talk to me like an adult: planned parenthood edition
Dr. Kristin Popik Burns earned her PhD in Philosophy the University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, in 1978; the first woman to earn that degree from St. Thomas. Now Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Dean of Graduate School of Christendom College — she is a founding faculty member — Dr. Burns specializes in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas; the topic of her dissertation, The Philosophy of Woman of St. Thomas Aquinas, which opens with the suggestion that Aquinas thought about women scientifically:
But while it is one unified theory, Thomas’ philosophy of woman is two-sided, and in such a way that it might appear at first contradictory: somehow (and the determination of exactly how is the aim of this study) woman is both equal to man in nature and yet inferior; in their relationship she is subject to man but as his equal. This ambivalence is clearly not the same as that displayed by the Fathers of the Church in their writings. As a whole, patristic texts dealing with woman tend to be non-theoretical. Primarily concerned with the encouragement of virtue and the promotion of the life of perfection, the Fathers’ statements about woman, depending on the audiences to which they are addressed, alternate between vile condemnations of woman as temptress and instrument of the devil, and exaggerated praises of woman and womanly virtue, especially as exhibited by Mary and the female saints. As ideal, Christian Woman is made an object of worship, and this of course encourages the women to whom St. Jerome, for example, is writing in their attempts to live up to this ideal. Woman as the source of all sin, trouble, and suffering for man is repudiated in those patristic writings addressed to monks, in order to encourage them in their repudiation of the world and women, in their celibate perfection. But St. Thomas is concerned neither with praising nor condemning woman; his writings are philosophical treatises, not pastoral enjoinders. For him woman is another part of reality to be scientifically investigated in order to discover her nature and her relation to the rest of reality.
This is a long read with lots to chew on for an uneducated feminist like me. Based on the information he had, Aquinas thought that woman aren’t necessarily defective, maybe they’re accidental:
Aquinas admits that females do not necessarily result from an error or defect, saying that they could also be generated as the result of some totally exterior condition, even the will of the parents.46 But while they are not defects or unintended mistakes for Aquinas, women are generated accidentally, they are the result of some interference with the natural tendency to produce males, and this is for him further evidence of the inferiority of the female sex.
I think ‘incidental’ would have made a better word choice than accidental here. Women were incidental in Aquinas world view; in his scientific explanation; were needed only for their generative qualities, which are passive instead of active.
It gets worse, too. Because women are not active, and because they’re smaller and frail (they die a lot in childbirth, for instance,) women differ morally and intellectually from men, who are perfect, and obviously, much hotter:
We have already seen that for St. Thomas men are superior to women in those bodily characteristics in which they differ; it is natural then that he should apply his theory of the inequality of souls proportioned to unequal bodies to the differences between men and women, concluding that the souls of men are generally superior to those of women. Men’s bodies are stronger than those of women; they must therefore receive more perfect and stronger souls than the weaker feminine bodies do. Men’s bodies are more perfect and noble because they are active while women’s are only passive in generation: therefore the souls proportioned to these more perfect masculine bodies are more noble and perfect than are women’s souls which are more limited by the greater imperfection of the female body. Masculinity, it has been seen. is a greater perfection than femininity: masculine bodies, as more perfect, honorable, dignified, and noble, have souls which are proportioned to this greater dignity and perfection and are themselves more noble and honorable than the souls of females. “Vir est pertectior muliere, non solum quantum ad corpus….sed etiam quantum ad animae vigorem…”78
Women also lack wisdom, reasoning, courage, and virtue:
For Aquinas then woman is generally less perfected in wisdom than man is, she is less able to do higher reasoning about eternal things and usually sticks to lower reasoning about temporal things; in men the reason is more developed so that they are more proficient at contemplation and wiser, and hence the man must direct the woman as higher reason directs the lower.
Closely connected with woman’s relative deficiency in higher reasoning is her inferiority in comparison with the man in those virtues, which depend on the directive role of reason. Because it belongs to reason to order acts and effects, and because women are weak of reason, they are less able to order their acts; hence they have great need of the “ornaments” of virtue, especially sobriety and verecundia which safeguard what little reasoning and ordering abilities they have, and make up for woman’s natural lack of the internal beauty which results from this ordering of acts with reason: [she quotes Aquinas in Latin, go read it if you want the Latin].
My education, humble as it may be for my time, would have been a thing of wonder to Aquinas (and to Aristotle, too). If only those great thinkers trying to explain moral abstracts through their observations of physical correlations known then what I knew by the time I was in fifth grade, they might have made some very different conclusions. It makes me sad that their voices fill the books of knowledge and the no matter how misguided the answers might be, that they that still shape our views of women based on explanations grounded in total ignorance of how things work. (I fully expect some future generation will regard our time with the same skepticism, and someone might have a soft spot in her heart for what we didn’t know and the stupid things we thought instead.)
Dr. Burns, I thought, has the same sense of sadness at Aquinas’ ignorance, though perhaps I’m imbuing this conclusion with my own biases. Aquinas, she says, was without much actual experience of real women on which to base his observations, his opinions were based on Aristotle’s biology and women in biblical scripture, and he showed no inclination to remedy this gap:
It is difficult to determine the degree to which St. Thomas’ philosophy is based on his observation of real women, on empirical evidence of their rational abilities and their virtue. He supports his theory of the inferiority of women on purely philosophical grounds, and ultimately on Aristotle’s theory of generation, but these arguments appear to be mere explanations for an inferiority, which he considered to be evident to all. And yet St. Thomas is commonly believed to have had very little contact with real women, other than his immediate family from whom he was separated at an early age and for almost all of his life. In fact the only place where real women are mentioned in Thomas’ theory are as exceptions: the real women he encounters in Scriptural historical accounts, for example, are not cause for a reexamination of his theory but rather exceptions to it.
The reason why St. Thomas, having admitted that not all women exhibit the inferiority which is natural to them, did not apparently either reconsider his theory or do more empirical investigation of real women to determine whether or not they were in fact inferior in general to men lies probably in the fact that his explanation of this inferiority is so tightly argued that it functions as evidence for this inferiority. That is to say, it is impossible for St. Thomas that woman not be inferior to man in reason and in reason’s control of human acts if in fact femininity is inferior to masculinity and souls are proportioned to their bodies. Given Aristotle’s theory of generation as done by males, St. Thomas could have (and no doubt would have) concluded that women are inferior to men in the rational operations of their souls even if he had never seen a woman or heard that they were considered by all to be so inferior. The dependence of St. Thomas’ philosophy of woman on the generative biology of Aristotle, then, cannot be overestimated. As evidence for her inferiority, this biological theory argues the necessity of that inferiority. In other words, while St. Thomas appears to accept the inferiority of women in reason and virtue as something given in experience (either his or the common experience of men) and to offer his arguments as mere explanations of this inferiority, those arguments, once given the truth of Aristotle’s biology, conclude so necessarily to woman’s inferiority that he could presume that inferiority to be verified by experience. If some of St. Thomas’ conclusions about the nature of woman are not true, the fault lies not in his philosophical reasoning, but in his acceptance of Aristotle’s biology as his starting principle.
The advent of modern medicine has drastically changed our views of women’s biology and bodies and changed the outcomes for women. The real science, the science that Aquinas missed that I learned by fifth grade, is that the active thing, meaning consumption of resources, is pregnancy. It consumes women’s physical resources; it is a physical thing. It is so physical, the requirements so demanding that it silenced women’s voices and hid their capacity to speak right up through the days of our beloved Jane. Women were constrained to second-class citizenship by virtue of their biology, the risk of death from childbirth, physicality of pregnancy and nursing children. They were subjected by their biology, and it took medical science and the advent of legal contraception to give women control of their lives and opportunity to participate, finally, as fully human. I’ve written about this here last year, in a piece Jason Kuznicki edited for me (I’m still really greatful, thank you, Jason,) Choice, not Chance. I cover a lot of ground in that post; present a lot of data that shows how women have, when given opportunity to control their bodies, acted responsibly; fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions, higher education attainment, better economic outcomes. I should note that I’m not particularly proud of this piece, it’s victim porn; a pathetic telling of victim stories based upon the need bring the statistics of women’s lives to life; to justify women being treated as adults instead of children. Victim porn, I think, objectifies women every bit as much as bikinis in beer ads; the statistics speak for themselves, when we give women reproductive health care, they flourish.
But recent flourishing doesn’t change how the oversights and ignorance oft he past still clings to today, fostering the bad habit of thinking of women as children. Look at the fringe to define the middle offers up biblical marriage:
Going back to basics here. What is the job of the man? To provide for and protect the woman. What is the job of the woman? To provide for and protect the child. The man provides for and protects the woman while the woman provides for and protects the child. The relationship of the man to the woman is analogous to the relationship of the woman to the child. The man’s role in relationship to the woman is similar to the woman’s role in relationship to the child. This means the man views the woman similarly to how the woman views the child. In particular the man’s role in relation to the woman is based on the man’s romantic relationship with the woman and the man’s romantic feelings towards the woman. So it is the man’s romantic feelings towards the woman in particular that causes the man to see the woman in a childlike way, as someone he needs to provide for protect and control just like as an adult he needs to provide for protect and control the children under his care. The woman is under his care just like the child is, the woman is under his authority just like the child is; this is why he views the woman and the child similarly.
The Red Pill cesspits of the internet has blunt treat-woman-like-chidren ideology:
One of the key tenants of Red Pill is that women act like children. There are many reasons for this. Women are not held accountable for their actions growing up, so they are completely new to the concept of accountability. If a woman sucks a dick, she tells a realy long story about how she was put in a dick sucking situation. Women don’t realy believe in their own agency. That’s why they often believe in cosmic forces like fate and patriarchy, because nothing they ever do is their fault. If women don’t take responsibility for their actions, someone else has to. That’s why we have to treat women like children. Obviously, some woman is going to read this have a cascade of feels and then deal with said feels in the most immature way possible.
But old habits die hard, and bad habits are particularly pernicious. I googled the phrase “amanda marcotte treating women like children“; since I know Marcotte writes on the topic frequently, and got a long list of her posts. My saying, now, that in debates about religion and reproductive rights, “we treat women like children” is not new or revolutionary. In fact, it’s so much the norm, that it takes some work to recognize it and bring it into view. I came this view from my participation the debates about the 2011 law proposed personhood amendment in Mississippi. Debating it with a supporter at <i>The Atlantic,</i>, was enlightening; the women who might seek an abortion, in her view, were definitely children.
In our com-box discussion, I asked her what would happen to women, under the law she supported, who had an abortion. She didn’t know; it (the law) didn’t specify punishments for the woman.
Would the women who had abortions go to jail? I asked.
Of course not, she answered.
Would women be violating the law, I asked, and so open to legal consequence?
Yes, she said, but she had no notion what that consequence ought to be. Not murder charges, thought the abortion provider, presumably an adult, should face murder charges. This person claimed she’s been instrumental in getting this bill before the Mississippi legislature, but nobody ever discussed the consequences to women. This stunned me, and I realized that in her view, women are children, and not really responsible for what they do. They don’t know their own minds. It’s like when you get a new car, and then suddenly notice that model of car everywhere, and it became apparent that this view of women as children when it comes to children is everywhere, too.
Which brings me to the latest salvo over women’s bodies, and another obvious childlike assumption — the Planed parenthood video; because if only those women knew about the gore and horror.
Despite the gore and horrors discussed in the video, women are no strangers to the blood and gore of reproduction. We bleed every month. We bleed for months after giving birth. It’s gross. Even with modern feminine hygiene supplies keeping yourself clean and nice is a challenge. But more imortantly, this physicality is so demanding that it silenced women’s voices in history, we hear Aquinas, but not his mother or sister. And it’s that gore of being woman that kept us quiet; it’s our lived experiences, emptying the uterus is a messy process, gore abounds. Birth is bloody, difficult, dangerous, and takes a long, long time to recover from. The very physicality of menses, pregnancy, child birth and lactation all engage with gore and mess, it’s not unfamiliar, it’s what’s held us from participating.
There’s also the unfair judgment that, like Aquinas’s philosophy of women that lacks observation of actual women: thinks like the fact that late-term abortions, the gory abortions, are incredibly rare and almost always a tragedy, and the woman probably merits sympathy and understanding after a profound loss; these are not children ignoring the fact that they’re pregnant until the last minute. Most women have abortions in their first trimester and they do this after considering the circumstances of their lives and with the knowledge that the longer the pregnancy lasts, the more gore there will be. If you actually bother to talk to women who’ve had abortions, most made a highly rational decisions that astonishingly few regret.
I was pretty loud, in comment threads about the Planned Parenthood video, that I thought the debate treated women as children, which I angered KatherineMW, who scolded me not to put word’s in pro-lifer mouths; “I believe that, in general, a human life is of more worth than nine month’s of another human being’s time,” she said. Like it’s just nine months. And like there’s no end of irony in the notion that a woman is not adult enough to decide for her own body, but she’s adult enough to decide for her child; something she’s legally mandated to do; she has to give up her rights as a mother. This confusion results in a whole mess of treating women like children in our policy debates.
I grew up reading Phillip K. Dick novels. I worry about the impact of humans on Earth, about overpopulation and climate change and mass extinction and bee colony collapse. I want to save the whales and the polar bears because I believe their lives are every bit as sacred as mine. It’s my best guess that space aliens, if they’re out there, have quarantined humans as a potentially invasive species, and if the Earth were my garden, I’d probably be picking humans off like I pick potato bugs off my potato plants. I’m not convinced we’ve reached the Japanese beetle stage of things just yet; I hold out some hope that we have the capacity to use knowledge to restrain ourselves so that we can be good neighbors, good stewards. Recognizing women’s rights and their demonstrated responsibility is a moral imperative, a save-the-Earth imperative.*
So stop talking to women like they’re children. It’s a nasty habit. We may well grow to learn that it’s downright evil.
Photocredit: Gisaaldt Art https://www.flickr.com/photos/gislaadt/