The Denigration of Women in History

Sad Woman, 16085500_sWesterners are shocked by the treatment of women under Sharia Law, and they rightly link that treatment to the negative view of women historically present in Islam. Yet many are unaware that almost all other religions and cultures have held a similar view.

Ancient cultures were generally patriarchal and misogynistic. There were some exceptions—in certain periods women in Egypt, Crete, and Sumeria enjoyed high status and the right to education and inheritance. Elsewhere, however, women had fewer rights than men and women lived their lives under the direction first of their fathers, then of their husbands, and finally of their children.

In ancient Greece Plato argued that women should remain in the home. Aristotle regarded them as inferior to men and incapable of pursuing philosophy and attaining virtue. A woman’s proper role, he believed, was to be obedient and silent.

In ancient Rome women were thought to be capable of learning, so they were permitted to attend school and study the same courses as men. Many became writers, artists, and physicians. Yet even so, a double standard existed. For example, women were punished for adultery, whereas men were not. And unlike boys, girls did not receive names of their own but instead variations of their fathers’ names.

In Judaism (dating from 2085 B.C), women were considered the legal property of men and were considered impure when menstruating and after bearing children. The period of impurity was twice as long after the birth of a daughter. In post-biblical Judaism, women, especially foreign ones, were thought of as “temptresses and evil sex objects” and men were expected to have no contact with them except for purposes of reproduction. Women could neither receive an education nor testify in court.

The precursor of Hinduism, Brahminism (dating from before 1200 B.C.), regarded women with suspicion and even contempt. The Laws of Manu state: “It is the nature of women to seduce men in this [world]; for that reason, the wise are never unguarded in the [company of] females. For women are able to lead astray in [this] world not only a fool, but even a learned man, and [to make] him a slave of desire and anger.”

Hinduism (dating from 1500 B.C.) was more respectful of women than many other religions, largely because it had female, as well as male, deities. Yet “like all the major religions of the world, Hinduism is a predominantly male dominated religion.” Women are first dependent on their fathers, their husbands, and their sons or other relatives. And the law subjects them to more restrictions than it does men.

Although Buddhism (560 B.C.) in general had a more favorable view of women, at least one form of Buddhism, Mahayana, did not. Its writings include this passage: “You should know that when men have close relationships with women, they have close relationships with evil ways…Fools lust for women like dogs in heat. Women can ruin the precepts of purity. They can also ignore honor and virtue. Causing one to go to hell, they prevent rebirth in heaven.”

Then came Jesus.

As a Jew, Jesus was aware of the prevailing deprecation of women in Judaism, yet He clearly did not embrace it. Many women were among his followers, and his preaching included numerous favorable illustrations of women. He performed His first miracle at his mother’s request, even though His “hour ha[d] not yet come.” Women were present at the crucifixion, prepared Him for burial, were the first to see the empty tomb, and were in the Upper Room at Pentecost. In short, Jesus treated women with the same respect that He treated men.

Ironically, despite the fact that Jesus gave no indication that he shared the suspicion and contempt of women evident in Judaism and other religions, they found expression in the religion that bears His name, Christianity, most importantly among many of the developers of Church doctrine. A few notable examples:

Tertullian (160-225), Church Father, speaking to women: “God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack . . . Woman, you are the gate to hell.”

St. Clement of Alexandria (c150-215): “[Women’s] very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

Origen, theologian (182-254): “It is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.”

St. Augustine (354-430): “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”

St. Jerome, writing to a young girl, ascribing lustful motives to her: “The way you dress is an index of your secret desires. Your bodice is purposely ripped apart to show what is beneath, and, while hiding what is repulsive, to reveal what is beautiful. You wear stays to keep your breasts in place, and confine your body in a girdle. Sometimes you let your shawl drop so as to lay bare your white shoulders . . .”

Saint Albertus Magnus, theologian (1193-1280): “One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil . . . Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian (1225-1274): “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” 

Lest it be thought that the disparaging of women was only in Catholic Christianity, consider these words from Reformation leader Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” Also, “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are here for.” (Many other reformers shared Luther’s perspective.) 

Exploring the impact of the denigration of women in culture and religion is beyond the scope of this essay. But this much can be said. Having affected the lives of half the members of the human race in innumerable ways for millennia, it is clearly the greatest single injustice in human history and continues to be a stain on culture and religion alike.

Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved