Many Christians dismiss the women’s liberation movement as a kooky modern fad. Opinions are formed from news reports about disgruntled women who march in front of all-male taverns, decry marriage and the family, and rail against “man, the oppressor.” This image of women’s lib is unfortunate; it misses the whole point of the movement and encourages the widespread suspicion that Christianity and feminism are incompatible.

The women’s rights movement is nothing new. It is a resurgence of the drive for equal rights that was sparked in the last century by women who were active in the abolitionist cause. Often rebuffed and ridiculed in their efforts to secure freedom for slaves, women were jolted into a realization that blacks were not the only ones whose individual rights and human dignity were being ignored, and the American feminist movement arose.

The original women’s rights movement was fervently religious. For the most part, nineteenth-and early twentieth-century feminists professed Christianity and took the Bible seriously. When critics hurled theological arguments against them, they sought to answer with well-reasoned rebuttals. Christian feminists of the 1970s may find it helpful to see how they waged the battle.

Anne Hutchinson had already asked during colonial days “that the same rights of individual judgment upon religious questions should be accorded to woman which the Reformation had already secured to man.” In this same spirit, the nineteenth-century feminists diligently studied the Bible for themselves rather than unquestioningly accept traditional interpretations. “It is a pity that those who would recommend the Bible as the revealed will of the all-wise and benevolent Creator should uniformly quote it on the side of tyranny and oppression,” complained a speaker at the 1854 Philadelphia Woman’s Rights Convention. She and her colleagues were not blaming Christianity as a whole for holding back woman’s progress but rather certain forms of Christianity that they felt misinterpreted and misused Scripture.

One of the men attending that convention said that many more people would favor equality for women were it not for “the Bible problem.” He claimed that the masses of the American people accepted the Bible as God’s revelation of his will and were convinced that Scripture decreed the inequality of the sexes; therefore, what more could be said?

The feminists had wrestled with this challenge for a long time, and they knew the matter must be settled in their own minds as well as in public debate. For decades, Bible texts had been used to prevent women from getting an education, speaking in public, voting, obtaining legal rights, and so on. Yet at the same time women were told that Christianity had raised them to a level never before known. Seeing the apparent contradiction, feminists concluded that indeed Christianity had done much for them, but it was surely not the same Christianity that was being preached by many misogynistic clergymen.

Article continues below

Would God be so unfair as to create women with yearnings for full development as human beings and then insist that such development be blocked? An early Bryn Mawr College president once told an alumnae gathering that as a child she had grudgingly accepted church-propagated ideas of female inferiority and prayed often about it. She told God that if it were true that girls could not attend college she couldn’t bear to live in such an unjust world and begged him to kill her.

But how could one deal with the biblical passages that seemed to teach woman’s subordination? The early feminists did not shy away from this or dismiss the difficulties as irrelevant (as is sometimes done in the new feminism of today). They faced the subject head-on, and their arguments may be classified under the following headings:

1. What Creation teaches. The feminists liked to refer to the first chapter of Genesis, pointing out that God created both male and female human beings in his image and gave them joint dominion over the earth. Alluding to Psalm 8, Quaker abolitionist Angelina Grimke wrote that woman (like man, created in God’s image) was “crowned with glory and honor; created only a little lower than the angels—not, as is almost universally assumed, a little lower than man.” Woman at creation was given the same honor, privileges, and responsibilities as man.

Critics who opposed equality for women bypassed Genesis 1 and preferred to stress Genesis 2. This chapter clearly taught, they insisted, that woman was created for man and that man was superior to woman. Wasn’t Eve given to Adam to be his helpmate? Wasn’t it obvious that God intended the woman to honor and serve the man rather than to have her own independent existence?

No, said Christian feminists. They could not believe that woman had been created as an afterthought, solely for man’s benefit. One way they refuted this, interpretation was to argue that the words translated “an help meet for him” could just as well be rendered “a helper like unto himself.” The expression did not signify weakness, subservience, and inferiority. (After all, God himself is spoken of in Scripture as our helper.) Rather, the second chapter of Genesis showed that God intended companionship between men and women as equal moral and intelligent beings, alike in their dignity and worth before God.

Article continues below

2. The writings of St. Paul. Virtually no public debate on women’s rights took place without somebody’s insistence that Paul’s epistles proved equality for women was unscriptural. Often quoted were First Corinthians 11:1–16; 14:34–36; Ephesians 5:22–33; First Timothy 2:8–15; and Titus 2:3–5.

In answering, feminists raised new questions about traditional interpretations. Was there really anything uniquely Christian about a wife’s subjection to her husband? “It has been done by law and public opinion,” completely apart from the Christian faith, pointed out Lucretia Mott. And how could First Timothy 2:11–15 with its use of a rabbinical-type argument for prohibiting woman’s teaching and leadership insist that woman was subordinate simply because she was the last created? Catharine Waugh McCulloch argued that both Scripture and science indicated an ascending scale in which the higher forms of life were created last. On the basis of such reasoning, she pointed out, one could turn the argument around and insist that the men obey the women! She might also have asked whether Adam should be considered inferior to the animals since he was made after them.)

The argument that woman was by nature deficient and subordinate to man because of being last created and first to fall into sin had been discussed much earlier by Judith Murray (under the pen name Constantia). In an eighteenth-century publication entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” she tried to show that woman’s being “first in the transgression” could be viewed as a point in her favor. Why? Because it required a personal appearance of Satan himself, disguised in celestial-like beauty, to persuade her to sin! In contrast, Adam had sinned after seeing his wife’s loss of innocence and her failure to attain the sought-after wisdom. Yet he defied what he knew to be God’s command, given directly to him, and was “influenced by no other motive than a bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman!” Wouldn’t this make Adam seem the greater sinner? asked Constantia.

The early feminists viewed the so-called curse on woman in Genesis 3:16 (often cited along with the Pauline texts) as a prophecy rather than a divine decree. In this verse God was simply describing what the future would hold for women as a result of sin’s entrance into the world. Catharine McCulloch said that to insist the passage meant women were under a command to obey men and suffer throughout the ages would be as absurd as insisting that what was said to Adam required all men ever after to perspire when they worked and to eat only herbs!

Article continues below

Paul’s teachings in First Corinthians 11 were sometimes twisted to imply that woman is to be dependent on man instead of on the Lord. This the early feminists strongly rejected. They insisted that the Scriptures uniformly teach dependence upon God and not on any “arm of flesh.”

On the other hand, Galatians 3:28 was a favorite text of the feminists. These words from Angelina Grimke in 1837 have a decidedly modern ring: “I recognize no rights but human rights—I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female.”

3. The cultural-historical approach. In treating New Testament texts that posed difficulty, women Bible scholars carefully sought out the historical circumstances that lay behind them. They were aware that the early Christian Church could not toss aside Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Middle Eastern customers without bringing on itself disgrace. And they realized that much of Paul’s advice on the conduct of women—for example, the covering of the head in worship—was designed to avoid giving such offense. Likewise, the state of confusion that characterized the Corinthian church seemed to be the key to explaining Paul’s instructions that women keep silent in church gatherings and ask questions at home. To insist that this practice must be followed throughout all time seemed unreasonable. Seekers after women’s rights felt that many isolated texts weren’t applicable to the modern world and were never intended as universal, binding divine commands.

Women who studied Greek also pointed out instances where Bible translators showed a bias toward the male sex. One example was that the word translated “servant” to describe Phoebe (Rom. 16:1, KJV), a word used by Paul nearly two dozen times, is everywhere else translated “minister” or “deacon” (when used for men).

4. The women of the Bible. Examples of women who loved and served God in both Old and New Testament times were often cited. The early feminists liked to point out that women like Miriam, Deborah, the prophetess Huldah, Anna, the woman of Samaria, Priscilla, Phoebe, the daughters of Phillip, and others like them did not remain docilely behind the scenes serving in silence. Rather women had public ministries and duties in church and state, having been guided by God to undertake such responsibilities. Surely the letter to Titus, exhorting women to be “keepers at home,” could not have been intended to limit all women in all places for all time.

Article continues below

5. Christ’s attitude toward women. Christian feminists noted that Jesus treated men and women followers equally during his earthly ministry, and they suggested keeping this in mind in approaching the question of women’s roles and rights. True, Christ didn’t give specific instructions on such things as women’s suffrage; but (wrote Catharine McCulloch in the first decade of this century) “Christianity will solve these newer problems if we study the spirit of Christ’s words and then apply the treatment most in accord with His life and teachings.”

6. The shared humanity of men and women. Feminists found it hard to believe that a loving God had created separate specific spheres in which persons were to be confined throughout life (i.e., the domestic circle for women, the world-at-large for men). Wasn’t there a deep desire for spiritual freedom and mental development in all human beings? Why should that desire be nurtured in men and smothered in women? “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL,” wrote Sarah Moore Grimke in the 1830s as she replied to a circulating pastoral letter that condemned her public lecturing against slavery. “They are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman to do.”

Her sister Angelina Grimke expressed similar sentiments: “This regulation of duty by the mere circumstance of sex … has led to [a] multifarious train of evils.” She gave as examples such ideas as that “manliness” meant sternness and the characteristics of a warrior, whereas women were expected to exhibit softness, weakness, docility, and a desire to dress up “as a doll” and serve men as mere drudges.

The question of “spheres” (today we speak of “roles”) was widely discussed. Lucy Stone summarized the feelings of many when she said in one of her speeches:

Wendell Phillips says, “The best and greatest thing one is capable of doing, that is his sphere.” I have confidence in the Father to believe that when He gives us the capacity to do anything He does not make a blunder. Leave women, then, to find their sphere. And do not tell us before we are born even, that our province is to cook dinners, darn stockings, and sew on buttons.… I know not what you believe of God, but I believe He gave yearnings and longings to be filled, and that He did not mean all our time should be devoted to feeding and clothing the body.
Article continues below

Long before this, Constantia’s pamphlets expressed similar thoughts. While men insisted that women would be happier and more pleasing to God if they confined themselves to household matters, she had tried to show that education for women could be spiritually beneficial. Astronomy, philosophy, natural science, and geography could increase a woman’s adoration for God and his works. Therefore, why should female education be considered contrary to his will?

7. The general spirit of Christianity. Christian feminists pointed out that such characteristics as love, peace, meekness, and kindness are never categorized in Scripture as “feminine virtues”; all Christians are expected to display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23). They saw the error in men’s belief that ambition, reason, debate, and even physical force made up the male code, whereas women were expected “to win everything by peace and love,” with gentleness and benevolence. This distorted view prompted Angelina Grimke to ask if women shouldn’t then be considered the superior sex—since moral power is certainly on a much higher level than physical force!

Hypocrisy was another matter that couldn’t be reconciled with the spirit of Christianity. Yet religious leaders were telling women that although God required submission and obedience to husbands, wives could nevertheless find all sorts of clever schemes by which they could get their own way. “Rule by obedience, and by submission sway,” was common advice—encouraging wives to pretend submission while guilefully undermining male authority to carry out their own ends. The feminists exposed this for the ugly dishonesty it was.

Lastly, the early feminists knew that Christianity is a public matter, not something to be hidden away. They knew Jesus Christ wanted his good news to spread and that he had clearly spoken against burying talents and hiding one’s light under a bushel. Persuaded that Christ intended this for women as well as men, they resented being told that “the influence of a woman is to be private and unobtrusive.” They wanted their lights to shine brightly for their Lord and were determined that this light would not be smothered by a “bushel” marked Woman’s Place. For this desire they were cruelly ridiculed and reviled. Yet they kept on working, writing, and waiting, knowing that someday their point would be made.

Article continues below

That point hasn’t come yet, but perhaps it is much closer than ever before. For this reason, it is profitable to explore the message the early Christian feminists have left for us. The vision of men and women as co-sharers of God’s grace and co-workers in Christ’s kingdom is a timely message for the 1970s.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.