Fact Check: Did Clement of Alexandria say that “Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman”?

An interesting query on yesterday’s post here:

I wanted to know if you know where that quote attributed to Clement of Alexandria “Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman” comes from? In fact, some indicate that this phrase comes from Clement’s book “pedagogue 2”, but when I went to look there I did not find this quote.

As far as I can tell, the latest translation of the Paedagogus or Instructor is the 19th century Ante-Nicene Fathers, online here.  This does not contain these words.

Lists of quotes designed to demonise always omit context, and often vary in wording and attribution.  Our quote is not different in this respect.  Some suggest that it comes from the Stromateis or Miscellanies book 3, but it does not.  It appears in somewhat varying forms around the web, such as “every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman”.  A hate-article, “20 disgustingly misogynist quotes from religious leaders” – none of them Muslim, for some reason – at Salon, by a certain Valerie Tarico, Oct 15, 2014, (online here) gives it in this version, which is sometimes combined with the other:

[For women] the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame. —Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) Pedagogues II, 33, 2.

There are a number of books from India which reference Bertrand Russell as a source, such as this one.  But that book only references his smug tract in favour of adultery, Marriage and Morality (1929) – one feels for his poor abused wife – which does not contain any reference to Clement of Alexandria.

Rather more helpful is an article “Religion as the root of sexism” by a certain Barbara G. Walker, published at Freethought Today 28 (2011) and online here.

Clement of Alexandria said every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman, and quoted Jesus’ words from the Gospel According to the Egyptians: “I have come to destroy the works of the female.”

The article notes:

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her 20 other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist.

If you follow the reference (the same claim appears on p.921) and look up the sources, you are led back to R. Briffault, “The Mothers“, NY: MacMillan (1927) vol. 3, p.373, online here.  This does give a specific reference:

“Every woman,” says Clement of Alexandria, “ought to be filled with shame at the thought that she is a woman.” [4]

4.  Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, ii. 2,in Migne, op. cit., Series Graeca, vol. viii, col. 429.

I.e. Patrologia Graeca 8, col. 429.  This too does not contain the words given; but there is indeed something here, in Paedagogus, book 2, chapter 2, towards the end:

Image of PG8, col. 429, with relevant part highlighted

The Ante-Nicene Fathers translation (online here) gives this as follows:

For nothing disgraceful is proper for man, who is endowed with reason; much less for woman to whom it brings modesty even to reflect of what nature she is.

The subject is drunkenness, and how inappropriate it is for men or women.

Greek:

οὐδεὶς γὰρ ψόφος οἰκεῖοσ ἀνδρὶ λογικῷ, ἔτι δὲ μᾶλλον γυναικί, ᾗ καὶ τὸ συνειδέναι αὐτὴν ἑαυτῇ, ἥτις εἴη μόνον, αἰσχύνην φέρει.

The Latin, and Google translate:

Nihil enim, quod probram affert et vituperationem, viro, qui ratione est praeditus, convenit, multo autem minus mulieri, cui vel ipsum cogitare quaenam sit, ei affert pudorem.

For nothing that brings shame and reproach is suitable for a man who is endowed with reason, but much less for a woman, to whom even to think what she is, brings her shame.

The Sources Chrétiennes 108 French translation (p.71), with Google translate:

2. Il ne convient pas de faire du bruit (en buvant), ni à un homme raisonnable , ni encore moins à une femme, à qui le fait d’avoir conscience elle-même de ce qu’elle est, suffit à inspirer de la pudeur.

2. It is not appropriate to make noise (while drinking), neither for a reasonable man, nor even less for a woman, to whom the fact of being aware of herself of what she is, is enough to inspire modesty.

Interestingly the Greek and French have section numbers.  The French edition is mainly a reprint of Stählin’s edition in the GCS series (GCS vol. 12, 1905), and this text is indeed found in section 33.2, just as in the Salon article.  Amusingly Stählin on p.lxxxiii of his edition mentions the numbering thus:

Die Seitenzahlen der Ausgaben Sylburgs und Potters stehen mit S und P am Rand, eine Tabelle mit den Seiten der Pariser Ausgabe (1629) wird am Schluß der Ausgabe beigegeben werden, da nach ihr noch immer häufig citiert wird. Die Paragrapheneinteilung von Klotz habe ich trotz ihrer Mängel beibehalten, um nicht die Verwirrung (oft wird Clemens in einem Buche auf dreierlei Art citiert) noch größer zu machen. Doch habe ich die großen Paragraphen in Unterabschnitte zerlegt. In der Ausgabe selbst ist stets darnach (mit Weglassung der Capitelzahlen) citiert.

The page numbers of Sylburg’s and Potter’s editions are given in the margin [of my edition], and a table with the page numbers of the Paris edition (1629) will be added at the end of the edition, since it is still frequently cited with them. I have retained Klotz’s division of paragraphs,  despite its shortcomings, so as not to create even more confusion (often Clemens is quoted in three ways in one book). But I have divided the major paragraphs into subsections. In the edition itself it is always cited thus (with omission of the chapter numbers).

The smaller subsections are convenient – the original “chapter 2” is very long – and Stählin’s “subsection” 33 is indeed where our text is found.

This passage of Clement, I think, is indeed the origin of our “quote”.

Exactly what Clement means here is not clear, for it is merely an aside.  It looks to me as if the context is noisy drunkenness; wrong for any rational man, and still more so for a woman precisely because she is a woman.  For nobody, in antiquity or now, wants to see a loud drunken slapper.

But it is quite possible that Clement did have the inferiority of women – a commonplace in antiquity – in mind.  He is writing to people in his own age, after all.  This was an age with much the same vices as our own.  But because everybody owned female slaves, these women were abused even worse than now.  Clement writes, as all the fathers do, to increase female self-respect and social standing, and they are not afraid to appeal to contemporary contempt for certain sorts of female behaviour.

Such nuances are not of interest to the polemicist, nor particularly to us.  Briffault seems to be one of those awful people in the early 20th century who, under pretence of science, sought to debauch the morals of society.   What we have here, I think, is Briffault “improving” the text in order to create a one-liner.  This he could then include in a hit-list of patristic sayings, designed to shock, in order to sway the reader to support his arguments for vice.  The other variants then arise as others “improve” it further to increase the impact.

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11 thoughts on “Fact Check: Did Clement of Alexandria say that “Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman”?

  1. There’s an obvious issue with taking this quotation out of context, in that what is the cause of shame now is no longer noisy drunkenness, and the only possibility that the reader is left with is the fact of being a woman.

    But there’s also a deeper problem in the translation of αἰσχύνη as “shame” without qualification. In this context, it is the (proper) sentiment when faced with something shameful (αἰσχρός); the whole point is that it is a *positive* (praiseworthy) reaction, whereas with “shame” the connotation are mostly negative. This becomes evident when you consider that the really negative term in the semantic family is ἀναίσχυντος = unable to feel αἰσχύνη.

    Whatever his beliefs regarding the inferiority of women, I think Clement here sees the fact that a woman will naturally react with αἰσχύνη to the mere idea of being loudly drunk as a merit, or at least an advantage over ἀναίσχυντοι men, who need to be convinced by reason that such a thing is shameful. This may still not sit well with modern mentality, but that’s modern mentality’s problem.

  2. It seems to me that it is clear what Clement meant and that your interpretation is right (“It looks to me as if the context is noisy drunkenness; wrong for any rational man, and still more so for a woman precisely because she is a woman.”). Your comments also show how important it is to read words in their context. The drunken (old) woman was a stereotype in Antiquity, portrayed not only in literature but also in marble and terracotta.

  3. Wow! I wasn’t expecting you to make a post especially to talk about this sentence. I am very happy to have been noticed by you. By the way, the first time i saw this phrase attributed to Clement of Alexandria was in the book “The Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women-Mango Media” (2020) by Rosalie Gilbert (in the version I have of this book the mention of this phrase is found on page 55).
    The post cleared up my confusion with the quote. Thank you. All the best!

  4. Clement was actually quite progressive for a Church Father. My impression was the exact opposite. He took men and women as basically equal or at least is closer to that understanding than most of his contemporaries.

  5. Hello Roger, Thanks for this article, and for your website. I visit it a lot.

    To clarify: when you say, “Google Books suggested an origin in the 70s,” do you mean the 1970s?

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