Thomas’s Doctrine of Woman and Thirteenth-Century Thought

Thomas’s Doctrine of Woman and Thirteenth-Century Thought

McGowan,  Richard J.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 2 (1985)


While we may legitimately expect great thinkers to swim against the currents of their times, we can hardly expect them to swim up waterfalls. This metaphor fits the great thirteenth-century thinker Thomas Aquinas on the thirteenth-century’s “obvious truth” that women are inferior to men. We can hardly expect his doctrine of woman to hold other than what it holds: Woman is the imperfectus sexus and morally inferior to man. In these claims, Thomas agrees with his contemporaries, and with the two most influential predecessors of the thirteenth-century intellectual milieu, Augustine and Aristotle. But if Thomas’s doctrine of woman holds that woman is metaphysically and morally inferior to man, his path to the idea of woman’s inferiority differs significantly from the paths of Augustine and Aristotle as well as his contemporaries. Thomas’s view of woman is neither a restatement of Aristotelian philosophy nor, as Boerresen maintains, “to be found in the reflections of Augustine, from whom he differs little on this subject.” I will show, even if briefly, the difference between Thomas and Augustine on woman and note the pivotal importance of thirteenth-century biology for Thomas’s treatment of woman. His dependence on close empirical observations as the foundation of his thoughts, while leading him to conclusions we find unacceptable, announces a new method- ology for understanding human spirituality. Thomas’s importance to the scientific tradition marks his method as more powerful than even he could imagine.

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