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The Position of Women:
The Historical Consequences

The stories and pronouncements of the Bible on women and the theological misogyny of the church fathers has practical consequences on how women were treated in Christendom.

In order to appreciate what Christianity had done to women, it is important to compare first the position of women before the religion came into ascendency.

The position of women in the pre-Christian world of Greece and Rome was one of enlightened equality. In Greece during the age of Homer, from the 13th to 9th centuries BC, as depicted by the Iliad and the Odyssey, women led lives which were both free and dignified. Under the pagan emperors of Rome, women enjoyed a high level of prestige and independence. In the later years of the pagan Roman Empire, women were allowed to hold property in their own right. [1] This situation is aptly summarized by James Donaldson in his book Women: Her Position and Influence in Ancient Greece and Rome Among The Early Christians (1907):

At the time when Christianity dawned on the world, women had attained ... great freedom, power and influence in the Roman Empire ... Women had been liberated from enslaving fetters of the old legal forms, and they enjoyed the freedom of intercourse in society; ... they dined in the company of men, they studied literature and philosophy, they took part in political movements, they were allowed to defend their own cases if they liked, and they helped their husbands in governing of provinces and the writings of books. [2]

Once Christianity came into ascendency women began to lose whatever freedom and influence they had during the pagan period of the Roman Empire. All traces of intellectual and personal independence were slowly eroded away. Thus, in the Synod of Elvira, around the year 306, it was stipulated that women could no longer write nor receive letters in their own name. Then around 345, the Council of Gangra declared that women are not allowed to have their hair cut. [3]

The property rights of women were also taken away. Within the first few centuries of the conversion of Rome, women could no longer inherit their father's wealth. [4] Women were deprived of this right well into the nineteenth century. Thus in mid-nineteenth century Boston, women still could not hold any property earned or inherited. The condition was the same in England. Apart from not being able to own any property in her own right, a married Englishwoman's earnings legally belonged to her husband. The laws in both these places were not abolished until the end of the nineteenth century. [5]

Many aspects of English Law towards the end of the nineteenth century, after more than 1000 years of Christianity, showed how the position of women had deteriorated from the time of the pagan Roman Empire:

[Under English Common Law] A woman, either married or unmarried, could hold no office of trust or power. She was not recognized as a citizen. The status of a married woman was little better than that of a domestic servant. By the English Common Law her husband was her lord and master. He had the sole custody of her person, and of her children while minors. He could punish her "with a stick no thicker than his thumb," and she could not complain against him. [6]

It should not be forgotten that most of the estimated two million victims of the witch-hunts were women.

It is only in the twentieth century that women are finally beginning to acquire their rights as equal partners in society. That women attained this in spite of Christianity is a historical fact, as the Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) in his book Christianity and Morals (1939) noted:

It has taken nearly 2000 years for the married woman to get back that personal independence which she enjoyed under the later Roman Law, but lost through the influence which Christianity exercised on European legislation. And it may be truly said that she regained it, not by the aid of the churches, but despite the opposition. [7]

It would be wrong to think that Christian misogyny is a thing of the past. It is still very much a part of conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. Thus in their book The Christian in an Age of Sexual Eclipse: A Defence Without Apology (1981), Michael Braun and George Alan Rekers argued, using the same argument that the theologians of antiquity had used, that women are incapable of an active role in life by divine design:

Upon principles of proper leadership that are expressed in human sexuality ... God does not act arbitrarily. God doesn't flip a cosmic coin in eternity and say, "Heads, I'll make man first." There was a plan to it. And when under the pressure of Satanic assault, that order of leadership was reversed and Eve initiated action, the result was catastrophic ... It is no wonder that Satan assaulted Eve first; she was woman, made by God to be ever so sensitive to spiritual input. She was made to respond, and Satan lured her into independent initiative. [8]

In a very real sense the modern fundamentalist remain the flag bearer of the ancient Christian tradition of misogyny. Like the theologians of the past, they tend to put the blame on women for all domestic troubles. Even the abhorrent practice of wife beating is blamed on the woman! One minister said in an interview that, "Wife beating is on the rise because men are no longer leaders in their homes. I tell the women they must go back home and be more submissive." [9] There was even a case where a woman who went to her minister for help after being abused by the second husband was told by the clergyman that the beatings were a divine punishment for divorcing her first husband. [10] Another fundamentalist, Pastor H. Willaims, gave this insightful view on the cause of wife beating:

The reason this is such a big temptation is because a woman wants to be ruled. Her greatest desire is to be subject to her husband, because God has ordained it so ... that's the curse of the woman ... her desire to be ruled leaves her wide open to be abused. [11]

Things have not changed at all. In June 1998, in the Southern Baptist Convention held in Salt Lake City, the representatives declared thart a woman should "submit herself graciously" to her husband's leadership. This declaration is, according to the president, required in order to meet the "growing crisis in the family." [12]

Not to be outdone, the historical champion of misogyny, the Catholic church continues to oppose abortion and birth control to the detriment of many women all over the world.

Thus, far from Christianity being "woman's best friend" it had systematically deprived women of any shred of self-respect and dignity that befits a human being. As the theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann admits:

The history of Christianity is ... a history of how women were silenced and deprived of their rights. [13]

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References

1.Knight, Honest to Man: p114-116
2.Quoted in Knight, Honest to Man: p115
3.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p130
4.Knight, Honest to Man: p132
5.Ibid: p133
Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought: p201
6.Ibid: p201
7.Quoted in Knight, Honest to Man: p133
8.Quoted in Ehrenreich et. al, Remaking Love: p139
9.Ehrenreich et. al, Remaking Love: p155
10.Ibid: p166
11.Ibid: p167
12.Southern Baptists to Women: Submit to Male Leadership June 14, 1998 by Sandra Feroe
13.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p127

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