Christianity and women’s rights


In some ways religion helped women advance: The Quakers, the Unitarians, and the mainline Protestant “holiness” or “revivalist” movements provided ideas, ideals, organizations – and women who became leaders.

• Unitarian beliefs grew out of Enlightenment thinking: God gave all human beings the gift of reason; science and philosophy can exist alongside faith in God; human nature is not innately corrupt; no religion has a monopoly on the truth; the Bible was written by humans who lived in particular cultures and were not always divinely inspired.

• Quakers believed that all human beings have access to the ‘Inner Light’, or the Spirit of God within themselves; that revelation did not stop with the Bible, but is ongoing, and comes to both men and women; that churches should not be led by hierarchies, but by the ‘priesthood of all believes’; and that with faith comes the necessity of action in the world. In the early Quaker movement, women ‘s roles were equal to men’s, and women received leadership training. By the by the mid 18th century, Quaker ideology and practice had regressed, but leaders like Elias Hicks, a Quaker and early abolitionist, returned to the ideas that the ‘Inner Light’ is the most important principle for Quakers; that all people are equal before God. Hicks also dismissed the concept of original sin.

• ‘Holiness’ theology centered in personal experience, and in the conviction that salvation can be received through faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit was given to women as to men, so women should speak and could. After conversion, individuals should become holier, or ‘sanctified’ and thus less tempted to sin. Holiness groups organized Bible studies, advocated moral reform, and supported the abolition and women’s rights movements. The movement encouraged growth of women’s voluntary associations, where they had their own space, gained practice in organizing, and leadership roles. However, Holiness churches tended to set up rules of behavior, to prevent opportunities for sin – such as no drinking, dancing, gambling. On the other hand, as time went on many evangelicals (especially in the north) came to regard slavery as the sum of all sins.

In some ways religion hindered women’s progress: After the Civil War, the traditional beliefs of women in the mainline religions came into conflict with the ideals of more progressive feminists. Some Holiness clergy encouraged the ‘feminine’ qualities of self denial and domestic virtues; some taught that women differ from men but are morally superior. Eventually, the majority of feminists narrowed their goal to achieving the vote; the changes still necessary to bring women closer to full equality were put off to the next century.

The Grimke Sisters and Frances Willard

What did the ‘holiness’ and ‘revivalist’ movements
bring to Christians in the 19th century?

Which ideas and/or experiences from these movements appeal to you?

Which ideas are not appealing?

If you had lived in the 19th century, would you have identified as a traditionalist
or a progressive in your religion?  (Why?)

 Grimke sisters THE GRIMKE SISTERS

Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimké (1805–1879), born into a slave-owning southern family, left the south and their family’s religion because of their opposition to slavery. Both sisters eventually joined the Hicksite Quakers. (The Hicksites saw the Bible as secondary to the cultivation of the Inner Light; thought traditional Quakers were sacrificing their Christian spirituality for material success; and viewed the market economy as corrupting. ) The Grimkes became well known after they spoke to the Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and their public speaking opened the door to other women speakers. When they spoke in New England, the Congregational Minister’s organization denounced them as unwomanly and unchristian. Turning toward feminism, Sarah wrote Equality of the Sexes, arguing that men treated women like slaves and that scripture is subject to human misinterpretation.


Frances Willard
(1839-1898), who grew up a Methodist, was college educated and worked as a teacher, eventually becoming a college administrator. Influenced by the call to holiness, she became a suffragist 10 years after her original conversion. Originally Willard believed the women’s suffrage movement was unwomanly and unscriptural, but she came to think it could give women a weapon to use for good causes – such as temperance, prison reform for women, dress reform, and shorter work days. Willard became involved with the WCTU in 1874 (after being harassed out of her position as dean at Northwestern), and went on to become a speaker and evangelist. After she became president of the WCTU, she convinced the group to support suffrage. Her protégé Anna Howard Shaw, a Methodist minister, led the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association as it narrowed down its objectives to the vote.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Matilda Joslyn Gage

Is there any role for ‘free thinking’ in faith/religion?

Is there any role for faith in ‘free thinking’?


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was the inspiration for many 19th century feminists and ‘freethinkers’ (freethinkers formed their opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition; the term came describe anyone whose religious opinions differed from established beliefs). Influenced by the Unitarian Richard Price, Wollstonecraft argued that moral laws can be deduced by means of reason; that reason is not just a male characteristic; and since women were rational, they should be educated.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826 – 1898), who was born into a family whose home was a station on the underground railroad, became a suffragist in 1852. A writer, thinker, and lobbyist, she thought science proved Christianity a myth, and challenged the church for limiting women’s freedom. She also objected to the church’s constant image of a patriarchal and masculine God. Together with Stanton and Anthony, Gage wrote the History of Woman Suffrage (making little mention of the assistance religious women had given to the cause). In Woman Church and State (1893) Gage discussed child pornography along with physical and sexual crimes against women. In reaction, anti-obscenity laws were used to threaten her. Unlike other feminists, Gage never argued that women are more compassionate or morally purer than men. She wrote, “Slavery and prostitution, persecutions for heresy; the inquisition with its six hundred modes of torture; the destruction of learning; the oppression of science; the systematized betrayal of confiding innocence; the recognized and unrecognized polygamy of man; the denial of woman of a right to herself, her thought, her wages, her children, to a share in the government which rules her, to an equal part in religious institutions– all these and a myriad more, are parts of what is known as a Christian civilization.”

Sojourner Truth and Lucy Stone

If you lived in the 19th century, would you have advocated human rights
(for males and females),

or would you have supported the tactical decision to advocate for black men first?



Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born Isabella Baumfree, she gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843. She was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. Her best-known extemporaneous speech on gender inequalities, Ain’t I a Woman?, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves.


Lucy Stone (1818 – 1893) was a prominent American orator and abolitionist, and a vocal advocate of women’s rights. In 1847, she became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She spoke out for women’s rights and against slavery at a time when women were discouraged and prevented from public speaking. Her organizational activities for the cause of women’s rights yielded tangible gains in the difficult political environment of the 19th century: she helped initiate the first National Women’s Rights Convention, and supported it annually, along with a number of other local, state and regional activist conventions; she spoke to a number of legislative bodies to promote laws giving more rights to women; she assisted in establishing the Women’s National Loyal League to help pass the Thirteenth Amendment and thereby abolish slavery; she helped form the American Woman Suffrage Association, which built support for a constitutional amendment by working for woman suffrage at the state and local levels. Stone wrote extensively about a wide range of women’s rights, publishing and distributing speeches by herself and others. In the long-running and influential Woman’s Journal, a weekly periodical that she founded and promoted, Stone aired both her own and differing views about women’s rights. Called ‘the orator’, the ‘morning star’ and the ‘heart and soul’ of the women’s rights movement, Stone influenced Susan B. Anthony to take up the cause of women’s suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that “Lucy Stone was the first person by whom the heart of the American public was deeply stirred on the woman question.” Together, Anthony, Stanton, and Stone have been called the 19th-century ‘triumvirate’ of women’s suffrage and feminism.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Why did it take women so long to get the vote?

In what ways has the women’s vote made a difference in American politics?
In our culture?

In what ways are things still the same for women?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton Susan B AnthonyELIZABETH CADY STANTON and SUSAN B. ANTHONY

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
(1815-1902) became a feminist as a child, when her brother (the heir) died; her father told her she could not take her brother’s role in his law firm. Dissatisfied with the education she had received, she read law in her father’s books. After marrying Henry Stanton, lawyer and abolitionist, she bore seven children. She was an active feminist even on her honeymoon, and lobbied for the Married Women’s Property Act and women’s rights throughout the 1850s. She met Susan B. Anthony 1851, and they became close friends and worked together – Stanton writing and speaking, Anthony organizing. Together they established two national organizations, campaigning and speaking throughout the U.S. Stanton and Anthony agreed on religion: it has a conservative effect on society, encourages submission to authority, looks to God to help the suffering, and encourages charity rather than rebellion. In her first letter to Anthony, Stanton wrote, the church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as it concerns women.” Anthony, defending Stanton in 1896, wrote “To no form of religion is woman indebted for one impulse of freedom.”

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): Anthony ‘s father was a radical Quaker who chafed under the restrictions of his more conservative congregation. When the Quakers split in the late 1820s into Orthodox and Hicksite branches, her family sided with the Hicksites (which Anthony later described as “the radical side, the Unitarian”). In the beginning, Quakers had taught that there should be no hierarchy in the church, and that women’s roles were equal to men’s – and there was continuing revelation to both men and women. The Quakers had provided important training for women speakers and leaders, and emphasized that faith must lead to concrete action. Quaker doctrine had regressed by the mid 18th century and the more liberal Elias Hicks, an early abolitionist, returned to the Quaker ideas of the Inner Light in every person, that all people are equal before God, and dismissed the concept of original sin. Anthony did attend Unitarian services in Rochester, her family home, until her death, and tried to start a Free Church in Rochester in 1859 – a congregation which would be inclusive and preach no doctrine.

Lucretia Mott and Antoinette Brown Blackwell

Do we change the thinking of our faith community
by staying in a church, or by leaving?

What are the advantages/problems with staying?

What are the advantages/problems with leaving?


Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) became a Quaker minister in 1818, focusing on the Inner Light and the Kingdom of God within all human beings. A spiritual leader for many feminists, she became a public speaker for abolition. Like the Quakers Elias Hicks and John Woolman, she boycotted cotton and sugar, which were produced by slave labor. Mott met Stanton at the Anti-Slavery convention in London, where both were refused admission. She planned and lent her authority to Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. She endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments, written by Stanton: All men and women are created equal; demanded reforms in education, laws, political, economic, and social systems; called for women’s right to vote.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921): Antoinette’s family heard the preaching of the great evangelist Charles Finney, and joined the Congregational church as a result. Antoinette spoke at meetings when a child. After teaching for 4 years to save money for college, she attended Oberlin 1847. After graduation she lobbied to attend Oberlin’s school of theology, which allowed her to attend classes but refused to give her any recognition. After finishing her theology course, she spoke on abolition and women’s rights until radical Methodists gave her a church and ordained her. She left her post after only a few years because she became troubled about her orthodoxy. She thought religion could help women to progress to being full members of society. She also thought women becoming leaders and entering professions would be more important than vote. Opposing making divorce easier, she debated the issue with Stanton. In 1878,she became a Unitarian.


At the end of Women in Christianity (p. 97-98), Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes, 

The Church should be a fellowship of the free!  Is it legitimate for it to appear, rather, as an institution which exercises domination or even as a Grand Inquisitor?  Doesn’t this freedom need to be expressed in the shaping of the church as a fellowship, in such a way that its institutions and constitutions never again have an oppressive or repressive character or exercise the domination of one set of human beings by another?  So the Christian church needs to be seen as a sphere of freedom made possible in the light of the gospel and at the same time as an advocate of freedom in the world.

The church should be a fellowship of those who are in principle equal!  Is it legitimate instead for it to appear as a church of classes, races and castes, or even as a church of clergy?  Doesn’t this equality need to be expressed in the shaping of the church fellowship, in such a way that the diversity of gifts and ministries are not leveled down by some mechanical egalitarianism, but rather that the very different members and groups are guaranteed equal fundamental rights, and the structures of the organization in no way encourage injustice and exploitation?

The church needs to be a fellowship of brothers and sisters!  Is it legitimate instead for it to be a system of domination under a patriarchal rule, in which people are prevented from coming of age by paternalism and a personality cult and (when it comes to holding office and representation) the female sex is legally or de facto excluded or marginalized?  Doesn’t the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood need to be expressed in the ordinances and social conditions of the church fellowship, in such a way that the democratic demands for the greatest possible freedom and the best possible equality, which fundamentally conflict, are reconciled in the solidarity of a community of brothers and sisters?  The Christian church needs to be seen as a sphere which promotes brotherhood and sisterhood, not only for itself, but for the whole world.







One thought on “Christianity and women’s rights

  1. hi donna … i am multitasking at the moment (preparing to travel for the summer returning in september) … with that being said, i do have a comment … first off thank you so much for providing this opportunity to explore hans kung’s book , ‘women in christianity’ as a group conversation. reading the brief synopsis’s on the above women and others you and carol have provided … i am forever moved by the dedication to ‘right action’ by these sisters of our past … and hope that i can be worthy to stand on their shoulders to continue in the effort of discerning ‘truth’. and being courageous enough as many of these women clearly were … to speak ‘truth’ to power.

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