For my senior seminar this week I assigned Thomas Aquinas. One student, who apparently did not actually do the reading but read some hostile secondary sources, claimed that Aquinas -- a "raging sexist" -- questioned whether women should have been even created. He said it is a shame we are even reading his work.
Though what my student seems to have read is a distortion of what St. Thomas actually said, this alarming attitude itself seems to be spreading. I think it is an outgrowth of identity politics.
Still, it seems that a fair critique could be leveled about St. Thomas’s language about the woman as a “misbegotten male.” Have you had to deal with this sort of objection? How would you handle it?
When students complain about the views supposedly expressed in texts they haven’t read, I give no quarter:
I can understand why you might think the author believes that, if you haven’t done the reading and have read only belligerent secondary sources. However, that’s not a good approach to learning. It’s also unhelpful to read the classical writers only for confirmation of your own ethnocentric opinions, as though you had nothing to learn from anyone outside your own time and place. And it’s even worse not to read them because you’ve been told that they disagree with you.
I then go on to explain what the author really did say. So what did St. Thomas say?
As to the notion that he thinks women are misbegotten males: Although the English word “misbegotten” does appear in the most widely used translation, it is incorrect and misleading. The Latin word is occasionatus, which means merely that the female course of development is a deflection from a path of development that would have been taken had another cause not intervened. Sometimes the phrase used is deficiens et occasionatus, but deficiens in this context doesn’t mean “deficient,” but merely incomplete.
Now St. Thomas’s embryology does turn out to be mistaken. But the kind of argument he makes is precisely the kind today’s biologists make – in reverse -- when they tell us that the Y chromosome, which only males have, may be viewed as an incomplete or even “shriveled” X chromosome, so that male development is a deflection from what would otherwise have been a female developmental path!
Some radical feminists draw from contemporary embryology the conclusion that males are misbegotten females. But contemporary embryology doesn’t imply that there is something wrong with men -- any more than the Angelic Doctor’s embryology implies that there is something wrong with women.
St. Thomas always speaks of women with respect. When he is discussing biology, he emphasizes that nature intends that women be born. It merely produces one sex as a variation on how it produces the other. And it does – just not in the way that he thought.