Winter Quarter 2003
HSTAM 340: MEDIEVAL WOMEN
SAVERY HALL 239
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Aristotle discusses the difference between male and female and women most explicitly in The Generation of Animals: 716a5-23, 727a2-30, 727b31-33, 728b18-31, 765b8-20, 766a17-30, 783b29-784a12. His purpose was not to make a case for the existential subordination or inferiority of the female to the male—he and his readers took that for granted—but to provide a "scientific" explanation of this assumption. What follows are some short passages from this discussion.
As we said one can easily identify the causes of birth as the male and the female, the male as the cause of change and development, the female as the supplier of the material.
It is clear, then, that the female's role in birth is the material one, that this is to found in the menstrual emission and that the menstrual emission is an excretion.
The male and the female differ from each other in the possession of an ability and in the lack of an ability. The male is able to concoct, formulate and to ejaculate the sperm which contains the origin of the form [of the being to be born]-I do not mean here the material element out of which it is born resembling its parent but the initiating formative principle whether it acts within itself or within another. The female, on the other hand, is that which receives the seed but is unable to formulate or to ejaculate it.
Women do not grow bald because their nature is very similar to that of children in that neither of them has sperm nor is capable of ejaculation. Eunuchs, too, do not grow bald because of their transformation into the female and they either do not grow at all the hair which grows later except for pubic hair or they lose it if they already have it [at the time of their becoming eunuchs] Since women also don not have these hairs except for pubic hair, this deficiency [in eunuchs] is the result of the change from the male to the female.
Translated by Niall Mc Closkey © Niall Mc Closkey 1998
[On Spartan Women]
Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having no laws.
And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women.
But what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by women? The result is the same. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war, the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous. The evil showed itself in the Theban invasion, when, unlike the women other cities, they were utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.
This license of the Lacedaemonian women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected. For, during the wars of the Lacedaemonians, first against the Argives, and afterwards against the Arcadians and Messenians, the men were long away from home, and, on the return of peace, they gave themselves into the legislator's hand, already prepared by the discipline of a soldier's life (in which there are many elements of virtue), to receive his enactments. But, when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt.
These then are the causes of what then happened, and this defect in the constitution is clearly to be attributed to them. We are not, however, considering what is or is not to be excused, but what is right or wrong, and the disorder of the women, as I have already said, not only gives an air of indecorum to the constitution considered in itself, but tends in a measure to foster avarice.
Translated by Niall Mc Closkey
© Niall Mc Closkey 1998
Aristotle: Generation of Animals, edited and translated by A. L. Peck. London, 1953 (Loeb Classical Library) PA3611 .A73 1953
Aristotle. The Politics, edited with an English translation by H. Rackham. London, 1959, 1932. PA3611 .A82 1944. (The Loeb classical library)