Aquinas On Women (uh-oh)

We’re clipping along through these now. Quick life update, we’re moving to Melbourne – by the time this article is published, we’ll have been there for two weeks. I’m hoping to finish off the Prima Pars before starting a new writer, so the last few Aquinas posts will be written from a new city. I’ll probably just be using the online edition of the Summa, instead of my usual library version, so there might be some minor changes stemming from that. It won’t be too much longer on Aquinas though – the final question in this section is 119, and today I’m dealing with Q92, so that’s the kind of timeframe we’re looking at. Let’s get on with it then: in 1a.92, Aquinas asks about how women were created. It’s not great reading.

There’s four sub-questions within Q92, and we’re mainly focused on 92.1. The other questions aren’t really all that interesting – Aquinas asks whether Eve should have been made out of Adam (92.2), whether she should’ve been made from the rib (92.3), and whether God made her directly (92.4). They’re all relatively petty questions – the real banger, I think, is this first one. Generally speaking, there’s not a lot here that’s amenable to a modern audience. I was hoping to do one post criticising Aquinas on women and one post looking at the positives, uh, but I’m not finding many positive things to say.

Obviously the whole thing is pretty misogynistic. I’ll give a quick overview of some of the claims made throughout, but I don’t see much point going through and explaining and discussing each one. Claims include that women are defective men, women are “by nature of lower capacity and quality,” women are managed by men for their own benefit, women have less rational discernment – and that’s all just in 92.1. Aquinas also suggests in the same article that Eve was “an occasion of sin” for Adam, and therefore probably shouldn’t have been created in the first place; the counter-argument in the second half retorts that if God had gone around just sin-proofing all of creation, we wouldn’t have half of it, and that’s just silly. He also refers to the whole ‘making a helper for man’ thing in Genesis and says well, when you think about it, men can usually get better help from men for most tasks, so it doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense to call women helpers. Really, he suggests, the point is that women are designed to help men procreate. They’re baby makers. A footnote hastily adds that Aquinas “means much more than just the conception of children. All the work of motherhood and of rearing a family, hence of keeping house, etc, is included in this work.” So women aren’t just baby makers, they’re also designed to keep the house tidy. Cool.

I’m honestly not really sure where to start responding to all of this. It’s basically all awful. There’s no appendix addressing any of these gender issues, but this volume that I’m reading from was only published in 1963, so it’s possible the Catholics just hadn’t quite started thinking of women as people then. It’s pretty funny that the translator takes a moment to qualify that women can clean the house as well as making babies – I’m sure he thought he was being very progressive and sensitive to women readers. You can really tell that feminism hasn’t kicked in for these writers – throughout this series as a whole the policy has been to refer to humans as ‘man’, or ‘mankind’. In fact, Q92 is titled ‘Man’s Actual Production As Far As Woman Is Concerned.’ From where we’re sitting, in 2018 – oh, 2019 – it’s laughable. As for Aquinas himself, well, he’s the worst of the lot. The claim that women are defective men is a scientific claim – it’s a claim about reproduction more than anything else. Basically the idea is that when a couple have sex, the dude shoots his dude-sperm all over the place and that’s all active and masculine and it’s trying to make more dudes but something goes wrong somewhere along the line and we end up with girls instead. Sometimes the sperm might be defective, or there might be external factors like, uh, the south wind? Fuck knows what that’s supposed to mean. Maybe the girl farts at the moment of her partner’s orgasm.

The issues with what Aquinas is saying are all pretty obvious, so I don’t think I really need to spend much time on arguing them. Many points are just experientially untrue for most people in our modern society. If you’re in the office, the women around you will be just as helpful as the men – so that comment about women as not particularly helpful just isn’t true to our lived experience. Also, obviously women have more to their lives than just being baby makers. They’re human beings with their own thoughts and desires and life goals. Some of them don’t want to have babies, and that’s fine. Those women have a purpose and function outside of making babies and keeping the house clean. It’s not – I feel bad writing this, to be honest. It doesn’t feel like a justifiable way to fulfill the word count. It feels like explaining the order of the alphabet or something – none of what I’m saying is especially remarkable or complicated. Aquinas is shit about women. Partly that’s because he was hanging out in the 13th century or whatever. Even so, it’s pretty shocking to read some of the stuff he’s written here. I think that’s what’s most confronting to me – just the concentrated levels of misogyny. It’s… yeah it’s pretty awful. This was going to be a funnier post, more indignant and a bit lighter. Laughing it off. But the more you think about it – I mean, look, the hard reality is that Aquinas perpetuates the deep hatred of women that’s plagued our society for millenia. He justifies that hatred by attaching it to religious doctrine, which is fucked. Some people might object to the term ‘hatred’, but that’s really what it is. If you think that women are stupid irrational baby makers, and that’s your deeply held religious belief, then you kinda hate women. You might not have any emotional hostility towards them, but that set of beliefs is fundamentally an intellectual hatred. It’s about subjugating women while rationalising and excusing and justifying that subjugation as somehow warranted. Aquinas distinguishes between two types of subjugation in this article – there’s slavery, which is to the advantage of the ruler, and governance, which is to the advantage of the subject. He presents the subjugation of women as the second one, but I think we all know it’s more of the first.

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