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Has Christianity Benefited Woman? an electronic edition

by Elizabeth Cady Stanton [Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 1815-1902]

date: 1885
source publisher: North American Review
collection: Women's Advocacy

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Has Christianity Benefited Woman?

The assertion that woman owes all the advantages of her present position to the Christian church, has been repeated so often, that it is accepted as an established truth by those who would be unwilling to admit that all the injustice and degradation she has suffered might be logically traced to the same source. A consideration of woman's position before Christianity, under Christianity, and at the present time, shows that she is not indebted to any form of religion for one step of progress, or one new liberty; on the contrary, it has been through the perversion of her religious sentiments that she has been so long held in a condition of slavery. All religions thus far have taught the headship and superiority of man, the inferiority and subordination of woman. Whatever new dignity, honor, and self-respect the changing theologies may have brought to man, they have all alike brought to woman but another form of humiliation. History shows that the condition of woman has changed with different forms of civilization, and that she has enjoyed in some periods greater honor and dignity and more personal and property rights than have been accorded her in the Christian era. History shows, too, that the moral degradation of | | 390 woman is due more to theological superstitions than to all other influences together. It is not to any form of religion that we are to look for woman's advancement, but to material civilization, to commerce, science, art, invention, to the discovery of the art of printing, and the general dissemination of knowledge. Buckle, in his "History of Civilization," calls attention to the fact that when woman became valuable in a commercial sense, in proportion as she secured material elevation and wealth through her property rights, she began to be treated with a deference and respect that the Christian church never accorded. In ancient Egypt, at the most brilliant period of its history, woman sat upon the throne and directed the civilization of the country. In the marriage relation she was supreme in all things--a rule that, according to Wilkinson, was productive of lasting fidelity. As priestess she performed the most holy offices of religion, and to her is traced the foundation of Egyptian literature, the sacred songs of Isis, said by Plato to be ten thousand years old. Colleges for women were founded there twelve hundred years before Christ, and the medical profession was in the hands of women. It is a sad commentary on the Christianity of England and America, to find professors in medical colleges of the nineteenth century less liberal than those in the earliest civilizations. In 1876 four professors in the College of Surgeons in London resigned because three women were licensed for the practice of midwifery, and the whole Royal College of Physicians thanked them for it. In 1869 the professors in the University of Edinburgh refused to teach four highly respectable women that had matriculated, and the students, echoing the contempt of their teachers, mobbed them. Nor did the conduct of American students, when women were admitted to the clinics of the Pennsylvania and New York hospitals, reflect greater credit on American manhood.

All Pagandom recognized a female priesthood, believing that national safety depended on them. Sybils wrote the books of Fate, and oracles where women presided were consulted by many nations. The pages of Roman history are gilded with the honor shown to women, and the civil laws for wives and mothers were more liberal in some respects than those in Christian countries have ever been. The rights of property that were willingly secured to women by ancient Roman law, were wrung out of the English Government by the persistent efforts of women themselves, only three years ago. Among the Germanic | | 391 nations woman was treated with marked respect. Tacitus gives us many striking pictures of the equal privileges of the men and women, of their mutual love and confidence, and their lofty virtue; the dignity of the German bride and the marriage ceremony, and the significance of the wedding presents. Their marriage bond was strict and severe, alike for men and women. Almost alone among barbaric nations, they preserved monogamic relations. "In all things," says Tacitus, "they consulted their women," who, with strong muscular bodies, possessed clear, vigorous minds; and though, as in all warlike tribes, they performed the agricultural labor, yet they preserved their health and beauty to a great age, because they were respected and honored by their men, who were chaste and temperate in all things; and they enjoyed the inspiration of liberty and love in their daily toil.

The German scholar Curtius says, "The native selfishness of man has been the great power against which moralists, philosophers, and teachers have had to contend."What sooner dissipates this than a deep affection for a noble woman? No love is so all-absorbing, so enduring, or gives such satisfaction to this mortal life; no power can so exalt and quicken civilization. It was this that elevated the Germanic tribes, and infused the poetic sentiment into their earliest literature. It is only in countries where Germanic ideas have taken root, that we see marks of any elevation of woman superior to that of Pagan antiquity; and as the condition of the German woman in her deepest paganism was so striking as to challenge the attention of Tacitus and his contemporaries, it is highly unreasonable to claim it as an achievement of Christianity. In fact, the Christian doctrine of marriage, as propounded by Paul, does not dignify woman as does that which German soundness of heart established at an early day. F. W. Newman, brother of the cardinal, one of the leading authorities on ecclesiastical subjects, says:

"With Paul, the sole reason for marriage is, that a man may gratify instinct without sin. He teaches that, but for this object, it would be better not to marry. He wishes that all in this respect were as free as himself, and calls it a special gift from God. He does not encourage a man to desire a mutual soul-union intimately to share his griefs and joys, one in whom the confiding heart can repose, whose smile shall reward and soften toil, whose voice shall beguile sorrow. He does not seem aware that the fascinations of woman refine and chasten society; that virtuous attachment has in it an element of respect which abashes and purifies, and which shields the soul | | 392 even when marriage is deferred; nor yet, that the union of two persons have no previous affection can seldom yield the highest fruit of matrimony, but often leads to the severest temptations. How should he know all this? Courtship before marriage did not exist in the society open to him, hence he treats the propriety of giving away a maiden as one in which her conscience, her likes and dislikes, are not concerned. (1 Cor. vii. 37, 38). As a result of the Apostolic doctrines, in the second, third, and following centuries, very gross views concerning the relations of the sexes prevailed; and they have been everywhere transmitted where men's morality is exclusively formed from the New Testament, viz., in the Armenian, Syrian, and Greek churches, and in the Romish church, in exact proportion as Germanic and poetical influences have been repressed; that is, in proportion as the hereditary Christian doctrine has been kept pure from modern innovations. The marriage service of the Church of England, which incorporates the Pauline doctrine, is felt by English brides and bridegrooms to contain what is so offensive and degrading, that many clergymen mercifully make lawful omissions. The old Roman matron was morally as high as in modern Italy; nor is there any ground for supposing that modern women have advantage over the ancient in Spain and Portugal, where Germanic have been counteracted by Moorish influences. The relative position of the sexes in Homeric Greece exhibits nothing materially different from the present day. In Armenia and Syria perhaps Christianity has done the service of extinguishing polygamy; this is creditable, though nowise remarkable, as Judaism, also, in time unlearned polygamy, and made an unbidden improvement on Moses."

Rev. William Ellery Channing, in his essay on Milton's character and writings, says:

"There is no prohibition of polygamy in the New Testament. It is an indisputable fact that, although Christianity was first preached in Asia, which had been from the earliest ages the seat of polygamy, the apostles never denounced it as a crime, and never required their converts to put away all wives but one."

Hence, we cannot credit Christianity with woman's elevation from the degradation of polygamy, especially as it exists under our own government to-day, in the Territory of Utah and elsewhere, and concubinage is recognized by statute law in some of the Southern States. The historian Hallam says in his "History of Literature":

"Love, with the ancient poets, is often tender, sometimes virtuous, but never accompanied by a sense of deference or inferiority. This elevation of the female sex through the voluntary submission of the stronger is a remarkable fact in the philosophical history of Europe. It originated partially in the Teutonic manners. Some have said 'the reverence and adoration of the female sex which has descended to our own times, is the offspring of the Christian dispensation.' But until it can be shown that Christianity estab- | | 393 lishes any such principle, we must look a little farther down for its origin. . . . Without rejecting the Teutonic influence, we might ascribe more direct efficacy to the favor shown towards women in succession to lands, through inheritance or dower, by the later Roman law."

Gallantry, in the sense of a general homage to the fair, a respectful deference to woman, independent of personal attachment, first became a perceptible element of European manners in the south of France at the end of the tenth century. This spirit is not found in the ancient poetry of the Franks or Anglo-Saxons, but it is fully developed in the sentiments and usages of northern France. Gallantry toward women was practiced by the Goths before they were acquainted with Christianity. Catholicism has greatly diminished the political and priestly powers of women. * It would seem, then, that the authorities are against the proposition that the moral elevation of womankind is due to Christianity, and tell us that it is due to altogether different causes, among which we find early Germanic influences and the modern literature of Germany, containing pure and noble views of love; ancient customs, giving woman property rights, and favors shown to woman by later Roman law; French influence; gallantry; the springing up of home life in the dark ages. The brave words and deeds of reformers in every generation, proclaiming the principles of justice and equality for all humanity, must be recognized as one of the essential factors in the civilization in which woman has had a share. With regard to intellectual growth and elevation, we have the same causes alike for man and woman. What either acquired was in opposition to the church, which sedulously tried to keep all learning within itself. Man, seeking after knowledge, was opposed by the church; woman, by both church and man. Educated men in our own day, who have outgrown many of the popular theological superstitions, do not share with the women of their households the freedom they themselves enjoy. Hence, it is not unusual to find the wives of clergymen far more bigoted than their husbands. Among the Greeks there was a class of women that possessed absolute freedom, surrounded by the wisest men of their day. They devoted themselves to study and thought, which enabled them to add to their other charms an intense intellectual fascination, and to make themselves the center of a literary society of matchless splendor. Aspasia was as famous | | 394 for her genius as for her beauty. She is said to have composed many of Pericles's most famous orations, and inspired his loftiest flights of eloquence. Socrates, too, owned his deep obligations to Diotema. In the society of this remarkable type of Grecian womanhood the most brilliant artists, poets, historians, philosophers found their highest inspiration. True, the position of these women was questionable; but as they were the only class to whom learning and liberty were permitted, they illustrate the civilization of the period.

The question is pertinent, Does the same class in Christian civilization enjoy as high culture and equal governmental protection? Since English and American statesmen, by recent legislation, have proved that they consider this phase of social life a necessity, why do not the Church and the State some shield of protection over the class of whom Lecky, in his "History of Morals," speaks so tenderly? What has Christianity done for this type of womanhood? Have eighteen centuries of its influence mitigated the miseries of this phase of life one iota? No, nor ever will, until the mother of the race is recognized as equal in every position in life, honored and dignified at every altar; not until another revision of the Protestant Bible shall strike from its pages all invidious distinctions based on sex. The masculine and feminine elements of humanity, in exact equilibrium, are as necessary to the order and harmony of the world of morals as are the centripetal and centrifugal forces exactly balanced in the world of matter. As long as the religion of a nation teaches the subordination of woman, of the moral and spiritual elements of humanity to physical force, a pure civilization is impossible. Just as slavery in the South, with its lessons of obedience, degraded every black man in the Northern States, so does an accepted system of prostitution, with its lessons of subjection and self-sacrifice, degrade the ideal womanhood everywhere.

In harmony with the pagan worship of an ideal womanhood of sybils, oracles, and priestesses, women held prominent positions in the church for several centuries after Christ. We have proof of this in the restrictions that at a later period were placed upon them by canon laws. The Council of Laodicea, three hundred and sixty-five years after Christ, forbade the ordination of women to the ministry, and prohibited them from entering the altar. The Council of Orleans, five hundred and eleven | | 395 years after Christ, consisting of twenty-six bishops and priests, promulgated a canon that, on account of their frailty, women must be excluded from the deaconship. Nearly three hundred years later we find the Council of Paris complaining that women serve at the altar, and even give to the people the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Through these canons we have the negative proof that for centuries women preached, baptized, administered the sacrament, and filled various offices of the church; and that ecclesiastics, through prohibitory canons, annulled these rights.

In the fifth century the church fully developed the doctrine of original sin, making woman its weak and guilty author. To St. Augustine, whose early life was licentious and degraded, we are indebted for this idea, which was infused into the canon law, and was the basis of all the persecutions woman endured for centuries, in the drift of Christian opinion from the extremes of polygamy to celibacy, from the virtues of chivalry to the cruelties of witchcraft, when the church taught its devotees to shun woman as a temptation and defilement. It was this persecution, this crushing out of the feminine element in humanity, more than all other influences combined, that plunged the world into the dark ages, shadowing the slowly rolling centuries till now with woman's agonies and death, paralyzing literature, science, commerce, education, changing the features of art, the sentiments of poetry, the ethics of philosophy, from the tender, the loving, the beautiful, the grand, to the stern, the dark, the terrible. Even the paintings representing Jesus were gradually changed from the gentle, watchful shepherd to the stern, unrelenting judge. Harrowing representations of the temptation, the crucifixion, the judgment-day, the Inferno, were intensified and elaborated by Dante and Milton. Painter and poet vied with each other in their gloomy portrayals, while crafty bishops coined these crude terrors into canons, and timid, dishonest judges allowed them to throw their dark shadows over the civil law.

The influence of the church on woman's civil position was equally calamitous. A curious old black-letter volume, published in London in 1632, entitled "The Lawes and Resolutions of Woman's Rights," says, "The reason why women have no controul [sic] in Parliament, why they make no laws, consent to none, abrogate none, is their Original Sin." This idea is the chief block in the way of woman's advancement at this hour. It was fully set | | 396 forth by the canon law, with wearisome repetition, and when, in the fifteenth century, the sacred Scriptures were collected and first printed, the spirit of these canons and all that logically grew out of them were engrafted on its pages, making woman an afterthought in the creation, the author of sin, in collusion with the devil, sex a crime, marriage a condition of slavery for woman and defilement for man, and maternity a curse to be attended with sorrow and suffering that neither time nor knowledge could ever mitigate, a just punishment for having effected the downfall of man. And all these monstrous ideas, emanating from the bewildered brains of men in the dark ages, under an exclusively masculine religion, were declared to be the word of God, penned by writers specially inspired by his Spirit.

Just at the period when the civil code began to recognize the equality and independence of the wife in the marriage relation, the church, to which woman had reason to look for protection, either blindly or perversely gave the whole force of its power against woman's equality in the family, and in fact against her influence altogether. In chapter V. of Maine's "Ancient Law" we have a clear statement of the influence of canon law on the liberty of person and property that Roman women then enjoyed. Speaking of their freedom, he says:

"Christianity tended from the very first to narrow this remarkable liberty." "No society which preserves any tincture of Christian institution is likely to restore to married women the personal liberty conferred on them by middle Roman law." "The expositors of the canon law have deeply injured civilization." "There are many vestiges of a struggle between the secular and ecclesiastical principles, but the canon law nearly everywhere prevailed. In some of the French provinces married women of a rank below nobility, obtained all the powers of dealing with property which Roman jurisprudence had allowed, and this local law has been largely followed by the code Napoleon. The systems, however, which are least indulgent to married women are invariably those which have followed the canon law exclusively, or those which from the lateness of their contact with European civilization have never had their archaisms weeded out."

By the dishonoring of womanhood on the ground of original sin, by the dishonoring of all relations with her as carnal and unclean, the whole sex touched a depth of moral degradation that it had never known before. Rescued in a measure from the miseries of polygamy, woman was plunged into the more degrading and unnatural condition of celibacy. Out of this grew the terrible | | 397 persecutions of witchcraft,** which raged for centuries, women being its chief victims. They were hunted down by the clergy, tortured, burned, drowned, dragged into the courts, tried, and condemned, for crimes that never existed but in the minds of religious devotees. The clergy sustained witchcraft as Bible doctrine, far into the eighteenth century, until the spirit of rationalism laughed the whole thing to scorn and gave mankind a more cheerful view of life. The reformation brought no new hope to woman. The great head of the movement, while declaring the right of individual conscience and judgment above church authority, as if to warn woman that she had no share in this liberty, was wont to say, "No gown worse becomes a woman than that she should be wise." Here is the key-note to the Protestant pulpit for three centuries, and it grates harshly on our ears to-day. The Catholic Church, in its holy sisterhoods, so honored and revered, and in its worship of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, has preserved some recognition of the feminine element in its religion; but from Protestantism it is wholly eliminated. Religions like the Jewish and Christian, which make God exclusively male and man supreme, consign woman logically to the subordinate position assigned her in Mohammedism. History has perpetuated this tradition, and her subjection has existed as an invariable element in Christian civilization. It could not be otherwise, with the Godhead represented as a trinity of males. The old masters in the galleries of art have left us their ideals of the Trinity in three bearded male heads. No heavenly Mother is recognized in the Protestant world.

The present position of woman in the spirit of our creeds and codes is far behind the civilization of the age, and unworthy the representative women of this day. And now, as ever, the strongest adverse influence to her elevation comes from the church, judging from its Biblical expositions, the attitude of the clergy, and the insignificant status that woman holds in the various sectarian organizations. For nearly forty years there has been an organized movement in England and America to liberalize the laws in relation to woman, to secure a more profitable place in the world of work, to open the colleges for higher education, and the schools of medicine, law, and theology, and to give woman an equal voice in the government and re- | | 398 ligion of the country. These demands, one by one, are slowly being conceded by the secular branch of the government, while the sectarian influence has been uniformly in the opposite direction. Appeals before legislative assemblies, constitutional conventions, and the highest courts have been respectfully heard and decided, while propositions for the consideration even of some honors to women in the church have uniformly been received with sneers and denunciations by leading denominations, who quote Scripture freely to maintain their position. Judges and statesmen have made able arguments in their respective places for woman's civil and political rights; but where shall we look for sectarian leaders that, in their general assemblies, synods, or other ecclesiastical conventions, have advocated a higher position for woman in the church? The attitude of the clergy is the same as in bygone centuries, modified somewhat, on this as on all other questions, by advancing civilization. The Methodists have a lay ministry, but they do not ordain women. Liberal clergymen in other sects have been arraigned and tried by their general assemblies for allowing women to preach in their pulpits. In imitation of the high churches in England, we have some in this country in which boys from twelve to fifteen supply the place of women in the choir, that the sacred altars may not be defiled by the inferior sex--an early Christian idea. The discourses of clergymen, when they enlarge on the condition of woman, read more like canons in the fifth century than sermons in the nineteenth, addressed to those who are their peers in religious thought and scientific attainment. The Rev. Morgan Dix's Lenten lectures last spring, and Bishop Littlejohn's last triennial sermon, are fair specimens. The latter recommends that all the liberal legislation of the past forty years for woman should be reversed, while the former is the chief obstacle in the way of woman's admission to Columbia College. And these fairly represent the sentiments of the vast majority, who never refer to the movement for woman's enfranchisement but with ridicule and contempt--sentiments that they insidiously infuse into all classes of women under their influence. None of the leading theological seminaries will admit women who preparing for the ministry, and none of the leading denominations will ordain them when prepared. The Universalists, Unitarians, and Quakers are the only sects that ordain women. And yet women are the chief supporters of the church to-day. They | | 399 make the surplices and gowns, get up the fairs and donation parties, and are the untiring beggars for its benefit. They supply its enthusiasm, and are continually making large bequests to its treasury; and their reward is still the echo of the old canon law of woman's subjection, from pulpit to pulpit throughout Christendom. Though England and America are the two nations in which the Christian religion is dominant, and can boast the highest type of womanhood, and the greatest number in every department of art, science, and literature, yet even here women have been compelled to clear their own way for every step in progress. Not one wrong has been righted until women themselves made organized resistance against it. In the face of every form of opposition they are throwing off the disabilities of the old common law, which Lord Brougham said long ago "was in relation to woman the opprobrium of the age and Christianity." And not until they make an organized resistance against the withering influence of the canon law, will they rid themselves of the moral disabilities growing out of the theologies of our times. When I was standing near the last resting-place of Rev. Charles Kingsley not long ago, his warning words for woman, in a letter to John Stuart Mill, seemed like a voice from the clouds, saying with new inspiration and power, "This will never be a good world for woman until the last remnant of the canon law is civilized off the face of the earth."

ELIZABETH CADY STANTON

Notes

Page 393 - . *See Comte, "Philosophie Positive," Vol. V., pp. 221-223.

Page 397 - . **See Lecky's "History of Rationalism."

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