Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Short History of Feminism Pt. 1: A Project of Liberal Christianity

Over the last couple of months I've watched some good Ken Burns documentary films on my computer monitor through my Netflix account. I saw another one over this last weekend, this one about the 19th century women's movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I had no ambition beyond entertainment and perhaps improving my understanding of history from watching it, but afterward it seemed there was blog material there that's right down my alley, though I'll probably need to do more research.

I'd known next to nothing about these women or their movement. It struck me as I watched that much of their thinking could be chalked up to Liberal Christianity, which was very big in the 19th century, but this wasn't discussed as such. Just about everybody was a "Christian" in some sense or other in America in those days, but there's no way to sort out the true believers from the nominal with the facts given --in fact, ALL the main actors in the movement seem to be merely nominal, and that may have been the case.

"Progressive" ideas of all sorts were in the air, Marx and Darwin contributing among others as the century wore on, and inventing your own religion, such as by rewriting the Bible to suit yourself, had some popularity since Jefferson himself had done it. Toward the end of the century Elizabeth Cady Stanton also rewrote the Bible to expunge what she considered to be unjust attitudes toward women. Earlier, she and her husband knew some of the "progressive" movers and shakers of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. For her own wedding ceremony in 1840, when she was twenty-five, she had the word "obey" removed from the vows, and she chose to keep her own first and last names rather than become "Mrs. Henry Stanton."

Her husband was an active abolitionist, had grown up in what sounds like an orthodox Presbyterian church, and for a time before he married he was considering becoming a minister. But it's happened quite frequently that someone becomes a minister who isn't a true believer, and his actual beliefs are not touched on -- in fact I learned these few facts about him from Wikipedia, not the film.

Some of the situation of women that Stanton and Anthony sought to correct seems unjust from a Christian point of view, not just a "progressive" point of view, but sorting it all out would take quite a bit of thought. Women couldn't own property for instance, nor have custody of their children if the marriage dissolved, and they were legally owned by their husbands, not treated as citizens in their own right. Their complete lack of legal and social status except through their husbands or fathers is quite shocking to think about from where we are now. Some of this injustice probably came from a misunderstanding of the Bible. Surely there was justice in some of the reforms sought; yet some of the reforms also have an anti-Christian flavor that is still with us and needs to be recognized.

The movement started out from an abolitionist base as they fought for the freedom and rights of slaves, and although that probably had some genuine Christian support it's hard to tell there too; certainly much of it was done by "progressives" and liberal/nominal Christians. Somebody should do a study of these distinctions some time (or perhaps it's been done but I haven't run across it). It's a shame for the true church if few genuine Christians worked for abolition -- or some of the women's rights for that matter.

Quite a motley list of desired rights and reforms developed as the women's movement got going, including temperance (which was regarded as necessary for protecting women from drunken husbands who abused their wives and squandered the family income), divorce reform, co-education, property rights for married women, equal pay for equal work, and "dress reform," as well as the right to vote, which was the most controversial on the list. The enemy was clearly the men of the society, who, according to Stanton in the speech she delivered at their first Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, had "systematically deprived women of their rights...." It was of course the men who ran the government and all the institutions of society who refused to give them a hearing, laughed at them and scorned their proposals as ridiculous.

Susan B. Anthony had a Baptist mother and a Quaker father, as well as a Quaker aunt who was a preacher. One of the biographers interviewed in the film says that it was her Quaker experience that gave her a perspective that was "so far beyond what other people had at the time." The Quaker treatment of women as equal even to the point of being able to be ministers was of course "progressive." "Progressive" meant that injustices and oppressions of many kinds were understood to be the doings of "ignorant" traditions from the past, including of course also the Bible which is clear that women aren't to be preachers, though that wasn't directly addressed in the film.

Susan B. Anthony wrote the following at some point, blurring different conceptions of the sexes together, conceptions both at least vaguely biblical and clearly unbiblical:
The old idea that man was made for himself and woman for him, that he is the oak, she the vine, he the head, she the heart, he the great conservator of wisdom, she of love, will be reverently laid aside with other long-since exploded philosophies of the ignorant past.
The society of the day treats women as inferior and incompetent and attributes its authority to the Bible, though the Bible does not teach that. The Bible does call the man the head of the woman, but in the sense of role and responsibility, not as a judgment of competence or capacity (Paul even goes out of his way to try to prevent such an idea in 1 Cor 11:3, 11 and 12) and it certainly doesn't add the sentimentalized nonsense about the woman being the "heart." Yet historically men (fallen unredeemed men mostly?) have misread the Bible to judge women as inferior, or they trivialize them sentimentally, and apparently that view held sway legally in the 19th century.

In such an atmosphere it's hard for a woman to accept being told she was made for the man, as the Bible so clearly says she was, men being so unjust and also such undesirables in so many ways. In fact one of Stanton's most effective speeches in my opinion was her indignant denunciation of the insult to women of the law that allowed silly boys and drunks and good-for-nothing rowdies the vote along with other rights that were denied to women.

Among the first participants in the women's movement was Lucretia Mott, another Quaker minister, as well as the very first officially ordained woman minister, Antionette Brown, a Congregationalist. "Religious equality for women" became another plank in the platform, and here is where the sought reforms clearly conflict with the Bible. Biblical standards are blurred with merely social requirements and all together are treated as the product of the "ignorant past." Later Antionette Brown herself takes a stand against divorce rights based on the Biblical teaching that marriage was ordained by God and therefore indissoluble, despite her own ordination's having already contradicted Biblical teaching. But Liberal Christianity seems to know how to make the Bible say whatever suits, being a "Christianity" that treats the Bible as just another man-made work from which you may pick and choose what you like and discard the rest as merely the backward thoughts of ignorant primitive people.