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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
Every established female scholar Stanton approached to help with The Woman⁽s Bible turned her down.
Stanton’s commentaries throughout The Woman’s Bible are tart and acerbic. That she was the mother of seven children also comes through. In 1 Samuel 2:19 a passage in the story of Hannah and her son, Samuel, begins, “And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year. . . .” Stanton writes: “The historians and commentators dwell on the fact that Hannah made her son ‘a little coat’ and brought one annually. It is more probable that she brought to him a complete suit of clothes once in three months, especially trousers, if those destined to service in the temple were allowed to join in any sports.”
Yet Stanton and her collaborators—upper-middle-class white Protestant women, invariably endowed with three names—were very much products of their race and class and confined by familiar social prejudices, including those against Jews and the Jewish tradition. “The only value of these records,” Stanton observes at one point about certain passages in the biblical accounts of Israelite history, “is to show the character of the Jewish nation, and make it easy for us to reject their ideas as to the true status of woman, and their pretension of being guided by the hand of God, in all their devious wanderings.” Earlier, the abolitionist Stanton had found herself inadvertently allied with white supremacists in opposing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; why support extending the franchise to black males if it was not extended to all women at the same time? The women’s-rights movement was deeply split on this issue, and Stanton’s rhetoric was ugly and racist.
If no one involved in The Woman’s Bible had any formal training in biblical studies, neither did actual biblical scholars—even the handful of women among them—show any interest in The Woman’s Bible . In 1888 Frances Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had urged young women “to make a specialty of Hebrew and New Testament Greek in the interest of their sex,” and some young women had in fact done so. Applying their new skills “in the interest of their sex” was another story. Every established female scholar approached by Stanton to help with The Woman’s Bible turned her down—”afraid,” Stanton wrote, “that their high reputation and scholarly attainments might be compromised by taking part in an enterprise that for a time may prove very unpopular.”
The ranks of female biblical scholars were in any event not large, to say the least. The Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, the forerunner of today’s Society of Biblical Literature, was founded in 1880 and did not induct a female member until 1894. The number of women grew only slowly. Many female biblical scholars were active in various reform movements; some had what might be called an incipient feminist consciousness. But the scholarly journals contain no record of interest among women in a feminist interpretation of Scripture, nor would any such interest materialize for quite some time.
Why was this? The explanation involves a combination of oxygen depletion and firebreak. The importance of the animating spirit embodied in Stanton’s very person is hard to overestimate, and she died in 1902. Meanwhile, university life remained inimical to all but the hardiest women in all but a few exceptional niches. At the same time, the campaign for woman suffrage, which would give women the vote starting with the 1920 elections, was about to bring an illusory sense of culmination to the women’s movement as a whole.
For whatever reason, feminist activism and biblical scholarship never truly converged until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now that they have, some of the attention newly focused on Stanton and her work has not been to her advantage. And we seem to have lost the sense, inescapable in Stanton’s prose, that the momentum of history gives cause for optimism. A few months before her death, as she began to conceive plans for an expurgated Bible, devoid of pejorative references to women, Stanton wrote, “Everything points to a purer and more rational religion in the future, in which woman, as mother of the race, will be recognized as an equal in both Church and State.”
But it is fair to say that The Woman’s Bible lives on in more than spirit. Feminist biblical study has turned into a living, energetic being. And no spell will turn it into a broom again.