Anti-feminism in Early Western Thought: St. Jerome, Evolution, and Culture


Focusing on the case of St. Jerome’s treatise Adversus Jovinian, I examine the way evolved tendencies joined with cultural forces to promote anti-feminist thought.  Although an eye-catching style and Jerome’s authority would have enhanced the cultural circulation of his ideas, their grounding in the biological necessities of sexual behavior indicates additional reasons for the longevity and clout of Adversus.


Anti-feminism in Early Western Thought: St. Jerome, Evolution, and Culture

Some literary critics have asserted that anti-feminist ideas such as those promoted by St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinian have been entirely socially constructed, and, that their circulation through the conventions of culture sufficiently explains their influence (Sylvester 1-3, 15-16). It cannot be denied that culture has been responsible for some of the influence and longevity of ideas such as those espoused in Adversus.  That men controlled the formal mechanisms of religious, artistic, and political influence in early European culture is clear, and the Catholic church, with its male hierarchy, played a prominent role in this gender-based hegemony.  Adversus Jovinian showcases a strain of misogyny that runs deep in its official documents.  And Adversus stands out: as Alcuin Blamires notes, Jerome’s work was, due to its vehemence and witty style, “endlessly quarried by subsequent writers” (64).  Chaucer, for example, used Adversus as a source for his Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In addition to the attention bestowed by Chaucer’s fame and by other citations, Jerome’s authority as the author of The Vulgate (Blamires 63), also would have furthered the influential nature of Adversus.   But it was not, as has long been assumed, simply the circulation of socially constructed ideas that fueled Jerome’s and others’ anti-feminism in early times–and that keeps it alive today.

Complete answers about anti-feminism’s roots must for now remain, as Shakespeare says, in the “dark backward and abysm of time”; however, like many other human attributes previously attributed only to learning, anti-feminism reflects complex synergies of inborn tendencies and learned behaviors.  In works such as Adversus Jovinian, evolved tendencies, in conjunction with cultural forces, have played a role in establishing and promoting anti-feminist thought.[1] For Adversus, a grounding in male and female differences that have evolved through the biological necessities of sexual behavior indicates additional reasons for its longevity and clout.  Women’s tendencies in particular are exaggerated or distorted in this male-authored work, leading to their demonization.  Throughout centuries of literary culture, the demonization of women’s traits, combined with the promotion of other anti-feminist assumptions, helped men gain and hold advantages over women, advantages that furthered the evolved needs and desires of men.  Male sexual needs may seem an unlikely source for Jerome’s ideas, as he spends much of the treatise arguing against marriage, but Adversus attempts to legitimize concepts that kept men in power and allowed them to assert their wills over women.  One such concept focuses on the devaluing of women.

Adversus devalues women in part by capitalizing on an evolutionary tendency to prize virginity.  This valorization of virginity has long been evident in Western religious writings, and it features prominently in the Bible.  Although social constructionists have typically seen the virgin/whore dichotomy as a function of culture, its demonstrable roots in evolutionary behavior have surely contributed strongly to its ongoing influence in Western culture.  A man commits evolutionary suicide when he provides resources to raise another man’s children, so men evolved to avoid mating with seemingly promiscuous women, and to prefer virginal brides, in order to avoid cuckolding (Campbell 197-200; Buss, The Evolution 67-68; Symons 229).  Jerome’s claim that “Christ loves virgins more than others” (66) would resonate with male readers at least in part because their brains were hard-wired to accept the idea that virgins were generally more valued. With his almost exclusively male readership in early centuries of his influence, Jerome’s words surely contributed to the promotion and enforcement of virginity in unmarried women, along with the denigration of all women’s sexuality.  Society’s expectations, along with innate evolutionary drives, meant that most women did not remain virgins perpetually.

Acknowledging the strong drives to reproduce that are part of the human evolutionary heritage, Jerome quotes St. Paul’s comment from 1 Corinthians 7:9 that “It is better to marry than to be burnt” (66), even as he pushes his own agenda of virginity.  Later, in a witty turn, he cites Dido, who “preferred to ‘burn rather than to marry’” (69).  Jerome uses this passage to stress that women should be absolutely faithful to their husbands, even after they died.  A heightened awareness of sexual loyalty has evolved not only in regard to potential mates, but also after mating has begun (Buss, The Evolution 67-68; Symons 229).  A woman who would be faithful after her spouse’s death could certainly be counted on while he was alive.  Their evolutionary predispositions and cultural heritage would have prompted Jerome’s readers to attempt to control women’s sexuality generally and potentially to expect an absolute fidelity that survives even death.  The idea inherent in Jerome’s inversion of Saint Paul’s dictum would have resonated with them, and its witty turn of phrase and anti-feminist humor would also make it memorable to them, and apt to be learned, cited, and repeated.

Jerome follows up on the idea that women’s sexuality is a very real threat to men in a number of other passages.  He mentions “the eunuch who ministers to the safe indulgence” of a woman’s “lust” and he notes that “an unchaste wife cannot be watched” because she will find a way to overcome surveillance (71).  This second point would accord with what researchers have described as an escalating arms race between men and women in which each tries to maximize his or her evolutionary advantage.  The tendency to cheat manifests itself in both men and women, though with different evolutionary motivations.  Researchers note that a woman’s impetus to extract gifts may lead her to have sex with multiple partners, or at least to keep an eye open for other prospects (Symonds 138; Badcock142-60; Shostak 271).   Because male primates may kill a rival’s children, but much more rarely their own, in the early evolutionary environment women may have masked paternity by sleeping with more than one powerful male to protect their children.  In addition, multiple partners could provide a woman with more opportunities for resource extraction (Hrdy 153-4).  Researchers also note that by mating with two partners at the same time women increase the odds that their sons will inherit more competitive sperm; ideally they do this without decreasing the odds of maintaining a relationship with the male who can provide more resources (Bellis and Baker 997-99).  Semen count, even, depends primarily on how long it has been since a man last saw his mate (Baker and Bellis 867-69).  These evolutionary analyses suggest many innate motivations for women to seek sexual partners outside marriage, and an innate fear of women’s potential for infidelity would emphasized the relevance of Jerome’s words to male readers.  Although such facts are found through controlled studies, the evolved tendency to be suspicious of female infidelity—and distortions based in this tendency—are commonly passed along by word of mouth and transmitted by all the instruments of culture, such as jokes, songs, literature, art, etc.   The potential for female infidelity leads men, both through cultural and evolutionary means, to be aware of, and to attempt to control, women’s sexual behavior.

Because women’s fertility declines with age while men’s does not, a male preference for young women has also evolved, along with a universal beauty formula for women based in the appearance of youth (Buss, “Sex Differences” 2).  Examples throughout history and literature demonstrate how parents have used daughters to cement alliances with men of their choosing, typically men whose power and status could best benefit the girl’s parents and their larger family or clan.  A young beautiful girl who could marry into a higher, wealthier class was a valuable bargaining chip for a family (Buss, The Evolution 22-30).  But she would need to be a virgin.  Parents would have good reason, then, to control a daughter’s sexual behavior, and they would further impress their views about beauty and virginity on their daughters, who, in general, would have already been innately predisposed to them.

Jerome shows an awareness of the way beauty is valued in quotations such as “Our gaze must always be directed to her face, and we must always praise her beauty: if you look at another woman, she thinks that she is out of favor” (71).   Jerome’s goal here is to show how vain and demanding women are, but the quotation also reveals his knowledge that women are aware of what attracts a mate, and that they are prompted to be as attractive as possible and to insure their mate’s awareness of their attractiveness.  Jerome demonizes this innate need, and the face validity of Jerome’s claims would have given his male readers an excuse to validate this and other anti-feminist ideas in the treatise, furthering general male tendencies to suppress women and assert dominance in relationships with them.

Another of Jerome’s complaints about women is that they expect expensive gifts from their husbands: “Married women want many things, costly dresses, gold, jewels, expensive items, maidservants, all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches.”  Men’s biologically determined sexual eagerness and women’s resultant ability to choose have led to a universal expectation in women, and in men, that men who desire sex will offer women gifts (Malinowski 319; Buss, The Evolution 99-101).  What affected husband would not look for, and find, another man with whom to share a sympathetic wink over such a passage?  This is another passage that would have made Jerome’s words sound true to male readers, leading toward a generalized acceptance of his claims, however exaggerated or damaging they might finally be.  In the passage above, Jerome’s use of the list, with its items piled up in humorous fashion, emphasizes his idea stylistically, adding to its potential appeal.  In fact, throughout the work, striking style and tone joined with evolutionary appeals contribute towards the acceptance and circulation of Jerome’s ideas.  For example, Chaucer’s characterization of a nagging wife in his Wife of Bath’s Prologue echoes Jerome’s intended humor.  Jerome writes, “Then come prattling complaints all the night: that one lady goes out better dressed than she; that another is looked up to by all.  ‘I am a poor despised nobody at women’s gatherings’” (70).  Chaucer’s turns this into the Wife of Bath’s complaints: “Why is my neighebores wys so gay? / She is honoured overall ther she gooth; / I sitte at hoom; I have no thrifty clooth” (236-238).  This kind of characterization is such a commonplace in Western culture that thousands, if not millions, of jokes have been based in it, all with a kernel of evolutionary truth (however misused), and transmitted throughout history by word of mouth, one of the most effective vehicles of cultural circulation.

Cultural critics have long suggested that an understanding of the cultural determinants of anti-feminism and its cousins, sexism and misogyny, can lead to the necessary steps for addressing the injustices they spawn.  However, an analysis of these few passages clearly suggests that the negative impact of Jerome’s Adversus and similar texts has depended not only on cultural vehicles, but also on inherited attitudes.  Unless scholars develop an understanding of anti-feminist thought grounded not only in an analysis of cultural factors, but also in a recognition of innate human tendencies, a lack of complete knowledge will hamper any attempt to address the problems that it creates.  Anti-feminist thought is, to some degree, rooted in men’s, and women’s, evolutionary history.  Only by better understanding the origins of sexism and misogyny, will their critics maximize the chances of bringing about a more just approach to sexual difference.

Works Cited

Badcock, Christopher. Oedipus in Evolution: A New Theory of Sex. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Baker, R. Robin, and Mark A. Bellis. “Number of Sperm in Human Ejaculates Varies in Accordance with Sperm Competition Theory.” Animal Behaviour 37.5 (1989): 867-69.

Bellis, Mark A. and R. Robin Baker. “Do Females Promote Sperm Competition?” Animal Behaviour 40.5 (1990): 997-99.

Blamires, Alcuin, ed. Woman Defamed and Women Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Buss, David. “Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences: Evolutionary Hypotheses Tested in 37 Cultures.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12 (1999): 1-49.

—. The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Campbell, Anne. A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981.

Jerome.  “Adversus Jovinian.” Blamires, Woman. 63-74.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia: An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage, and Family Life Among the Natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.

Shostak, Marjorie. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, New York: Vintage, 1983.

Sylvester, Louise M. Medieval Romance and the Construction of Heterosexuality.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Symons, Donald. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

[1] Because such studies have the potential to be misunderstood, it is useful to point out that uncovering the roots of misogynistic thought in innate predispositions is not the same as promoting or condoning misogyny.  In her book, A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women, Anne Campbell refutes many common misunderstandings about evolutionary psychology, including the naturalistic fallacy, which suggests that whatever “is natural is morally right or desirable” (19).

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