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The Less Noble Sex

Scientific, Religious and Philosphical Conceptions of Woman’s Nature

by Nancy Tuana, University of Oregan.

Publ. Indiana University Press, 1993. (Reprinted here with the necessary permissions)


Aristotle proclaimed woman to be a misbegotten man. Insisting that the true form of all beings is the male, he concluded that when an organism develops fully, without impediment, it always becomes the male of the species. The female re­sults from some defect, some imperfection in the developmental process. Believ­ing male biological superiority to be a scientific fact, Aristotle documented empirical proof of woman’s inferiority and constructed a systematic theory of de­velopment to explain it.

This book traces a centuries-old tradition within Western intellectual thought that views woman as inferior to man. Aristotle’s conception of the misbegotten man held sway in science, philosophy, and theology at least until the nineteenth century. (1) Woman was not thought to have traits and characteristics unique to the female of the species; rather, she was depicted as an underdeveloped male, dif­ferent not in kind but in degree from man. Woman’s difference was defined in terms of lack: she was less rational, less moral, less evolved.

Along with documenting the pervasive presence of woman as misbegotten man within the Western intellectual tradition, this book considers a second theme— the interrelations of scientific, philosophical, and theological conceptions of wom­an’s nature. To uncover the source of Aristotle’s belief in the superiority of the male form, we must turn from science to cosmology, to Hesiod’s Theogony, the primary creation epic of classical Greece. (2) According to Hesiod, the first gener­ations of humans were male. Only later, and as a punishment to man, was the first woman, Pandora, created. Plato’s philosophy similarly involved the belief that humans were originally created as men, and those men who did not live a good life were reincarnated as women.

Woman thus became a secondary being, less perfect than and created after man. Religious and philosophical conceptions of woman’s nature both influenced and were affected by scientific theories of woman’s nature. This book illustrates and documents these interrelations.

Philosophers, historians, and sociologists generally accept the view that sci­ence is a social institution, and as such is influenced by the cultural, political, and economic conditions under which it is practiced. Feminists have expanded upon this view by positing that science is “gendered,” that sexist biases permeate the entire structure of science. (3) Helen Longino and Ruth Doell, for example, have argued that scientists’ questions, interpretation of data, experimental design, and theory construction often reveal their assumption of “the inferiority of women, the legitimacy of their subordination, or the legitimacy of sex-based pre­scriptions of social roles and behaviors.”  (4)  

 This text provides evidence for the view that the practice of science has been infused with sexist beliefs. Lynn Hankinson Nelson states that “science is permeated with metaphysics and metaphysics is part of science. (5)  The focus here is on the ways in which scientists’ metaphysical inheritance from religious and philosophical systems influenced their empirical investigations on woman’s nature. But the influence is not unidirectional. Scientific theories convey meta­physical commitments that affect social and political attitudes and policy. As Donna Haraway points out, “the biosocial sciences have not simply been sex­ist mirrors of our own social world. They have also been tools in the reproduc­tion of that world, both in supplying legitimating ideologies and in enhancing material power(6) This text also investigates the ways in which scientific concep­tions of woman’s nature have reinforced and perpetuated religious and philosoph­ical attitudes.

However, the gender system in science goes even deeper, affecting the very conceptions of science. As Evelyn Fox Keller explained in her Reflections on Gen­der and Science, “the most immediate issue for a feminist perspective on the nat­ural sciences is the deeply rooted popular mythology that casts objectivity, reason, and mind as male, and subjectivity, feeling, and nature as female. In this division of emotional and intellectual labor, women have been the guarantors and protectors of the personal, the emotional, the particular, whereas science—the province par excellence of the impersonal, the rational, and the general—has been the preserve of men. (7)  By documenting the historical foundations of the as­sociation of certain traits—in particular, reason, objectivity, and morality—as characteristics that are more fully developed in men than in women, this book’s analysis lends support to claims that the gender system affects our very concep­tions of science.

I document the impact of metaphysical conceptions of woman’s nature on sci­ence in order to clarify the ways in which certain values shape the development of scientific theories. I am not, however, claiming that science containing such values is thereby bad science. Bad science is not so simply because it is influ­enced by assumptions concerning woman’s nature. My position is rather that val­ues are an integral part of knowing, and cannot be purged from science. (8) Given this, I agree with Sandra Harding that a coherent notion of objectivity, what she calls “strong objectivity,” must “include systematic examination of such powerful background beliefs.”  (9) My goal in examining the history of sexist biases within sci­ence is to begin this process of revealing the values underlying certain scientific programs. This process, I believe, provides the foundation for encouraging good science, which, in the words of Nelson, “must incorporate the taking of respon­sibility for the directions and use of knowledge developed and certified in scien­tific communities, and self-conscious and critical attention to the values incorporated in scientific theorizing.”   (10)

This book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, looking at five major beliefs about woman’s nature generally accepted by Western philosophers, theologians, and scientists from the classical period to the nineteenth century.   (11) These are that:

     woman is less perfect than man

     woman possesses inferior rational capacities

     woman has a defective moral sense

    man is the primary creative force

    woman is in need of control.

Section one examines the claim that woman is less perfect than man, the premise from which all other beliefs about woman evolve. The creation myths of religion and the hierarchical ordering of existence in the science of biology com­prise the two primary sources in Western intellectual thought for the belief in woman’s lack of perfection.

The second section of the book is devoted to specific imperfections attributed to woman through the centuries by philosophers, theologians, and scientists. I first attend to the metaphysical belief that woman is less divine than man, tracing the ways in which this conviction contributed to the view that woman’s rational capacities are inferior. I then examine theories concerning woman’s moral capac­ities, and end the section with an investigation of the perception that woman is more prone to mental illness than man.

Both sections one and two document a recurring theme in scientific, religious, and philosophical conceptions of woman’s nature: that woman is less developed, less moral, less capable of rational thought, and less divine than man because of her role in reproduction. One would then expect that in the realm of procreation, woman would be seen as man’s equal, if not his superior. However, section three chronicles a systematic deprecation of the female creative force in both religious cosmogonies and scientific theories of reproduction; these beliefs present the male creative force as more potent than that of the female.

I end the book with an overview of the impact of such beliefs. Theorists in­terpreted woman’s inferior moral and rational capacities as precluding her ability to govern herself or society wisely; the conclusion was that a woman must always be under a man’s control. Scientists and philosophers employed theories of wom­an’s nature to limit her sphere to the private realm, where woman’s desires and passions could be properly controlled by her husband and directed toward family welfare. Woman’s exclusion from the public realm of government was justified as the inevitable result of biology.

This book reveals a set of beliefs about the nature of woman that have in­formed, and in turn have been reinforced by, science, religion, and philosophy from the classical period to the nineteenth century. The conception of woman as a misbegotten man is fundamental to the Western worldview. The belief that woman is less than man—less perfect, less evolved, less divine, less rational, less moral, less healthy—is more than simple bias, easily amenable to revision. It is part of our inherited metaphysics.

For us today, it is crucial to recognize this cluster of beliefs about woman’s nature and perceive how they permeate not only our science and philosophy, but also our social, political, and cultural institutions. Although in this book I chose not to continue my analysis into the twentieth century, such beliefs are still part of Western thought. We have only to look at feminist critiques of contemporary science, religion, and philosophy to see the persistence of these views. (12) Centu­ries of theories and practices have defined and delimited what it is to be female.

We are told that women are emotional and not analytic, mothers and not rulers, intuitive and not rational, passive and not active. Only by becoming aware of the full natures of these theories and their related practices can women and men be­gin to examine them critically and be open to alternative conceptions.

My approach conceals as well as reveals. In surveying such a wide sweep of time, I lose certain particulars. For example, I cannot devote an entire chapter to the evolution of one concept, or offer a systematic rendition of any individual’s philosophical system, scientific theory, or theological perspective. My texts are representative, not exhaustive. In choosing to emphasize continuities, I have minimized differences. Also, I have omitted those voices that are not part of the mainstream of tradition, especially those who, although a minority, had the cour­age to attack the tradition itself. Nor could I detail the ways in which metaphysical conceptions of woman’s nature influenced and were affected by the various so­cial, economic, and cultural institutions and practices of different cultures or time periods. Thus, the text provides a viewpoint that will be enhanced by combining it with others addressing these additional perspectives.

No one text can weave together the manifold variety of elements that have influenced Western conceptions of woman’s nature. Still, my discussion provides the reader with a general perspective from which to understand some of the most pervasive (and pernicious) themes. Our worldview, the basic assumptions we make about the nature of the world, are reflected in as well as constructed out of our religious, philosophical, and scientific frameworks. An awareness of the con­ceptions of woman’s nature that have been both justified and perpetuated by these disciplines gives insight into the foundations of Western attitudes. This aware­ness also clarifies the sources of many societal practices concerning women.

Although subtitled “Conceptions of Woman’s Nature,” this is a book about men. It tells of male desire as well as male fear. I have culled the voices of men in order to understand the oppression and silencing of women. It is my sincere wish that those reading this text will use it as a key to unraveling our present beliefs about woman’s character and abilities, and thereby reject all contempo­rary remnants of the conception of woman as misbegotten. Until we understand the ways in which this prejudice is woven into the very fabric of our thinking, our self-imaging, our lived experience, we run the risk of repeating it.



1.          I concur with Thomas Laqueur’s thesis that a one-sex model that “construed the male and female bodies as hierarchically, vertically, ordered versions of one sex” was the dominant discourse of science until the late eighteenth century (Making Sex, p. 10). Laqueur argues that by the nineteenth century a new model of radical dimorphism in which female and male bodies were perceived as opposites began to replace the one-sex model. I would suggest, as does Laqueur himself, that the one-sex model continued to have a significant influence on conceptions of female and male bodies well into the twentieth cen­tury. See, for example, his chapter on Freud.

2.          For a more detailed discussion of the sources of the Greek view of the male as the true form see Tuana, “Aristotle and the Politics of Reproduction.”

3.          See, for example, Haraway, Primate Visions; Harding, The Science Question in Science and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?; Keller, Reflections on Gender and Sci­ence; Longino, Science as Social Knowledge; Nelson, Who Knows; Tuana, Feminism and Science.

4.          Longino and Doell, “Body, Bias, and Behavior,” p. 182 n. 29.

5.          Nelson, Who Knows, p. 99.

6.          Haraway, “Animal Sociology,” part I, p. 25.

7.          Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, p. 7.

8.          For a further clarification of this distinction between good and bad science and a developed explanation of the ways in which values permeate the practice of science, see Longino, Science as Social Knowledge and Nelson, Who Knows.

9.          Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, p. 149.

10.       Nelson, Who Knows, p. 15.

11.       In my analysis I will focus on theorists’ claims concerning women as a group, and will not comment on the ways in which their positions might also have been affected by class or race biases. There were, indeed, many theorists who held that women of certain races or classes were even more lacking than women of what they perceived as privileged classes. Although I do not want to discount the importance of these additional prejudices, they did not result in different theoretical stances. Women of classes or races that were not perceived as privileged were not seen as possessing characteristics or traits different than those of other women. Rather, they were seen as being even more misbegotten, that is, more lacking in desirable traits, than those women who were perceived as privileged— a difference in degree, not in kind. For studies on the intersections of gender, race, and class in science, see Brace, “The Roots of the Race Concept in American Physical An­thropology”; Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies”; Gould, The Mismeasure of Man; Haller, Outcasts from Evolution; Hammonds, “Race, Sex, and AIDS”; Haraway, Primate Visions; and Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science.

12.       For feminist critiques of contemporary science, see: Bleier, Science and Gender; Fausto-Sterling, Myths and Gender; Haraway, Primate Visions; Harding and O’Barr, Sex and Scientific Inquiry; Keller, A Feeling for the Organism and Reflections on Gender and Science; and Longino, Science as Social Knowledge. For critiques of the practice of philos­ophy, see: Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity; Code et al., Feminist Perspectives; Griffiths and Whitford, Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy; and Harding, Feminism and Methodology. For critiques of theology see Christ and Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising; Hayter, The New Eve in Christ; Hageman, Sexist Religion and Women in the Church; and Ruether, Women-Church.