5 Ways that Christianity is the True Feminism
|Icon of St. Mary Magdalene|
Feminism is ironically named. Those who we call feminists almost never promote femininity. In fact, most hate all things traditionally called feminine and are probably quietly stewing as they read the word here. Instead, they promote masculine things for women. Rarely does a feminist tout giving out awards to a woman that achieve excellence in areas traditionally done by women (crafts, cooking, homemaking, etc) but instead insist that women who excel in historically male fields receive lauds. Women that achieve in sports, the military, or business are considered especially worthy of being held up as examples. Nor do feminists encourage women to dress or behave in traditionally feminine ways. Short hair, paints (vs skirts), and a lack of makeup are considered feminist markers. And feminists go further encouraging women to behave like men sexually and suppressing the one thing that women can do that men cannot do - have children - by the pill and abortion. This is not any sort of true feminism. This is confused misogynistic nonsense mislabeled.
So, what would a true feminism look like? It would do some of the things that feminism was originally and ostensibly there to do: affirm the humanity of women, celebrate what they do, protect them from abuse, and etc. But in addition to this, it would not deride the strengths of women but celebrate those. Far from encouraging women to give up the one thing that sets them far above men: the ability to create humans in their bodies, a true feminism would praise them for this, encourage society to protect and support them while pregnant, and provide a social network to support them during those long and difficult days immediately after the birth. A true feminism would of course want women to be able to pursue many goals in life but would not deride or downplay traditionally female roles
So, is there a true feminism in history? Yes, the Christian Church.
This may sound counter intuitive to many of you.
1-Christianity Ended the Widespread Female Infanticide
Here is a first century quotation from a Roman man named Hilarion to his very pregnant wife,
"I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it."
Nice. If its a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, discard it.
Historian Rodney Stark argues that female infanticide was quite prevalent in the ancient world. It was so bad that the ratio of men to women in the Roman Empire grew to 7 to 5. To show the horror of it, consider a study of 600 ancient families from Delphi where only six had raised more than one daughter. This is a spectacular display of misogynistic murder.
But this changed when the church began to spread through the empire. Christian families were strictly prohibited from following this practice. One of the earliest Christian documents in existence, the Didache (c 100 AD), states, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.” And this was lived out throughout Christianity. It has been argued that this practice of not killing baby girls is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew so much over the next few centuries.
The Christian world had a disproportionate number of women. This created growth in two ways. First, it had the obvious effect of a higher birth rate within Christianity. Second, many men, looking for wives, would convert simply to get married.
2- Christianity Ended Legal and Socially Acceptable Sex Slavery
When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he brought back more than fifty thousand slaves. The men could be worked in fields or as security but the women had one primary purpose: sex. Women of all ages were used for the sexual pleasures of men. In brothels, in temples, and as household concubines, women were bought to pleasure their master's. To deny the man sex would bring severe punishment and possibly death. This practice was widespread, it was socially acceptable, and it was perfectly legal.
But this changed as Christianity spread. As I have noted before, Nancy Pearcy, quoting a historian's analysis of the spread of Christianity notes that, "The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery." Suddenly, as towns became Christian, slaves no longer had to pleasure they masters. They could seek sanctuary in the church and in the courts. Now, we must not be naive to think that there was no sexual abuse during this time but there was legal protection and that protection grew with time. By the sixth century, the West had almost completely given up any sort of slave trade at all.
This change in the law and the environment for women was novel. No other major empire in the history of the world afforded women so many protections - especially when it came to sexual protections.
3- Christianity Created Equal Marriage Rules for Men and Women
What is the point of marriage? Is it a way of saying, "I really love you?" No. That is what our modern sentimental society has said it is about but historically the purpose was never (primarily) about love. It was a covenant between two parties with two objects in mind: children and women. Men got something out of the marriage: Children that they knew were their own. Women got something out of the marriage: protection and property. Basically, marriage was a promise on the part of the man to protect and provide for the woman (in a world where women were abused and neglected). Why would he promise this? Because the woman would promise to give him an inheritance. Children. Now, of course, this required her to be sexually faithful. It would not work for the man to spend his time and money protecting the woman only to have the baby pop out looking like the neighbor. So, historically, wives were expected (at least during their fertile years) to be sexually faithful to the man. In contrast, men were pretty much permitted to do whatever they wanted. Going to prostitutes and sleeping around was fine. Adultery was not cheating on your wife.... it was stealing another man's wife. In other words, marrital fidelity in most ancient cultures was a one sided thing.
But with Christianity, this changed. Consider this passage from 1 Corinthians 7,
"[Each] man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife."
You can see that the first half of that passage seems like the traditional ancient marriage. Women cannot cheat. But the second half is a novel change: "In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife."
Suddenly, men were being called to be faithful as well. This Christian innovation gave birth to what we call the nuclear family. It created a better life for children but also created a better life for wives who no longer had to accept their husbands showing love and affection to other women while they remained bound to fidelity.
The reason we now think of marriage as a way of saying, "I really love you," is this innovation. Men and women suddenly were bound not only to a contract about kids and property but covenant in which two people exclusively give their affections to each other.
4- Christianity Prevented Men From Dumping Women When They Got Old
But there is another way that Christianity changed marriage. Go back to the original meaning of marriage in point number 3 above. If the promise the woman makes is to provide children (that the man knows are his) to the man, what value does she provide when she turns 45 or so? The answer is that her purpose in the marriage has passed. Either she has provided the man with heirs or she has not but she can do no more. But the man's responsibilities, in theory, continue. His wife still needs protection, food, and property. But think about this from the man's perspective. Why would he continue to do this? What is in it for him? He might have to spend the next 40 years providing for a woman that can no longer bear children (the whole point of the marriage). Why would he do that?
And many men did not. In many ancient societies, the divorce laws were such that the man simply had to say, "I divorce thee," and he would be divorced. For a woman, particularly one past child bearing years, this might be condemnation to poverty and abuse. The ancient world was tough on women. Given their smaller size, they could not do many of the labor intensive jobs that society required, they were unable to fight in the army, and in a society with limited police protections, they were particularly vulnerable to thieves and rapists.
But Christianity mandated that only in death could a marriage be ended. A man that left his wife, even after she was old and no longer able to bear children, was excommunicated from the church and the church would then help the woman with protection and care. This change was almost purely to the benefit of women. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 19),
"Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
This is a humorous passage in our modern ears. The disciples (all men) learn that divorce is not allowed and their response is shock and disappointment. It would be better not to get married if you cannot divorce her.
5-Christianity Gave Women Positions of Influence, Honor, and Intellectual Contribution
A common prayer in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world was to thank God for not being a woman. Spartan men would not even let their wives outside. This varied from ancient society to ancient society but generally speaking, women were not decision makers in society. When August Caesar's wife started to get too much influence, he had to reassure the public that she was not calling the shots. A woman directing things would surely be a disaster for the empire. Women were not even allowed to be witnesses in court.
But literally from the very beginning of Christianity this changed. The first witnesses of resurrection itself (when Christianity became a thing) were not men.... they were women. All four gospels record that women were the first to see the risen Jesus and report it back to the followers of Jesus. This was an embarrassment to the Christians. Celsus, the second century Greek philosopher, mocked Christianity by saying, “This faith is just based on the testimony of some hysterical women.” But there they were. From the beginning. People of import and influence. This acceptance of the testimony of Christian women is reflected in the first century writings of the apostle Paul who said that, "In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)
And from the earliest days, women played arguably a more important role in the development of the church than men did. It was the wives of noblemen to lent their houses as churches. It was the wives of leaders to lobbied to prevent Christian prosecution. Women were some of the most loved saints (the highest Christians saint being thought to be the mother of Christ). A Christian woman was as able to be sainted and venerated as any man. As nuns, Christian women were the prayer warriors of the church and were honored and respected.
Women became doctors of the church with their writings. Their ecstatic visions were read widely. Their acts of charity were held up as examples to all. No other ancient religion offered women these positions of honor, influence, and respect. And so it is no surprise that within the Christian world, women enjoyed a status not enjoyed in any other major empire and certainly more than the Roman Empire that Christianity grew to replace.
But throughout all of this, femininity was honored and respected. Never were women expected or pressured to act like men. This is true feminism.
Finally, for those that think none of these things were enough and that we need modern feminism to complete the job, do I need to note that feminism was first and most completely permitted and implemented in historically Christian countries?
The history of the world is one of abuse. The strong abuse the weak. The rich oppress the poor. But Christianity turned this all on its head. Christianity insisted that women could not be killed, raped, or abused. Christianity insisted that, in Christ, women were every bit as important and worthy of the love of God as any man. This is true feminism.
The modern feminist movement has nothing on historic Christianity when it comes to women. Only in Christianity are women both respected as humans and allowed to be women.