The Female in Aristotle’s Biology: Reason or Rationalization
Aristotle's views on the ethical, social, and political roles of women have repeatedly drawn the attention of scholars. Often, the central focus of the discussion is Politics I.13, 1260 a13, where Aristotle says that although women have a deliberative faculty, it is akuron, "without authority." A charitable (from our point of view) interpretation of that word would have him mean that women are capable of ethical and political decision-making, but fourth-century BCE Athenian social arrangements prevent their exercising that capacity outside the home. However, many readers of Aristotle suppose that he means to indicate a natural difference between men and women, some mental or moral inferiority of women. A few passages in the Politics support that interpretation (e.g., Pol. I.2, 1254 b13, 12.1259 a40), but those do not provide a "scientific" or "biological" grounding of female inferiority. That sort of thing one would expect to find in the biological works. Mayhew's monograph is an exposition of the errors and exaggerations of some of those writers, from the usually careful Martha Nussbaum to the usually unreliable Luce Iragaray.
The least cautious critics of Aristotle's views on women typically fasten on his views on sexual generation; as Mayhew shows (ch. 3), such critics either claim that Aristotle believed that women contribute only a place for generation to occur, or that women contribute totally passive matter. Mayhew is able to demonstrate, rather easily, that either claim depends on total ignorance or total misunderstanding of the actual contents of the Generation of Animals. In Aristotle's opinion, the female provides proximate matter for the offspring, something that is almost able to develop into a new individual and needing only the impetus and form provided by the male contribution. Having started with the "form/matter" distinction, it is pretty obvious that the female provides the matter (a bird egg is all of the matter that goes to make the chick), and the male is necessary for reproduction to [End Page 109] occur, so it must be a source of movement (at least) and some element of form (since the offspring partially resembles its male parent) that comes from that source. (For older discussions of this issue, see my Science and Philosophy in Aristotle's Biological Works [Hildesheim, 1975], ch. 2, and J. Morsink, "Was Aristotle's Biology Sexist?" J. Hist. Biol.12 :83-112, neither noted by Mayhew). But what would be the ethical or political implications of that distinction? Aristotle says that it is "better" to provide form, but there's no straightforward way to conclude from that difference that a woman's deliberative faculty is less authoritative than a man's, any more than there is any straightforward way to argue from the fact that a woman might spend some time pregnant that a permanent pay differential is justified. And Aristotle does not try to make that sort of argument, as a matter of fact.
Mayhew deals with most of the other arguments that some have derived from the biological works to support their view that Aristotle's "science" is the foundation of his (supposed) sexism. For example, he points out that although Aristotle does call "kings" the bees that we call "queens," he also calls the analogue among wasps the "mothers" or "wombs"; Mayhew says that Aristotle seems to have thought that the king/queen bee was hermaphroditic and parthenogenetic. Mayhew also has an original and interesting chapter on Aristotle's comparisons between women and eunuchs; although he notes that Aristotle was friendly with at least one eunuch, Hermeias, the uncle of Aristotle's young wife, he leaves out Aristotle's poetic praise of Hermeias (see R. Renehan, in Greek, Roman, and Byz. Stud.23 : 251-74). Suppose women were "eunuchoid" according to Aristotle, it couldn't mean that they were consequently intellectually inferior, since at least one eunuch was, in Aristotle's opinion, intellectually superior.
Mayhew also discusses, adequately enough, the issues of brain size comparison (Aristotle did not think that the brain is the locus of thought, so its size has no clear relation to intellectual ability); differences in skull sutures; paleness of women; softer bones; and number of teeth. In an appendix to ch. 5, Mayhew discusses menstrual issues. He says that he is at a loss to explain the odd passage in On Dreams2 that says that menstruating women can color mirrors red by looking at them. It might help him a little if he looks at my article in Phronesis13 (1968): 176-82.
I have saved my comments on Mayhew's first chapter until last. He has some amusing comments on "ideology" that serve to introduce the theme, but in the course of those comments he manages to do two troubling things. The first is his repeated suggestion that female philosophers may have been unknown to Aristotle. Mayhew should know better. The evidence indicates that Pythagoras and his school accepted women as associates (Iamblichus VP, end). Diels-Kranz includes some fragments of some of these people. Plato probably accepted a woman or two as students in the academy (see M. Waithe, A History of Women Philosophers [Dordrecht, 1987], 197ff.); in that case Aristotle would have been directly associated with such a person. Arete, the daughter of Aristippus, was apparently head of the Cyrenaic school during Aristotle's lifetime (see Diogenes Laertius, Life of Aristippus). And it is just possible that Hipparchia began her relationship with Crates before Aristotle's death.
The second, closely related, is the actual assessment of the degree of Aristotle's sexism. Basically the only fair thing to do is to compare Aristotle's attitudes with those of his predecessors and contemporaries. Mayhew does not handle that comparison very well. In addition to the items noted in the previous paragraph, consider the fact that Plato credits Diotima (whether a real person or not does not matter) with instructing Socrates on the mysteries of love in the Symposium, and Aspasia with writing Pericles' Funeral Oration for him in the Menexenus (236b). In the Republic, Plato's Socrates recommends equal education for female guardians, and allows the possibility of "philosopher queens." I think that any way you cut it, Aristotle is "less progressive" than Plato on the subject of women. No, he is not as bad as Luce Iragaray and some others have thought, but he is not going to get any prizes for his advancement of the feminist cause either. He could have been a bit more like his teacher, after all.