Paper initially written for seminary “Women in Church and Society,” Prof. John Howard Yoder
Chapter appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020
I was one of few Mennonite women who, as early as 1973, did research into” The Woman’s Bible written and compiled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her Revising Committee. Access to or note-taking of the text then was done via microfilm in the seminary library. Print copies of the book were published shortly thereafter, 1974, followed by a Study Guide of it in 1975, both available from the Seattle Coalition Task Force on Women and Religion. To have had print copies in hand would have made writing my 26-page paper (with two pages of bibliography) much easier.
I recall feeling that my effort and achievement was historic as well as sacred, in part because Part I and Part II content had first been copyrighted in 1895 and 1898. The seminary course for which I did the research, titled “Women in Church and Society,” was itself historic—requested by women students and organized by three of them. Professor John Howard Yoder engaged with the class and read papers. His insight into scripture and features of nineteenth century American religion added to my learning. This study prompted further interest into nineteenth century U.S. through research for another paper that appears in this collection—about 19th century women ministers in America.
To assist readers of this paper to anticipate details of my research of decades ago, I highlight from the 1974 Seattle Coalition Task Force printing of the original Woman’s Bible, Part I and Part II. Keep in mind that the ’74 printing was not available when I wrote. Stanton’s motive for a group commentary project followed dissatisfaction with the 1870 all-male Revised Version of the Authorized Version of the Bible published in 1611. Seattle women of diverse denominations joined to print it due to intrigue for the insights into scripture of Stanton’s group as well as insight “into the minds of the women of their era.” Those writers had firmly believed, for example, that Jesus had truly believed in the equality of women and men.
Twenty women joined Stanton to study and write, being a select “few brave biblical interpreters among women.” Some Hebrew and Greek women scholars who were invited to join in the task, refused “because they were afraid to risk their reputations as scholars.” I wonder if women today might join the Seattle group to confess the following:
We have found ourselves to be in a position of conforming to the cultures, attitudes, and systems of male dominance rather than seeking to transform them. We have supported male dominance within the church itself, denying to women justice in receiving recognition and opportunity to participate as whole persons within the community of faith. As a result, we tend to read and interpret the Bible emphasizing what supports our biases.1
Task Force members comment in their Preface. One notes, that despite misinterpretations and a Victorian point of view, Stanton’s group reflected “reverence for the greatness of God and the immortal teachings of Jesus Christ.” (x) Another faults Stanton for errors in judgment: talking of the Divine as male, claiming which basic purpose for recording chosen Scriptures, and wondering if text portions most negative toward women should be removed. (xii-xiii) A third states: “Stanton’s Bible written over 75 years ago came out of an accumulated awareness and anger towards oppression.” (xvi) Together Task Force members determined to fully cooperate in bringing a historical document into circulation, to provide future feminists with a “springboard” for discussion. (xvii)
Quotes from U.S. and England Press releases during the late 19th century convey perspective. Describing the Woman’s Bible, “the work is unique. Its aim is to help the cause of woman in her battle for equality” from Beacon, Akron, OH. . . “It is evidently the mission of “The Woman’s Bible” to exalt and dignify woman” from The Morning, London . . . “We have read some of the passages of the commentary prepared for “The Woman’s Bible” by that very accomplished American woman and Biblical student Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. . . Mrs. Stanton’s interpretative remarks are shrewd and sensible” from the NY Sun editorial . . . and “It is not only the type that is new. New readings of old passages are given, and the volume contains suggestions to show that the verses about women’s inferiority really mean the opposite of the ordinary acceptation” from Pali Mail Gazette, London. The book’s Appendix includes responses from twenty women to two questions: “1. Have the teachings of the Bible advanced or retarded the emancipation of Women? and 2. Have they dignified or degraded the Mothers of the Race?”
Turning now to major excerpts of my study into women’s engagement in biblical interpretation for creating the Woman’s Bible, we find insight like few had disclosed before. Writers basically dealt with one-tenth of the Bible—portions about women and sections where they were clearly overlooked. Resistance to women’s claim to interpret then was even more sharp than now.
“Social science affirms that woman’s place in society marks the level of civilization.”2 . . .
For Elizabeth Cady Stanton, compiler and major contributor to The Woman’s Bible, a lifetime left no doubt. She adamantly charged the Bible as a source of degradation for women. Although biblical texts have forever promoted patriarchal principles, I assert that the translators, interpreters, and preachers, mostly men, have propagated through centuries distorted teaching of biblical materials for reasons of self-defense, inadequate knowledge, and intentional ego satisfaction. Higher criticism, just entering the American scene prior to Stanton’s commentary, and perhaps less that totally understood or endorsed today, paved the way for less literal biblical interpretation. More attention to cultural influences affecting the original change from oral to written Word also occurred.
The plan for this writing includes: to highlight the historical context of American society—ideas and programs that Ms. Stanton advocated during her first eighty years of life, to examine and provide an overview of Woman’s Bible material, and to comment on how a Woman’s Bible might “read” pertinent passages about women.
American Historical Context
Varied sources provide information about the U.S. Woman’s Rights Movement, reflecting Cady Stanton’s involvement and leadership. Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle will be utilized more here.3 Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), from Albany, N. Y., received a fine formal education along with equally significant learning from observing and listening to people, including many women, consult with her father, a judge, on legal problems. From repeatedly hearing him patiently explain to women their “no legal redress” status, a lasting impact followed. Married to Henry B. Stanton, lawyer and abolitionist leader, Elizabeth became mother of seven children. A decisive factor in her life evolved when she faced and found intolerable the realities of a housewife’s drudgery and isolation in small-town Seneca Falls.
The first Woman’s Rights Convention was held at that same town. There, Stanton gave her first major speech—“A Declaration of Principles”—which paraphrased the Declaration of Independence.
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that they have hitherto occupied . . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . . . “4 Woman’s suffrage demands in the U.S. were born. Only Charlotte Woodward, among those signing the Declaration of Principles, eventually lived to vote for a U.S. president in 1920.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton complemented each other for fifty years as a team in the struggle and promotion of woman’s rights. While the latter was the more outstanding theorist, speaker, and writer, Susan proved more competent as organizer, critic, and gatherer of facts and statistics, partly perhaps because of her mobility. . . .
Organizations of and for women developed in different parts of the country. A great value derived from these: getting women accustomed to the value of organization as a means to accomplish ends. The introduction of the 14th Amendment in 1866 and its ratification two years later, intentionally requesting male instead of sex rights, infuriated Mr. and Mrs. Stanton. Fifty-two years were needed to eradicate that injustice. Miss Anthony devoted considerable thought and effort to seven years’ publication of a sixteen-page paper The Revolution which gave the movement focus and a forum.
But the broad-cause approach, not only the vote, that spoke for women of any class of Stanton-Anthony and followers proved too much for other leaders. Separate National and American Women’s Suffrage Movement groups formed in 1860 and functioned until 1890. While the latter group concentrated on the franchise, it generally became more selective in supporting causes. Public attitudes changed. Although woman’s suffrage waited some time to be accepted, it at least no longer seemed to be the province of crackpots and eccentrics. Further conflict emerged when male immigrants were granted voting privilege while women, U.S. citizens for longer, remained deprived, causing them to wonder if they qualified as citizens.
Anna Howard Shaw, minister, lecturer, and suffragist declared: “The great defect in the religious teaching to and accepted by women is the dogma that self-abnegation, self-effacement, and excessive humility were ideal feminine virtues.”5 Ms. Stanton, while preaching the duty of self-development and dignity of every human being, insisted that for women to realize self-esteem, “they first had to acknowledge their own needs and value their ambitions and rages as well as their nurturant selves.”6 Her masterpiece speech, delivered when widowed and 76 years old, entitled “Solitude of Self” rang with: “Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.7
With Cady Stanton’s primary concern shifting from the single issue of suffrage to how established religion was responsible for woman’s inferior position, her focus led to the Woman’s Bible. Clearly, Ms. Stanton had encountered and reacted against biblical materials and clergy through the seventy-five years prior to the Woman’s Bible project. It was not a “filler for the later years.” To anyone seriously challenging inequalities between women and men, the pattern of church history, “soundly founded” in ideas interpreted from the Bible, presents a wall like a Stonehenge column. The late 19th century produced “heretical” ideas of non-literal biblical interpretation and general religious ferment. With the method of higher criticism emerging, she found the more historical approach to scripture a new base on which to focus the rights and equalities desired through the woman campaign. . . .
That women were denounced for daring to comment on scripture at all illustrates an obstacle to their emancipation. Cady Stanton asked why women’s protest against their present status in the Old and New Testaments or in ordinances and disciplines of the church was more ridiculous than in statutes and constitutions of the state. Kraditor’s summary of Cady Stanton’s understanding of the biblical position of woman makes clear:
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 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.8
This low opinion of woman and motherhood does not reflect the matriarchal factors traceable from the beginnings of history to the 16th century. Cady Stanton staunchly defended that woman’s varied responses as mother, bread winner, protector, and defender of helpless children raised her intellect and inventive supremacy and made her teacher and ruler of men. . . . . She contended that women must question all historians, sacred or profane, who perpetuate any philosophy that lowers the status of the Mothers of the Race or favors one-man power in government.9
The Woman’s Bible Materials
How, specifically, did the Woman’s Bible proceed to counter the position of woman as understood from the Bible? Writers revised texts and chapters that directly referred to women as well as those in which women were made prominent by exclusion. That content reflects about one-tenth of the entire biblical material. An interesting analysis, probing for reasons, could be made of materials not included that actually do deal with women, often in direct statements calling for female with male unity and equality as in Gal. 3:28.
Among the women writers were: 1. Greek and Hebrew scholars, 2. those devoted to biblical history, including the latest theories and understandings of hidden meanings, and 3. others who analyzed biblical attitudes toward the female sex. Eight individuals revised Part I, 25 Part II. Editors were to make a consistent whole out of the varied commentary and give the completed work to an advisory committee for final judgment.10
An outline of the Woman’s Bible reveals:
Part I Introduction pp. 7-13 Part II Preface 7-9
Genesis-Deuteronomy 14-142 Joshua-Malachi 10-105
The Pentateuch 143-147 The Kabbalah 106-112
Appendix 149-152 New Testament Introduction 113-115
Woman’s Bible Repudiated 215-217
Observations on proportionate space indicate that Part I definitely had more commentary for considerably less biblical material. Pages given to question responses in the Appendix of Part II are nearly half as many as used for commentary on the entire New Testament.
Aileen Kraditor’s helpful summary of Genesis-Deuteronomy commentary is as follows:
The two accounts of the creation contradict each other, the rib story obviously being a later interpolation. God created man, male and female, in his own image and gave them together dominion over the earth. Eve was less to blame for the Fall than Adam because in the eating of the fruit of the tree he broke a commandment received from God; she disobeyed an order received from Adam. When confronted with his disobedience, Adam tried to blame his wife. The temptation to which Eve succumbed was not the promise of jewels or pleasure but the desire for knowledge and wisdom. God’s statement that her husband was to rule over her was a prediction, not a curse; in the same way, God predicted rather than commanded that Adam should eat his bread in the sweat of his face.
The story of the patriarchs was one long tale of war, corruption, rapine, and lust. Women were scarcely mentioned except when the advent of sons was announced. From Abraham through Joseph there were just seven legitimate descendants in the first generation, so that the great harvest so recklessly promised would have been meager indeed if it had not been for polygamy and concubinage. The texts on Lot’s daughters and Tamar we omit altogether, as unworthy a place in the Woman’s Bible.11
Extensive discussion of selected scripture commentary (Gen. 1-3, Eph. 5, I Cor. 7, 11, 14, I Tim. 2 plus a few more briefly) and possible restatements follow examination of the supplementary materials.
The Pentateuch Ursula N. Gestefeld, reflecting on the Pentateuch as a whole, emphasizes the biblical teaching on the equality of woman and man. Each has distinctive offices, places; both are necessary for the perfect whole. She concludes that man is more prominent than woman in the Bible because their succession represents man as a whole—generic man.
For Gestefeld, the book of Genesis is the substance of the entire Bible. Chapter one is a symbolic description of the composite nature of man, male/female in one. Chapter two describes the nature or origin on the visible world and soul in relation to each other and the dual being. Chapter three symbolically illustrates the soul’s existence in unbroken continuity. . . . 12
Appendix – Part I Appendix material for Part I gives information about Julia Smith’s (1792-1886) literal translation of the Bible from approximately 1843, not long after farmer William Miller predicted the end of the world. Hers had been the only translation ever made by a woman, the only one by one person alone. She actually translated the Bible five times, twice each from Hebrew and Greek, once from Latin. An example of her literal translation is “and Adam called his wife’s name Life, for she was the Mother of all living.”
The Kabbalah A discussion of the Kabbalah appears in Part II following Malachi. Identified as the “fountain head of Old Testament teachings,” the Kabbalah, or Hebrew esoteric doctrines, were handed down by oral tradition from angels. Stressed here were the feminine aspects of the Deity and the equality of male and female. The latter were equal in creation and coexisted perfectly equally. There was a time, according to the obscure teachings, before man was differentiated into sexes. The rib story of Gen. 2 then refers to the end of androgyny and a distinction of sexes. This caused evil because force was unbalanced . . .
New Testament Introduction Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in introducing the New Testament materials, suggests no difference in the general estimate of woman in the Old and New Testaments. However, the Apostles perhaps set forth more clearly an inferior position. At least, there are no such specific directions for woman’s subordination in the Pentateuch as are in the Epistles.
An anonymous writer identifies Jesus as the great leading radical of his age. Qualities which gave him power were: 1. Charm of personality that drew common people, 2. Intellectual power of speech, 3. Pity, sympathy, tenderness of the man, 4. Trust in God—teaching the humanness of God and divinity of man. The conquest of Christianity is credited to Jesus’ defeat over death and to the work of Paul, not to the Virgin Birth doctrine. Implying that that was something higher, sweeter, nobler than ordinary motherhood is a slur on all motherhood by nature.13
Appendix-Part II Two questions were asked of all respondents for the Appendix material of Part II:
1. Have the teachings of the Bible advanced or retarded the emancipation of women?
2. Have they dignified or degraded the Mothers of the Race?
Several random excerpts reflect a range of response:
The Woman’s Bible Repudiated The final supplement to the Woman’s Bible is the Woman’s Bible Repudiated. This section states the resolution discussed and adopted by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association following the publication of the Woman’s Bible.
Resolution: that this association is non-sectarian, being composed of persons of all shades of religious opinion, and that it has no official connection with the so-called Woman’s Bible or any theological publication.
Symptomatic of a movement toward the “middle of the road” position, this resolution stemmed from a new generation of conservative women intent on maintaining increased sympathy from men who had power to grant women’s demands.
Susan B. Anthony, president of the organization, tried to avoid adopting the resolution, stressing the need, right for individual opinion for every member. She said: “You would better educate ten women into the practice of liberal principles than to organize 10,000 on a platform of intolerance and bigotry.14 Why was all of this additional material included in the Woman’s Bible? Certainly, the discussion of the Pentateuch and Kabbalah give insight into the background or framework from which at least some of the writers came to the passages. One’s understanding of the concept or person of God will always affect how scripture is interpreted; how men and women are to be identified with the Divine Being; how that Spirit expects them to relate to each other. Further, the conditions, attitudes and level of communicative knowledge of a given historical period are reflected. . . .
Although a third U. S. printing of the Woman’s Bible and one in England were needed to meet the demand, some clergy denounced it as a work of Satan. Current criticism of the publication includes these observations: It
Additional inconsistencies of Stanton’s group noted by Mary Wakeman are:
Linda Pritchard reminds the reader to keep in perspective the historical period of religious and social dislocation. At least during such times, traditional patterns were more easily broken and women could participate somewhat more fully.17
Interpretation of Select Passages
We turn now to examples of interpretation within the Woman’s Bible. To categorize, or even summarize, Woman’s Bible interpretation of specific portions of scripture is difficult because of the varied opinions among commentators. Although they intentionally opposed literal meanings of scripture, we today find many indications of just that. They also assumed that chapter 1 of Genesis was written prior to chapter 2 simply because it appears first. Information now substantiates that chapter 2, from 1000 BC, was written prior to chapter 1 content, from 600 BC.
Genesis 1:22, 27, 28; 2: 21-25; 3:1-24
Genesis 1 is acknowledged in the Woman’s Bible as an account of creation in ascending order. But developing that idea too seriously would refute the major contention that the Bible consistently degrades woman. God is assumed to be a trinity of heavenly Mother, Father and Son, masculine and feminine forces having existed eternally. Then chapter 2 contradicts chapter 1. There, woman is but an afterthought; her reason for being: Adam’s loneliness. Focus then shifts to over-emphasis on her maternity; verse 24 makes clear that woman heads the household which the matriarchal period of history proved. . . .
While one writer identifies the judgment of chapter 3 as “curse,” another sees it as “prediction.” At any rate, the serpent represents enmity toward the whole human race. While woman is to be subjected to man, man will struggle with the forces of nature. But Darwin’s influence of the evolution of humanity countered such trends. Adam describes woman as eternal mother when he calls her Life. Not noting the dangers involved—how confining the pedestal—the Woman’s Bible group counters the Eve-temptress idea with glorified motherhood.18
Today, restrictions on women continue to be based on treatment of Genesis 1-3 similar to that of the 1890s although attempts to counter the distortions emerge. Following reviews of Woman’s Bible commentary on specific scripture portions, I note some understandings that currently explain the contexts, words, and meanings originally involved or intended.19
More recognition must be given to Hebrew scripture writing as literature from within, and influenced by, a historical period. At times reinforcing, at times denouncing, the context cannot be isolated. Not appearing in other Ancient Near East literature are concepts that God (Yahweh) alone is God and that the WORD of Yahweh is spoken, the message of the prophetic experience. Whereas the Babylonian and Assyrian versions of the Gilgamesh Epic display concepts of fertility and sexuality, Yahweh remains non-sexual, above and beyond sex. Therefore, initiation for woman and man focuses on their pursuit of knowledge, not sexuality.
In both accounts the order of creation goes from imperfect to perfect, from incompleteness to completion. Solidarity and interdependence characterize the sexes. Together man and woman live in relationship, have dominion over the earth, and reflect the image of the Divine. Yet, sexual difference remains for the specific experience of mutual communion. Out of personhood (2:7) comes sexuality (21-23). “Bone of my bone” expresses the simultaneous apartness and attraction. The distinction cannot, however, accommodate differentiating value judgments. Neither has authority over the other, both being counterparts of each.
Differences become more pronounced in chapter 3. While woman proves to be more sensitive, intellectually curious, and desirous of infinity, man passively receives and eats, without discriminating between his trust in woman and God. Together they depict the tragic situation of human experience, choosing to rely on or exalt the self instead of affirm faith in God alone. Disobedience, not sex, is the problem; death results from sin.
Reflective of the break in relationship to each other and to God are the judgments or mandates meted. For having misrepresented Yahweh, the serpent (elsewhere in Ancient Near East literature thought of as holy) is cursed, condemned to crawl on its belly. Woman’s loss of initiative and freedom and man’s rule over woman, woman’s labor pains and man’s toil in a hostile nature all depict perversions of creation. Such experience reflects chaos, not order. It describes the situation, protesting rather than condoning reality. For Adam to name Eve (3:2) reflects corruption of intended mutuality, points toward the need for redemption. But all is not completely spoiled.
We turn now to New Testament materials. One criticism of the Woman’s Bible recurred: its overlooking or inadequate interpretation of some scriptures that do speak to or reflect mutuality and unity of women with men. Not included are three parallel baptismal liturgies that explain breaking barriers of privilege and inequality of nations, societies and sexes like Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11, and I Cor 12:12-13. Such an approach defeats itself. Granted, numerous scriptures leave much to be desired for women, but to refuse to acknowledge the commendable hardly best rights wrongs. I uphold Cady Stanton and her co-writers for attempting to illustrate the use of scripture as one very significant reason for attitudes that sanction and perpetuate the belief that women are by nature and experience inferior and therefore of less personal worth. Since too little progress has followed, during the past 75 years, to up-grade or respect women or to make clear the absolute need for female and male interdependence, I support further disciplined scholarship for commentaries, including works by women writers.
Ephesians 5:22-25, 28, 31, 33
Elizabeth Cady Stanton responded to this section:
If every man were as pure and as self-sacrificing as Jesus in his relationships to the church, respect, honor, and obedience from the wife might be more easily rendered. Let every man love his wife (not wives) points to monogamic marriage. It is quite natural for women to love and honor good men, and to return a full measure of love on husbands who bestow much kindness and attention on them. But it is not easy to love those who treat us spitefully in any relationship, except as mothers; their love triumphs over all shortcomings and disappointments. Occasionally conjugal love combines that of the Mother. Then the kindness and the forbearance of a wife may surpass all understanding.20
Almost “unforgiveable” is her oversight of verse 21 that exhorts men and women to have deference for each other out of reverence for Christ. Yet, that verse shapes how to interpret the remainder of the section.
Notre Dame professor of New Testament Josephine Ford explains this group of verses to call for mutual, redemptive, Christ-like love and respect in light of New Testament marriage contexts where love did not appear essential to marriage. Such a stance existed with pre-arranged marriage, levirate customs, and the pattern of uncomplicated divorce privileges for men. Therefore, the mutual honor, deference, regard for another’s wishes of verse 21 gets elaborated separately, “in turn,” for wives and husbands. The concept of authority or demanding obedience does not appear here.21
Lee Anna Starr, writing less than thirty years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, discussed the two aspects of this section: 1. The union of Christ and the church (under the figure of marriage), and 2. The Christian obligations in the husband/wife relationship. The voluntary surrender of personal preferences, advocated for every Christian in verse 21, is applied practically to the wife in vs. 22-24 in a way comparable to the husband’s being singled out in vs. 25-33. Christians are to give up personal rights for Christ’s sake. Discoursing on such singleness of headship (Christ alone) and the obligation of the church to be subject to Christ’s will, the writer illustrates the concept from then-contemporary Roman practice. The writer does not commend or approve a husband’s legal headship of a wife. The wife’s reverence for her husband depends on his behavior toward her. The church responds similarly to Christ’s available love. Only when a husband loves himself more does he dominate over the wife. Mutual negation of preferential treatment makes possible the subjecting one to another.22
Might men’s inadequacy of loving “as Christ” have prompted them to emphasize rather the “wives by subject” concept? A Christian marriage preparation pattern of personal choice should provide a framework for greater respect and deference, loving as Christ. That pattern should indoctrinate us to expect and realize mutual husband/wife relationships. He or she who thinks that he/she deserves or should have reserved for himself/herself power, “the final authority,” or prerogative as in decision-making reveals therein his/her inadequate incompetence for the task. Consciously or unconsciously, assuming or insisting on privilege, including an attitude of super status or irresponsible submission, at the expense of primary deference for the other is not Christ-like, self-sacrifice.23
I Corinthians 7:2, 3, 10-14, 16
One of Paul’s longest discussions of the marriage relationship appears in I Cor 7. Again, the Woman’s Bible commentary proves to be less than adequate. Cady Stanton discusses only whether to marry and conditions of marriage with an unbeliever. An anonymous writer fails to summarize the material: “We can all see that men could have gotten along well enough without woman.”24 A key verse (4), “Neither wife or husband rules over her-his own body (person),” is omitted. Totally ignored is Paul’s “going overboard” here to balance, make equally accountable, the husband and wife in their relationship and the reminder that allegiance to God alone reflects the desired focus.
I Corinthians 11:3-5, 7-11, 13-15
In discussing I Cor. 11, Cady Stanton states that cannon law required that a veil be worn to show the superiority, authority headship of man and the humility and subservience of woman. Support of heaven-ordained subjection should bring about rebellion, she thinks. In light of an ancient custom that permitted men to write letters in place of the name of another, Louisa Southworth suggests that this may not be Paul’s writing. Such a thought must have disturbed some readers in the 1890s. Comparable questions arise today, but not about I Cor. 11 material. Southworth’s commentary focuses on angels, this being a warning to women about the old legend confirming the angels’ capacity to lay hold of women by the hair and beget giants and heroes.25 . . . .
In this section dealing with the Headship of Christ, man is no more superior to woman than God is to Son. Both receive forgiveness, are baptized, and surely worship similarly. Ministries were not being denied women; their expressions of obedience to God alone came also through praying and prophesying. What the Woman’s Bible respondents did not realize is that head, from Greek kephale, does not mean “authority over.” Translating it source or origin makes clear the chronological, not hierarchical, order. Similarly, for purposes of distinction, not subordination or value judgments, customs were specified for both men and women (vs. 4-5, elaborated in 6-10).
While woman is created no less in God’s image, she is the glory of man and he of God according to the Woman’s Bible commentary. Man’s uncovered head reflects God’s glory. In order for woman to worship, reflect the glory of God alone, she must cover the glory of man. That covering, worn partly out of deference to accepted societal conventions, then also symbolized her, not another’s authority. Differences in society and creation remain, but in relation to God all are one in Christ. In the context of worship, the angels want God alone to be glorified and the natural order of creation maintained. So, the essential complimenting, not domination, under God gains reaffirmation in v. 11. Man’s dependence on woman for birth neutralizes the original priority of order of man in creation.
I Corinthians 14:34-35
Turning to the two New Testament passages about women’s speaking or not speaking in worship, Elizabeth Cady Stanton says of I Cor. 14:34-35: There is such wide difference of opinion on this point among wise men, that perhaps it would be safe to leave women to be guided by their own unassisted common sense.26 Current interpretation adds insight.27 The main concern centers in order and right conduct within worship, reiterating that which had been given to prophets and those speaking in tongues. Within the prevalent form of service, “taking turns” understandably proved difficult to control. At least, women were involved significantly. Involved here also may be etiquette, deference toward Jewish or Corinthian law that barred women from talking to any man, except her husband, in public. Asking a husband at home reflected society’s discrimination against the education of girls. Not versed in Christian truth, they should not intrude or chatter meaninglessly. Verse 36 was stated to the entire community, not only to women. In some early manuscripts, verses 33-35 appear after verse 40, suggesting the possibility of their being an alteration or insertion.
The other related text appears in I Tim. 2:9-14. Some reason must have kept the Woman’s Bible from including verse 15 which in translation implies woman’s salvation through child-bearing. That verse might have affected their Mother of the Race concept. While Cady Stanton spoke primarily to woman’s adornment, Lucinda B. Chandler made more extensive (refreshing, if not directly pertinent) comments. She suggests that Jesus had no part in statements supporting the domination of woman over man or man over woman.
Not having studied Greek prior to writing this paper forced me to accept others’ interpretations. The bulk of scriptural teaching has been transmitted with such limits through history. We depend on giving serious attention to commentary that supports Jesus’ fundamental pattern that eradicates barriers, privileges, discrimination between men and women. Two writers are combined here to suggest an alternate to the Woman’s Bible discussion of the I Tim. 2 material.28 A corresponding idea appears in verses 8-9. While men are to “lift holy hands” in prayer, women, when they pray, are to be modest in dress and deportment, learning in quietness, not silence, without distraction. As with I Cor. 14, this command does not veto a woman’s bearing office.
Teaching, in New Testament materials, combined discussion with admonition, a mutual interchange (via speech, psalm, or hymn) among many members of the congregation who had sufficient knowledge. (By the second century, certain select, gifted persons did more admonishing.) To admonish involved arguing and controversy; a teacher reserved rights of authoritative decision-making. Therefore, to respect society’s decorum (prejudice?) of the day meant that a wife not be self-willed, bossy, or having dominion over her husband in public assembly. . . .
Verses 13-14 reflect a return to pre-Jesus’ understandings of Gen. 1-3 materials prevalent through history, discussed earlier. Then follows the conclusion that in spite of the Fall, woman’s posterity, male and female (if living in faith, love, holiness) are to be saved through the childbearing of a woman (Jesus), the salvation of humanity intimated in Gen. 3:15.
As noted earlier, none of the three corresponding baptismal statements that denounce society’s privileged or unprivileged categories is discussed in the Woman’s Bible. According to Madeleine Boucher,29 the theory of male/female equality appears in three texts: (I Peter 3:7; I Cor. 11:11-12; Gal. 3:28), a summary of New Testament teaching on the role of women. The Woman’s Bible quotes and discusses the preceding I Peter material that encourages woman to be submissive, quotes the first part of verse 7 that asks a husband to honor/love his wife, and then omits 7b that identifies both as “joint heirs.” Unfortunately, verse 12 of I Cor 11 that emphasizes that neither husband nor wife is independent of the other is omitted as is the Gal. 3 affirmation “You are all one in Christ Jesus.” Such interpretation that advocates equality and unity of woman and man in creation, disobedience, and redemption deserves attention.
Ms. Boucher points to evidence that the doctrine of equality before God was being taught in Judaism at the same time as in early Christianity. Similarly, each religion admitted the inequality—subordination and privilege—of social experience. Tension comes from holding or bringing these two together, she suggests. The inward begins at baptism and the outward will come to perfection in eschatological times.30 A question lingers: do we believe that the future already breaks into the present, that God’s kingdom at least partially has begun? If so, instead of perpetuating discriminatory sanctions based on distinctions of reality, why not advance instead of delay the Kingdom among us by calling for mutual deference, interdependent reliance, and rights and responsibilities of autonomous personal worth? Christ-like respect and love will then voluntarily exist.
I have found this exposure to the Woman’s Bible valuable in learning about the historical context of its writing as well as the main writer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although Part II seems anticlimactic, so much energy having gone into compiling or condemning Part I, the project proved to be worthwhile. Further research is needed to do justice to the total material. Valid content reflects a genuine intent to expose a prime cause for the degradation of woman through time. Overlooked, in what I read, was convincing insight that discrimination affects equally, but differently, both sexes. One could wish that denouncing aspects of scripture would not reflect bias or an inability to acknowledge the good and right. But bias, often denied, compliments all biblical translation and interpretation.
In trying to upgrade woman, Woman’s Bible writers perhaps stressed the Mother of the Race at the expense of a mutual, interdependent reality for women and men. Female superiority is no more to be desired than male. Motherhood is not all for which women are created; fulfilled fatherhood matters too. Reasons that Anne McGrew Bennett gives for serious re-examination of the Woman’s Bible supports the basic contention that too few corrections of biblical understandings have evolved since Elizabeth Cady Stanton cried out. For example, these persist: neglect of female dimensions of Divine actions, exclusive use of masculine pronouns for God and humanity, distorted translations of biblical meaning, and omission of biblical accounts about worthy women by male historical scholarship.31
Further attempts to reform the situation will profit from a sympathetic probing of the Woman’s Bible, avoiding mistakes made earlier, absorbing and building on the truth revealed. A question and invitation remain before us: what approach would best provide maximum opportunity for every woman and man to be all that is humanly and divinely possible in relationship to each other, within allegiance to God alone? How soon will men and women achieve such vision together?
Bailey, John A. “Initiation and the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3,” Journal of Biblical Literature. 89, June 1970, 137-50.
Batey, Richard A. “Deutero-Pauline Nuptial Imagery,” in New Testament Nuptial Imagery. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1971, 20-37.
Boucher, Madeleine. “Some Unexplored Parallels to I Cor. 11:11-12 and Gal. 3:28: The New Testament on the Role of Women,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. xxxiii, Jan. 1969, 50-58.
Caird, G. B. “Paul and Women’s Liberty,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 54/2, Spring 1972, 268-81.
Degler, Carl N. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism,” American Quarterly. VIII/1, Spring 1956, 21-39.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle. NY: Atheneum, 1972.
Ford, Josephine M. “Biblical Material Relevant to the Ordination of Women,” (Manuscript accepted by Journal of Ecumenical Studies, January 1974), Lecture given to “Women in Church and Society” course at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Sept 27, 1973, 12 pp.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home Its Work and Influence. NY: Charlton Co., 1910.
Guenther, Allen R. and Herbert Swartz. “The Role of Women in the Church,” The Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 4, 1973, 4-9.
Hommes, N. J. “Let Women Be Silent in Church,” Calvin Theological Journal. 4/1, April 1969, 5-22.
Hooker, M. D. “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor. 11:10,” New Testament Studies. 10, April 1964, 410-16.
Kraditor, Aileen S. “Woman Suffrage and Religion,” ch. 4 in The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1890-1920. NY: Columbia Univ Pr. 1965.
Kraditor, Aileen S. UP From the Pedestal. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968, 108-21, 140-47.
Martin, William J. “I Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretation,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel. W. W. Gasque and Ralph P. Martin, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1970, 231-41.
Munro, Winsome. “Peter, Paul, and Women,” Part of “The Woman’s Packet,” 4 pp.
Romero, Joan Arnold, compiler. Women and Religion 1973 Proceedings, American Academy of Religion
Annual Meeting, Chicago, November 8-11, 1973.
Bennett, Anne McGrew. “The Woman’s Bible: Introduction,” 39-43.
Denton, Clare. “Home-work: A Woman’s Place,” 64-69.
Johnson, Ebba. “New Testament Perspectives on Christian Personhood: The Woman’s Bible and
Kimball, Gayle. “A Theology of Femininity: The Woman’s Bible, 75-78.”
Pritchard, Linda. “The Woman’s Bible: Women in Religion in Historical Context,” 44-50.
Wakeman, Mary. “On Idolatry,” 51-55.
Yoshioka, Barbara. “The Culture of Dissent: The Woman’s Bible, The Female Witch and the
Female Sectarian Preacher,” 56-63.
Russell, Letty Mandeville. “Women’s Liberation in a Biblical Perspective,” Concern, May-June 1971, 31 pp.
Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. NY: Vintage Books, 1972.
Scroggs, Robin. “Paul and the Eschatological Woman,” Journal of American Academy of Religion, Sept. 1972, 283-303.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More Reminiscences 1815-1897. NY: Schocken Books, 1971, v-xx; 108-26; 215-33; 377-93; 412-21; 439-57.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman’s Bible Part 1 – 1895, Part II 1898. (NY: European Pub. Co.)
(My study was done from a microfilm copy of this.)
Starr, Lee Anna. The Bible Status of Woman. Zaraphath, NY: Pillar of Fire, 1926.
Studer, Gerald. The Woman’s Bible, 3-page review.
Terrien, Samuel. “Toward a Biblical Theology of Womanhood,” Religion in Life, Autumn 1973, 322-33.
Trible, Phyllis. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of American Academy of Religion, March 1973, 30-48.
Woudstra, Sierd. Review of Woman in Old Testament Worship, Clarence J. Vos. Calvin Theological Journal, 4/1, April 1969, 114-19.
Yoder, John Howard. “Revolutionary Subordination,” in The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1972, 163-92.