The Gospel According To Eve

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The GrimkÉs and other activist women responded to critics with biblical passages of their own. For every 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband”) they lobbed back a Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) or a Joel 2:28 (“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”). They held up examples of women in the Bible who played decisive public roles—women like Miriam, the sister of Moses, who is called a prophetess (Exodus 15:20) and helps lead the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, and Esther, the Jewish wife of the king of Persia, who saves the captive Israelites from slaughter at the hands of the evil Haman (Esther 8).

Activist women also raised a larger theological question: Is the Bible fundamentally a text about the oppression and subordination of one sex by another, or is it, rather, a text whose driving theme is one of liberation and emancipation?

Well they might ask. In 1840, three years after the Congregationalist condemnation, the female delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London were refused permission to sit with the rest of their delegation on the ground that this would be “promiscuous” and would mischievously pluck women from the safe confinement of “woman’s sphere.” Abolitionists also feared that any association of the abolitionist cause with radical ideas about the proper sphere of women would detract from the main effort—a harbinger of the problem that suffragists themselves would face when confronted by The Woman’s Bible .

SlNCE MEN had done all the translating and interpreting, who knew what errors might have resulted?

The refusal to seat women at the World Anti-Slavery Convention sharply turned the attention of one person in attendance, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, toward the issue of women’s rights. The child of a strict Presbyterian lawyer and judge who would eventually disinherit her for her various efforts at social reform, Stanton became mindful at an early age of the disadvantages accruing to her sex. She was independent-minded on the subject of women’s rights (deleting the word “obey” from the ceremony at her marriage to Henry Brewster Stanton) even before her thinking became embodied in anything like a women’s movement. Her interests were diverse—birth control, child-rearing, psychology, temperance. “All reforms,” she once wrote, “are interdependent.” She never lost the doughty, naive, maddening optimism so characteristic of nineteenth-century reformers and doubtless so essential to their occasional successes.

 

It was at the anti-slavery meeting that Stanton met Lucretia Mott, the Quaker activist who would be her partner in the first women’s-rights convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This convention, whose substance elicited public commentary in tones ranging from censure to ridicule, inaugurated the modern women’s movement in America. Everyone remembers that the Seneca Falls convention issued a call for giving women the vote. But the convention also brought formal criticism upon the Bible, in these words: “ Resolved , That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her.”

The resolution concisely captures the early feminist thinking about the Bible—the idea that the Scriptures posed problems for women chiefly because they had been held as a male monopoly. Men had done all the translating and interpreting, and who knew what errors might have resulted, whether by accident or by design? The second stage in feminist thinking about the Bible can be stated as the view that the Book is damaging to women not only because it has been mistranslated and misused but also by its very nature.

Feminist thinking would also be influenced by the larger revolution in biblical studies brought about during the Enlightenment. As scriptural study by nonclerics became widespread, the authority of the Bible—its claim to be the literal word of God and objectively true—came to be undermined in two ways. First, the scientific study of the natural world threw doubt on the Bible’s literal truth; then historical and literary study of the text itself, as if it were any other ancient document, made clear that it consisted of many different parts composed at different times by different people, people who, whether inspired by God or not, could hardly help being influenced by the biases and world views of the societies in which they lived.

The scholars who brought their skills to bear on the Bible did not give the least thought to what their work might mean for women. But their very conception of the Bible as in some measure a human construct had obvious ramifications for those in the women’s movement who saw biblical authority as the single biggest obstacle to changing the status of women in modern society.