The bible is the problem in our society, in as much as patriarchalism and male domination has been and continues to be interpreted as sacred decree, and mobilized in our lives as such. It is mobilized in ways that are both conscious and unconscious. It is insidious and it is structural and it is accepted as the way things are.
My position here is not new by any stretch of the imagination. It has been recognized since the 1800s when the Suffrage Movement was in full swing. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (pictured on the left) set out to revise the traditionally male interpretations, by employing the few women during her time who were educated to read the primary languages and had learned the history to write commentaries on all the passages from Genesis through Revelation that concerned women. She says that some of the invited women refused to participate in the project because they feared "they might compromise their evangelical faith by affiliating with those of more liberal views, who do not regard the Bible as the 'Word of God' but, like any other book, to be judged by its own merits" (p. 9). The preface to her book,
The Woman's Bible
, was written in 1895. She opens her book by identifying the problem with the traditional way in which the Genesis story has been interpreted by men who use it to demonstrate that woman is a sinner and inferior being (p. 7):
From the inauguration of the movement for woman's emancipation, the Bible has been used to hold her in the "divinely ordained sphere," prescribed in the Old and New Testaments. The canon and civil law; church and state; priests and legislators; all political parties and religious denominations have alike taught that woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man. Creeds, codes, Scriptures and statutes are all based on this idea...The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced...Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.
Towards the end of her introduction, she writes very openly about her own view as a woman living in 1895 (pp. 12-13):
The only points in which I differ from all ecclesiastical teaching is that I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked to God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or told the historians what they say he did about woman, for all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible. Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek, in plain English it does not exalt and dignify woman...There are some general principles in the holy books of all religions that teach love, charity, liberty, justice and equality for all the human family, there are many grand and beautiful passages, the golden rule has been echoed and re-echoed around the world. There are lofty examples of good and true men and women, all worthy of our acceptance and imitation whose lustre cannot be dimmed by the false sentiments and vicious character bound up in the same volume. The Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, its teachings are varied and its lessons differ widely from each other...[in their discrimination of women] the canon law, the Scriptures, the creeds and codes and church discipline of the leading religions bear the impress of fallible man, and not of our ideal great first cause, "the Spirit of all Good," that set the universe of matter and mind in motion, and by immutable law holds the land, the sea, the planets, revolving round the great centre of light and heat, each its own elliptic, with millions of stars in harmony all singing together, the glory of creation forever and ever.
I find these words to be astonishing. In fact, I find the words written by both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Gage (I'll make a separate post about her soon) to be so brave and daring that I want to weep. How did these women find the courage to stand up and say these things publicly, especially at a time when the Suffrage Movement was trying to link up with the Temperance Movement? The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a powerful group of evangelical women who were religiously conservative, and wanted to get the right to vote in order to legislate their understanding of biblical morality in the form of prohibition. They argued that it was the God-given duty of women to oversee the morality of their families and they wanted the right to vote to bring that to the public and state.
In fact Stanton's position was disliked by Susan B. Anthony (pictured on the left) who wanted more than anything else to merge the two movements because Anthony recognized that divided the parties would never get enough political power to achieve the right to vote. She thought that if we changed the politics and got women the right to vote, that we would then be able to change the religion to reflect our political equality. So Anthony wrote to Olympia Brown:
I suppose your feeling of my change is the same as that of Mrs. Gage and Mrs. Stanton - that is because I am not as intolerant of the so-called Christian women as they are - that therefore I have gone, or am about to go over to the popular church. I do not approve of their system of fighting the religious dogmas of the people I am trying to convert to my doctrine of equal rights to women. But if they can afford to distrust my religious integrity, I can afford to let them.
Stanton and Gage disagreed with Anthony. They thought that the right to vote was essential, but that it alone would not change our equality as long as the Bible and the way it was mobilized to subordinate women continued. Even though Stanton still stayed in the coalition and even was elected its President (Gage left and founded the Women's Liberal Union), she never gave up this view. In her introduction (pp. 10-11), she writes that some of her female colleagues (she must be referring to Anthony) say that:
it is not politic to rouse religious opposition. This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice. How can women's position be changed from that of a subordinate to an equal, without opposition, without the broadest discussion of all the questions involved in her present degradation? For so far-reaching and momentous a reform as her complete independence, an entire revolution in all existing institutions is inevitable.
So here we find ourselves just over a hundred years later, ninety years after women got the right to vote. What has changed? Certainly we have made progress. Women are being educated, have careers outside the home, have changed some laws to make them more equitable. But look around. Look at the stats on the web. Women make less money for equal work outside the home. Women do not equally receive higher degrees, nor do they advance in their professions at the same rate as men. We have far fewer women judges than men, far fewer women legislators than men, and still no woman in the White House. The equal rights amendment failed. Our churches are run mainly by men, and even in those liberal protestant traditions, women are not seated in senior pastoral positions as frequently as men.
When I look around, what I see is that Stanton and Gage were right. For women to ever achieve equality in our society, our understanding of the bible and its interpretation must change.