Why is St. Augustine commonly held to be a major perpetrator of sexism against women? I think one reason is that many of the things he said can be taken, at least when read superficially, to be very sexist. This is especially true if one reads Augustine without charity, i.e., if you go in expecting him to be a sexist. One example:
And we see man, made to Your image and likeness, dominating all the irrational animals by reason of that same image and likeness, that is by the power of reason and understanding; just as in the human soul there is one element which takes thought and dominates, another which is subjected to obedience, so woman has been created corporeally for man: for though she has indeed a nature like that of man in her mind and rational intelligence, yet by her bodily sex she is subjected to the sex of her husband, much as appetite, which is the source of action, must be subjected to reason if it is to learn the rules of right action (Confessions, 13.32, Sheed’s translation).
At first glance, it sounds like that he’s comparing the relationship between woman and man to the relationship been animals and humans! But on a more careful reading, this does not appear to be the case. It seems that, in the beginning of the passage (before the semi-colon), Augustine is simply describing the relationship between animals and humans. Humans dominate over the other animals, he explains, because humans have reason, which animals lack. And after the semi-colon, he begins to describe the relationship between man and woman. Unfortunately, the semi-colon makes it look like Augustine is continuing his previous thought, when what he is actually doing is starting a new discussion, where he is talking about the physical relationship between the two sexes. It is important to note that for Augustine, both man and woman are equal in the most essential part of humanity: the mind. He writes elsewhere:
…still the woman too, who is female in the body, she too is being renewed in the spirit of her mind, where there is neither male nor female… (Literal Commentary on Genesis, 3.22).
Fr. Edmund Hill, OP summarizes Augustine’s opinion: “Augustine sees the distinction of sex as something secondary, comparatively unimportant. It is as human beings with rational minds, capable of contemplating eternal truth (i.e. God), that all of us, male and female alike, are made to the image of God.”
This helps us understand what Augustine is saying in his discussion in the Confessions about the differences between men and women, and in fact he reiterates this point in the passage itself. He writes, “for though she has indeed a nature like that of man in her mind and rational intelligence, yet by her bodily sex she is subjected to the sex of her husband.” Women are equal to man “in her mind,” but she is subjected in “her bodily sex.” And how is woman subjected in her bodily sex? Augustine makes an analogy with the appetite and the reason. Reason informs the appetite, and the good appetite is obedient to what it learns from reason. In the same way, wife should be obedient to her husband. While in one way this is subordinating the woman, it is in another way oddly egalitarian. The appetite is, after all, just as vital as the reason, as it is “the source of action.” What is more, St. Augustine says that it is subjected to reason only for the sake of learning “the rules of right action.”But this raises many questions, such as “why does woman need to learn right rules from a man? Can’t she learn from another woman, or herself?”
Sarah Coakley (an example of a good, charitable interpreter) in her book God, Sexuality and the Self, remarks that Augustine is somehow committed to both sexism and egalitarianism:
He bows, significantly, to scriptural authority, ‘order’, and subordination. Yet another instinct, equally mandated by Scripture (in Galatians 3.28), continues to draw him in a different direction. And so the paradox remains. (p. 292)
So maybe this is why Augustine’s account of male-female relationship raises so many questions.
In summary, Augustine’s view of the relationship between man and woman is more complicated than it might first seem. He makes it clear that man and woman are not in the same relationship as man and animal, and that the two sexes are equal when it comes to their minds. However, physically, there is a subjection, but even here Augustine is not as sexist as he is often made out to be, and is careful to describe in what way the woman is subject to the man (which is rather limited). I do not want to conclude by saying that Augustine is totally right when it comes to the sexes, nor do I even want to say that my interpretation must be the correct one. But the final point which must be made is that reading someone with charity and care is very important! We should not read ancient authors with the assumption that they must be backwards, because this makes us often ignore it when they surprise us by not matching our expectations. And it is equally wrong to read writers with the goal of refuting whatever it is that they’re going to say. Instead we should try to come to the truth alongside them, even when we disagree.