The Degraded Status of Woman in the Bible
The Degraded Status of Woman in the Bible
Source: Library of Congress. "Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848–1921." 2006 〈http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/gt; (accessed June 20, 2006).
About the Author: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was one of the most influential women's rights proponents in America during the nineteenth century. Stan-ton was a prolific writer on women's issues and she worked as an organizer on a broad range of women's issues, including female suffrage, property rights, temperance, and the liberalization of existing divorce laws.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton advanced a number of causes in the course of her life, all of which were tied to the advancement of the position of women in American society. In the early portion of her career as an activist, her chief pursuit was securing the abolition of slavery; Stanton's husband, Henry Stanton, was a noted anti-slavery orator at the time of their marriage in 1840. It is a feature of Stanton's later work in the women's rights movements that she could draw upon the experience of raising her seven children when advancing arguments for the improvement of the status of women in America.
Stanton's first significant organizational success for the women's movement was the first national women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in July, 1848. In April of that year, the state of New York had passed its first Married Women's Property Act, a law that granted married woman distinct legal control over property that they either brought into a marriage or inherited during the course of a marriage. The Declaration of Sentiments that was published as a confirmation of the position of the Seneca Falls convention delegates regarding the demanded changes in the place of women in American society was authored by Stanton. The first broad articulation of the goals of the American women rights movement, the Declaration called for wholesale reform of property, voting, and divorce laws.
In 1851, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), who shared Stanton's passions for suffrage and property law reform. Stanton and Anthony remained influential at the head of the women's rights movement in the United States until their respective deaths. Stanton was a vigorous debater of women's issues in many venues throughout the United States from the end of the Civil War to the 1880s. Stanton's writings were a fundamental component of the philosophy underlying the American women's movement well into the twentieth century.
Stanton was a well-educated woman for the times and her various writings reflect a considerable understanding of Christian theology. Like many leaders of the feminist movements that grew throughout North America in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanton did not profess a conventional faith in God and Christian worship. Organized religion was an institution that she viewed as one that limited the ability of women to find their true place in society. The chief target of attack in her 1895 work, the Woman's Bible, was the relationship between the expressions of Christian faith and the subordination of women through church practices.
The Pentateuch makes woman a mere afterthought in creation; the author of sin; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and claims divine authority for this fourfold bondage, this wholesale desecration of the mothers of the race. While some admit that this invidious language of the Old Testament is disparaging to woman, they claim that the New Testament honors her. But the letters of the apostles to the churches, giving directions for the discipline of women, are equally invidious, as the following texts prove:
"Wives, obey your husbands. If you would know anything, ask your husbands at home. Let your women keep silence in the churches, with their heads covered. Let not your women usurp authority over the man, for as Christ is the head of the church so is the man the head of the woman. Man was prior in creation, the woman was of the man, therefore shall be in subjection to him."
No symbols or metaphors can twist honor or dignity out of such sentiments. Here, in plain English, woman's position is as degraded as in the Old Testament.
As the Bible is in every woman's hands, and she is trained to believe it "the word of God," it is impossible to describe her feelings of doubt and distrust, as she awakes to her status in the scale of being; the helpless, hopeless position assigned her by the Creator, according to the Scriptures.
Men can never understand the fear of everlasting punishment that fills the souls of women and children. The orthodox religion, as drawn from the Bible and expounded by the church, is enough to drive the most imaginative and sensitive natures to despair and death. Having conversed with many young women in sanatoriums, insane asylums, and in the ordinary walks of life, suffering with religions melancholia; having witnessed the agony of young mothers in childbirth, believing they were cursed of God in their maternity; and with painful memories of my own fears and bewilderment in girlhood, I have endeavored to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at last that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church. I saw the first step to this end was to convince them that the Bible was neither written nor inspired by the Creator of the Universe, the Infinite Intelligence, the soul and center of Life, Love and Light; but that the Bible emanated, in common with all church literature, from the brain of man. Seeing that just in proportion as women are devout believers in the dogmas of the church their lives are shadowed with fears of the unknown, the less they believe, the better for their own happiness and development. It was the religious devotee that threw her child under the car of Juggernaut, that gave her body a living sacrifice on the funeral pyre of her husband, to please God and save souls; for the same reason the devotees of our day build churches and parsonages, educate young men for the ministry, endow theological seminaries, make surplices and embroider slippers for the priesthood.
It may not be amiss for man to accept the Bible, as it honors and exalts him. It is a title deed for him to inherit the earth. According to the Pentateuch he communes with the gods, in performing miracles he is equal in power and glory with his Creator, can command the sun and moon to stand still to lengthen the day and lighten the night, if need be, to finish his battles. He can stand in the most holy places in the temples, where woman may never enter; he can eat the consecrated bread and meat, denied her; in fact, there is a suspicion of unworthiness and uncleanness seductively infused into the books of Moses against the whole female sex, in animal as well as human life. The first born male kid is the only fit burnt offering to the Lord; if preceded by a female it is unfit.
As the Bible gives us two opposite accounts of the creation of woman and her true position, so the church gives two opposite interpretations of the will of the God concerning her true sphere of action. When ecclesiastics wish to rouse woman's enthusiasm to lift a church debt or raise a pastor's salary, then they try to show her that she owes all she is and all the liberty she enjoys to the Bible and Christian religion; they dwell on the great honor God conferred on the sex in choosing a woman to be the mother of his only begotten son.
But when woman asks for equal rights and privileges in the church, to fill the office of pastor, elder, deacon or trustee, to be admitted as a delegate to the synods, general assemblies or conferences, then the bishops quote texts to show that all these positions are forbidden by the Bible. And so completely have these clerical tergiversations perverted the religious element in woman's nature, and blinded her to her individual interests, that she does not see that her religious bondage is the source of her degradation.
The honor and worship accorded the ideal mother, of the ideal man, has done naught to elevate the real mother, of the real man. So far from woman owing what liberty she does enjoy, to the Bible and the church, they have been the greatest block in the way of her development. The vantage ground woman holds to-day is due to all the forces of civilization, to science, discovery, invention, rationalism, the religion of humanity chanted in the golden rule round the globe centuries before the Christian religion was known. It is not to Bibles, prayer books, catechisms, liturgies, the canon law and church creeds and organizations, that woman owes one step in her progress, for all these alike have been hostile, and still are, to her freedom and development.
Canon Charles Kingsley well said, long ago: "This will never be a good world for woman, until the last remnant of the canon law is swept from the face of the earth." It is the insidious influence of this law that degrades woman to-day in social life and the state as well as in the church; giving us one moral code for man, another for woman, endowing him with political freedom, with all the rights that belong to a citizen of a republic, while she is a slave, a subject, a mere pariah in the state.
When the canon law with its icy fingers touched the old Roman civil law it robbed woman of many privileges she before enjoyed. The old English common law, too, reflects many of its hideous features and has infused its deadly poison into the statute laws of every state in this new republic. For fifty years the women of this nation have tried to dam up this deadly stream that poisons all their lives, but thus far they have lacked the insight or courage to follow it back to its source and there strike the blow at the fountain of all tyranny, religious superstition, priestly power and the canon law. We may learn the effect of the canon on the civil law from the opinion of Lord Brougham. He says the English common law for woman is a disgrace to the civilization and Christianity of the nineteenth century…. The simple story of the Scotch peasant's wife shows how the Book impresses a thoughtful woman, not blinded by fear, to express her real opinions.
Sitting in her cottage door at the twilight hour reading her Bible, the bishop passing by, said, "My good woman, do you enjoy that book?" "Nay, nay, Reverend Sir, as I read of all the misery woman brought into the world, and for which there is no remedy, I am ashamed that I was born a woman. I am sorry that the good Lord ever wrote the Book, and told the men all he has concerning us; it gives them an excuse for the contempt and cruelty with which they treat us." Yea, verily, here is the source and center of woman's degradation; out of these ideas grew witchcraft and celibacy, that made woman for ages the helpless victim of man's lust and power; out of these ideas grew the monstrous delusion of the curse and uncleanness of motherhood, that required all women at one time to stand up before the whole congregation "to be churched" as it was called, after the birth of a child, returning thanks to the Lord for her safety. As if peril and suffering were part of the eternal law, and not the result of its violation through our own ignorance and folly, and our artificial habits of life. However, there are some considerations and characters in the Book that can give woman a few crumbs of comfort. The first chapter of Genesis has several valuable suggestions. "God said, Let us make man in our own image. Male and female made he them, and gave them dominion over the earth, and all that dwells therein." "Let us," shows plurality in the Godhead, a heavenly mother as well as a heavenly father, the feminine as well as the masculine element. Without these two forces in equilibrium, there could have been no perpetuation of life in the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms; as necessary in the material world as the positive and negative electricity, the centripetal and centrifugal forces. "He gave them dominion over everything." Here the equality of the sexes is recognized, and this idea is echoed back from the New Testament. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." We not only have this broad principle of equality enunciated, but we have some grand types of women presented for our admiration. Deborah for her courage and military prowess. Huldah for her learning, prophetic insight, and statesmanship, seated in the college in Jerusalem, where Josiah the king sends his cabinet ministers to consult her as to the policy of his government. Esther, who ruled as well as reigned with Ahasuerus the king, and Vashti, who scorned the apostle's command, "Wives, obey your husbands." She refused the king's command to grace with her presence his reveling court. Tennyson pays this tribute to her virtue and dignity:
"O Vashti! noble Vashti,
Summoned forth, she kept her state
And left the drunken king to brawl
In Shushan underneath his palms."
These characters and principles would furnish good texts for sermons and examples for aspiring young women in the churches, but the sons of Levi shy round all these interesting facts, and maintain a discreet silence, but they should awake woman to her true position as an equal factor in the scale of being. We never have any sermons to inspire woman with self-respect and a desire for her own higher development. The cardinal virtue for her to cultivate is self-sacrifice and an humble submission to the discipline of the church. As a badge of her subjection she is always required to appear in church with her head covered….
At the time Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote these words, she was eighty years of age and nearing the end of her long career as a women's rights advocate. Her blunt critique of the Bible as, among other observations, the product of self-serving men and not God is an approach that in 1895 was nothing short of heretical. Organized religion, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, was then the most established institution in American society.
The primary significance of the Woman's Bible has two separate but related aspects. The first is that the work was published at all, given the prominent position of organized religion in American society. The second was that the attacks directed by Stanton against both Christian religion and the Bible neatly parallel the broader arguments made by the women's rights movements against other societal institutions in this period, in particular marriage and restrictive divorce laws, the right to vote, and the right of women to freely deal with property. In this second aspect, the struggles of women against the inflexible institutions of the Church are a metaphor for the broader women's rights battles.
Stanton's reference to the Pentateuch is often referred to in Christian faiths as the law of Moses as represented in the first five Books of the Old Testament. Mirroring many issues advanced by the women's movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Old Testament has numerous references to women as chattels of men. Stanton's analysis of the restrictions placed upon women in these ancient texts is at the root of her argument that such restrictions could not have been the wish of the Creator, but were instead the creation of men.
Stanton also challenges the argument that the New Testament essentially balanced the more troubling laws of the Old Testament through specific passages that honored women. Stanton described such arguments as ones intended to placate women, not enlighten them. Stanton characterizes the portrayal of women in the Bible as akin to props for the male oriented narratives, as there are in her reckoning no true female role models in the Bible to illustrate the strength and the character of women on their own terms. Stanton's reference to the practice of 'churching' and the notion that child birth renders a woman unclean underscores her disdain for the attitudes of organized religion to women.
The Women's Bible represents a culmination of the propositions first advanced by Stanton in the Declaration of Sentiments published after the first women's rights convention in 1848, and reiterated by her colleague Matilda Joselyn Gage and others in the 1876 Declaration of Rights, a later milestone of the women's rights movement. Stanton, Anthony and Gage co-authored the History of Women's Suffrage between 1881 and 1889, which also developed similar arguments. Stanton and her fellow women's rights leaders were effective in marshalling sympathetic publishers to print their works and to ensure a significant degree of circulation throughout the United States.
Many social commentators have noted that the influence of organized religion has declined in modern American society if influence is assessed by the indicators of church attendance and declared religious affiliation. In a converse relationship to that known at the time of the publication of the Woman's Bible, women have a greater role today in the traditional Protestant faiths than they have ever had in church history. In 1895, a female minister was unheard of in most mainstream churches; only the Quakers (Society of Friends) and the Salvation Army regularly permitted women to minister to their adherents. By 1980, both the United Methodist and the Episcopal Churches were examples of denominations with significant numbers of female priests.
What Stanton and her contemporaries called the women's rights movement is now equated to the modern feminist movement. Feminist concepts engaged significant public interest from the 1960s onward through the writings and public statements of persons such as Betty Friedan (1921–2006) and Gloria Steinem (b. 1934). In contrast to Stanton, modern feminism has centered significant attention on issues related to sexuality and gender, such as the availability of abortion on demand.
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Malone, Mary T. Women and Christianity: From the Reformation to the 21st Century. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2003.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman's Bible. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
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Wall Street Journal. "Church Ladies." October 21, 2005 〈http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110007439〉 (accessed June 18, 2006).