What sort of God do the radical feminists offer me to replace the Father who has guided me my whole life long? An amorphous something called a Primal Matrix, a Mother Goddess of earth, a Sophia myth, a He/She, a God/ess, an immanent spirit in nature and all persons. They tell me I too am divine with the spirit uniting all things, when I know that is nonsense. . . . They declare that the cross of Christ was a bloody mistake, an example of the Father's child abuse, when I know that sacrifice was the supreme gift of the Father's love for me. They write that there is no eternal life but only absorption back into the goddess, but I know that any deity who cannot defeat death is no god at all.
Not Til I Have Done: A Personal Testimony
Early Feminism: Equality, Ethical Theory and Religion
by Viola Larson
In one of her witty essays about women, Dorothy Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Whimsy, remarked:
Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.1
Indeed, since women are human, attempting to place early feminists in special categories according to their views of equality, ethics and religion is difficult. One very early feminist, Mary Astell (1666-1731), while holding enlightened views on the education of women, and “satirizing the submissive role of women in marriage” believed in the divine right of kings, and was a “sincerely devout woman of high Anglican and Tory sympathies.”2 A hundred years later, Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge, 1833-96), an American feminist who believed in equality for women, still believed that voting rights should be reserved for only the educated man or woman.3 However, among early feminists there were three definable approaches to equality.
Three approaches, liberal or Enlightenment feminism, cultural feminism and Christian feminism, shared an ethical concern for the well-being, development and freedom of women. However, the three different types of early feminism developed and grounded their ethical concerns on three different kinds of philosophical and religious principles. In this paper I well document the three early feminists' approaches to equality and explain the ethics formulated by those who hold differing views. This explanation will detail the kinds of ethical mandates their ethical theories necessitated. I will also show what views of reality they believed validated their ethical positions. Their views of reality will include their philosophical and religious views.
Early Liberal Feminism
Early liberal feminists in the Enlightenment tradition understood equal rights as a natural right. Reason was the fundamental authority for Enlightenment thinkers and they believed “natural law” could be understood with reason. Yet, although equality was believed to be a natural right, women were excluded from most benefits that evolved from the concept of equality. Many contemporary feminists believe that women were excluded from participation in equal rights because Enlightenment thinkers equated freedom and equality with rationality but equated women with the irrational.4 Whether men from selfish motivation posited such a view to defend their own thinking is probably an unanswerable question. What is certain is that women were excluded from most rights reserved for men. Even in the eighteenth century the common laws of England gave the wife few rights. While William Blackstone in his Commentaries On the English Constitution (1758) admits that husband and wife under civil law “are considered as two distinct persons; and may have separate estates, contracts, debts, and injuries” he understood marriage to limit the wife considerably.5 He wrote:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; . . . Upon this principle, of union of persons in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by marriage.6
However, Blackstone explained that he was not speaking of property rights, but “of such as are merely personal.”7 But the personal rights of husband and wife covered important areas. The father of children had legal power over his minor children but a mother had none.8 The correction of a wife by her husband was one of the more horrendous rights of the husband. Blackstone stated that the rights of a husband to give correction to his wife had been moderated by the time of King Charles II, but “the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehavior.”9
In Britain and the United States women were denied access to a university education. They were denied the right to vote as well as the right to participate in government. Their social position was such that women in the upper classes of England were trained to spend their days in little more than sketching, playing the piano, entertaining and dressing. On the other hand the poor woman was often forced to work away from home. Because there were no laws to protect workers women's days were endless and their children received little mothering. In the United States all public speaking by women was considered anti-social and in both countries few churches allowed women to pray aloud in public let alone preach or vote on church councils.10 Dorothy Sayers visualized that period of male oppression and confusion about women with exacting words. She wrote:
A period when empty head and idle hands were qualities for which a man prized his woman and despised her. When, by an odd, sadistic twist of morality, sexual intercourse was deemed to be a marital right to be religiously enforced upon a meek reluctance-as though the insatiable appetite of wives were not one of the oldest jokes in the world, older than mothers-in-law, and far more venerable than kippers. When to think about sex was considered indelicate in a woman, and to think about any thing else unfeminine. When to “manage” a husband by lying and the exploitation of sex was held to be honesty and virtue.11
Feminists in the Enlightenment tradition thought of ethics and understood equality in the same manner as other Enlightenment thinkers. They simply refused to accept any view of women as less than human. They understood that the only way women could be excluded from full participation in rights deemed necessary for human progress was by the assumption that women were somehow inferior to men. But the early liberal feminists went further then this; they understood that this unnatural division between men and women created two differing views of ethics. Women were not only forced into an inferior position, but were expected to maintain an ethical system which seemed to view manipulation and pretense as a virtue. Women were expected to maintain themselves by influencing “the passions of men.”12 Assertiveness and responsibility, which counted as virtues for men, were seen as rebellion when women used them.
Rejecting this position, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), an English woman and advocate of women's rights attacked the commonly held views about women. Women were not different than men; their natures were the same. Wollstonecraft believed that any “being” could “become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason,” since all humans were created without “vicious inclinations.”13 Because the use of reason was the means to virtue, Wollstonecraft insisted that women be properly educated. Because she understood women and men to be equal in their humanity, she believed that if women were not properly educated man also suffer: that, in fact, without education for women, “the progress of human virtue and improvement must receive continual checks.”14
John Stuart Mill (1806-73), an advocate of women's rights and another Enlightenment thinker, agreed with Wollstonecraft; men had put themselves at a disadvantage by failing to grant women equality. He suggested that if women were allowed the same employments, occupations, prizes and encouragement as men, “the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity” would double.15 Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor (1807-58) were both involved in the Unitarian and Utilitarian philosophies and movements of Nineteenth Century Great Britain.16 The utilitarian criterion for ethics was: that which produced the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Arguing that men and women were linked in both influence and activity, Taylor, wrote of the harm done by a unity of free men and unemancipated women. She explained:
If it were either necessary or just that one portion of mankind should remain mentally and spiritually only half developed, the development of the other portion ought to have been made, as far as possible, independent of their influnence.17
Taylor stressed the need for emancipating women as a means of improving the human race. For both Mill and Taylor the highest want or necessity in humans was freedom. Mill made a distinction between lawless freedom, which belonged to primitive man, and that freedom which was possessed by persons “guided and restrained” by “duty” and reason. Mill believed that individual freedom of action was asserted to a greater measure in communities where “reason” had “been most cultivated” and “the idea of social duty” was the most powerful. The gift of freedom bestowed on women would enhance the community further civilizing society.18
In the United States, another feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), agreed with Mill and Taylor.19 Stanton a lifelong friend of Susan B. Anthony was one of the women who planned and called others to the first women's rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and was the person most responsible for the “Declaration of Sentiments” calling for the emancipation of women including enfranchisement for women. The Declaration was based on the Declaration of Independence, and addressed the grievances experienced by women.20 The resolutions adopted were based on Enlightenment principles. That is, the freedoms called for were based on “self-evident truth growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature.”21 Josephine Donovan, author of Feminist Theory: The intellectual Traditions of American Feminism, places Stanton in the category of Enlightenment feminist.22 Alice S. Rossi, editor of The Feminist Papers From Adams to de Beauvoir, separates her from enlightenment feminism by placing her in a category termed “moral crusader feminist.” But the title “moral crusader feminist” has only a social connection, for Rossi separates feminist thinkers by using such divisions as social status and methods of working and expressing themselves. She admits that both categories include women who were “libertarian, rational, and committed to an enlargement of the aspirations and the opportunities of women.”23 Stanton's principles were clearly those of the Enlightenment. Wollstonecraft, Taylor, Mill and Stanton are all examples of feminist thinkers who held enlightenment views. For them human reason was the authority for guidance. The early liberal feminist, like other Enlightenment thinker, believed that reason could discover and comprehend laws to govern humanity. They were certain human reason was capable of comprehending and fathoming the concepts: humanity, ethics and God. Ethical theory was forged by human reason and emphasized the use of abstract principles. Because of the emphasis on reason by Enlightenment thinkers, early liberal feminist believed that if women were given equal rights and properly educated they would simply and naturally gain all the advantages that men had achieved including the development of a moral character. They believed that with proper education women would leave aside the kind of useless occupations that existed among upper class women. Early Enlightenment feminists envisioned a liberated woman having qualities somewhat like George Elliot's character, Dorothea, in Middlemarch. She would be independent, responsible, desiring education and concerned for the poor.
Most Enlightenment feminists, if religious at all, were generally involved in churches or movements that were based on a rational understanding of humanity. Supernatural as well as revealed knowledge was unacceptable to them. Lucretia Mott, who belonged to a branch of the Quaker Church originated by Elias Hicks, was an Enlightenment thinker as well as a feminist. The church she belonged to was founded on rationalism and was closer to the Unitarian Church in doctrine.24 Those adherents of the Unitarian Church, like most Enlightenment thinkers, rejected the deity of Christ and all that seemed irrational. Martin E. Marty, author of Pilgrims In Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion In America, understands Unitarianism to have been part of the progression of Enlightenment thought. Marty writes:
The nearest the Enlightenment came to founding a church was among the liberal New England Congregationalists who were on the way to becoming Unitarian. Even Jefferson sometimes allowed himself to be called a Unitarian.25
Perhaps the worldview of the Deist best explains the religion of the enlightenment feminist. Deists sometimes referred to deity but only to give authority to their views of human reason and equality. Early Enlightenment feminist, if religious, viewed God as both distant and moral; God had “endowed” humans with reason and humanity was obligated to use reason for good. Since humans were responsible for others, action for good became a moral mandate. Early liberal feminists took responsibilities seriously. In a sense they forced the concept of equality into ethical theory. The concept of equality equated with doing good led to political action by liberal feminists. Each one of their demands involved issues of equality. Their insistence that women be educated in the same manner as men led to important educational reforms that came long before women gained the right to vote. Women also gained such domestic reforms as legal access to their children and greater equality in divorce laws. But there were problems with feminist Enlightenment thinking.
In her Feminist Theory, Donovan lists some of the problems that enlightenment thinking either caused or did not address in the feminist movement. She suggests that the “private sphere” was left “untouched.” That is, the kind of thinking that evolved from natural rights theory failed to address the conditions of women who were overloaded with housework and children. The early liberal feminists were unable to provide solutions for women who wanted a profession and/or education but had neither the time nor strength. Rationalism was a philosophy of individualism and failed to address the needs of women in community. Philosophically, there was no way of validating ethics in the public sphere except under the category of natural rights. Domestic relationships could not be categorized under natural rights. In some cases this led to a devaluation of home, family, and marriage. Some feminists felt that women and children would be left without any kind of protection if equality was the only ethical emphasis. Even nature was seen as devalued by an emphasis placed on rational creatures.26
Early Cultural Feminism
As women dealt with the problems left unanswered by Enlightenment thought, they developed a different kind of feminism, one more centered in the category woman rather than humanity. Woman-centered feminists were influenced by the Romantic Movement and some theories of Social Darwinism.27 Feminism influenced by romanticism has been referred to as both radical and cultural.28 In this paper I will generally refer to those feminist shaped by the Romantic Movement as cultural feminists. While the romantic saw deity in all of nature, the early cultural feminist perceived of divinity in terms of the female. In her assessment of cultural feminism Donovan explains how it differed from liberal or enlightenment feminism. The differences she lists are attributes valued by romantic thinkers. Donovan writes:
They also stress the role of the non-rational, the intuitive and often the collective side of life. Instead of emphasizing the similarities between men and women, they often stress the differences, ultimately affirming that feminine qualities may be a source of personal strength and pride and a fount of public regeneration.29
In a bold attempt to validate the private sphere of women, early cultural feminists gave the gender “female” the role of the “good.” They saw women possessing an innate quality of goodness that was a powerful force for creativity and regeneration. This force of innate goodness was considered capable of transforming society. Cultural feminists, like some contemporary radical feminists, used such authors as J.J. Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht (1861), and Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society (1877), to posit an ancient rule of women they referred to as “the Mother Age.”30 Women in the cultural feminist movement saw this age of women's rule as a time of peace, a time when women's ability to nurture formed civilization. With this history they began to claim powers of creativity long denied to women. Using a history of the mother age and the idea of women's innate goodness cultural feminists developed their own woman-centered ethics.
The proper ethic for early cultural feminist was all the attributes of women and mothers. In contrast to liberal feminists, cultural feminists demanded equality with men but tended to see women as quite different from men. They believed that when women achieved equality their innate goodness would be freed to form a basis for ethics thus enhancing all humanity. Although early cultural feminists did not intend to exclude men from human rights they still insisted that men lacked loving, caring, and peaceful natures. Because men lacked such qualities, early cultural feminist felt that when women gained equality they would solve many of the social problems humans had grappled with for thousands of years.
Two basic themes, the aggressive and violent nature of men, and the goodness of women, appears in most of the literature of early cultural feminists. They generally insisted that women could only realize their own feminine traits apart from the influence of men. Early cultural feminists focused their ethical mandates mainly on women. Women must turn from an ethic that insisted on self-sacrifice to one that demanded self-development. The individual unfolding of these gender-based themes were varied. Some cultural feminists took the logical step of connecting their understanding of innate goodness to occult ways of knowing. That is, like some thinkers in the late Middle Ages, they believed science and occult knowledge connected, and they considered woman's innate goodness both a spiritual and a natural force. Because they linked motherhood to both goodness and science, they believed that science would eventually reveal the divinity of motherhood or women.
Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-98) was one of the feminist theorists who believed women's goodness manifested in motherhood was a kind of spiritual and natural force. She not only believed women's nature more advanced and moral but also believed that a recognition of it as a positive force would bring freedom to women. In her book, Woman, Church and State, (1893) she wrote:
It is through a recognition of the divine element of motherhood as not alone inhering in the great primal source of life but as extending throughout all creation, that it will become possible for the world, so buried in darkness, folly and superstition, to practice justice toward women.31
Gage believed male dominated institutions in general and the Christian Church in particular to be enemies of women. She insisted that male church leaders had, in fact, used black magic as a means of “throwing the external appearance of guilt upon others.” And this to satisfy their own “envy, greed, and revenge.”32 Gage envisioned at least two basic duties for women to implement. One duty was to reject the age old instructions of Church and State that a women's duty was to “others” and that she must practice “self-sacrifice.” Gage wrote that “self-development, is her first duty in life,” and this was so that woman could become fully herself, “a perfectly rounded being from every point of view.”33 The other duty Gage emphasized involved women in protracted battle with the Church. She called upon women to “call public attention to its false doctrines and false teachings in regard to the origin, condition and subjection of women.”34
Gage believed that the time would come when “the intuitions of women's soul” would be “accepted as part of humanity's spiritual wealth.” This would be a millennial time for the world.35 Another cultural feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, also envisioned a millennial time, a time of exceptional peace. She based this belief on biological determinism. According to Gilman an inner force inhabited humanity and guided the forming of a better race by the use of race characteristics. Gilman wrote that it was a “great underlying push upward which has given us the higher and higher forms of plant and animal life.”36 Nature would not fail in a progressive drive toward better species. Gilman was a social Darwinist and a cultural feminist who, in a paradoxical manner, insisted women strive for equality while also insisting they were biological determined to be equal.
Gilman understood there to be a difference between sex characteristics and race characteristics. Sex characteristics were meant to preserve the race; race characteristics were meant to improve the race. The sex characteristics, which were male, were a “governing passion” for the female, and a combative instinct” as well as the “instinct of pride.” The race characteristics, which belonged to women, were “the varied functions of motherhood.”37 In a primitive attempt to preserve the race men had forced women to overdevelop their sex characteristics. Women were too concerned with attracting men.
Gilman's understanding of ethics was based on biology. Rather than men selecting mates based on women's beauty, etc., women must chose mates, and they must choose for the betterment of the race. Gilman based her criteria for good and bad on improvement of the race. She wrote “every human act and quality is to be measured by its effects on the race.” Gilman added “if it is disadvantageous, it is wrong; if advantages, it is right.”38 Seeking to validate her ethics with religion, Gilman posited what she understood to be a life affirming religion. She saw most religions as death centered because of male sex characteristic influence. Gilman listed the new truths of what she considered a life affirming religion:
That evolution means growth, not mere combat; that the human race is young and growing and open to measureless improvement; that the female is the race type and her natural impulses are more in accordance with the laws of growth than those of the male; that the race lives immortally on earth, re-created through birth, and so, through love and service, may rise continually; that social development as a conscious process is our chief duty; that God is the life within us, the life of the world to be worshipped in fruition; that religion is the strongest help in modifying our conscious behavior, but that it cannot so help in a social evolution without teaching these truths.39
Gilman's feminism extended to envisioning a kind of community in which women could exist without the heavy burden of housework and childcare. She conceived of a community where professionals would care for both children and homes. Gilman's interest in a collective community was not just related to her concern with freedom for women but to her understanding of sociology. For Gilman, humans functioned better ethically in collective groupings. Gilman's opinions about how children should be nurtured as expressed in her book Women and Economics is an example of her sociology. She wrote:
A baby who spent certain hours of every day among other babies, being cared for because he was a baby, and not because he was “my baby,” would grow to have a different opinion of himself from that which is forced upon each new soul that comes among us by the ceaseless adoration of his own immediate family.40
Thus it can be seen that early cultural feminist found both the source of ethics and the validation of ethics in what they supposed was an innate female goodness that existed in the female. Some, like Gilman, linked the goodness to an evolutionary theory, others, such as Gage, to occult concepts. But, always the thought was that women have a goodness that is linked to giving birth and nurturing, a goodness that can and must regenerate and transform humanity. This was the kind of spiritual understanding of women that placed the divine within and equated ethics with the core of what it meant to be a woman. To be a woman, to be everything that the term “woman” truly meant to those early cultural feminists, was to act in an ethical way.
Because of their philosophical stance the early cultural feminists added an additional concept to ethics. Ethical action does not make virtuous; it is instead an inner quality already possessed. For liberal Enlightenment feminist's actions for reform caused the persons who acted to be virtuous. Cultural feminists acted because they were good. They believed that out of their very being the needs of women would be met. Their reforms were more clearly concerned with woman than rights. They emphasized the need for work reform for women as well as housing reform. And this sense of an innate goodness enhanced women's position in the private sphere. Giving birth, nurturing children, providing for human needs in the family or community was ethical. And those actions, according to cultural feminists, were, the very actions that furthered civilization.
Three problems are inherent in the cultural feminist position. First, essentially only feminine traits and/or feminine nature were understood to be good, thus leaving men on the outside of any ethical scheme. Secondly, since goodness was understood as an innate characteristic embodied in womanhood, each individual woman could define goodness differently. The ethical view-point was based only on individual opinion. Thirdly, insisting that women were different only reinforced men's erroneous views about woman. As long as men were more powerful physically and politically, they could use the issue of difference to maintain their right to dominate women.
Enlightenment feminist and cultural feminist attitudes overlap. Stanton contributed to cultural thinking, Gage to Enlightenment. The differing visions are not always so separate. In like manner, early Christian feminist held separate theories about ethics and the realities that validated their ethics, but their views were also shaped by the philosophical and reform movements of their time. All three kinds of feminists often worked in the same reform movements of their time.
Early Christian Feminism
One Christian feminist, Sarah Grimke (1792-1873), began her work in the early feminist movement as an abolitionist. Grimke established both her abolitionist views and her call for women's emancipation on her understanding of Scripture. She believed the Bible revealed the will of God and that the divine mandate included freedom, equality, and dignity for both women and slaves. Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, editor of Letters on the Equality of The Sexes and Other Essays, points out that Enlightenment views of human rights were founded on a “governing principle” of “natural law” which could be found in “our senses and our reason.” However she asserted, “Grimke's governing principle of human rights was a divine law discernible in the immutable truths of the Bible.”41 Grimke, in fact, held what could be considered an Evangelical view of Scripture. In her “Letters On the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Women” written to Mary S. Parker in 1837, Grimke wrote:
My mind is entirely delivered from the superstitious reverence which is attached to the English version of the Bible. King James's translators certainly were not inspired. I therefore claim the original as my standard, believing that to have been inspired, and I also claim to judge for myself what is the meaning of the inspired writers, because I believe it to be the solemn duty of every individual to search the Scriptures for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and not to be governed by the view of any man, or set of men.42
Grimke, like other early Christian feminists, had a high view of Scripture. Their ethical theories were formulated on Biblical revelation. They understood creation to be good. Both men and women were God's creation and equal in authority, dignity and responsibility. Generally they appealed to the creation story in Genesis as a proof text for equality. Grimke accepted and used the two first chapters of Genesis to prove that women were created equal with men. Noting that Adam was a generic term denoting both sexes she wrote, “created in perfect equality, they were expected to exercise the vicegerence intrusted [sic] to them by their maker, in harmony and love.” In her commentary on the second chapter she notes the differences between humanity and all other created beings. Grimke wrote:
All creation swarmed with animated beings of natural affection, as we know they still are; it was not, therefore, merely to give man a creature susceptible of loving, obeying, and looking up to him, for all that the animals could do and did do. It was to give him a companion, in all respects his equal; one who was like himself a free agent, gifted with intellect and endowed with immortality; not a partaker merely of his animal gratifications, but able to enter into all his feelings as a moral and responsible being.43
Katherine C. Bushnell (1856-1946), was another Christian feminist who used Scripture to define her ethics. Bushnell was a doctor, evangelist and social reformer. Her name is recorded in the Transactions of the 1891 Convention of the National Council of Women of the United States as a member of the Executive Board of the National Christiann League for the Promotion of Social Purity.44 The purpose of the league was to “elevate public opinions respecting the nature and claims of morality, with its equal obligation upon men and women.” They also sought to make men as responsible for the care, expense and love of children as women - and this included those children born out of wedlock.45
As an affirmation of her own calling as a missionary to China, Bushnell wrote a series of Bible studies for women. These studies were meant as proof that it was possible for women to teach, preach and live as equals with men. Bushnell not only presented an excellent case for the biblical equality of women but developed an Evangelical view of feminist ethics. In that part of the study which dealt with the account of Abraham and Sarah, Bushnell explained the ethical and spiritual growth process of both persons.
In the same manner as contemporary biblical scholars, Bushnell referred to the laws of Hammurabi of Babylonia as background for her commentary, and interpreted Abraham and Sarah's actions in the context of those laws. According to Bushnell, Sarah felt compelled as a childless wife to comply with the options of that law. Since her only options were divorce or allowing her husband to take a second wife, she gave Hagar, her slave, to Abraham. Because of her growing sense of self-worth, Sarah realized that marriage was meant to be monogamous. Bushnell pointed out that Sarah's statement to Abraham reminds him that it was the threat of divorce which caused her to acquiesce and give him Hagar. It was the promise of God's protection that gave her courage to demand that Hagar not be Abraham's second wife. Bushnell wrote:
That Sarah had had reason to fear divorcement seems certain, because when Hagar became arrogant in her treatment of Sarah, the latter accuses Abraham of being himself to blame for Hagar's conduct in the words: “My wrong be upon thee.” The Septuagint gives the idea conveyed by the words as, “I am wronged by thee.” Sarah is opening her eyes in new self-respect; she tells Abraham he had no right to have ever brought Hagar - the price of her humiliation - into the family; and then to have so conducted himself as to have created in her the fear of being divorced, through no fault of her own. But merely because she had not fulfilled for him the promises of God, that he should have a son. This is what we understand by her expression, and she adds: “the Lord judge between me and thee,” declaring her confidence that her position was just in God's sight.46
After explaining how Hagar was also wronged and helped by God, Bushnell listed the qualities Abraham and Sarah had acquired, qualities which are proper ethical views for both feminist and Christians. Bushnell believed that Abraham “must have learned the lesson that the headship or leadership in a household turned not upon sex, but upon which one, husband or wife, knew best what to do.” According to Bushnell, Sarah learned that God was her protector and deliverer and He trained “her in self-respect.” She concluded that they were both trained in “faith.”47 Self-respect and courage, as well as faithfulness were strong ethical attributes for early Christian feminists.
Josephine Butler (1828-1907), another Christian feminist, undoubtedly amplified those attributes more than any Christian reform worker of her time. She worked among the prostitutes of Liverpool in the late nineteenth-century. Elaine Storkey, author of What's Right with Feminism, writes of Butler's work, “her view of prostitutes as victims, both of the dual standard of sexual morality and of discriminatory economic structures, made her campaign a very human one.”48 Butler's exceptional work led to her being chosen to lead a national association for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869.49 That Campaign against government regulated prostitution led to her involvement in reform service in France, Italy, and India.
Butler's motivation and ethics were both deeply rooted in her Evangelical faith. She believed that laws would not change public morality; human freedom was the only basis and reason for the enactment of laws. Butler believed that humans could not “be made good by external pressure.” Human goodness was the product of a reformed or changed person. And she stated that, “for any real reformation springing from within, I believe the condition of freedom is indispensable.”50 When writing for the repeal of the Contagious Disease Acts she referred to the English Constitution and based much of her appeal on a call for freedom and liberty. Because woman accused of prostitution were denied a jury trial she objected to the Acts on grounds that it was a breach of the English Constitution. She also understood the law to be against the poor and working classes. While accusing the rich and affluent of lending “the weight of their influence” to promote the legislation, Butler commended the poor for their intelligent understanding that the Acts would finally erode the liberty of all England.51 Butler also believed that women's needs and rights were ethical mandates founded on Scripture and enlarged by the words and actions of Jesus. She wrote:
Among the great typical acts of Christ, which were evidently and intentionally for the announcement of a principle for the guidance of society, none were more markedly so than His acts toward women; and I appeal to the open Book, and to the intelligence of every candid student of Gospel history, for the justification of my assertion that in all important instances of His dealings with women His dismissal of each case was accompanied by a distinct act of liberation. . . .
Search throughout the Gospel history, and observe His conduct in regard to women, and it will be found that the word liberation expresses, above all others, the act which changed the character of men's treatment of women from that time forward.52
Early Christian feminists, like early liberal feminists, believed deeply in equality for both sexes, they valued freedom as the basis for both social and personal reform. Unlike the Enlightenment feminists, they believed a flaw existed in human character and based their understanding on the biblical account of the fall. They believed that human reason also suffered from this flaw. The early Christian feminists, therefore, excluded both reason and any kind of gender related-goodness as solutions in their ethical theories. Ethical mandates were revealed mandates. But more important, the will of humanity had to be changed in order for the mandates to be obeyed. Humanity needed an ethical solution outside of humanity. That solution was, for the Christian feminists, always Christ as savior and transformer. In fact, early Christian feminists used the Christian view of redemption as a further plea for the equality of the sexes. Complaining that too many Christian men expected women to be governed by their husbands, Sarah Grimke wrote:
Now if God ordained men the governor of women, he must be able to save her, and to answer in her stead for all those sins which she commits by his direction. Awful responsibility. . . . “none can by any means redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him, for the redemption of the soul is precious, and man cannot accomplish it.” Ps. 49:8 -French Bible53
Early Christian feminists believed ethical mandates included both genders. Women must not manipulate. They must not accept demeaning or harmful solutions to social problems. They were to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions, and they were to respect themselves. Men were not to dominate or misuse women. Men were to listen to and respect women. Mutual submission was the only acceptable kind of submission. Besides the personal ethical mandates, Christian feminists believed, like other feminists, that women must demand equality in all areas, including enfranchisement. But usually they understood equal rights as a mean of fulfilling their roles as disciples of Christ.
One of the more vexing problems for early Christian feminists was institutional Christianity. Their constant battle with churches and leaders who insisted that women were not meant to function in public roles drained vitality from their movement. Another problem was a tendency to fuse the cultural philosophy of their time with their own religious tenets. Some Christian feminists tended to blend the cultural feminists view of women with their own theories. Although they did not accept a concept of innate goodness in women they tended to elevate women to a position far above men. Once again this gave men an excuse to discriminate against women. Men used this sense of women as a kind of angel to designate her “the highest, holiest, most precious gift to men.” And to also judge her incapable of “mental labor,” inventing, great art or writing history.54
Early Christian feminists generally failed to contribute to the intellectual and artistic realm of their day. They failed because they envisioned equality in terms of a narrowed discipleship that excluded any possibility other than service among the social outcasts of the day. Furthermore, failure to contribute to the intellectual and artistic culture of their day was because of the Evangelical tendency to equate witness with missionary effort in non Anglo-Saxon countries. While Christian feminists truly did call for self-development among women they failed to provide ethical theories or cultural settings that could contribute to this mandate.
The feminist movement entered contemporary society with many of these same ethical issues and their ensuing problems still unanswered. The issue of women's nature versus equal natures has acquired different names. Naomi Black, author of Social Feminism. Suggests that the “most useful classification of feminism is a simple one: social feminism and its alternate, equity feminism.”55 She understands that those two references entail some inherent problems which early feminists grappled over. On the other hand, Christian feminists are still battling for equal rights in some churches and still defining what the term Christian feminism means culturally. All feminists continue to debate ethical theory and its relation to women.
1 Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human?, intro by Mary McDermott Shideler, Taken from Dorothy L. Sayers, Unpopular Opinions, (np 1947; repr. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1992) 36.
2 Mary Astell, the First English Feminist: Reflections Upon Marriage and Writings by Mary Astell, ed. And intro. By Bridget Hill, (England Gower/Maurice Temple Smith 1986), 2.
3 Gail Hamilton, Mary A. Dodge, “Woman's Wrongs: A Counter-Irritant, “ in Woman's Rights, Woman's Wrongs, editors Annette K. Baxter, Leon Stein, American Women: Images and Realities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1868; repr., New York: Arno Press, A New York Times Co. 1972), 155-72.
4 On the other hand some cultural/radical feminists insist that women's nature is more connected to the natural world and on that basis reject Enlightenment thinking. This is because they see the natural world, including women's nature, as good.
5 William Blackstone, Commentaries On the Laws of England, intro. by Stanley N. Katz, Vol. I Of The Rights of Persons, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1765-1769; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1979), 432.
6 Ibid., 430.
8 Ibid., 441.
9 Ibid., 443.
10 Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims In Their Own Land: 500 years of Religion in America, (Little, Brown and Company 1984: repr. New York: Penguin books 1988), 251.
11 Sayers, Human, 44.
12 Rousseau, Emilius, as quoted in Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women, ed. And intro. Mirian Brody, Penguin Classics, (London: J. Johnson, 1792; repre., London; Penguin Books 1985), n.1., 124-25.
13 Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 102-3.
14 Ibid., 124-25.
15 John Stuart Mill, “The Subjection of Women,” in Essays on Sex Equality, Ed. And intro., Alice S. Rossi, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1970), 120-21.
16 Alice S. Rossi, “Sentiment and Intellect: The Story of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill,” Essays, 14-31.
17 Harriet Taylor Mill, “Enfranchisement of Women,” Eeeays, 117.
18 Mill, Essay, 236.
19 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ed. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers 1922; repr., New York: Arno & The New York Times 1969), 122.
20 Alice S. Rossi, Ed., The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir, intro. Alice S. Rossi, (New York: Columbia University Press 1973), 413-21. Josephine Donovan, Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism, (New York: Continuum 1992), 5-.
21 Rossi, Papers, 419-20.
22 Donovan, Feminist Theory, 7.
23 Ibid., 247-50.
24 Ibid., 275.
25 Marty, Pilgrims, 165.
26 Donovan, Feminist Theory, 27-30.
27 In a sense the term radical feminism should include Marxist, Freudian and existential ideals since they were later used to deal with problems created by Enlightenment thinking. However, since almost all contemporary feminist theologians, even those using some kind of liberation theology, formulate their theology using Romantic concepts I have decided to deal only with radical feminism in the Romantic tradition.
28 Donovan, “Cultural Feminism,” chap. In Feminism Theory, Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Feminist Theology: Methodology, Sources, and Norms,” chap in, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press 1993), see pages 41-45. Elaine Storkey, “Part Two, The Feminist Diagnosis,” What's Right With Feminism, 6th edition, (London: SPCK 1993), 59-110.
29 Donovan, Feminist Theory, 31.
30 Mentioned in Transactions of The National Council of women Of The United States: Assembled in Washington, D.C., February 22 to 25, 1891, Ed. Rachel Foster Avery, intro. Shelia M. Rothman, (Farmingdale, New York: Dabor Social Science Publications 1978), 218., identified in Donovan, Feminist Theory, 38. Stanton, whose concepts of “Mother Age” and “woman's goodness” were based on social and environmental causes, did contribute to cultural feminism. But it was the cultural feminists who interpreted those concepts in more romantic modes.
31 Matilda Joslyn Gage, Women, Church and State: The Status of Women Through the Christian Ages: With Reminiscences of the Matriarchate, 2nd ed., (New York: The Truth Seeker 1893), 48.
32 Ibid., 253.
33 Ibid., 530-31.
34 Ibid., 542.
35 Ibid., 543.
36 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and The Work of Our Mothers, (New York: The Century Co. 1923), 67. Although Gilman (1860-1935) is slightly later than other early feminists, Donovan states that she was “often considered the leading theorist of `first wave' feminist theory” and continues the cultural tradition. Feminist Theory, 42. Rossi states that as a result of Gilman's book Women and Economics, she became “the leading intellectual in the women's movement in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century.” Papers, 568.
37 Ibid., 69.
38 Ibid., 94.
39 Ibid., 275.
40 Gilman, Women and Economics, (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co. 1898) as compiled in Papers, 596.
41 Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, introduction in Sarah Grimke's Letters On the Equality of the Sexes and Other Essays, ed. And intro. Elizabeth Ann Bartlett,, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1988), 18.
42 Grimke, Equality of the Sexes, 31-2.
43 Ibid., 32.
44 Transactions, 207.
45 E.B. Grannis, “The Christian League For The Promotion of Social Purity,” taken from Transactions, 116-17.
46 Katherine C. Bushnell, God's Word To Women: One Hundred Studies On Woman's Place In The Divine Economy, reprint (Piedmont, Oakland: by author 1923), Lesson 68, paragraph 539.
47 Ibid., paragraph 550.
48 Storkey, What's Right, 147.
49 Ibid., 146-7. The acts forced women suspected of prostitution to submit to compulsory examinations for venereal disease. “In those days before Wassermann tests examination was an unpleasant process.” Not only did this law treat women as mere vessels to be kept clean for men's use, but sometimes innocent women were subjected to such treatment. Trevor Lloyd, Suffagetts International: the World-Wide Campaign for Women's Rights, Library of the 20th Century, General ed. John Roberts, (New York: American Heritage Press 1971), 27.
50 Josephine E. Butler, Stormbell 1899, as quoted in L. Hay-Cooper, Josephine Butler and Her Work For Social Purity, (London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge 1922), 47.
51 Josephine E. Butler, Josephine E. Butler: An Autobiographical Memoir, ed. George W. and Licy A. Johnson, intro. James Stuart, (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. 1909), 120-4.
52 Ibid., 84-5.
53 Grimke, Equality, 85.
54 John Todd, Women's Rights, in Women's Rights, Women's Wrongs, 7-13.
55 Naomi Black, Social Feminism, (Itaca and London: Cornell university Press 1989),