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The Construction of Women's Difference in the Christian Theological Tradition

The Construction of Women's Difference in the Christian Theological Tradition

Elisabeth Gössmann.
Consilium, 1991, vol.6. The Special Nature of Women? Ed. Anne Carr & E.Schüssler-Fiorenza .

The construction of gender difference in the Christian tradition is connected with the reception of the philosophical systems of Platonisrn, Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism, which were read into the Bible. Though these interpretative syntheses made up of the Bible and Greek philosophy may have had exercised different kinds of influence in particular instances, they were in agreement over the claim that the man was the principal and that the humanity of the woman was derived. To claim that the man was the principal meant that he was the beginning and had a vocation to rule. This presupposition was not questioned either by the church fathers or by most of the representatives of mediaeval Scholasticism. The construct 'woman' was essentially explained as a negation or a reduction of the construct 'man'. Although there are counter-traditions which deviate from this andronormative picture of human beings, right down to modern times (and in both confessions) the main tradition of official theology has proved to be the dominant influence in history because time and again it has been endorsed by the church. The counter-traditions, whether grounded in the plurality of theological schools or conveyed by female mystics or poets, have been put to one side.

Because the same biblical text has continually been interpreted down the centuries, the andronormativeness of the picture of human beings has transcended the bounds of particular periods. Here, apart from some glances back to the patristic period, I shall confine myself to the Middle Ages, with an occasional look forward to the early modern period.

1. Adam, first to be created, the perfect image of God, and the defects of woman. Counter-tradition: Eve, God's masterpiece

Hannah Arendt remarks that action is the only activity of the active life which takes place directly between human beings without the mediation of matter, material and things. The basic condition for action is plurality, 'the fact that not one human being but many human beings live on earth'. According to her, this basic condition becomes clear in the human beings of Genesis 1, created male and female, in the plural. She criticizes the account of the creation in Gen. 2 as follows: 'Here the plural is not original to human beings, but human multiplicity is explained from multiplication. Any idea of human beings, of whatever form, understands human plurality as the result of an infinitely variable reproduction of a primal model.'(1) This applies particularly to the Christian tradition.

The Christian tradition, neglecting the first chapter of Genesis, the significance of which as an independent source (P) it did not yet recognize, concentrated on Genesis 2 (J): all human beings, including women, derive from Adam as the primal model. True, the fact that in Genesis I both sexes are in the image of God is not completely suppressed, but in the case of the female sex there are considerably qualifications. According to William of Auxerre (at the beginning of the high scholastic period): 1. the man is directly created in the image of God, but the woman is created only indirectly, through the man (mediante viro); 2. the man has a clearer intellect and the woman must be subject to him in accordance with the natural order; 3. all human beings, including women, are to be derived from the one human being, just as all that is created comes from the one God.(2) This results in the following defect, as far as woman is concerned: she is not the image of God directly, but only through the man - here there was a concern to do justice to I Corinthians 11.7. She is subordinate to the male 'by nature', which makes her dissimilar to God and puts her on the side of creation, since she cannot portray God as Creator in his creativity. So what remains of her imago Dei? Scholasticism says that she is not inferior to man in portraying the Trinity through the triad of spiritual powers which Augustine identified (e.g. memory, insight, will). This is not insignificant, since faith and grace begin here and the equality of woman is grounded in redemption. But the consequence of the woman's defect is that she is not called to rule, though this is contrary to Gen. 1 .26-28, the charge over creation given to both sexes. Where that is felt to be a contradiction, it is said that the woman forfeited this calling through her role as a seducer in Gen. 3.(3)

The counter-tradition of women, which can be traced continuously at least from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, (4) discovers 'Eve', the last to be created, as the most perfect creature, the radiant image of God and the trace of the divine wisdom. Hildegard of Bingen confirms the male's privilege of physical strength because of his creation from the soil, but accords the woman the privilege of greater skilfulness, subtlety and agility because she is created from human corporeality.(5) Eve's bodily pre-eminence is used apologetically in the women's tradition against the scholastic argument that while the soul is sexless, it can develop its powers better in a male body than in a female body. Women leave aside in eloquent silence the scholastic restrictions on the image of God in women, and stress the image of God in human beings in an egalitarian way, seeking to oppose its distortions. An objection to the denial of similarity to Christ to women is expressed in the saying of Christ that Gertrude the Great receives in a vision: 'As I am the image of God the Father in the Godhead, so you will be the image of my being for humankind.'(6) What the women's tradition reclaimed was the image of God in women, not just as human beings (which was the restriction which Scheeben was still putting on it), but as women. In Marie de Jars de Gournay this is even associated with a disguised demand for ministry in the church;(7) there is also a sign here of the degree to which the concept of the image of God functioned as a forerunner to that of human rights and in this social significance was known to both women and men.

2. Sinful Eve. Counter-tradition: Eve, deceived or indeed innocent

Because (for Catholics at any rate) the interpretation of Genesis 2 which is hostile to women already begins within the Bible, in Sirach 25.24, and is continued in I Timothy 2.i3f.,(8) it was almost inevitable for the Christian tradition to project sin and death on to women, a process that also happens in other religions. Granted, church fathers and scholastic theologians attempted to maintain a formal equality of original sin in man and woman by putting more of the burden of original sin on the man in some instances and on the woman in others; however, as the history of the idea demonstrates, it was far more significant that the woman was made primarily responsible for the sin of wanting to be like God. Augustine dismissed the sin of Adam de facto as a trivial failing, seeing Adam as having indeed been sinful in disobedience, but making him an accomplice of Eve, who had already incurred guilt, out of sympathy with her, so that she would not be the only one to be lost. In the twelfth century Peter Lombard, on whom all would-be theologians had to comment, speaks of the (cancerous) sore of arrogance in Eve's breast.(9) In the scholastic view, the woman's sin was also made more serious in that she sinned not only against God and against herself, as the man did, but in addition also against her neighbour, by leading him astray into sin.(10)

The identification of the female sex down the centuries with 'Eve, the seductress' provoked a particularly sensitive defence. Whereas Hildegard of Bingen portrayed the first woman as being more deceived by the serpent than sinning and refers to the tumour of pride in the male breast," and Mechthild of Magdeburg stresses the equality of the sin of man and woman, Christine de Pizan begins to acquit Eve. We also sometimes find such an approach among males, but usually in an ambivalent way, as in Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, in whose work the 'bad Eve' and the 'good Eve' are simply put side by side. However, with women the defence of their own sex in the world in which they live is the motive for the acquittal of Eve, in order to tackle the evil of discrimination at the roots:

Finally, I must look at the most frivolous arguments of some men. For the most part they argue that Eve was the cause of Adam's sin and consequently of our fall and our misery. My reply is that Eve in no way led Adam to sin, but I believe that she rather simply suggested that he should eat of the forbidden fruit . . . But she did not know that to eat of it was sin, any more than she knew that the serpent . . . was the devil (Lucretia Marinella, 1600).(12)

On the basis of the particular character of Renaissance Platonism, Marinella even succeeded in incorporating the physical and psychological advantages of her own sex into the step-by-step ascent above the beautiful to the divine One, and thus in assigning to the woman the function of being the man's mediator. So this was the opposite of seduction to a 'descent'.

3. The active man and the passive woman. Counter-tradition: the co-operation of the sexes

The claim in Augustine and in Scholasticism that the male intellect has greater clarity is based on biological views from antiquity, derived from natural philosophy and historically obsolete, above all the theory of elements and humours. In the twelfth-century school of Chartres, which was influenced by Platonism, we read that in creating woman God did not mix the elements as well as he did when creating man.(13) The superior elements of the cosmos (fire and air) are identified as 'masculine' and the inferior elements (water and earth) as 'feminine'. From this there results the heat and dryness of the man, which effects a mixture of temperaments more favourable to intellectual development (hence his clearer intellect); the moistness and coldness of the women is the cause of the less favourable mixture of temperaments and consequently of her intellectual weakness. But the activity of the man and the passivity of the woman are also explained in this way: this is a doctrine which becomes increasingly influential, the more Aristotle is accepted without reservations. As a result, with few exceptions, for theologians in the tradition too there is a philosophical explanation for the 'biblical' hierarchy of the sexes, male and female. The harmony of 'Bible' and 'philosophy' proved attractive, and there was no recognition that this was a circular argument.

However, it was not accepted without objections. So already in the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen developed a cosmic anthropology which broke up the hierarchy of the sexes by pointing to the prominence of the median elements, air and water, in the body of the woman, and of the extreme elements, fire and earth, in the body of the man. (14) Consequently the characteristics of the sexes develop in a polar way; their activities complement each other and each comes to the help of the other. There is an addition to Paul's saying that Eve was created for Adam: as he was created for her.(15) Even if this was long opposed by a legal order determined by androcentrism, here already there are indications of a more or less hidden infiltration of sexual hierarchy.

Strictly speaking, the Franciscan school also took this course, though a first inspection may prove deceptive. Aristotle, who did not understand anything of sacra scriptura (= the Bible and salvation history), was not an authority for the Franciscans in this sphere. We notice this at the latest in studying Franciscan Mariology, though at the same time Bonaventure's doctrine of creation also shows a certain proclivity towards a polar image of human beings.(16) The man receives benefits from the woman as she does from him, though the latter is rated higher in the context of the sexual hierarchy of male and female. As the Franciscans did not follow Aristotle, but Hippocrates and Galen, in their biology and psychology of the sexes,(17) they assumed that there was an effective female seed;(18) here they come considerably nearer than the Aristotelian line to the discovery of the female ovum in the 1820s. Actively and passively there is reciprocity between the sexes, even if the activity of the male predominates. So the Franciscans were also interested in a conception of Mary that was free from original sin: like any woman, she too is active in her motherhood, and despite her virginal conception, which prevents the transference of original sin to her child, can nevertheless bequeath her Son a human nature which has been violated and weakened by the consequences of sin, which would disqualify him as redeemer.(18)

This also explains the lack of interest of Thomas Aquinas and his school in the immaculate conception of Mary. There is no question of her handing on any of the consequences of original sin to her son because of the passivity of the woman, to which she is no exception. By contrast, with its objection to the sheer passivity of the woman, the Franciscan tradition overcomes a defect in the female sex.

4. Woman, disadvantaged by the natural order, natural law and divine law. Counter-tradition: male usurpation

One question often raised in the tradition is whether monogamy is called for by natural law, since the father's of the faith in the Old Testament evidently did not live in that way. In order to exonerate the Old Testament patriarchs, the answer was that, depending on the requirements of individual periods of history, natural law required at one time that a man should increase his offspring with several wives, or could limit himself to the children of one wife. The latter was regarded as an irreversible rule for the time of the gospel. However, a wife's polyandry was from the beginning and always declared to be an offence against the order or the law of nature: as the Franciscan Summa Halensis put it, covering many schools and periods, this was because a woman could not be pregnant by several men at the same time, but several women could bear the children of one man at the same time (quia una non potest fecundari a pluribus, sed unus bene potest fecundare plures).(19)

It is illuminating that in the fiction of a woman's polyandry the hierarchy of the sexes is not reversed; the second reason given as to why such a state is contrary to nature is that for many men to be ruled by one woman would not further peace in the family.

Hugo Grotius still thinks just like the Scholastics on this point. Some authors identify marital authority grounded in natural law with that of an absolute ruler. However, Pufendorf limits the polygyny of the man which is possible by natural law by stressing that the marked increase in the number of the population throughout the world has really made it superfluous.

In 1669, Gisbert Voetius of the Reformed Academy at Utrecht held in his Politica Ecclesiastica that the greater dignity of man than that of woman was inscribed in the heart of all human beings by the natural law which destines men to rule and women to obey. For him, too, the authority of the father of the house is by divine and natural law. Thomas Aquinas had once, in a Neoplatonic-sounding sentence, described man in his character of ultimate principle within the world and the image of the creator God as origin and goal of woman;(20) Voetius does the same thing, but without citing him. The total withdrawal of the woman behind the man can hardly be expressed more clearly.(21) Of course there was also resistance to this during the transition to the early modern period, when natural-law thinking moved from the sphere of moral theology to that of law. Here we should think not so much of the party with a positive attitude in the struggle for gynaecocracy, since it required women who succeeded to the throne in hereditary monarchies because of the lack of male offspring to give up the feminine ethic of obedient subjection and adopt the male ethic, i.e. as it were undergo a mental change of sex.(22) It is more important to remember the attempt of highborn wives like Marguérite of Navarre, who like many other women, especially in France, wrote an apologia for her own sex. In it she cites the privileged creation of Eve as God's masterpiece as the reason for the political skill of women and roundly declares that the whole of male rule is usurpation.(23) For her the subordination of the woman is the consequence of a male transgression of the law which was noted only by God (Gen. 3.16).

5. Women are to become male. Counter-tradition: We shall encounter Christ in the completeness of our sex (Hildegard of Bingen)

There is a well-known passage in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas in which Peter seeks to send Mary Magdalene away from the group of disciples on the grounds that women are not worthy of life. The Jesus of this text replies that he will guide her so that she makes herself masculine, so that she becomes a living spirit and thus can enter the kingdom of heaven.(24) It is also well-known that church fathers like Ambrose and Jerome make similar statements: the wife who still serves husband and children and has not yet arrived at full knowledge of faith is called 'woman', but the one who abstains from procreation or is advanced in the faith is called 'man'.(25) Women are enjoined to give up the fleshly and to become spiritual, this being understood as a symbolic (or real?) change of sex, or the possibility is held open for them; here Christianity is by no means alone, but precisely at this point shows parallels with Buddhism (mediated through Gnosticism?).(26)

From the male side, the perfection of a feminine being can be thought of only as 'elevation' and assimilation to the male sex, as a reduction to the one, authentic humanity with a male stamp. So the offer of equality,(27) gladly accepted by those women of Christian antiquity who with male hair-styles and clothing lived as eunuchs in the wilderness or as virgins with their families, was 'Become like us!' In the situation of the time no hostility to women was intended, but the invitation allowed two quite different interpretations: first, the sublation of the feminine (as the imperfect) into the masculine-perfect (as the first and the last); and secondly, the abolition of sexuality altogether, including male sexuality, as a liberation conceived of in Neoplatonic terms. Scotus Eriugena is to be understood in this sense.(28) But the eschatological character of the ascetical movement of late antiquity points to a Utopia of sexless human beings.

This is the point at which Augustine tried to direct thought in another direction. Although in his work in particular the positive-negative symbolism of the male and female is presented very strongly where it affects earthly life, Augustine guards against giving up the otherness of the woman as something which would not be worth preserving for the world to come. He resolutely rejects a resurrection of all women as males. As transfigured corporeality has left behind it libido and vitium, i.e. its weakness conditioned by sin, no conflicts can arise any longer through the female form of humanity, so that Augustine can recognize it in its creaturely beauty: 'To be a woman is no vice, but is natural.'(29) This had to be said at all because of the mood of the culture of late antiquity into which Christianity was born, and to which it had assimilated itself in its interpretation of the Bible.

With his doctrine of the preservation of womanhood in the eschaton, Augustine gave the Middle Ages a good dowry. This gift also proved useful in the fight against dualistic sects which still spoke of women (eschatologically) becoming men. Mediaeval women who write and who stress their womanhood as virgines though also showing signs of solidarity with the matres - leave the symbols of becoming male behind them and combine their theme of feminine modesty, with which they introduce their works, with a strong consciousness of election.

I hope that it has become clear from this much abbreviated account that despite the tenacity of the androcentric, patriarchal tradition, some modifications were possible to its construct 'woman'. For want of relevant research we cannot determine clearly to what extent counter-traditions were the occasion for this. However, the fact that the counter-traditions had to struggle for centuries in attempts to refute the same prejudices against the female sex indicates their lack of success.

If the impression has arisen that the doctrines of the counter-traditions were mere reversals, i.e. over-valuations of feminine humanity which had been previously been undervalued, the answer must be that this is not the case. For the counter-traditions are concerned with a 'negation of negation'.(30) The construct of a femininity which has not attained complete humanity, defined in andronormative terms, is rejected: the starting point is that of the originality of woman's being and an attempt to describe this not as derived, but as independent humanity. Meditating on texts like this can help present-day women and men to get past thinking in terms of a single principle and develop that dual (not dualistic nor even just polar) model of humankind which we still lack.

Translated by John Bowden


1. Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben, Stuttgart 1960, 15f.

2. William of Auxerre, Summa Aurea, ed. Pigouchet (Paris 1500), Frankfurt am Main 1964, fol. 58v.

3. Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women, Cambridge 1980.

4. Cf. my article 'Eva, Gottebenbildlichkeit und Spiritualität', in Wörterbuch der Feministischen Theologie, Gütersloh 1991.

5. Elisabeth Gössmann, 'Ipsa enim quasi domus sapientiae. Zur frauenbezogenen Spiritualität Hildegards von Bingen', in Margot Schmidt and Dieter R. Bauer (eds.), 'Eine Höhe über die nichts geht.' Spezielle Glaubenserfahrung in der Frauenmystik?, Stuttgart and Bad Cannstadt 1986, 1-18, esp. 9-11.

6. Gertrude the Great, Legatus divinae pietatis, translated by Johanna Lanczkowski, Heidelberg 1989, 25.

7. There is an introduction to Marie de Jars de Gournay in Elisabeth Gössmann (ed.), Archiv für philosophie- und theologiegeschichtliche Frauenforschung, Vol. 1, Munich 1984, Ch. 1, cf. esp. 28f.

8. Cf. Helen Schiüngel-Straumann, Die Frau am Anfang. Eva und die Folgen, Freiburg 1989.

9. For Augustine and Peter Lombard see the relevant chapters in Monika Leisch-Kiesl, Eva in Kunst und Theologie des Frühchristentums und Mittelalters. Zur Bedeutung 'Evas' für die Anthropologie der Frau, Theological Dissertation, Salzburg 1990.

10. For this theme see also the chapter, 'Der Mensch als Mann und Frau', in my Habilitation thesis, Metaphysik und Heilsgeschichte. Eine theologische Untersuchung der Summa Halensis, Munich 1964, 215-29, and my 'Anthropologie und soziale Stellung der Frau nach Summen und Sentenzenkommentaren des 13. Jahrhunderts', Miscellanea Mediaevalia 12.1, Berlin 1979, 281-97.

11. Cf. Barbara Newman, O feminea forma. God and Woman in the Works of St Hildegard, PhD dissertation, Yale University 1981.

12. There is an introduction to Lucretia Marinella in Elisabeth Gössman (ed.), Archiv für Philosophic- und theologiegeschichtliche Frauenforschung 2, Munich 1985, Chapter 1; the quotation is on p. 41. For Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, cf. Vol. 5 of the same archive (Munich 1988), introductions and text.

13. Cf. Hans Liebeschütz, Kosmologische Motive in der Frühscholastik. Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1923-24, ed. F. Saxl, Leipzig and Berlin 1926, esp.128.

14. Cf. Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman. The Aristotelian Revolution, Montreal and London 1985; id., 'Two Medieval Views on Woman's Identity: Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Aquinas', Studies in Religion. A Canadian Journal 16,1987,21-36.

15. Scivias I.2, Migne, PL 197, 393; CCM 43, 21

16. Cf. my attempt to investigate the connection between system and the image of woman among the Franciscans in Theodor Schneider (ed.), Mann und Frau -Grundproblem theologischer Anthropologie, Freiburg 1989, 44-52.

17. Cf. Emma Therese Healy, Woman according to St Bonaventure, Erie, Pennsylvania 1965, 11f. Albertus Magnus also assumed that the seed in woman was inactive. Cf. Paul Hossfeld, 'Albertus Magnus über die Frau', Trierer Theologische Zeitschrift 91, 1982, 221-40.

18. Cf. Elisabeth Gössmann and Dieter R. Bauer (eds.), Maria für alle Frauen oder über allen Frauen?, Freiburg 1989, p 63-85.

19. Summa Fratris Alexandri, Tom. IV L.III, Quaracchi 1948, nos. 253-5.

20. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia I q 93 a. 4 ad 1; 'Nam vir est principium mulieris et finis, sicut Deus est principium et finis totius creaturae.'

21. Politicae Ecclesiasticae Pars II, Amsterdam 1669, Liber 1 Tr. 4, De mulieribus, p. 186: 'Vir est origo et principium ex quo mulier, et est finis propter quem producta est mulier'.

2.2. Cf. Maclean, Renaissance Notion (n.3), 62f.

23. For Marguérite of Navarre, cf.Archiv (n.7), 13f.

24. For the Gospel of Thomas and its cultural environment see Peter Brown, The Body and Society. Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, New York and London 1988, esp. 113, with further literature.

25. A long time ago attention was already drawn to these texts and connections by Haye van der Meer, Priestertum der Frau? Eine theologiegeschichtliche Untersuchung, Freiburg 1969. For Jerome and Ambrose see 97f.

26. Cf. Elisabeth Gössmann, 'Haruko Okano, Himmel ohne Frauen? Zur Eschatologie des weiblichen Menschseins in östlicher und westlicher Religion', in Das Gold im Wachs, Festschrift für Thomas Immoos, ed. E. Gössmann and G. Zobel, Munich 1988, 397-426.

27. Cf. Ruth Albrecht, Das Leben des hl.Makrina auf dem Hintergrund der Thekla-Traditionen, Göttingen 1986; Kari Vogt, 'Becoming Male. One Aspect of an Early Christian Anthropology', Concilium 182, 1985, 72-83.

28. For Scotus Eriugena cf. the works by Werner Beierwaltes, esp. Denken des Einen. Studien zur neuplatonoschen Philosophic und ihrer Wirkungsgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main 1985.

29. Non est autem vitium sexus femineus, sed natura', De civitate Dei 22.17,18.

30. The formula comes from Katharina Fietze, Spiegel der Vernunft. Theorien zum Menschsein der Frau in der Anthropologie des 15. Jahrhunderts, Munich philosophical dissertation 1990 (planned publication Paderborn 1991).

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