Traditional Christian Views

In this section of the OCR RS DCT A2 course you will learn about the traditional Christian beliefs about women. The key thinkers for this section ard Augustine, Aquinas and Luther. As their names are mentioned in the specification you could get a question specifically about them.

The traditional view:

In Sexism and God-Talk Rosemary Radford Ruether sets out the traditional Christian view of women.

'The patriarchal Christianity that came to dominate the Christian Church in classical orthodoxy never went so far as to completely deny women's participation in the image of God...[but] at times...Christian churchmen came perilously close to this view of women as sin.'

'Even in the original, unfallen creation, woman would have been subordinate and under the dominion of man...the woman should have deferred to the man, who represents, in greater fullness than herself, the principle of "headship" mind or reason. He, in turn should regard her as representing the part of himself that must be repressed and kept under control by reason to prevent a fall into sin and disorder.'

'Within sinful, fallen, historical conditions, however, woman's suppression must be redoubled. Proneness to sin and disorder is  no longer potential but actual, and woman is particularly responsible for it.'

Note: Ruether is not the only feminist to blame patriarchal theologians for the way women have been viewed throughout history. For example, Simone de Beauvoire believed that they had contributed to the myth of the eternal feminine. Pagels blamed Augustine for society's negative attitude towards sex and the female body.

Ruether concluded 'this pattern of patriarchal anthropology can be illustrated in the entire line of classical Christian theology from ancient to modern times.' 

According to Ruether, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Barth have been particularly influential in creating this view of women.


According to Ruether:

'Augustine is the classical source of this type of patriarchal anthropology. Although elements of it are present in the New Testament and in earlier patristic theologians, Augustine expresses all aspects of it explicitly.'

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

You should already know about Augustine's views on the relationship between men and women from your AS work.

The AS page on human nature has notes on the relationship between men and women after the fall. The Augustine biography page has more detailed notes about Augustine's background and a large range of quotations. You should read both to help you fully understand his ideas.

'…we must give consideration to the statements, "And you shall be subject to your husband, and he will rule over you", to see how it can be understood in the proper sense.  For we must believe that even before her sin woman had been made to be ruled by her husband and to be submissive and subject to him.  But we can with reason understand that the servitude meant in these words is that in which there is a condition similar to that of slavery rather than a bond of love….St. Paul says, "Through love serve one another."  But by no means would he say, "Have dominion over one another." Hence married persons through love can serve one another, but St Paul does not permit a woman to rule over a man.  The sentence pronounced by God gave this power rather to man; and it is not by her nature but rather by her sin that woman deserved to have her husband for a master. But if this order is not maintained, nature will be corrupted still more, and sin will be increased.'

The key ideas that you should remember from last year are:

  • Eve was created to be a helper in the task of procreation (for other tasks a man would be better).
  • Thus the deliberative and obedient aspects of the soul are different for men and women.
  • The relationship between the 'thinking' part and the 'doing' part of the soul reflects the hierarchical relationship between man (the thinking rational part) and woman (the procreating doing part).
  • God always intended woman to be subordinate to man but originally this was to have been based on love.
  • After the fall Adam becomes 'master' over her and the type of subordination changes.
  • Marriage is the closest a couple can come to the pre-fall relationship and the only legitimate environment for sex.
  • Lust is an example of the body's disobedience to the mind. Sex involves lust so the sexual act is shameful and passes on original sin.
  • Mary brings salvation into the world (just as Eve brought sin into the world). However, Jesus had to be male.

In addition to this you might remember that in practice Augustine held certain woman in high regard. He was very influenced by his mother Monica who certainly comes across as having been a strong and determined woman. He exchanged theological ideas with a woman named Fiorenza. He had a son by his long-term concubine and was very upset when he had to end the relationship to make a 'respectable' marriage.

Analysis of Augustine's teachings:

Genevieve Lloyd in her book The Man of Reason: Male and Female in Western Philosophy defended Augustine against the charge of misogyny.

'Earlier synthesis of Genesis with Greek Philosophical concepts had, following Philo, tended to associate women's inferior origins and subordination with her lesser rationality. Augustine strongly opposed such interpretations, seeing them as inconsistent with the Christian commitment to spiritual equality...'

According to Lloyd, Augustine sought to 'defend women against what he perceived as the misogynism of earlier exegesis.' He rejected any interpretations which said that women were not in God's image, that they were incapable of exercising reason or that their very existence was a sign of the Fall.

Lloyd stressed that Augustine said that woman are only inferior in their helper status. Woman's bodily difference is inferior (because bodily difference reflects her role as helpmate in procreation) but her rational spirit is not inferior to man. It is also only in her bodily difference that she is subject to man. In all other ways she is subject to God alone.

'Woman, together with her own husband, is in the image of God, so that the whole substance is one image, but when she is referred to separately in her quality as helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not in the image of God, but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.'

Augustine De Trinitate

Rosemary Radford Ruether reads Augustine differently. She believes that Augustine regarded women as 'possessing the image of God only secondarily' whilst man possessed it normatively. 

Look at the quotation to the right. What do you think Augustine meant?

Lloyd believed that Augustine was trying hard to resolve his basic belief in spiritual equality with Biblical evidence for subordination. However, even she concluded 'despite his good intentions, his own symbolism pulls against his explicit doctrine of sexual equality'. Which means that the 'structurally the situation is much the same as before.' (i.e. women continue to be seen as naturally subject to man).

Even so, she believes that Augustine's theology is an improvement (from the perspective of women) on earlier theological ideas. She writes:

'Against the background of earlier associations between femininity and the inferior aspects of human nature, his symbolic relocation of the feminine can be seen as an upgrading. It is, he insists, only in respect of her bodily difference from man that woman is an appropriate symbol of lesser intellectual functioning; and this, in his philosophy, is a comparatively insignificant difference. What really matters is her status as a rational mind, were she is equal to man.'

Janet Soskice also defended Augustine. In her chapter Trinity and Feminism (in The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology) she explained that Augustine believed that people were made in the image of the Trinitarian God (i.e. all parts of God) rather than made in the image of the Son (i.e. a male incarnation of God). If people were made in the image of Jesus rather than the image of God then this might imply that men are more in the image of God than women are.

'A man should certainly not cover his head, since he is in the image of God and reflects God's glory; but woman is the reflection of man's glory.'

1 Corinthians 11:7

Soskice said that in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:7 (see right) showed that 'Augustine is specifically critical of any suggestion that Paul's meaning s that women are somehow not fully in the image of God.' She quoted Augustine's own writing in which he described women as 'fellow-heirs of grace with us'.


'Aquinas...makes woman's "symbolism" of inferior side of the self literal by accepting a biological theory of woman's inferiority. Aquinas adopted the Aristotelian definition of woman as "a misbegotten male"....This inferiority touches the entire nature of women. She is inferior in body (weaker), inferior in mind (less capable of reason), and inferior morally (less capable of will and moral self-control.'

'Good order requires that the naturally superior rule the naturally inferior...male-female hierarchy was not just a product of sin, it was part of the natural order created by God.'

Ruether Sexism and God-Talk

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is one of the most influential theologians of all time - especially for Roman Catholic Christians. He is also patron saint of students, academics, universities, theologians, philosophers and learning in general. He was born in Italy and became a Dominican monk aged 19 and then studied Theology in Paris. He wrote a huge amount on a wide range of theological topics. His best known works are the Summa contra Gentiles (written between 1259-1264), and the Summa Theologica (started in 1265-and left unfinished in 1274).  The quotations on this page are all from the Summa Theologica (which means the summary of theology).

Ideally you should read this section of Aquinas. It is not long and he gives you a very good lesson in how to set out arguments and then 'rebut' them.

Aquinas' structured his arguments by first setting out the view he disagreed with. Then he set out his own argument with reasons. Finally he went systematically back through all his opponents points and rebutted them.

Read the whole of the discussion here.

The role of women:

Like Augustine, Aquinas believed that women were created to help with procreation 'since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works'.

Relationship with man:

Aquinas also agreed with Augustine's take on the relationship between men and women before and after the Fall.

He distinguished between two different types of subjugation.

  1. One involves exploitation in which 'a superior makes use of a subject for his own benefit'. This type of subordination has only existed since the Fall. 
  2. The second type of subordination is not exploitative and is intended by God. In this '...the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good.'

This is one of the reasons why Aquinas opposed women priests - women were less intelligent and thus unfit to lead/teach.

He went on to explain how/why women should be subordinate for their own good. 'For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.' Women should be ruled by men because men are more intelligent.

The creation of women:

Aquinas explained why it was right and fitting that man should be made first and woman be made out of man. Three of these reasons are as follows:

'First, in order thus to give the first man a certain dignity consisting in this, that as God is the principle of the whole universe, so the first man, in likeness to God, was the principle of the whole human race. Wherefore Paul says that "God made the whole human race from one" (Acts 17:26).'

The idea that man (Adam) was 'first principle' at the start of the human race in the same way that God was 'first principle' to the entire universe is important. Feminists like Simone de Beauvoire would say that this contributes to the idea of man as normative and woman as 'other'. Man is first principle, woman is the version adapted for procreation.

'Secondly, that man might love woman all the more, and cleave to her more closely, knowing her to be fashioned from himself. Hence it is written (Gen. 2:23, 24): "She was taken out of man, wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife." This was most necessary as regards the human race, in which the male and female live together for life; which is not the case with other animals.'

The concept that woman's origin in man means that they belong together and compliment each other is an idea developed by Pope John Paul II in the Mulieris Dignitatem.

'Thirdly, because, as the Philosopher says  the human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty, and in which the man is the head of the woman. Wherefore it was suitable for the woman to be made out of man, as out of her principle.'

'The philosopher' referred to here is Aristotle. Note he WAS NOT A CHRISTIAN!

Aquinas' point is that as man has authority over woman it is appropriate that he should be made first.

However, Aquinas made it clear in his next discussion that man does not have the right to use woman as a slave. He explained that God's choice to make Eve from a rib is significant.

'It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man. First, to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither "use authority over man," and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet.'

He also rejected the view that Eve was not made directly by God (as might be implied by her creation from Adam). He stated that only God has the power to create and and both Adam and Eve are both equally made by God.

Woman and the Imago Dei (image of God):

Since man[kind] is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.

First, inasmuch as man[kind]possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men. 

Aquinas rejected the idea that men are created in God's image but woman are made in man's image (i.e. not in God's image). 

He wrote that 'The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman.' He explained further that man and woman are both in God's image 'in the mind, wherein there is no sexual distinction of sex.'

However, he went on to say 'But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature.' Man as first principle represents God's role in the world and rules in his stead in a way that woman in her role as helper cannot.

Women 'misbegotten':

One of the best known of Aquinas' statements about women is the following:

'Woman is defective and misbegotten'

Aquinas Summa Theologica Question 92

This has lead people to conclude that Aquinas' held distinctly misogynistic attitudes towards women. However, this is perhaps a little unfair.

As you may (or may not) remember from your AS work, Aquinas was influenced by the Greek Philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle had written 'the female is as it were a defective male' and this presented Aquinas with somewhat of a problem because the Bible taught that woman (Eve) was created deliberately by God. 

Aquinas responds to this by arguing that woman is not 'misbegotten' nor accidental. God did intend to create women and women were part of the original creation and not a product of the Fall. However, from the point of view of the male seed woman is misbegotten.

This is basically what Aristotle taught - so the phrase from Aristotle is not so insulting to women as it might sound to modern ears.

All this makes a lot more sense if you abandon your current understanding of biology and revert to a medieval world view. To the medieval mind men were the 'active' part of procreation and women the 'passive' part. Men sowed their seed in women who act as a container and who provide the raw material to create the new life. Seeds grow to reproduce the thing that they came from (an apple pip produces and apple tree etc) thus male seed should produce a man. 

If male seed produces a woman then - from the perspective of the seed - it is 'misbegotten' or 'accidental'. 

Aquinas wrote:

'With respect to the particular nature [i.e. from the perspective of the semen] the female is something defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male semen intends to produce a perfect likeness of itself in the male sex; but if a female should be generated, this is because of a weakness of the active force, or because of some indisposition of the material, or even because of a transmutation [caused] by an outside influence.'

However, from the perspective of God it is the way God intended things to be.

'But with respect to universal nature the female is not something misbegotten, but is by nature’s intention ordained for the work of generation. Now the intention of universal nature depends on God, who is the universal author of nature. Therefore, in instituting nature, God produced not only the male but also the female.'

Aquinas Summa Theologica Question 93

Thus women are part of God's creation. They are not a result of the Fall, a failed man or intrinsically sinful.

How women should dress:

Random fact: The Summa Theologica was intended as a beginners introduction. Be very glad that Aquinas did not write the A level course.

The Summa Theologica is detailed (as in very, very detailed) and goes systematically through topics of theological importance. In amongst the debates about sacraments and the nature of atonement is a section on how women should dress.

Aquinas was concerned that 'a woman's apparel may incite men to lust'. A wife could dress to please her husband, but a woman without a husband should not dress seductively. Aquinas wrote:

'But those women who have no husband ... cannot without sin desire to give lustful pleasure to those men who see them, because this is to incite them to sin. And if indeed they adorn themselves with this intention of provoking others to lust, they sin mortally; whereas if they do so from frivolity, or from vanity for the sake of ostentation, it is not always mortal, but sometimes venial. And the same applies to men in this respect.'

Read the whole question. Summa Theologica Volume II Question 169 here.

Although Aquinas does specify that the same rules belong to men the emphasis is much more on the idea that women should be modest in their dress (including covering their heads if married) so as not to tempt men. Aquinas also quoted Proverbs 7:10, 'Behold a woman meeteth him in harlot's attire, prepared to deceive souls.' Women dressed immodestly sin because they deliberately try to provoke lust.

Women Priests:

You probably will not be surprised to hear that Aquinas did not think that women should (or even could) become priests. He believed that 'male sex is required for receiving Orders' and even if a woman were to train as a priest and undergo an ordination ceremony 'she would not receive Orders, for since a sacrament is a sign, not only the thing.'

His arguments against women priests are that:

  1. The Bible forbids it: 'It is said (1 Tim. 2:12): "I suffer not a woman to teach in the Church, nor to use authority over the man."' 
  2. Women are less intelligent than men.
  3. Women might incite men to lust.


Ruether highlighted a difference between Luther's views and the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas. For Luther, subordination results from sin and is not part of the original creation. However, Ruether says that this does not results in a more positive attitude towards women in Luther's thought. She wrote:

'On the contrary, it simply deepens the reproach of her as one whose sinfulness lost this original equality and merited the punishment of subjugation.'

Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a key figure in the German Protestant Reformation. He had been ordained as a 1507 but by 1517 he had become  very disallusioned with many aspects of the Catholic Church and nailed his '95 Thesis' to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. During the next few years he published pamphletts expanding his ideas and these resulted in his excommunication in 1521.

It is fairly well known that Luther opposed the selling of indulgences (prayers which promised the buyer a speedy passage through purgatory), opposed corruption in the Church and supported the use of the vernacular (local) language rather than Latin for the Bible  and for services. It is probably less well known that he opposed Roman Catholic views on marriage and the celibacy of the priesthood. 

Luther as quoted in The Age of Reform 1250-1550 by Steven Ozmet

In fact, Luther said that 'The Lord wants three things made right before Judgement Day, the ministry of the Word, government and marriage.' This means that Luther considered the question of marriage to be equally as important as the questions of teaching the Bible ('ministry of the word') and ruling of the Church ('government').

Luther's key thoughts on marriage were as follows: 

  • Marriage is not a sacrament
  • Divorce is permisable (because marriage is not a sacrament)
  • Priests should be able to marry

Marriage and celibacy:

'In Luther's view, it is part of being human to have sexual feelings: this is our nature as God has created us. Often Luther compares sexuality to other natural appetites – it is like sleeping, eating or drinking; and consequently, to take a vow of chastity as monks, nuns and priests do is tantamount to vowing the impossible. To some people, Luther believed, God gives the gift of chastity, but such people are a rare exception. In any case, chastity does not make them a more holy caste: the celibate are no 'better' in God's eyes than the chastely married, according to Luther.'

Lyndal Roper in an article entitled Luther: Sex, Marriage and Motherhood in the Journal History Today (1983) here.

Luther believed that the desire to marry was a normal human desire. Unlike many of the pre-Reformation thinkers who regarded celibacy as a 'higher' calling Luther (and many other Protestant Reformers) thought celibacy an unnatural state.  He recognised that a celibate priest would have more time for God if not dividing his time between God and family but he sitll regarded it as a 'vocation for not one in ten thousand'. In other words, something only a few were capable of achieving.  For most, attempted celibacy was liable to lead to lust and other sins (in the same way that starvation leads to theft). He wrote:

  • 'Where there is not the high heavenly grace [i.e., the gift of chastity], nature must flow according to its manner...if man and wife do not come together, it takes its own course and cannot be stopped: so that it would be better if man and wife were with each other, as God created and nature gives.'

By contrast marriage to provide 'sound body and good conscience' . He believed that he had scripture on his side supporting the idea of marriage. He also thought that a married priest was better placed to deal with some of the problems that his parishoners might have.

Attitude towards women:

In some ways Luther's affirmation that marriage is natural and good and celibacy is not superior could be seen as positive for women. He rejected the idea that a man without a woman was better in the eyes of God than a man with a woman and he taught that sex was not just for procreation; a husband and wife could enjoy sex with each other. Furthermore, his emphasis on family life reaffirmed that value of women and of procreation. He wrote that:

'Marriage does not consist only of sleeping with a woman - anybody can do that - but keeping house and bringing up children.'

Luther as quoted in The Age of Reform 1250-1550 by Steven Ozmet

Luther followed his own advice and had married ex-nun Katharina von Bora in 1525. They went on to have six children together. He valued his wife highly and wrote:

'I would not give up my Katy for France or Venice.'

Luther as quoted in The Age of Reform 1250-1550 by Steven Ozmet

Feminists would generally be in favour of his acceptance of divorce.

Many of his other teachings are far more problematic from a feminist point of view.

'Luther's account of 'natural' womanhood thus labels as unnatural women whose sexual desires are not directed towards men, marriage and children. By extension, women who do not want to marry, and in particular, nuns, are in some sense departing from the canon of normal womanhood. Pre-Reformation society had allowed and encouraged women to live the celibate religious life in convents or in the many non-enclosed religious communities. There were institutional possibilities for women outside marriage. The Reformation narrowed women's choice by removing the option of an independent religious vocation in which a woman might develop her own talents: it also limited the range of acceptable feminine identities.'

Lyndal Roper in an article entitled Luther: Sex, Marriage and Motherhood in the Journal History Today (1983) here.

The purpose of women:

Luther thought that women were made for marriage and motherhood. In a letter from 1824 (written to three nuns) he proclaimed:

  • 'A woman does not have complete mastery over herself. God created her body that she should be with a man and bear and raise children. The words of Genesis, Chapter 1, clearly state this, and the members of her body sufficiently show that God himself formed her for this purpose.' 

Sex as a duty:

If a married woman denied her husband his conjagul rights (and made him more likely to commit the sin of adultery) then, in Luther's eyes, this was legitimate grounds for divorce. He wrote:

  • '... one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say 'if you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.'

Biological difference:

Biology, he said, made it clear that God had intended men and women for different things.

  • 'Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon.'


He still believed that sex ultimately was for procreation and thus thought that women were made to be mothers (even if they died in the process).

  •  'If women grow weary or even die while bearing children, that does no harm. Let them bear children to death, that's what they're there for.'

He stressed that all women should become wives and mothers (as a way of avoiding falling into the trap of lust).

  • 'A woman is not created to be a virgin, but to bear children. In Genesis 1 God was not speaking just to Adam, but also to Eve when He said, "Be fruitful and multiply," as the female sex organs of a woman's body, which God has created for this reason, prove. And this was not just said to one or two women, but to all of them, with no exceptions.'

Adam, Eve and the Fall:

'The woman certainly differs from the man, for she is weaker in body and intellect.'

'Nevertheless Eve was an excellent creature and equal to Adam in so far as the divine image: that is, righteousness, wisdom and eternal salvation, is concerned.'

'Still, she was only a woman. As the sun is much more glorious than the moon (though also the moon is glorious), so the woman was inferior to the man both in honour and dignity, though she, too, was a very excellent work of God.'

Luther's commentary on Genesis.

Finally, Luther tended to blame Eve more than Adam for the fall.

  • 'God created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoilt all, when she persuaded him to set himself above God's will. 'Tis you women, with your tricks and artifices, that lead men into error.'

However, he also said:

  • 'Eve was not like women of today: her state was far better and more excellent, and she was in no respect inferior to Adam, whether you count the qualities of body or of mind.'

Thus Luther was different to Augustine and Aquinas because he thought that subordination resulted from the Fall and was a punishment rather than being part of the original plan.  According to Luther:

  • 'This punishment too springs from original sin...the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state....In this way Eve is punished.'

Analysis of Luther's teachings:

Susan Ross wrote a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. She argued that Luther's beliefs about the priesthood were of great theoretical significance to women (even though the reformers themselves may not have recognised this!)

'...the Protestant Reformation had both positive and negative effects on women's religious lives. For the Protestat traditions, marriage was seen by the reformers, particularly Luther, as a real vocation in its own right. And, while the reformers were men of their times and thus took for granted women't inferiority, theologically they opened up opportunities for women that would not be fulfilled for centuries. Luther's conception of the 'priesthood of all believers', with his insistence that all are priests to one another, in effect removed theological barriers to women's ordination.'


Are they misogynistic?

The first important thing to point out is that men like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were all men of their time. They lived centuries apart from each other and the most modern (Luther) was still writing over five hundred years ago. Given that the origins of feminism are generally dated to the eighteenth century it is perhaps not surprising that Augustine, Aquinas and Luther do not reflect modern feminist sentiments.

However, many feminists including Ruether, de Beauvoire, Daly and others argue that Augustine, Aquinas and Luther don't just reflect misogynistic views, they create them. Pagels believed that Augustine's teachings on sex and sin stood in stark contrast to earlier more egalitarian ideas.

Obviously, without in depth historical study it is hard to assess to what extent someone like Augustine is responsible for western attitudes towards women.

On the one hand he seems to have been less sexist than some of his near contemporaries. For example, Tertullian (who lived two centuries before Augustine) addressed women thus:

Augustine also seems less misogynistic than Philo (a turn of the century Jewish/Greek philosopher) who also wrote a commentary on Genesis.

  • 'Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated that fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die!'

Augustine and Aquinas are influential for Catholics and Luther is influential for Protestants. The Roman Catholic emphasis on the importance of tradition and the continued authority of people like Augustine and Aquinas mean that their views probably have more continued relevance than Luther's.

On the other hand their views appear less egalitarian that SOME of the New Testament teachings. Furthermore, Augustine, Aquinas and Luther all had (and continue to have) significant authority for Christians and their views continue to be respected. Thus even if they were (arguably) fairly moderate or even positive towards women for their time the continuing influence of their ideas might have contributed to misogynistic attitudes towards women as they preserve an outdated attitude.

Are their views useful?

Is it fair to claim that the Christian tradition has never regarded women with respect?

To argue that Augustine et al were less misogynist than other ancient male academics who were definitely misogynistic is probably not going to convince a feminist to see them in a positive light. In order to decide whether their views still have relevance then we need to judge them on their own merits.

We could argue that they all have some positive things to say about women (and some less positive things to say). Potentially positive ideas include:

  • Men and women are created to be together - relationships are good. (Augustine)
  • Woman is made out of man's rib - thus neither is meant to dominate the other (Aquinas)
  • Both man and woman are in God's image (all three)
  • The subordination of women comes about after the fall (Luther - the others disagree)
  • Motherhood is a special task given to women by God.

You can probably pick out some others and you can also probably see that they are all fairly 'conservative' statements. Radical and reconstructionist feminists are unlikely to find much of use in the works of these three theologians.

Why might they be more inclined to try to put a positive spin on their words?

Generally speaking, feminists who read Augustine, Aquinas and Luther in a more positive light are likely to be feminist theologians (as opposed to secular feminists).

Futher Reading:

Luther on Women A Source Book here.

Wikipedia can give you some idea of some of the things said about women by other patristic writers here.

Summa Theologica Vol 1 Q92 here.

Useful resources on Aquinas here (including links to relevant parts of his work).

Was Calvin and Accidental Feminist (article) here.

Calvin on women's leadership here.