What the Great Thinkers Think About Women Thinking

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
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(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

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Women have special qualities of mind like ‘quick wit, taste, [and]
grace,’ but they cannot be creative or reason abstractly, Rousseau
maintained. They are good at details, bad at the underlying
principles. They do not possess genius. Their education should fit
them for domestic life, directed not at drawing out their
capacities but at instilling the virtues needed by loving wives and

Baron d’Holbach
The French philosopher argued that environment and schooling shape
the female qualities Rousseau took to be innate. ‘From the way in
which [women] are brought up, it seems that it is only intended to
turn them into beings who retain the frivolity, fickleness,
caprices, and lack of reason of childhood, throughout their

Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft said society makes women what they are by
encouraging their frivolous pursuits and denying them a serious
education. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of
is generally acknowledged to be the founding document of
European and American feminism.

Johann Gaspar Spurzheim
Spurzheim was a proponent of phrenology, the discredited idea that
intelligence can be measured by studying the skull. He wrote, ‘It
is almost an axiom that women are guided by feelings, whilst men
are superior in intellectual concentration.’

John Stuart Mill
Mill said, ‘I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of
the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present
relation to one another. . . . What is now called the nature of
women is an eminently artificial thing — the result of forced
repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in

Helen Bradford Thompson
When phrenology and other studies of the physical brain were
discredited, Thompson tried to fill the void by creating a series
of word associations, puzzles, and general examinations
administered to university undergraduates. Her dissertations,
published as The Mental Traits of Sex, pioneered what we
might consider to be the empirical study of mental differences
between the sexes. The advent of the IQ test rendered the tests

Charles Spearman
In the years after 1918, a consensus grew that IQ tests show very
little difference between the intelligence of men and women.
Spearman, a British psychologist, decreed: ‘The pack of
investigators can be called off. . . . They are following a false

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