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The Gospel According To Eve
ELIZABETH CADY STANTON’S sardonic and biting protofeminist commentary on the Bible cost her the leadership of the suffragist movement
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
In the eyes of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton’s caustic commentary was a source of considerable embarrassment. The first volume of The Woman’s Bible , covering the Pentateuch, had immediately become a bestseller and had gone through seven printings in six months. Not surprisingly, it was denounced by religious leaders across the country—this at a time when traditional religion was experiencing something of a revival in America, and when the ranks of the suffrage movement were swelling with evangelical Christians. “The clergy denounced it as the work of Satan ,” Stanton recalled in her memoirs, “though it really was the work of Ellen Batelle Dietrick, Lillie Devereux Blake, Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford, Clara Bewick Colby, Ursula N. Gestefeld, Eouisa Southworth, Frances Ellen Burr, and myself.”
Was it possible that the attacks on Stanton would undermine the cause of woman suffrage, with which she had been so deeply identified? That was the issue that preoccupied the delegates in Washington in January 1896. Once they voted to distance themselves from their founder, Stanton was marginalized in the suffrage movement, and Susan B. Anthony took her place in public esteem.
Stanton pressed on, actually seeming to relish the uproar. A second volume of The Woman’s Bible appeared in 1898, covering the books from Joshua in the Hebrew Bible to Revelation at the end of the New Testament.
The Bible is famous for being the world’s most over-studied book—overstudied by male scholars, that is. During the past thirty years, however, an influx of women into biblical studies—women with an explicit focus on what the Bible has to say about women—has profoundly changed the spirit and character of the field. Among these women are not only theologians but also historians, linguists, archeologists, and literary critics. They believe that an alternative past awaits recovery, and some hope that a new understanding of that past might help change the present.
The Bible has been bound up with the movement for women’s rights in America from the very beginning. When Judith Sargent Murray, in her 1790 essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” tried to make a case for the more widespread education of women, she ran into opposition that was premised on interpreting biblical passages—most notably those involving Adam and Eve, in Genesis—as establishing and justifying the subordination of women. Murray, a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who had learned to read and write only because she was fortunate enough to have a brother for whom her father hired a tutor, attempted to vitiate Eve’s culpability with a counterreading of the same passage. She noted that Eve’s behavior was motivated by a quest for understanding (“It doth not appear that she was governed by any one sensual appetite; but merely a desire of adorning her mind; a laudable ambition fired her soul, and a thirst for knowledge impelled the predilection so fatal in its consequences”), whereas Adam, who ate the forbidden fruit that Eve offered to him, acted out of “bare pusillanimous attachment to a woman!”
In the 1830s, when a number of prominent women sought public roles in the campaign for the abolition of slavery, and in the 1850s, when women joined the temperance movement, the opposition they encountered had less to do with either abolition or temperance than with their taking a public stand in the first place. Shouldn’t a woman’s place be restricted to the private sphere? This was the question that reform-minded women ran into time and again as they sought a platform—a pulpit in a church, a dais in a meeting hall, a bandstand on the town common—for their views. The confrontation was ironic. Revivalist Protestantism had come to rely on the organizational fervor of large numbers of women, who in turn sought to become more active still. The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child likened the process to the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, in which the apprentice, having seen the sorcerer transform a broom into a servant able to bring him water, successfully performs the transformation himself but is soon dealing with a flood because he can’t turn the servant back into a broom. “Thus it is,” Child wrote, “with those who urged women to become missionaries and form tract societies. They have changed the household utensil to a living, energetic being; and they have no spell to turn it into a broom again.”
The case of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, is instructive. Natives of Charleston, South Carolina, and members of a distinguished slaveholding family, they eventually moved to Philadelphia, became Quakers, and in 1837 embarked on a tour of several northern states to speak out against slavery—sometimes, scandalously, addressing a “mixed” audience of men and women.
In Massachusetts, one of the most deeply abolitionist states, the Grimkés were slammed by a pastoral letter from the leadership of the Congregational Church. It cited Paul’s injunction against women’s preaching in 1 Corinthians 14:34: “Women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.” It cited Paul’s encapsulation of the wifely role in 1 Peter 3:1-6: ”. . . wives, be submissive to your husbands. . . . Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”