Some Thoughts on Rosemary Agonito’s History of Ideas on Women



All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “Silence is a woman’s glory,” but it is not equally the glory of man.

Aristotle (54)

It is only the man whose intellect is clouded by his sexual impulses that could give the name of the fair sex to that under-sized, narrow shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race.

Arthur Schopenhauer (199)

Emily Dickinson’s parents would have preferred her to read less. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, our greatest poet notes:

My Mother does not care for thought—and Father, too busy with his Briefs—to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.

Although this sounds barbarous today, Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson were in alignment with over two thousand years of Western thought regarding the wisdom and feasibility of educating women.

As Rosemary Agonito demonstrates in her invaluable sourcebook History of Ideas on Women, the dominant perspective in Western philosophy from Aristotle to Freud is that women are childlike, feebleminded creatures, unsuited to function in the man’s world of action and ideas.

Nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel argued that women are inherently unfit for anything beyond the domestic sphere:

Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences….Women may have happy inspirations, taste, elegance, but they have not the ideal. The difference between man and woman is the same as that between animal and plant….If women were to control the government, the state would be in danger, for they do not act according to the dictates of universality, but are influenced by accidental inclinations and opinions (167).

Another German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), tells us that women are basically children. By infantilizing women and feminizing childhood, male philosophers invent false polarities that preserve the status of men:

Women are directly fitted for acting as the nurses and teachers of our early childhood by the fact that they are themselves childish, frivolous and short-sighted; in a word, they are big children all their life long—a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the full-grown man. (194)

Unlike so many of the men who have shaped Western thought, Immanuel Kant (Prussia, 1724-1804) genuinely liked women. (There is much misogyny in the suppression of women, but misogyny is not a crucial ingredient.) Kant loves women just the way they are so much that he worries about what will happen if women endeavor to worry their pretty little heads over the affairs of men. (Some might argue that this is itself a form of misogyny.)

Laborious learning or painful pondering, even if the woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex (131).

The three ugliest villains in History of Ideas on Women are Paul the Apostle, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas.

Here’s Agonito on Paul:

There is evidence, consistent with Jesus’ example, that women played an important part in the earliest days of the new church, even engaging in such evangelical work as teaching the faith and converting large numbers to Christianity. Whatever the reason, Paul explicitly objected this new turn, and his reactionary efforts in the matter of women succeeded in setting the tone for thinking about women that would be continually reinforced in the intellectual and practical tradition in the West for the next two thousand years (68).

Paul thought women were pretty icky, and it was best to stay away from them:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

(1 Corinthians 7:1-2)

Like many contemporary Muslims, Paul felt that women should cover their heads in public in order to emphasize the greater glory of men:

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man
(1 Corinthians 11:7)

According to Augustine, man derives his superior status over women directly from God. (See Genesis, Adam and Eve).

And indeed He did not even create the woman that was to be given to him as his wife, as he created the man, but created her out of the man, that the whole human race might derive from one man (75).

Like many influential Western male thinkers including Sigmund Freud, Aquinas sees women as an inherently defective, naturally subordinate creatures.

As regards to 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 defect in the active force or from some material disposition, or even from some external influence; such as the south wind, which is moist….woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates (85).

John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Ashley Montagu, and Herbert Marcuse are the only male thinkers in History of Ideas on Women whose ideas on women are not appalling by today’s standards. History of Ideas on Women is mostly a dismal read. But it’s an indispensable book.

by Richard W. Bray

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