Are women human beings?

scholarIn 1595 a small book was published in Leipzig without mention of author or printer. Its thesis was: “Are women really human?!” The booklet immediately called a furore, giving rise to many anti-feminist treatises that agreed with the author and many attempts to refute his arguments. It was reprinted dozens of times in Latin and in various languages: German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, etc.

Who wrote the treatise?  With some probability it may be ascribed to Valens Acidalius (1567-1595), a Catholic theologian who was born in Germany, but who lived much of his life in Italy.

It is likely that Valens meant it as a joke. Probably he wrote it as a satirical essay against the Anabaptist who deny the divinity of Christ. The author seems to say: “If you apply the same arguments the Anabaptists use to deny the divinity of Christ, you can prove anything. With the same kind of arguments, you can just as easily prove that women are not human”.

Unfortunately, the booklet was used to pour ridicule on women. For at least two centuries it was debated at universities across Europe, quoted extensively in articles and at parties, causing enormous distress to many women who were – at that time – undeniably the underdogs in society.

For more information read: J. Jungmayr, ‘Einführung zu Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, zu Valens Acidalius und der Gegenschrift von Gediccus’, in Ob die Weiber Menschen sein Oder Nicht?, ed. Elisabeth Gössmann, Iudicium 1996, pp. 46-62.

The original book by Valens Acidalius

Title: A new disputation against women, in which it is demonstrated
that they are not human beings

“1. Since in Sarmatia, which is a land where anything goes, people are allowed to believe and teach that, together with the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, saviour and redeemer of our souls, is not God, I believe I may also freely believe and teach something much less serious – namely, that women are not fully human and what follows as a consequence: that Christ did not suffer for them and that they will not be saved. If indeed in that realm those who blaspheme the Creator are not only tolerated, but are even granted rewards by the great, why should I fear exile or punishment when I am simply disparaging a created being, especially since by scripture, using the same methods as those by which they prove that Christ is not God, I can prove that woman is not human?” . . . .

“7-8. I begin with those who, using this passage from the words of God, “let us make a help meet for him”, argue thus: Eve was made similar to Adam, the man; she is therefore a man [=’a human being’]  as Adam is. A plausible argument indeed, but obviously false. God did not in fact say, “let us make him a man like himself”, from which they might conclude that Eve was made man as Adam was, but he said “a help”; nor did he say “similar to him”, as those foolish scholars understand “to him”, but he said “for him”, in a reciprocal sense.

So that this point may be better understood, let us consider the words of God more accurately. “It is not good”, he said, “that the man should be alone; let us make a help mate for him.” Here nothing else is said than that it is not good that there should be only one man [= ‘human being’] in the world; let us make for him a help by means of which he may be able to procreate other men [= ‘human beings’] . Thus if by this help other men [= ‘human beings’]  were to be created so that he might not be alone, Eve was not man [= ‘a human being’]  since she was not made in order that Adam might not be alone, but so that, by means of her, Adam might procreate men [= ‘human beings’] who would deliver him from solitude. Eve herself said as much. As soon as she bore Cain, she exclaimed: “I have gotten a man [= ‘a human being’] from the Lord” [Gen. 4.1]. What, I ask you, was the will of God in this? Nothing else for sure, than that she should generate a man [= ‘a human being’] so that Adam should not be alone. Therefore, and in common agreement, it is the opinion of the doctors that for that reason Eve bore the twins Cain and Abel. And notice how thoroughly consistent scripture is, and how Eve, that mother of all living things, most fittingly bears witness that this will of the Lord was first fulfilled, not when she was as one flesh with Adam, that is, as one man [= ‘human being’] – for a man continues to be alone for so long as he continues to be unique – but when she had seen that offspring by which the human race in the future would be increased.” etc.etc.

Read the complete Latin original here.

Read the full text in translation here.

Later printed discussions

A typical follow-up booklet is the following: ‘A thorough and documented description, argument and conclusion, together with extensive replies about the Question Whether Women are Human Beings?!’

The booklet appeared in Germany in 1618. We do not know the name of its author. Against a vicious opponent he defends the thesis that women are, after all, fully human. The popularity of this work is demonstrated by the fact that it was reprinted in 1619, 1671, 1673, 1720.

The original title is: Grund= und probierliche Beschreibung …. Belangend die Frag Ob die Weiber Menschen seyn oder nicht?. The German text was recently published in Archiv für philosophie- und theologie-geschichtliche Frauenforschung, vol. IV, ed. Elisabeth Gössmann, Iudicium Verlag Munich, 1996, pp. 101-124.

Read the full text in translation here.

What is the situation today?


wijngaards It is dreadful that these silly discussions had to hurt women while they were going on . . .

On the positive side it should be noted that authorities in the Catholic Church never supported the opinion that women are not full human beings. In fact, we have no single recorded statement by any bishop or pope who subscribed to such a belief.

And at present no one in the Catholic Church would still deny the full humanity of women, not even the most die-hard traditionalist. At least this prejudice is dead!

John Wijngaards