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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
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was aware of the new biblical criticism and had read widely in the field, though by no means did she consider herself a biblical scholar. She understood the Book’s all-too-human character. At the same time, being a practical woman, she recognized its power. “So long as tens of thousands of Bibles are printed every year,” she wrote, “and circulated over the whole habitable globe, and the masses in all English-speaking nations revere it as the word of God, it is vain to belittle its influence.”
Many people tried to dissuade her from undertaking The Woman’s Bible , and many of those whom she asked for assistance in the enterprise turned her down. With the help of a handful of women, none of them true biblical scholars, she pushed ahead. She worked in her room in her son’s apartment at the southwest corner of Broadway and Ninety-fourth Street in New York City, in a building with an elevator that she marveled at and which, for a woman of her age and condition—heavy, lame, and afflicted with heart disease—was absolutely essential. (In a letter to a friend in 1888, she noted that once, out in Omaha, she had to be weighed on a hay scale.) On Stanton’s desk was a plaster cast of her hand grasped in friendship with the hand of Susan B. Anthony; it is on display today at the original Stanton homestead, in Seneca Falls.
Stanton and her team devoted volume 1 of The Woman’s Bible to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each entry in the book began with a biblical passage pertaining to women, quoted in full, the passages coming in most cases from the New Revised Version of the Bible, which had been completed in 1885 and was the first English translation to reflect the new scholarship. Following the quotation came a commentary, frequently from Stanton’s pen.
Of the story of Isaac meeting Rebecca at the well (Genesis 24:42-49), where Rebecca draws water for him, Stanton notes, “It was certainly a good test of her patience and humility to draw water for an hour, with a dozen men looking on at their ease, and none offering help.”
In Leviticus 24:11 the mother of a man brought before Moses for blasphemy is identified, by way of afterthought, as Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. Stanton writes: “The interesting fact here is that a woman is dignified by a name, the only one so mentioned in the book of Leviticus. This is probably due to the fact that the son’s character was so disreputable that he would reflect no lustre on his father’s family. . . . If there had been anything good to tell of him, reference would no doubt have been made to his male progenitors.”
Judges 4 relates the story of the Israelite leader Barak, who was reluctant to lead his forces against the Canaanites until the prophetess Deborah bolstered his courage by joining him in battle. In volume 2 of The Woman’s Bible , Stanton writes of this episode: “We never hear sermons pointing women to the heroic virtues of Deborah as worthy of their imitation. Nothing is said in the pulpit to rouse them from the apathy of ages, to inspire them to do and dare great things, to intellectual and spiritual achievements, in real communion with the Great Spirit of the Universe. Oh, no!”
Judges 13 speaks of a woman at the center of a significant story, in which an angel of the Lord promises to bring an end to the woman’s barrenness and to give her a child to be known as Samson. The woman is known to us only as the wife of Manoah or as the mother of Samson. Stanton writes: “I suppose that it is from these Biblical examples that the wives of this Republic are known as Mrs. John Doe or Mrs. Richard Roe, to whatever Roe or Doe she may belong. If she chance to marry two or three times, the woman’s identity is wholly lost.”
1 Kings 10:2 describes the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the court of Solomon, where “she told him all that was on her mind.” Stanton notes, “This is the first account which we have in the Bible of a prolonged rational conversation with a woman on questions of public policy.”
Stanton’s search for women whom the Bible portrayed in an estimable manner is sometimes conducted with a playful twist. In Numbers 22 one finds the story of the seer Balaam and his far more prescient ass, in which the ass’s refusal to continue down a path, despite Balaam’s repeated beatings “to turn her into the way,” saves Balaam from death at the hands of an angel of the Lord. “The chief point of interest in this parable of Balaam and his ass,” Stanton writes, “is that the latter belonged to the female sex. This animal has been one of the most remarkable characters in literature. Her virtues have been quoted in the stately cathedral, in the courts of justice, in the editorial sanctum, in both tragedy and comedy on the stage, to point a moral and adorn a tale.”