The Gospel According To Eve

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Eighty years old and bedridden, her legs no longer capable of supporting her 240-pound bulk, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was scarcely disposed to attend the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association being held in Washington, D.C., in January of 1896. It was perhaps just as well. Even if she had shown up on her own two feet, the likelihood was that they would have been knocked out from under her. Stanton, together with her long-time friend and collaborator Susan B. Anthony, had founded the Woman Suffrage Association a quarter of a century earlier, and Stanton was now its president. But she knew that many of the delegates to the meeting were in no mood to be bound by feelings of historical obligation.

 

The convention, at the Church of Our Father, a Universalist meetinghouse, was the largest that the organization had ever held. Reports about it were sent by telegraph to big-city newspapers throughout the country. And one of the choicest pieces of news was that a resolution had come before the assembly designed to directly rebuke Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Anthony argued eloquently against it. “I shall be pained beyond expression if the delegates are so narrow as to adopt this resolution,” she said. But her words were to no avail. Passed by a vote of fifty-three to forty-one, the resolution proclaimed, “This association is non-sectarian, being composed of persons of all shades of religious opinions, and has no official connection with the so-called Woman’s Bible , or any theological publication.”

HAD A WOMAN helped design the ark, Stanton wrote, “port holes would have been deemed indispensable.”

What was this Woman’s Bible , and why had it caused such a stir? The Woman’s Bible represented a bold, ambitious, and, at least by modern scholarly standards, somewhat naive attempt by Stanton and a small group of like-minded colleagues to take the Bible to task for the way it portrays women. A century later the issue remains a very real one. Earlier this year the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a family-life amendment calling on women to submit to their husbands, a position that in the Baptists’ view is “clearly revealed in Scripture.” Although Stanton’s book enjoyed only brief notoriety, it foreshadowed the quiet revolution that feminist scholars have wrought in biblical studies during the past two or three decades.

Stanton had for years been interested in the role played by religion—and by institutionalized Christianity in particular—in the subordination of women in virtually all spheres of endeavor. As she wrote in the introduction to the first of The Woman’s Bible ’s two volumes, published in 1895, 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. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man’s bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.”

Stanton and her collaborators (she began with seven and ended with thirty) combed through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for passages about women and then subjected those passages to commentary and analysis. Does, for instance, the disobedience of Eve in Genesis 3:6 really mean what it has been said to mean by centuries of male interpreters: that woman is inherently weak; that Eve’s sin caused Adam’s; that the female of the species alone brought about humanity’s expulsion from paradise? Or is it possible to see such passages in another light?

The Woman’s Bible is a remarkable document for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its broad range of tone, which may move from the sensible to the magisterially sarcastic in a matter of paragraphs. Stanton could express herself with bite and wit.

Of the construction of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:14-16), she observed, “The paucity of light and air in this ancient vessel shows that woman had no part in its architecture, or a series of port holes would have been deemed indispensable.” Her scorn for hypocrisy ranged freely across historical boundaries. Of the episode in Exodus 22 in which the men of Israel melt down the women’s jewelry to create the idolatrous golden calf, she wrote: “It was just so in the American Revolution, in 1776, the first delicacy the men threw overboard in Boston harbor was the tea, women’s favorite beverage. The tobacco and whiskey, though heavily taxed, they clung to with the tenacity of the devil-fish.”