Was Augustine anti-feminist, or even particularly negative towards women? He was, at best, a product of his times regarding the role of women in society and in the church. To expect him to have been politically correct according to the standards of today is unrealistic.
His insistence of the principle that men and women share equally in the sign of Creation must be remembered, even as what today is called a sexist attitude is noted at some places in his massive volume of writing.
How can this apparent clash of principle and attitude be reconciled? It would be a complicated and possibly useless matter to cross-examine Augustine in terms of any understanding of gender relationships and of sexism today, because his cultural world was so different to ours. Even the term and concept of sexism was not current in his time.
To give a few examples of the difference between the fourth century of Augustine and the Western culture of today: firstly, marriage of a man to a woman of a lower social class was not legal in the time of Augustine. This probably meant that the cohabitation of Augustine with his concubine of over twelve years was as far as that relationship could have legally proceeded. Furthermore, the sharing of heart and soul that today is considered as a loving relationship between the sexes was in the time of Augustine thought best to be realised between two male friends. A male did not socialise with a female, or expect sensitive or intelligent conversation from one. A close relationship of Augustine with another male involved his unnamed friend from his years of childhood in Tagaste, who died when Augustine was back in his native town at the age of nineteen years in 375.
Augustine said that this was "a friendship sweeter to me than all the joys of life." (Confessions 4, 4-7) Jesus envisioned eternal life for every human being regardless of their gender. He recognised a partnership of equality between women and men in the New Covenant. In practice, women were among the closest associates of Jesus. After his death on Calvary they continued to preach and furnish material support to the mission that was continued in His Name.
The early history of the Christian church demonstrates the active role women played in sustaining and disseminating the faith. Even so, numerous apostolic letters exhibit the ambiguity of early attitudes toward women (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:3, 5; 1 Timothy 2:12; Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:22-33). In later generations, certainly by the time of Augustine, women preachers were viewed with extreme suspicion and the role of women in the church had been minimised to their care and instruction of women and girls.
Although commanding all Christians to be equally strong in avoiding vice, the Latin Church Fathers, among whom Augustine ranks as the most influential, emphasised this very strongly for women. These Church Fathers accepted most of the stereotypes about women that were espoused by the late Roman Empire. (The practice of leaving unwanted female babies to die by starvation was one general exception.)
The image in the Bible of "the woman" (Eva) as the one who convinced Adam to follow her example was only countered by the vision of Mary as "the most pure of all virgins." Yet the cult of Mary grew tremendously in the early and central Middle Ages, often in a way that portrayed her as like god. By comparison all living females were looked upon as being daughters of the fallen woman of the Garden of Eden.
In the Book of Genesis, Eve was both the one tempted and the one who then went on to tempt Adam. In the taboo-like status inferred and attributed by numerous Church teachers to many matters involving human sexuality, the role of wife and mother came to be seen as inferior to that of a virgin, or of a widow who opted not to marry a second time.
Like his Christian contemporaries, Augustine extolled the virtues of the life of virgins. Even so, albeit somewhat reluctantly, Augustine did manage to claim an honourable place for marriage in the developing Christian culture of the West. This however was not one of his strongest achievements as a theologian, with possibly his reflecting back on his own earlier life negatively overcoming his theological objectivity in this issue.
Note. Many links about this topic are available on the Internet, but are of a greatly varying quality and scholarship - a topic that often has generated more heat than light. Because this matter has gained major interest only in recent decades of the 1,570 years since Augustine's death, it is unlikely that anything yet written on the subject will be judged as being a definitive contribution on this topic in forthcoming years. The small band of current top-flight scholars of Augustine have really yet to address the issue thoroughly.
Feminist Interpretations of Augustine. A book review by Colleen McCluskey of St Louis University, U.S.A. http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=12824 AN2331