Patristic Views on
Gender and Women

Patristic History and Thought

December 6, 2000

Women, gender, and the roles given or expected to play, have been of great debate throughout human history. In the last century, western society has undergone a dramatic shift in their understanding(s) of women. Women now have the vote, property rights and other important legal protections. Besides these legal guarantees, social attitudes and norms of the feminine have also changed. A women’s place is no longer “barefoot and pregnant” and kept to the kitchen. Rather, women have taken on prominent roles in government, the marketplace and religious institutions. Granted, they are still underrepresented in these roles but the progress is startling considering the historical disadvantages afforded them.

The patristic period is astonishing for its extreme ambivalence towards gender and women’s issues. They were greatly impressed with women martyrs and virgins, while equally disparaging of women because of their supposed historical role in causing the fall of humanity, as evidenced by Eve in the Genesis account. The Fathers of the church were hardly a monolithic voice. They often spoke against one another. The subject of women also displays this pluralism of views, with differing fathers offering differing analyses. However, the fathers did display a general patriarchal stance. As well, their intellectual views seem at times to be in contrast with their actual practice and the practice of some Christian communities. While the fathers were one voice during the patristic era, there are others as well. These include some apocryphal accounts and the ascetic tradition. Through using these differing resources, it is the hope to come to a fuller recognition of women, both theologically and socially in the early beginnings of the Christian tradition(s).

It is important to any discussion of the church Fathers, to realize the cultural and philosophical synthesis of their thought. The church Fathers were attempting to reconcile their Greco-Roman heritage with the Jewish origins of Christianity. Therefore, we have two streams of thought, merging into one. This synthesis presents problems of consistency and interpretation of patristic writings and practices. It is often difficult to ascertain and deconstruct a writer’s views, because of the jumble of differing influences. The church Fathers’ exhibit this jumbling of synthesized worldviews. Their views on women and gender are of no difference, taking into account both their Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions.

The Jewish tradition presents a predominantly paternalistic notion of women. While the prophets continually speak of social justice for the widow and orphan,[1] the majority of the OT[2] canon presents women in subjection to men. The prophets do not even necessarily contradict this viewpoint but point to the need to protect financially oppressed women. Perhaps the strongest portions of texts that praise the virtues of femininity are those of Proverbs. In Proverbs, we find wisdom personified in female form. Gail Streete comments on this as such:

Judaism, the religious tradition from which Christianity first emerged and drew most heavily, possessed a female personification of the divine that blended ancient Near Eastern wisdom traditions, like collections of sayings of the wise, with Greek philosophical speculation.[3]

Streete’s analysis points to the impetus of understanding the Jewish wisdom literature which undoubtedly influenced early patristic writers and thinkers. The poet states in Prov. 1:20-21:

Wisdom calls aloud in the street,

she raises her voice in the public squares;

at the head of the noisy streets she cries out,

in the gateways of the city she makes her speech.[4]

The feminine wisdom (Sophia) here is represented in an almost prophetic and declaritive fashion. However, wisdom’s nature is also contemplative and philosophical. This verse would seem to join the two, by showing the direct prophetic tone of Sophia, raising her “voice” and crying “out.” The feminine here seems to show a holism that is often missing in liberal fragmentation and thought.

The feminine also seemed to represent apostasy and foolishness, represented in the form of a prostitute or adulteress. In Proverbs 4:5-9 we also have the personification of feminine wisdom, but in the adjoining chapter, we see the opposite, foolishness as being attributed to the adulteress. In Proverbs 5:3-6 we read:

For the lips of an adulteress drip honey,

And her speech is smoother than oil;

But in the end she is bitter as gall,

Sharp as a double-edged sword.

Her feet go down