September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
ELIZABETH CADY STANTON’S sardonic and biting protofeminist commentary on the Bible cost her the leadership of the suffragist movement
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 .
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.
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.”
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.