Aquinas Enters the Gender Wars

Written by Cynthia Suffern

posted by Southern Evangelical Seminary

God’s design of human beings as male and female was a wonderful idea in many ways, but also a source of endless contention. Adam and Eve began the debate many centuries ago and it’s only gotten more heated since then. The idea of gender, about what it means to be male and female, is one of the hottest current cultural debates. Gender studies, popular for decades in American universities and the social theories taught in those classes have now taken hold in the wider American society in media, in political activism, in the public school curriculum, and even to Bill Nye, the Science Guy. How can we think clearly about the cultural sea change in beliefs about gender and what it means? We’ll look first at important terms in the gender debate and then think about the nature of men and women within an Aristotelian Thomistic view of reality.

Defining Sex and Gender

A beginning point in this discussion must be the use of gendered language. In English we often use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, especially when filling out forms, male or female. But gendered language includes many more terms now, including: biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The traditional definition of biological sex is the state of being either male or female, and is primarily based on reproductive function, anatomy, sex chromosomes, and hormones. Gender identity refers to how you experience yourself (or think of yourself) as male or female, including how masculine or feminine you feel. Gender expression means how you present yourself to others as an outward expression of your gender, including how you dress. And gender presentation is how the world sees you, male or female.

Typically gender is used in two primary ways: first in grammar, when referring to classes of nouns as male, female, or neuter; and second, having qualities of femininity or masculinity. In English grammar, male pronouns and the noun man, when used exclusively, refer to an adult human male, and also inclusively as a person or a human being of either sex. In Old English the principal sense of man was a human being, and the words wer and wif were used to refer specifically to a male person and a female person, respectively. Subsequently, man replaced wer as the normal term for a male person, but the older meaning of a human being also remained in use. So man in English refers both to universal concept of human being, or mankind, and also individuated human males.

The ambiguity of the term man is thus a source of confusion and making distinctions is a challenge. In the 1950’s Simone de Beauvoir, French writer and feminist, claimed in The Second Sex that, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” De Beauvoir’s description of women as the Other has been hugely influential in gender studies and feminist movements for decades. She asked what a woman is in contrast to a man, who never “begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex.” To her a man just thinks of himself as a person, or human being. Going further, De Beauvoir asserted, “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.” The feminist critique of gendered language in English, and other languages as well, insightfully reveals the ambiguity in man, homme, hombre, άνθρωπος, etc.

The second sense of gender has more broadly defined qualities of masculinity or femininity that find expression in a myriad of ways individually and culturally. Some university academics, such as Professor Julia T. Wood, UNC Chapel Hill, in her text, Gendered Lives (Wadsworth Publishing, pp. 20-21), teach that there is a fluidity in the concept of gender. Wood says

gender is neither innate nor necessarily stable. It is defined by society and expressed by individuals as they interact with others and media in their society. Further, gender changes over time. We are born male or female (sex), but we learn to act in masculine and/or feminine ways (gender). Gender varies across cultures, over time within a given culture, over the course of individuals’ life spans, and in relation to the other gender.

Dr. Wood rejects the idea that there are innate differences between men and women, preferring a nominalist approach of men and women as concrete particulars and rejecting innate distinctives within genders. She counsels her readers to not to “essentialize,” or think there is “some stable, distinct essence that is women and some stable, distinct essence that is men” since that might “reduce something or someone to certain characteristics that we assume are essential to its nature and present in every member of a category, such as men or women.” The essence of a person is the whatness of a person, his or her nature. Wood also rejects binary terminology, using only female or male, because she claims gender is not stable but is socially constructed and expressed in man more ways than two. Gender is expressed best as a wide spectrum of variations, from man, woman, gender queer, androgynous, bigendered, and nongendered, among many others. Wood’s rejects of any essential qualities of gender with complementary relationships and telos, because she says gender is learned as a social construct. According to Wood, society creates “the illusion that there are two and only two sexes, two and only two genders.” However variously gender is expressed within a culture, this rejection of two sexes seems to conflict with an intuitive sense of maleness and femaleness within humanity.


Essence: Humanity

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1992. How can we answer the claims by Justice Kennedy and Professor Wood that humans define their own concept of existence, including their gender?

An Aristotelian Thomistic view of gender begins with humans as a composite of form and matter which are known by human cognition. The human intellect knows the nature of a human through simple apprehension of a particular person, and judges that person as existing. When our minds see a person as a particular human being then our mind understands that particular someone has a universal nature which is timeless and is true for all human beings. Therefore, a man or woman when abstracted in our minds from his or her particular person as an individual exhibits, or has, an essence of humanity. He or she is not humanity, but has humanity as his or her essence. Humanity as such is neither particular to one individual nor universal. If humanity were universal then it could not exist in particular humans, and if it were particular, then it could not be shared by many individuals. Therefore, according to Aquinas, in Being and Essence (p. 48), human nature has being through our intellect “abstracted from all individuating factors,” and thus it has a uniform character with regard to all individual men outside the soul, being equally the likeness of all and leading to a knowledge of all insofar as they are men [and women].” According to Aquinas, the grounding for the common human essence, which each individual person possesses, exists first in the knowledge of the first cause, or God. Also the ground of our individuated nature is the ground of the universal humanity that exists in human cognition.  Aquinas said, “The universal intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God forms not only the male but also the female.”

Predicating about Human Essence and Gender

Since human nature exists in all men and women, how else can one talk about this essence? Aquinas claimed that essence can be considered two ways. First, the absolute essence of man’s being is as Aristotle called him, a “rational animal.” Secondly, an individual’s particular being can be refined by the accidents attributed to him which flow from his nature. Accidents are often contingent qualities of a person, such as hair color or height, which effect no change in one’s essence.

In Quaestiones Disputatae De Anima, 12.7, Aquinas classified three types or genera of accidents. First, Aquinas described a property or proper accident as characteristic that is caused by the principle of the species, such as risibility in man. The second and third types of accidents are caused by the principles of the individual and either have a permanent or impermanent cause in the subject. The accidents which have an impermanent cause are those such as the ability to speak, sit and walk, and are called “separable accidents.” Each of these properties seem vital to human functioning. However, if we think that the accident of walking is vital and a man loses his ability to walk, that does not actually diminish the fact that he is a human being. Thirdly, those accidents which are caused by the principle of the individual and have a permanent cause in their subject include masculine and feminine. And these he called “inseparable accidents.”

Nominalists such as Wood might claim that male and female are purely separable accidents, and not permanently adhering in a human being, but Aquinas showed that these inseparable accidents, such as male and female, must continue to be caused in the person for him to remain what he is, both generically and individually. Barry Brown, in Accidental Being (University Press of America, p. 92) explains, “The subject cannot be without its proper accidents and remain the same kind of thing; it cannot be without its inseparable individual accidents and remain the same individual.” For example, a woman’s female sex separates her generically from male humans. And a woman’s other accidents, whether proper, inseparable, or separable, distinguish her from the other members of the female population. And the cause of these inseparable accidents persists in sustaining its effect on the subject’s being. Therefore, Aqunias said that these inseparable accidents such as gender have a “permanent cause in their subject,” by which he means it endures or persists in its actual causation. So human beings are created with an inseparable accident of being male or female in their nature and they are continually caused to be that kind of individual.


So if we come back to de Beauvoir’s question about who is woman, we must carefully distinguish whether the context arises from generations of grammatical usage or from the metaphysical grounding for those conventions. Aristotle and Aquinas saw that the male and female sexes arise from necessity and the first efficient cause, and exist for a final cause. If one looks beyond Aristotle’s parochial views of women, his views on the principles of human essence and composition can be helpful in a modern context.

Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotelian ontology with Biblical theology produced a unity within male and female as inseparable accidents. The resulting permanent cause of these inseparable accidents sustain and continually cause the person to be who he or she is. Therefore, the nominalist view, which places gender solely within the realm of particular individuals who can be defined in a myriad of ways through linguistic discourse and gender fluidity, is at odds Aquinas’ metaphysical grounding for gender. But to those who embrace Aquinas’ explanation of the unity and necessity of human nature within male and female will be able to see how the nature of each individual is not just functional but “ordered to the temporal and spiritual progress of the human species toward its end.” As Jacques Maritain suggested, the form of the human soul individuated by matter into two genders at the moment of creation is crucial to understanding humanity and fulfilling God’s purposes both in this life and in the life to come as men and women (Untrammeled Approaches, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997, p.159).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Southern Evangelical Seminary.

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