Aristotle's views on women

Aristotle's views on women influenced later Western thinkers, as well as Islamic thinkers, who quoted him as an authority until the end of the Middle Ages, and are thus an important topic in women's history. He saw women as subject to men, but as higher than slaves. In Politics 1.12 he writes, "The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete".[1]

Differences between male and female

Aristotle believed women were inferior and described them as "deformed males".[2][3] For example, in his work Politics, Aristotle states 'as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject'.[3]:(1254b13–14) Another example is Cynthia Freeland's catalog where she quotes “Aristotle says that the courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman's lies in obeying; that 'matter yearns for form, as the female for the male and the ugly for the beautiful'; that women have fewer teeth than men; that a female is an incomplete male or 'as it were, a deformity'.[2] Aristotle believed that men and women naturally differed both physically and mentally. He claimed that women are "more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive ... more compassionate ... more easily moved to tears ... more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike ... more prone to despondency and less hopeful ... more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory [and] ... also more wakeful; more shrinking [and] more difficult to rouse to action" than men.[4] Aristotle wrote extensively on his views of the nature of semen. His views on how a child's sex is decided have since been abandoned.[5]

He wrote that only fair-skinned women, not darker-skinned women, had a sexual discharge and climaxed. He also believed this discharge could be increased by eating of pungent foods. Aristotle thought a woman's sexual discharge was akin to that of an infertile or amputated male's.[6][7] He concluded that both sexes contributed to the material of generation, but that the female's contribution was in her discharge (as in a male's) rather than within the ovary.[6]

His idea of procreation was an active, ensouling masculine element bringing life to a passive female element.[8]

Aristotle explains how and why the association between man and woman takes on a hierarchical character by commenting on male rule over 'barbarians', or non-Greeks. "By nature the female has been distinguished from the slave. For nature makes nothing in the manner that the coppersmiths make the Delphic knife – that is, frugally – but, rather, it makes each thing for one purpose. For each thing would do its work most nobly if it had one task rather than many. Among the barbarians the female and the slave have the same status. This is because there are no natural rulers among them but, rather, the association among them is between male and female slave. On account of this, the poets say that 'it is fitting that Greeks rule barbarians', as the barbarian and the slave are by nature the same."[9] While Aristotle reduced women's roles in society, and promoted the idea that women should receive less food and nourishment than males, he also criticised the results: a woman, he thought, was then more compassionate, more opinionated, more apt to scold and to strike. He stated that women are more prone to despondency, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of having a better memory.[10]

Modes of rule

Aristotle supported the laws that meant a woman's personal wealth automatically became her husband's. According to Aristotle, there were different "ways" or modes (tropoi) of rule, including despotic, royal, and political rule.[11] "Political rule" is of those who are free and equal, who tend in their nature to be on equal terms and to differ in nothing.[12] And Aristotle thought that a husband and wife should live under political rule,[13] the rule suitable to those who are free and equal. Aristotle nevertheless thought that women should not leave the female quarters of the house, and by his death the health of women in Athens had deteriorated, and they were living on average 10 years less than males with elevated rates of death through child-birth.

As for the differences between husband and wife, Aristotle says that these "always" consisted in external appearances, in speeches, and in honors.[14] Aristotle advocated that, should a husband lose money and his reputation, a wife was to refrain from complaint and to attribute this to sickness, ignorance or accidental errors. He thought that, sometimes but not always, males were leaders, or, both the male and the female have the deliberative capacity of the soul, but he thought that in the female it lacked authority.

On a Good Wife, from Oikonomikos, c. 330 BCE

Book cover of an edition of Oikonomikos from 1830.

Therefore, it befits not a man of sound mind to bestow his person promiscuously, or have random intercourse with women; for otherwise the base-born will share in the rights of his lawful children, and his wife will be robbed of her honor due, and shame be attached to his sons. And it is fitting that he should approach his wife in honor, full of self-restraint and awe; and in his conversation with her, should use only the words of a right-minded man, suggesting only such acts as are themselves lawful and honorable. Aristotle's thought that a wife was best honored when she saw that her husband was faithful to her, and that he had no preference for another woman; but before all others loves, trusts her and holds her as his own.[15] Aristotle wrote that a husband should secure the agreement, loyalty, and devotion of his wife, so that whether he himself is present or not, there may be no difference in her attitude towards him, since she realizes that they are alike guardians of the common interests; and so when he is away she may feel that to her no man is kinder or more virtuous or more truly hers than her own husband.

Spartan women

Aristotle wrote that in Sparta, the legislator wanted to make the whole city (or country) hardy and temperate, and that he carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he overlooked the women, who lived in every sort of intemperance and wealth. He added that in those regimes in which the condition of the women was bad, half the city could be regarded as having no laws.[16]

Equal weight to female and male happiness

Aristotle gave equal weight to women's happiness as he did to men's, and commented in his Rhetoric that a society cannot be happy unless women are happy too. In an article titled Aristotle's Account of the subjection of Women Stauffer explains that Aristotle believed that in nature a common good came of the rule of a superior being. But he doesn't indicate a common good for men being superior to women. He uses the word 'Kreitton' to indicate superiority, meaning stronger. Aristotle believed that rational reasoning is what made you superior over lesser beings in nature, yet still used the term meaning stronger, not more rational or intelligent.[17]


On children, he said, "And what could be more divine than this, or more desired by a man of sound mind, than to beget by a noble and honored wife children who shall be the most loyal supporters and discreet guardians of their parents in old age, and the preservers of the whole house? Rightly reared by father and mother, children will grow up virtuous, as those who have treated them piously and righteously deserve that they should." Aristotle believed we all have a biological drive to procreate, to leave behind something to take the place and be similar to ourselves. This then justifies the natural partnership between man and woman. And each person has one specific purpose because we are better at mastering one specific trait rather than being adequate at multiple. Women's purpose, it seems he believes, is to birth children. Aristotle stressed that man and woman work together to raise the children and that how they raise them has a huge influence over the kind of people they become and thus the kind of society or community that everyone lives in.



Aristotle's assumptions on female coldness influenced Galen and others for almost two thousand years until the sixteenth century.[18]

Church Fathers

Joyce E. Salisbury argues that the Church Fathers, influenced by Aristotle's opinions, opposed the practice of independent female ascetism because it threatened to emancipate women from men.[19]

Otto Weininger

In his Sex and Character, written in 1903, Otto Weininger explained that all people are composed of a mixture of the male and the female substance, and that these views are supported scientifically.


  1. "Aristotle: Politics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] 1260a11". 2005-07-27. Retrieved 2013-10-09.
  2. 1 2 Witt, Charlotte; Shapiro, Lisa (2016-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. Feminist History of Philosophy (Spring 2016 ed.).
  3. 1 2 Smith, Nicholas D. "Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women". Journal of the History of Philosophy. 21 (4): 467–478. doi:10.1353/hph.1983.0090.
  4. History of Animals, 608b. 1–14
  5. Generation of Animals, II, 728a
  6. 1 2 Generation of Animals, I, 728a
  7. Generation of Animals, VI, 728a
  8. Aristotle on woman
  9. Dana Jalbert Stauffer The Journal of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Oct. 2008), pp. 929–941
  10. History of Animals, book IX, part 1
  11. Politics, 1252a7f., 1254b2–6, 1255b16–20
  12. Politics, 1255b20, 1259b4–6; see also Book III, 1277b7–9
  13. Politics, I, 1259a39–b1
  14. Politics, 1259b6–10
  15. The Politics and Economics of Aristotle, Edward English Walford and John Gillies, trans., (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1908)
  16. The Politics of Aristotle, Book 2 Ch. 9, trans. Benjamin Jowett, London: Colonial Press, 1900
  17. Stauffer, Dana (Oct 2008). "Aristotle's Account of the Subjection of Women". The Journal of Politics. 70 (4): 929–941. doi:10.1017/s0022381608080973. JSTOR 30219476.
  18. Tuana, Nancy (1993). The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious and Philosophical Conceptions of Women's Nature. Indiana University Press. pp. 21, 169. ISBN 0-253-36098-6.
  19. Church Fathers, Independent Virgins, Joyce E. Salisbury, 1992
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