Friday, September 4, 2009

Gender Inequality: Is the problem the bible?

The bible is the problem in our society, in as much as patriarchalism and male domination has been and continues to be interpreted as sacred decree, and mobilized in our lives as such. It is mobilized in ways that are both conscious and unconscious. It is insidious and it is structural and it is accepted as the way things are.

My position here is not new by any stretch of the imagination. It has been recognized since the 1800s when the Suffrage Movement was in full swing. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (pictured on the left) set out to revise the traditionally male interpretations, by employing the few women during her time who were educated to read the primary languages and had learned the history to write commentaries on all the passages from Genesis through Revelation that concerned women. She says that some of the invited women refused to participate in the project because they feared "they might compromise their evangelical faith by affiliating with those of more liberal views, who do not regard the Bible as the 'Word of God' but, like any other book, to be judged by its own merits" (p. 9). The preface to her book, The Woman's Bible, was written in 1895. She opens her book by identifying the problem with the traditional way in which the Genesis story has been interpreted by men who use it to demonstrate that woman is a sinner and inferior being (p. 7):
From the inauguration of the movement for woman's emancipation, the Bible has been used to hold her in the "divinely ordained sphere," prescribed in the Old and New Testaments. The canon and civil law; church and state; priests and legislators; all political parties and religious denominations have alike taught that woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man. Creeds, codes, Scriptures and statutes are all based on this idea...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...Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.
Towards the end of her introduction, she writes very openly about her own view as a woman living in 1895 (pp. 12-13):
The only points in which I differ from all ecclesiastical teaching is that I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked to God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or told the historians what they say he did about woman, for all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible. Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek, in plain English it does not exalt and dignify woman...There are some general principles in the holy books of all religions that teach love, charity, liberty, justice and equality for all the human family, there are many grand and beautiful passages, the golden rule has been echoed and re-echoed around the world. There are lofty examples of good and true men and women, all worthy of our acceptance and imitation whose lustre cannot be dimmed by the false sentiments and vicious character bound up in the same volume. The Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, its teachings are varied and its lessons differ widely from each other...[in their discrimination of women] the canon law, the Scriptures, the creeds and codes and church discipline of the leading religions bear the impress of fallible man, and not of our ideal great first cause, "the Spirit of all Good," that set the universe of matter and mind in motion, and by immutable law holds the land, the sea, the planets, revolving round the great centre of light and heat, each its own elliptic, with millions of stars in harmony all singing together, the glory of creation forever and ever.
I find these words to be astonishing. In fact, I find the words written by both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Gage (I'll make a separate post about her soon) to be so brave and daring that I want to weep. How did these women find the courage to stand up and say these things publicly, especially at a time when the Suffrage Movement was trying to link up with the Temperance Movement? The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a powerful group of evangelical women who were religiously conservative, and wanted to get the right to vote in order to legislate their understanding of biblical morality in the form of prohibition. They argued that it was the God-given duty of women to oversee the morality of their families and they wanted the right to vote to bring that to the public and state.

In fact Stanton's position was disliked by Susan B. Anthony (pictured on the left) who wanted more than anything else to merge the two movements because Anthony recognized that divided the parties would never get enough political power to achieve the right to vote. She thought that if we changed the politics and got women the right to vote, that we would then be able to change the religion to reflect our political equality. So Anthony wrote to Olympia Brown:
I suppose your feeling of my change is the same as that of Mrs. Gage and Mrs. Stanton - that is because I am not as intolerant of the so-called Christian women as they are - that therefore I have gone, or am about to go over to the popular church. I do not approve of their system of fighting the religious dogmas of the people I am trying to convert to my doctrine of equal rights to women. But if they can afford to distrust my religious integrity, I can afford to let them.
Stanton and Gage disagreed with Anthony. They thought that the right to vote was essential, but that it alone would not change our equality as long as the Bible and the way it was mobilized to subordinate women continued. Even though Stanton still stayed in the coalition and even was elected its President (Gage left and founded the Women's Liberal Union), she never gave up this view. In her introduction (pp. 10-11), she writes that some of her female colleagues (she must be referring to Anthony) say that:
it is not politic to rouse religious opposition. This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice. How can women's position be changed from that of a subordinate to an equal, without opposition, without the broadest discussion of all the questions involved in her present degradation? For so far-reaching and momentous a reform as her complete independence, an entire revolution in all existing institutions is inevitable.
So here we find ourselves just over a hundred years later, ninety years after women got the right to vote. What has changed? Certainly we have made progress. Women are being educated, have careers outside the home, have changed some laws to make them more equitable. But look around. Look at the stats on the web. Women make less money for equal work outside the home. Women do not equally receive higher degrees, nor do they advance in their professions at the same rate as men. We have far fewer women judges than men, far fewer women legislators than men, and still no woman in the White House. The equal rights amendment failed. Our churches are run mainly by men, and even in those liberal protestant traditions, women are not seated in senior pastoral positions as frequently as men.

When I look around, what I see is that Stanton and Gage were right. For women to ever achieve equality in our society, our understanding of the bible and its interpretation must change.


Guerrier said...

Or leave the Bible altogether, especially if the interpretation of translated or primary text(s) lack the ability to equalize the humanity of women and men (I say this last part, because women & men are different in ways that cannot be "equalized" as then we would cease to be our distinct and noble genders).

Aaron said...

Suppose, purely hypothetically (since we all know this could never ever happen), that the interpretation most favorable to contemporary feminist politics (or, I suppose, progressive politics generally) turns out to be untenable.

Do you admit it? Or is it your duty to improve society by lying about a few old books which are of no special importance anyway?

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I think this is an important piece of history. I learned a lot by reading Cady Stanton.

However, I do think that there are women who cannot leave their evangelical Christian community and they have built a biblical literalist egalitarian belief based on the scripture text.

I respect this position and if it is useful then I am all for it. I also respect your position, expressed here. The Bible is certainly used as a weapon against women, I will be the first to admit that.

On another note, I am a little ticked off at the suggestion by some that the absence of women in this domain is the fault of women, or due to some innate gender differences. There are just as many women bloggers as men overall, and 22% of science blogggers are women. What makes the biblioblogging community so difficult or unattractive to women? Lots, I would say.

J. K. Gayle said...

"It does not occur to them that men learned in the languages have revised the book many times, but made no change in woman's position. Though familiar with 'the designs of God,' trained in Biblical research and higher criticism, interpreters of signs and symbols and Egyptian hieroglyphics, learned astronomers and astrologers, yet they cannot twist out of the Old or New Testaments a message of justice, liberty or equality from God to the women of the nineteenth century!"


Suzanne McCarthy said...

yet they cannot twist out of the Old or New Testaments a message of justice, liberty or equality from God to the women of the nineteenth century!"

I thought it was Jimmy Carter who said that. ;-) oops wrong century. Well we are not doing too much better in the church today.

David Hillman said...

But I love the stories of the women of Saul's family, especially Rizpah, the tale of Susanna and the Elders, the Song of Songs, and the poems to Sophia. So beautiful and so appreciative of some aspects of femininity

J. K. Gayle said...

lol, Suzanne.

David, would Elizabeth Cady Stanton disagree with you? There is much good. She also wrote:

"There are lofty examples of good and true men and women, all worthy our acceptance and imitation whose lustre cannot be dimmed by the false sentiments and vicious characters bound up in the same volume. The Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, its teachings are varied and its lessons differ widely from each other. In criticising the peccadilloes of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, we would not shadow the virtues of Deborah, Huldah and Vashti. In criticising the Mosaic code, we would not question the wisdom of the golden rule and the fifth Commandment. Again the church claims special consecration for its cathedrals and priesthood, parts of these aristocratic churches are too holy for women to enter, boys were early introduced into the choirs for this reason, woman singing in an obscure corner closely veiled. A few of the more democratic denominations accord women some privileges, but invidious discriminations of sex are found in all religious organizations, and the most bitter outspoken enemies of woman are found among clergymen and bishops of the Protestant religion."

Geoff Hudson said...

I submit that our understanding of the New Testament must change. It can be written in its original form of prophetic documents. There is sufficient remanent language in the extant documents to recover the first-century movement of the Spirit that was anti-animal sacrifice. It believed in the rising of Spirits at death either to glory or to condemnation. It believed that if you obeyed the Spirit that was all that mattered. Your spirit would be cleansed by the Spirit, whether a man's spirit or a woman's. They would become "as the angels in heaven".

In parallel would have to be a new history that interpreted the writings attributed to Josephus in a different way. Our traditional view of history as handed down by the Flavian historians would have to change. No longer, for example, would it be possible to accept Masada as occurring at the end of War, but at the beginning, and that under Nero. The camp remains around Masada were Nero's main battle headquarters. The Flavians couldn't erase those remains, so they invented the myth of Masada as occurring at the end of War.

Doug Chaplin said...

I'm not entirely persuaded it is "the" problem as opposed to a significant focus for the problem in the face of competing rhetorics. Then again the language of the Bible is rare in public debate in the UK, so we might be speaking out of different contexts.

Can I ask – genuinely – to what extent is this analysis of the Bible as problem a significant driver for your exploration of texts that have been marginalised? How do your political and historical commitments interrelate?

Thomas said...

April, entering this discussion late because I've been away, but it is awfully hard to see how the lack of famous female bibliobloggers is some sort of nefarious thing.

There are a lot of things that go into whether a blog is interesting, and very little of is has to do with the intelligence or qualifications of the blogger.

Others have pointed out that frequency is a major factor in attracting hits. People will more often visit blogs that post short pieces more frequently than ones that do longer posts with long waits between. You seem to be sporadically productive. I, for one, have stopped checking the site regularly.

Another factor is the quality of the writing. James McGrath writes for non-specialists. One can understand him without having a degree in biblical studies. He writes about interesting topics to laypeople. You -- not so much. You are almost certainly a great scholar -- but your writing is often inscrutable to someone without a degree in the topic.

I'm not stupid -- I get quoted from time to time in the NY Times business page. But I can't or don't want to follow topics that are too technical. Such as the differences between ancient gnostic groups. Writing for a smaller group of people will get you a smaller audience.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I think you miss the point entirely when you refer to specifics. It is not about April's blog, but about all the women that are not here.

James said...

Women make less money for equal work outside the home.
--There’s been a law against this since 1963, and it’s not obvious that what unequal pay there still is is for unequal work.

Women do not equally receive higher degrees,
--Depends on the field. But anyway, the great divide in our society is between those with and without a college degree. According to projections by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017 half again as many women as men will earn bachelor's degrees. In the early 1990s, six women graduated from college for every five men who did so; today, the ratio is about 4-to-3. A decade from now, it will be 3-to-2—and rising, on current trends.

Nor do they advance in their professions at the same rate as men.
--Might that not be because they don’t care as much as men about advancement in their profession? Is that dumb of them?

We have far fewer women judges than men, far fewer women legislators than men, and still no woman in the White House.
--There’s enormous variation across states in this regard--Washington being the most egalitarian, South Carolina the least. And of course there’s a considerable correlation between religiosity and subordination of women.

The equal rights amendment failed.
--So what? What would it have provided that has not been obtained by law or practice?

Our churches are run mainly by men, and even in those liberal protestant traditions, women are not seated in senior pastoral positions as frequently as men.
--Among evangelicals, they read their Bible and take it straight. But how many Congregationalists (to use the old name for them) or Presbyterians are biased against women applicants?

When I look around, what I see is that Stanton and Gage were right. For women to ever achieve equality in our society, our understanding of the bible and its interpretation must change.
--The great non sequitur. First, I Timothy 2:11-12 and similar passages do seem to offer scriptural authority for the exclusion and subordination of women. Second, is it plausible to suppose that the faulty exegesis is a significant barrier to equality in our society? Suppose the exegesis were gotten right (i.e., suppose success for the tortured attempts to escape the plain import of those portions of the New Testament that prescribe ecclesial norms)? Would that hermeneutical triumph in itself have any measurable impact on any measure of male-female equality?

I grant you that the high rates of religiosity in American society are largely and increasingly accounted for by evangelical Christians, and that were their fortunes to diminish, women's would rise.

Boudewijn Koole-Huibregtse said...

The topics in the comments on your "gender" posts - as important as all your other ones (thank you so much!)- are really interesting to me (see the Summary of my dissertation under Gilles Quispel about Androgyny within Christianity: ).

To me important resulting questions (from previous comments for which I am grateful and to which I add mine) are:

1. "How does April" - and how do we - "relate the presuppositions of our studies and our (a.o. "gender") politics";
to which I add: and is it possible to combine academic (scientific) "neutrality" or "objectivity" with an outspoken view about (important and urgent) social and political questions?

(My view is that the combination is possible only if one is completely "open" i.e. open-minded; the reality is offcourse determined not only in this open way but more often than not by power politics and unconscious developments. And unconsciousness presupposes often many unseen presuppositions or patterns.)

2. "Suppose that every faulty exegesis/interpretation of the bible could be abolished, what would still needed to be done for the realisation of (more) female-male equality in society?"

To me this prompts two further problems:
A. the relation of theory and practice (both seen as practice!)on several levels in society, academy (including the personal level)
B. the fact that the male-feale inequality is so fundamental to (at least) our Western culture and all three monotheistic religions in their actual forms (with a very strong emphasis on the written word and its interpretation by official (!) interpreters) and that the emphasis in the same traditions is so much on the predominance of 'being' before 'nothingness (or not-being)' - parallelled by the strong preference for an exclusive logic (an assertion can only be true or not true) - that there seems little attention (!) for other possibilities or ways of thinking like the "union of opposites" and "the empty kernel" (and many variations) of which androgyny and mystical "emptiness" are only two examples (but which in many traditions, f.e. Eastern philosophy and religions like Taoism and MANY Western 'alternative' philosophical and mystical traditions like Neo-Pythagorism or Eckhart's influence flourished).
Let me hint that Gen. 1:26,27 undeniably implies that God is female-male as well. And add that the Jewish 1st century philosopher Philo of Alexandria had a strong influence in combining "(patriarchal) male domination above female" and "(Platonic) domination of reason above apperception and emotion" with "(allegorical)exegesis of Gen. 1:26,27 as well as of many Jewish scriptures".

P.S. To all of you. Please, have a good sleep, every night. And forget the stress which is imposed on you by others or by yourself unless you chose - or choose now - for it to work on it. For keeping away form stress and being able to choose the right direction about what is important or not might be as important (!) as keeping our rationalizations straight in order. I for me very much enjoy the many insights in this blog and its comments. But I also understand those who like sometimes a pause, a place for mental rest and rejuvenation :-) ...

Richard said...

I don't see the problem being the Bible at all. The problem is within ourselves. If you want to be rational about it, bibles are books. They don't keep you from getting paid well on the job. A bible doesn't exclude you. People do these things. Paul faced these same issues of gender and racial equality. He didn't blame the Hebrew scriptures or his former tradition as a religious conservative. He said the problem lies with us. We do this.

God hasn't failed us. The Bible hasn't failed us. Christianity hasn't failed us. We fail us. So stop doing that.
Richard B.

paf2 said...


What is the point? Because I'm not sure.

In the history of the world, has there ever been a more democratic institution than the Internet? Anyone is free to post about anything, no matter how important, trivial or stupid. Nobody -- absolutely nobody -- is stopping women from creating Bible blogs. Apparently women do it in fewer numbers than men. Why, I have no idea and would not even want to venture a guess.

But I just don't see any real evidence yet for the idea that women don't blog about the historical Jesus or Bible archaeology out of some gender oppression.

April is pissed and she is lashing out (maybe rightly so), but I don't think she has really identified anything solid.


rameumptom said...

From a Mormon perspective, I see the issue in two ways.

First, our additional scripture shows that Eve was not a culprit, rather was instrumental in providing the Fall of mankind (a good thing) so that we could be created.

In the LDS' Book of Moses, an angel reveals the plan of salvation and of a Messiah to Adam and Eve, years after the Fall and they've had children. In hearing this, we read, "And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient." The Fall was necessary for free will to enter the world, and so the need of a Messiah would be brought to pass.

Given that Mormons do not believe in original sin, and that Eve has an honorable place in our liturgy, we still have a very strong male hierarchy, which is slowly beginning to encourage more input from the women of the Church. Hopefully the discourse will continue to improve for LDS as with other Christian faiths, as well.