pollution. Women were not, he taught, "nature's first intention" which aims at perfection but "nature's second intention" which conforms to such things as "decay, deformity and the weakness of the age." Women are less intelligent than men. Men have "more perfect reason" and "stronger virtue" than women. The intellectual defects of women, according to Aquinas, is similar to those "evident in children and mentally ill persons." Women are also less resistant to sexual temptation than men "Because there is a higher water content in women, they are more easily seduced by sexual pleasure." [21]

Thus the roots of Christian misogyny runs deep and it continues unabated even in this present century. Thus we find in an early twentieth century sermon in England where the vicar tabulated seven reasons that aptly summarized the theological basis of misogyny:

  • Man's priority in creation
    Adam was first formed, then Eve.
  • The manner of creation
    The man is not of woman but the woman of man.
  • The purpose of creation
    The man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man.
  • Results in creation
    The man is the image of the Glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.
  • Woman's priority in the Fall
    Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, was in the transgression.
  • The marriage relation
    As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives be to their husbands.
  • The headship of man and woman
    The head of everyman is Christ, but the head of the woman is man. [22]
Thus, Christian theology has been, from its very beginning a theology of hatred of women. This theology was, of course, acted upon when Chrsitianity became the dominant force in the Roman empire. That the position of women in the west has improved in recent years is purely due to the decline in the temporal power of the churches. However, even today this tradition of misogyny continues to express itself in the Catholic church's opposition to abortion and birth control.

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References

1.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p127,130
2.Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: p58
3.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p51-52
4.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p203
5.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p203
6.Ibid: p203
7.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p57-59
8.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p203
9.Knight, Honest to Man: p120
10.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p62
11.Knight, Honest to Man: p121
Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p130,236
12.Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: p58
13.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p55
14.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p203
15.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p88
16.Ibid: p77
17.Ibid: p94
18.Ibid: p185
19.Ibid: p122
20.Ibid: p178-179
21.Ibid: p187-189
22.Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p202-203

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