The feminist challenge

The 19th century brought a revolution in the understanding of women’s nature and role in society. Throughout the century, two ways of thinking about women were in tension with each other. One way of thinking saw women as human, and focused on the full citizenship that women ought to share with men. The other way of thinking saw women as female, and focused on the special gifts that women brought to their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

In this ferment (and clash) of ideas, the word ‘feminism’ was born (so we should be aware that this ‘new’ word is not a mid-20th century creation, but was coined a century before we were born). Here’s one definition of a feminist: “A person who is in favor of, and who promotes, the equality of women with men, a person who advocates and practices treating women primarily as human persons (as men are so treated) and willingly contravenes social customs in so acting.”  (Leonard Swidler in ‘Jesus Was a Feminist’)

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The Women’s Bible

Women's Bible cover

‘Comments on Genesis’ by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Introduction by Jone Johnson Lewis*

In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a committee of other women published The Woman’s Bible. In 1888, the Church of England published its Revised Version of the Bible, the first major revision in English since the King James Bible of 1611. Dissatisfied with the translation and with the failure of the committee to consult with or include Biblical scholar Julia Smith, the ‘reviewing committee’ published their comments on the Bible. Their intent was to highlight the small part of the Bible that focused on women, as well as to correct Biblical interpretation which they believed was biased unfairly against women.

The committee did not consist of trained Biblical scholars, but rather interested women who took both Biblical study and women’s rights seriously. Their individual commentaries, usually a few paragraphs about a group of related verses, were published though they did not always agree with one another nor did they write with the same level of scholarship or writing skill. The commentary is less valuable as strictly academic Biblical scholarship, but far more valuable as it reflected the thought of many women (and men) of the time towards religion and the Bible.  It probably goes without saying that the book met with considerable criticism for its liberal view on the Bible.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton older

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) loved the church, but held it accountable for oppressing women by using the Bible to enforce their subordination. With her good friend Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), she became one of the most famous women in America. When she published The Women’s Bible, her own translation of the Bible, with commentary on passages offensive to women, a backlash diminished her stature – but prophets always pay a price, and today her views are widely accepted.

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