Articles Mariology and Saints Philosophy and Art

St. Thomas Aquinas is Not Sexist


By Katie Hugo, Franciscan University

            Thomas Aquinas was a well-known Catholic priest and saint who lived in the thirteenth century. The medieval theologian was part of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. He wrote several works on various topics related to Catholic thought, with the most famous being his unfinished theological treatise Summa Theologica. This monumental text covers God, creation, morality, and the work and person of Jesus Christ. His works influenced the theology of the Catholic Church greatly, and there is a whole philosophical school of thought dedicated to understanding his writings. This attention means that his works are scrutinized and people disagree with him on many things. One of the charges that is sometimes leveled against the Catholic thinker is that he is sexist and that he did not like women because in the first part, question ninety-two, article one, reply to objection one, he states that “as regards [to] the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten.”[1] While the Catholic theologian did say this in the Summa Theologica, his view of women was not sexist, as his thoughts on human reproduction did not have a full understanding of human biology. However, he did have an appreciation of women as evidenced in his treatment of Mary, whom he exalts in his Summa Theologica, as well as in his work on the Hail Mary entitled “The Angelic Salutation.”

            There needs to be some clarification on what Thomas Aquinas said on women in the Summa Theologica. In part one of this monumental work, he discusses the physical creation of men and women, as well as the reproduction of the human race. Question ninety-two is called “The Production of women” and the first article asks, “Should the woman have been made in the first production of things?”[2] This question refers to the creation story in the early chapters of Genesis. The first objection to this question is, “It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things. For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.”[3] In this article, the theologian answers that it was correct to make women when they were created because their existence is necessary to continue the existence of the human race.[4] In reply to objection one, Thomas Aquinas states that

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 a woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence;[5]

           This passage often leads to a charge of sexism because he says that men are the standard and women come from a mishap in the production process.[6] However, the quote from the Summa Theologica just refers to how women are produced. This incorrect belief about the production of the human species stems from a lack of scientific information because, at the time, people did not understand the science behind human reproduction. In the first objection, he quotes from “the Philosopher,” who is Aristotle and the quote from Greek thinkers says that “the female is the misbegotten male.”[7] This was a common belief throughout much of history. In this article, Aquinas notes that other people had this view as well. However, people often forget what the Catholic saint says about the dignity of women in the very next sentence. Thomas Aquinas discusses the inherent value of women by stating that “on the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation.”[8] The texts indicate that Thomas Aquinas did see women as equal in human nature and that it further indicates the contemporary views on women were rooted in a major misunderstanding of the scientific process of reproduction, rather than a deep hatred of women.

            In “The Angelic Salutation,” Thomas Aquinas expounds the text of Hail Mary. This is a traditional Catholic prayer to Mary and the current text is divided into two parts. The first part reads “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus”[9] and the second part reads “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”[10] However, during the lifetime of Thomas Aquinas, the Hail Mary only consisted of the first half ending with “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” as the Catholic Church added the second part of the prayer later.[11] The theologian notes that the text of the prayer is formed from two parts: the greeting from the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1:28 and the warm welcome from Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, that came to a few verses later in Luke 1:42.

            Thomas Aquinas argues that since the Angel Gabriel revered Mary, and thus humans should revere her as a result. The text of the greeting from the angel reads “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”[12] He says that the reverence to Mary from the angel is unique because “Angels are greater than men, and indeed in three ways.”[13] The first way is that angels have a superior dignity to men since angels are pure spirit, compared to men who have body and soul. The second way is that angels are closer to God, and the last way is that angels “far exceed men in the fullness of the splendor of divine grace.”[14] This last part ties into the line from the Hail Mary that reads “full of grace” because Mary was higher than angels due to her grace. Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception because he did not believe it had a basis in scripture.[15] In the text of “The Angelic Salutation,” the Dominican priest discusses that Mary is full of grace because, while conceived in original sin, she was not born with it.[16] At the time, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was up for debate and he took the position against it. The fact that she was “full of grace” makes her the holiest creature in the world because she did not sin during her lifetime. The priest goes on to say Mary is closer to God and purer than the angels. She is closer to God than angels because she carried Christ in her during the pregnancy. Also, Mary is purer than the angels because she did not sin at all and did not suffer the consequences of sin. She did not suffer from birth pains, was assumed into heaven, and was free “from the cares of the world and [was] occupied wholly with the things of the Lord” due to her status as a virgin.[17] As a result of these quotes, it is clear that Thomas Aquinas believes that she has a higher status in creation than angels due to her status in her role of salvation history. The fact that he says this about a woman shows that he recognized the good that women did for the salvation of the human race.

            In the second part of his treatise on the Hail Mary, Thomas Aquinas says that Mary deserves respect because of the greeting from her cousin Elizabeth. The reception from Elizabeth reads “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”[18] He says that the name “Mary” is similar to “Star of the Sea (‘Maria – maris stella’),”[19] and explains that she is like a star because “for just as sailors are directed to port by the star of the sea, also Christians are by Mary guided to glory.”[20] This quote indicates that he had high respect for Mary because he is saying that Mary guides the Christian people to glory, which is heaven. The section that says “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” refers to Jesus, the central figure of the Christian faith. While discussing this section of the text, Aquinas contrasts Mary with Eve. The former female brought salvation and eternal life into the world by giving birth to Christ, and the latter lady brought sin and death into the world through eating from the forbidden tree.[21] The theologian says that “Eve looked for pleasure in the fruit of the tree because it was good to eat. But she did not find this pleasure in it, and, on the contrary, she at once discovered she was naked and was stricken with sorrow.”[22] He explains this event to contrast her situation with Mary, in whose fruit, “we find sweetness and salvation.”[23] The fruit of Mary was Christ, who Christians believe brought salvation to the world, and the fruit that Eve ate brought sin, death, and destruction into the world. This shows that he had a high opinion of Mary since her “yes” brought salvation into the world. Without a woman, salvation history would have been much different and Aquinas recognizes this.

           Besides, Thomas Aquinas wrote several articles about Mary in the Summa Theologica and speaks of her incredibly courteously. He devotes four questions to her life, questions twenty-seven to thirty of the third part. Question twenty-seven discusses how Mary was sanctified. Today, the belief is that Mary was conceived without sin but this was not formally declared as Catholic dogma until 1854. However, during his lifetime, this belief was not formally defined and was therefore up for debate. Thomas Aquinas took the position against the Immaculate Conception because she was born before Christ. Despite his incorrect position, he continually refers to her as the “Blessed Virgin.”[24] This phrase shows the high respect that he had for her. In the next question, number twenty-eight, he discusses various aspects of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Catholics believe that the mother of Jesus was a virgin throughout her entire life. In this section, Aquinas defends the perpetual virginity of Mary. The theologian continually refers to her as the “Mother of God” and speaks of her respectfully throughout this section.[25]  In question twenty-nine, he discusses the marriage between Mary and Joseph, whom the Bible relates as her husband. In article one, he says that Christ was born of an espoused virgin for several reasons. Thomas Aquinas says that Christ should be born this way because “by this the universal Church is typified, which is a virgin and yet is espoused to one Man, Christ.”[26] This means that he thought Mary represented the Church as a whole. This indicates that people should imitate her life because of her high status. The last one is question thirty, and, in this question, Aquinas discusses how the Annunciation happened and why. The Annunciation is when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and asked her to give birth to the Savior. Throughout this section, he again repeatedly refers to Mary as the “Blessed Virgin” and the “Mother of God.”[27] This shows great respect for her because it shows that he had Mary in high esteem. From these four articles on the life of Christ’s mother, it is clear that Thomas Aquinas was respectful of Mary, even though he did not believe in the validity of the Immaculate Conception. This respect of the Mother of Christ indicates that he did have respect for women.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 92. The Production of the Woman,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1092.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Steward James Felker, “The ‘Defectiveness’ of Women, According to Thomas Aquinas,” Patheos, last modified September 7, 2015, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/atheology/2015/09/the-defectiveness-of-women-according-to-thomas-aquinas-2/.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 92. The Production of the Woman,” New Advent.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hail Mary,” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=217.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Salutation,” Translated by Joseph B. Collins, Edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P., https://web.archive.org/web/20180425024220/http:/dhspriory.org/thomas/AveMaria.htm.

[12] Luke 1:28 (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[13] Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Salutation,” Translated by Joseph B. Collins, Edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 27. The Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4027.htm.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Salutation,” Translated by Joseph B. Collins, Edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Luke 1:42 (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[19] Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Salutation,” Translated by Joseph B. Collins, Edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Genesis 3:6, 25 (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[22] Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Salutation,” Translated by Joseph B. Collins, Edited by Joseph Kenny, O.P.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 27. The Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin,” New Advent.

[25] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 28. The virginity of the Mother of God,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4028.htm.

[26] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 29. The Espousals of the Mother of God,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4029.htm.

[27] Thomas Aquinas, “Question 30. The Annunciation of Mary,” New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4030.htm.

0 comments on “St. Thomas Aquinas is Not Sexist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: