What the Great Thinkers Think About Women Thinking

| November / December 2005

When Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested earlier this year that women's poor success in math might be, in part, because of their innate lack of ability, he joined an age-old debate about how women's intellect compares to men's. Just ask Cynthia Russett, a Larned Professor of History at Yale University who studies cultural views of women over time. Her article in the Spring 2005 issue of The American Scholar provides background for the following timeline.

Adapted from 'All about Eve,' by Cynthia Russett in The American Scholar. Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) Box 354, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. www.pbk.org.

(427-347 b.c.e.)
Plato thought that women are overly emotional, lack self-control, and are less courageous than men. On the other hand, Plato could picture a world in which women join men as rulers. Women, with the proper training, could be as rational as men.

(384-322 b.c.e.)
'We must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency,' Aristotle wrote in Generation of Animals. Aristotle based his beliefs on what he saw as women's biological inferiority. Even in reproduction, Aristotle believed, a woman doesn't create -- men take the active and creative role in conception, women the passive and receptive role.

Saint Thomas Aquinas
The author of Summa Theologica, which influenced Catholic theology for centuries, continued Aristotle's line of 'reasoning.' Women, Aquinas purported, are biologically 'accidental.' Aquinas believed women to be intellectually and physically inferior to men: 'Woman is naturally subject to man because in man the discretion of reason predominates,' he wrote.

Christine de Pisan
An unusual voice of dissent was that of 15th-century poet de Pisan. She opens her Book of the City of Ladies with a visitation from three allegorical goddesses -- Reason, Rectitude, and Justice -- who refute men's charges of feminine irrationality, feeble moral sense, and inability to understand abstract concepts of law. This book began a roughly three-century debate over women's virtues and vices.

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