According to the traditional view, women are inferior because their birth as females was due to a mishap. Women are born as women through an accident. Females are misbegotten, i.e. they are ‘failed’ males. They were ‘animals’, missing the human spirit. This view was held by the ancient Greeks, the Fathers of the Church, medieval thinkers and theologians, and even by church authorities until the 17th/18th century!
Only men carry male semen which was considered to be the active principle in conception. Only men produce seed and therefore only men were credited as responsible for procreation [See Lucretius,On the nature of things, 4. 1037].
It was believed that men cast their semen into a woman’s womb as a farmer sows seed into the earth [Galen (130-200 AD), On natural faculties,1, 6.].
The process of embryonic development was activated by the semen and nourished by the blood of the mother.
“I also am mortal, like all men a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of my mother I was moulded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage”.
Wisdom of Solomon 7.1
(2nd cent BC)
The heat of passion serves to create the semen, and so passion and its concomitant pleasure were considered essential to procreation.
“In a single impact of both parts (body & soul) the whole human frame is shaken and foams with semen, as the damp humour of the body is joined to the hot substance of the spirit. and then, (I speak of this at the risk of seeming improper, but I do not wish to forgo my chance of proving my case) in that last breaking wave of delight, do we not feel something of our very soul go out from us?”
[Tertullian (160-220 AD), De anima 27.5]
How did they believe male children – boys – were born?
|The semen contains the future offspring which, in a good conception, will always be male.|
|“(Maleness comes) not from fire or any such force, but from the SPIRIT included in the semen . . . and the natural principle of spirit, being analogous to the stars.” Aristotle (384-322 BC), The Generation of Animals , 2. 3. 735a [30-35] – 4. 737 a [1-10, 34].
“The (spirit) in the semen, when possessed of vitality, makes us males, hot, well braced in limbs, heavy, well-voiced, spirited, strong to think and act.”
“When thirsting for children a man falls into a kind of trance, softened and subdued by the pleasures of generation as by sleep, so that again something drawn from his flesh is . . . fashioned into another man. For the harmony of bodies being disturbed in the embraces of love, as those tell us who have experienced the marriage state, all the marrow-like and generative part of the blood, like a kind of liquid bone, coming together from all the members worked into foam and curdled, is projected through the organs of generation into the living body of the female.”
Foetuses developed their full potential, maleness, if they amassed a decisive surplus of “heat” and “vital spirit” in the early stages in utero.
|Being full of spirit, the future man will possess all the higher qualities of the male: mind, ability to lead, sense of responsibility and the seed for new generations.
The outcome of such a successful conception and gestation, will be another male.
How did they believe female children – girls – were born?
|A child is only born female if something goes wrong in the process of conception and pregnancy, they thought.
(1) Perhaps the father did not produce enough ‘vital heat’ during intercourse . . . Galen (130-200 AD) taught that semen from a man’s left testicle, which is ‘full of residue and watery’, could lead to the birth of a woman.
|(2) Perhaps the weather was not right . . . with a humid South Wind blowing . . .|
|(3) Perhaps the mother was not able to keep the foetus warm . . .
Female children were the result of insufficient vital heat being absorbed by the foetus. “Just as the young of handicapped parents are sometimes born handicapped and sometimes not, so also the young born from a female are sometimes female and sometimes male instead. For the female is, as it were, a misbegotten [lit. = mutilated] male . . .” Aristotle (384-322 BC), The Generation of Animals 2.3; 737 a27.
|The female child is a loser.
She does not inherit the higher qualities of her father. She is doomed to be like her mother: weak, irrational, subordinate to men. And she does not have the power of procreation that men have. “A female is deficient and unintentionally caused. For the active power of the semen always seeks to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material [provided by the female parent] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere humid.” St Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), Summa Theologica, 1, qu. 92, art 1, ad 1.
Read a full account of the traditional view here: “Of godly men and medicine: ancient biology and the Christian Fathers on the nature of woman” by Kim E. Power, Woman-Church 15 (Spring 1994) pp. 26-33.
What is the situation today?
|Though the traditional view has officially been abandoned, its after effects still persist.
No educated person in the Catholic Church today would still hold, or defend, the traditional view that women are inferior by nature because of the way they have been born.
However, many seem to have forgotten that this view was one of the deep-seated convictions and explicit arguments used to justify discrimination against women in society and in church life.
Much of that discrimination still continues in practice.