Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)
Aristotle's main thrust was to explain the nature of things from what they are seen to be. From the subject and low status of women he deduced their inferiority by nature.
The reason for women's inferiority lies in a defect. Women are defective by nature because they cannot reproduce semen which contains a full human being. When a man and a woman have intercourse, the man supplies the substance of a human being (the soul, i.e. the form), the woman only the nourishment (the matter).
Since it was a fundamental principle for him that, of the two factors or components in every being, form is superior to matter, sexual reproduction was considered beneficial, because it demanded that the one who gives the form (the male) be separate from the one who supplies the matter (the female). Thus the lower is not mingled with the higher in the same individual. Aristotle subscribed to what Caroline Whitbeck has called the flower pot theory of human generation. The female, since she is deficient in natural heat, is unable to cook her menstrual fluid to the point of refinement, at which it would become semen (i.e. seed). Therefore her only contribution to the embryo is its matter, and a field in which it can grow. Her inability to produce semen is her deficiency: a woman, Aristotle concludes, is as it were an infertile male (Generation of Animals, I, 728a).A male is male in virtue of a particular ability, and a female in virtue of a particular inability (Generation of Animals, I, 82f).
Caroline Whitbeck, Theories of Sex Difference, in Gould and Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy , New York 1976, pp. 54-80; M.Maloney, The Arguments for Women's Difference in Classical Philosophy and Early Christianity, pp. 41-49.
According to Aristotle, man rightly takes charge over woman, because he commands superior intelligence. This will also profit the women who depend on him. He compares this to the relationship between human beings and tame animals.
It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled. Aristotle, Politica, ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10-14.
What we should notice in Aristotles text is the phrase: by nature. Subordination is right because it corresponds to the way things have been made. Aristotle also reckons that slavery is natural because some people are by nature destined to be slaves.
That person is by nature a slave who can belong to another person and who only takes part in thinking by recognising it, but not by possessing it. Other living beings (animals) cannot recognise thinking; they just obey feelings. However, there is little difference between using slaves and using tame animals: both provide bodily help to do necessary things.
Aristotle then proceeds to describe a slaves position and it is truly terrifying. A slave is no more than a tool of his master. Together with the wife and the ox, a male or female slave is a householders indispensable beast of burden. He or she should be kept well for simple economic reasons. But slaves have no right to leisure or free time. They own nothing and can take no decisions. They have no part in enjoyment and happiness, and are not members of the community.
For the same reason Aristotle also justifies wars to capture new slaves. For some people are by nature destined to be ruled, even though they resist it; like wild animals that need to be tamed. He even says that all foreigners to some extent belong to this category.
That is why the poets say: It is correct that Greeks rule Barbarians; for by nature what is barbarian and what is slave are the same. Aristotle, Physica, vol. 1; Loeb Classical Library, 1252 b 8. See A.TH. van Leeuwen, The Nacht van het Kapitaal, Nijmegen 1984, pp. 182 - 205.
The prevailing tradition among Hellenists saw society, therefore, as layered in higher and lower forms of human being.
Women were inferior to men by nature.
Barbarians were inferior to the civilised races by nature.
Slaves were slaves because they were inferior by nature.
This, we can be sure, is how most people thought in the ancient Middle East. The same basic thought would dominate the Christian Middle Ages.
It is obvious that Christians who accepted the view that women are inferior by nature, could not envisage her in the leadership role demanded of bishops and priests.