Rewriting the Bible - Spirituality and First Wave
The first wave of feminism in the United States began formally with the
Seneca Falls (NY) Declaration of 1848. Women in the U.S. at this time
had few if any property rights, rights of inheritance, rights to their
children in the event of a divorce or even the right to keep the money
they themselves earned. They were not allowed to speak in public and needed
a male convener at their own convention on women's rights.
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton included in the Declaration of Sentiments
and Resolutions a right to suffrage (that is, to vote), it was not even
taken seriously. Yet many women of this age were strong-minded and strong-willed,
and some of them saw a connection between their legal status, or more
precisely their lack of legal status, and the role of women in the church.
The women most often recognized as first-wave feminists, with the exception
of former slaves like Sojourner Truth, came from the middle or owning
classes. The importance of women's role in the church came from a bourgeois
bias poor and working-class women were far more concerned with
basic survival issues. This is not to imply that the recognition of the
repression of women within the church was a trivial topic; in fact it
is an important one. However, a class divide still exists today in feminism
and, similarly, many poor and working-class women view a mainstream church
as a source of strength and affirmation even in the face of its rampant
A number of first-wave feminist women, including Lucretia Mott and Susan
B. Anthony, came from Quaker or similarly liberal churches where they
were taught independence and allowed much freedom in their early years.
Others, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, were educated
far more than the average woman of their day.
The majority of the early feminists in the U.S. were Christians. A few
considered themselves atheists or deists. Matilda Joslyn Gage was an early
agitator against the Church, which she and many of the early feminists
distinguished from the religion of Christianity. Then as now, some politically
powerful factions of the Christian church were calling for a union of
church and state. Gage wrote and spoke vehemently against this. She was
also an early visionary of the Goddess movement, expressing her revolutionary
views in Women, Church, and State (1893):
To the theory of 'God the Father,' shorn of
the divine attribute of motherhood, is the world beholden for its most
degrading beliefs, its most infamous practices. Dependent upon, and identified
with, lost motherhood is the "Lost Name" of ancient writers
and occultists. When the femininity of the divine is once again acknowledged,
the "Lost Name" will be discovered and holiness (wholeness)
of divinity manifested." [Gage]
1888, the Church of England published the King James Version of the Bible
based on recommendations from a committee of Biblical scholars. Angered
generally at the representation of women in this version and specifically
that female Biblical scholar Julia Smith was not consulted, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage and several other noted feminists published
The Woman's Bible in 1895. The Woman's Bible consists of
first wave feminists' commentary on the specific sections of the King
James Bible that discuss women. Stanton, for example, argues that Genesis
was allegorical and that the first version of the "Adam and Eve"
story held woman to be man's equal. The second version, she contends,
was written specifically to justify the denigration of women. In fact,
she argues, the second version did not even make sense.
It is evident that some wily writer, seeing
the perfect equality of man and woman in the first chapter, felt it important
for the dignity and dominion of man to effect women's subordination in
some way. To do this a spirit of evil must be introduced which at once
proved itself stronger than the spirit of good, and man's supremacy was
based on the downfall of all that had just been pronounced very good.
This spirit of evil evidently existed before the supposed fall of man,
hence woman was not the origin of sin as so often asserted. [Stanton]
The adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same"
applies. Though the precise rights the first U.S. feminists were fighting
for have changed, the religious arguments made against them sound strikingly
familiar. They were reviled by orthodox churches as impious, heretical,
self-serving, and mannish. Our foremothers displayed great fortitude and
wisdom in their writings, though they were often well ahead of their times.
It is interesting to note that the original writings of the time also
include references to "Clerical Appeals" (that is, official
church bulletins) against abolition and temperance. Of these, the modern
Christian church lays claim only to opposing feminism.
- Dubois, Ellen Carol (ed.). Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: correspondence, writings, speeches.
Schocken Books, 1981.
- Grube, Melinda. "Challenging the
Religious Right," Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation website, 2005.
Available as of 10/28/2006 at http://www.matildajoslyngage.org/right.htm.
- Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Comments on
Genesis Elizabeth Cady Stanton: part of the The Woman's
Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others," Women's History
at about.com, 2006. Available as of 10/28/2006 at http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_list.htm.
- Schneir, Miriam (ed.). Feminism: the
essential historical writings. Vintage Books, 1994.