'Feminized' Religion and Women's Rights: The Woman's Bible and Nineteenth Century Spiritualism
One of the chief figures of the nineteenth century woman's rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was committed to eliminating inequalities between women and men. Towards the end of her life, she increasingly saw religious forces as a chief impediment to women's progress; for Cady Stanton, the reverence of the state and individual women towards Christian beliefs that subjugate women made it necessary that these beliefs are reexamined. Such concerns eventually led her to compose The Woman's Bible. In this text, Stanton and her revising committee offer critical commentaries on the passages in the Bible that pertain to women, using a translation by Julia Smith as a starting point. The book was immediately controversial; the National-American Woman Suffrage Association moved to deny any connection with the text and clergy members denounced it as the work of the devil. However, despite the controversy it stirred, The Woman's Bible is not as separate from the religious currents that helped drive the women's rights movement as well as other reforms. The shift from a 'masculine' Protestantism to a myriad of 'feminine' religious groups was a crucial development in the history of America's women's rights movement. De-emphasizing doctrine and shifting the focus of religion to its spiritual 'inner truth', these religious reforms were to give many women the mandate to reform attitudes towards women in both the religious and civil arenas. These changes prompted reformers, both female and male, to question and reinterpret woman's position in the Bible and, by extension, her rights and obligations in society. The turn towards spiritualism and its appropriation by women's rights advocates was hardly one-sided, and both movements underwent criticism. It is within the context of this debate that The Woman's Bible has to be understood. In her arguments, Cady Stanton employs a conception of how religion ought to be understood that owes a great deal to the shift in religious forms that began in the nineteenth century.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, there was a shift away from traditional Protestant and Calvinist sects that were defined by a 'masculine' emphasis on church dogma and ritual. In these religious groups, the focus was on the letter of religious law rather than its spirit. "The everyday Protestant of 1800 subscribed to a rather complicated and rigidly defined body of dogma; attendance at a certain church had a markedly theological function" . This religious worldview conceived of a stern God to whom obedience to the set laws was necessary. Religious leaders such as Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Bellamy stressed the concept of the Atonement, thereby emphasizing God's larger-than-life grandeur as well as his contempt towards humanity and need for absolute obedience to a clearly defined divine law. "Calvinism, resting on its stern ideas of the Atonement, squarely faced the presence of evil, of sin, of injustice in life. In the Calvinist view, things are inevitably one way and not another. Consequences are to be respected. All men suffer from Adam's sin as surely as a child singed by the fire is burned" . The overriding importance of rigorous doctrine made the church into a space that possessed "a toughness, a sternness, an intellectual rigor which our society then and since has been accustomed to identify with 'masculinity'" . In such a religious order, women were unsurprisingly denied leadership roles, both because the Biblical laws prohibited it and because the religion employed a 'masculine' adherence to rules which women were considered unable to fulfill.
In time, the rigid, dogmatic Protestant religious order underwent a transformation, becoming "a more genteel, less rigid institution" . These religious reforms, encompassing official churches as well as spiritualist cults, were to give the realm of the sacred a 'feminine' cast. The narrative of Atonement was weakened, giving way to a set of religious groups more in touch with the Enlightenment understanding of the world, in which the idea of God was humanized. "God is no longer expressing hatred of sin in his sacrifice of his son but love of man, he ceases to govern by the direct imposition of his will and begins to sway by the influence of example" . The nineteenth century saw an upswing in critiques from Unitarian, Universalist, and Congregationalist camps; these critiques examined the divine in human terms, increasingly casting God in a fatherly role. The Universalist Hosea Ballou utilized this ideological standpoint in his critique of Atonement:
"He even ridicules the self-involved nature of Bellamy's god whom he imagines as a creditor finally, and ludicrously, paying the debt to himself which he insists must be paid and which man the debtor cannot pay. Ballou's translation of a divine dilemma here into its human analogue - which he then uses as an unimpeachable test of truth - is typical. God's privileged, absolutely non-human status is gone; he is to be judged very much in mortal and moral terms. 'It is profane,' Ballou explains, 'to attribute a disposition to the Almighty which we can justly condemn in ourselves'. He always feels it a fair and pertinent question to ask about any divine action: is it the way a parent would treat a child?"
Thus the dogmatic intellectualism of earlier Protestant and Calvinist religious groups gave way to a 'theology of feeling' with a "stress on the emotions, [and] the unconscious... [which] undoubtedly fostered in the clergy an anti-intellectualism" . For the reformers, spiritual connection was paramount, and thus women had greater authority. Woman was placed in a purifying role, she is "to refine [man's] human affections and elevate his moral feelings. Endowed with superior beauty of person and a correspondent delicacy of mind, her soul was to 'help' him where he was deficient, namely in his spiritual nature" . Women were also given a greater role in the liberal church. Among the first and most enthusiastic converts, women "helped to form a new transcendent, woman-dominated, and woman-oriented community" . Though women could still be denied the ministerial role, there was a greater acceptance of women in leadership positions, and sects such as Quakerism granted her an equal authority that was previously unheard of. "After 1865, women partook more formally in the revivalistic evangelical movement as lay, itinerant, and ordained ministers, hymn and prayer leaders, missionaries, deaconesses, Sabbath-school teachers, conference delegates, and committee members of local, state, and national religious associations" .
Eventually, women and men who supported woman's rights were able to appropriate this ideology in support of feminist reform. "Women in religion were encouraged to be introspective. What they found out would be useful in their drive towards independence" . As a contemplative relationship with God became central, women became more able to reform their position in the Bible as well as society. A literal reading of the Bible could thus be overturned in order to illuminate its inner 'truths', thereby diluting the force of passages that would be constricting. "Beyond debunking the conservatives' objective, literal, and disinterested meherod of biblical interpretation, the Christian feminists also developed a new, more feminist method of interpretation, one that tended to overuniversalize select passages and to suppress others...[They] sought to reconfigure traditional ways of understanding the Bible without completely rejecting its basic truths" . Women thus had the ability to counter arguments through recourse to a spiritual authority.
"These feminists, who retained an appreciation for the biblical recourse, thought theologically-reckoned arguments for their subordination essentially a product of male dominated biblical and historical scholarship. They themselves found no rigid pronouncements for their inferior station in the testamental records. Questionable passages could be explained any number of ways - mistranslation, misinterpretation, or falsely universalizing a parochial restriction" .
Women thus employed the notion of a spiritual biblical truth to legitimize their claims against female subordination in the church and in the secular world, criticizing opponents for acting counter to the spirit of Christianity. For these women's rights activists, those who maintained female subordination were neglecting the heart of Christian beliefs: "This doctrine of Jesus, as preached up by Paul,/ If embraced in its spirit, will ruin us all" . Additionally, reformers could commend the 'feminine' qualities that were valued in the liberal church as necessary in civil society, making it important for women to be granted greater equality within the social order. In these ways, changes in the religious order gave reformers the opportunity and mandate to repudiate traditional understandings of female subordination in the name of a higher justification.
Many individuals who supported the women's rights movement used notions of religious spiritualism to prove their arguments. In her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, the Quaker reformer Sarah Grimké questions the vision of the English translations of the Bible and attempts to reexamine the text to find the true inspiration. "I shall advance arguments in opposition to a corrupt public opinion, and to the perverted interpretation of Holy Writ, which has so universally obtained. But I am in search of truth; and no obstacle shall prevent my prosecuting the search, because I believe the welfare of the world will be materially advanced by every new discovery that we make of the designs of Jehovah in the creation of woman" . Instead of accepting the 'perverted' laws that have been set forth, Grimké claims the right to examine the Bible and determine divine will with regards to women.
"I shall depend solely on the Bible to designate the sphere of woman, because I believe almost every thing that has been written on this subject, has been the result of a misconception of the simple truths revealed in the Scriptures, in consequence of the false translation of many passages of Holy Writ. My mind is entirely delivered from the superstitious reverence which is attached to the English version of the Bible. King James's translation certainly were not inspired. I therefore claim the original as my standard, believing that to have been inspired, and I also claim to judge for myself what is the meaning of the inspired writers, because I believe it to be the solemn duty of every individual to search the Scriptures for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and not be governed by the views of any man, or set of men" .
In this manner, Grimké utilizes the religious reformers' ideology to criticize common religious conceptions towards women. Claiming inspiration from a higher authority, she attacks the rules towards women as uninspired misconception in need of correction. For Grimké, claims to authority against traditionally held views can be predicated upon the ideals of a 'feminized' religion; introspection was used to discern the truth of woman's status against the authority of 'perverted' doctrines.
Spiritualism's allegedly feminine dimension proved a boon for many feminists. The Margaret Fuller exalts spiritualism over pure intellectualism as beneficial to the cause of woman's rights. Fuller strongly connects the spiritual with womanhood. "Mysticism, which may be defined as the brooding soul of the world, cannot fail of its oracular promise to the woman. 'The mothers' - 'The mother of all things,' are expressions of thought which lead the mind towards this side of universal growth... The electrical, the magnetic element in woman has not been fairly brought out in any period. Every thing might be expected from it; she has far more of it than man" . She also notes the power of female religious speakers to exert spiritual influence. "If they have a moral power, such as has been felt from Angelina Grimke and Abby Kelley; that is, if they speak for conscience' sake, to serve a cause which they hold sacred, invariably subdue the prejudices of their hearers" . Woman's spiritual strength can be used as a tool to eradicate entrenched beliefs; when a woman is inspired from her inner being, she is able to use this illumination to reform society. For Fuller, the empowerment of female spiritual tendencies allows women to "favor measures which promise to bring the world more thoroughly and deeply into harmony with her nature" , thus enabling a greater amount of respect for women and womanhood.
Henry Ward Beecher, a supporter of woman's rights who was also a popular revivalist preacher, supported female enfranchisement on the basis of woman's spirituality. Claiming that women have a positive duty to enter the political arena through voting, Beecher views women as bringing their moral and spiritual gifts into the public sphere. "As society ripens, it has to ripen in its three departments, in the following order: First, in the animal; second, in the social; and third, in the spiritual and moral. We are entering the last period, in which the questions of politics are to be more and more moral questions. And I invoke those whom God made to be peculiarly conservators of things moral and spiritual to come forward and help us in that work, in which we shall falter and fail without women" . Women's alleged spiritual strength, given a new importance as religion became 'feminized', was thus seen by Beecher as vital to the social order and in need of inclusion in the political arena. For him, "to take your wife and daughter into the vulgarity of politics is to cleanse politics of its vulgarity" ; the entry of women would eliminate political corruption and engender truthfulness among society. Woman's spirituality, expounded as the church underwent reforms, is a keystone to Beecher's feminist argument.
The movement towards spiritualism and the emergence of woman's rights was not a one-sided phenomenon, and many critiqued the church's increasing liberalism as well as the emphasis on female spirituality. Among the critics was Orestes Brownson, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism is largely due his dissatifacation with what he called a 'female religion'; "a feminine and weak Protestantism" which he needed to join the Catholics to escape from. His Liberalism and the Church criticizes the 'feminine' and progressive approach to religion. Using the character of the Catholic priest, he attacks what he views as the vices of religious liberalism:
"Liberalism is the great word of the day. No human institution is strong enough to resist it, and it would, if it were possible, sweep away the Divine. Its force is the force of passion, not reason. You begin your movement by rejecting the authority of the Pope and Councils, and asserting that of the Bible interpreted by private judgement, and have gone on and denied the authority of the Bible, and asserted, first, that of the interior spirit, and then, that of reason alone."
Brownson rejects the notions of personal spiritual guidance in favor of religious authority, criticizing the liberal church for its neglect of traditional authority. His emphasis on a traditional paternalistic religious system demonstrates Brownson's contempt towards the 'feminine' reforms that gave way to the women's rights movement.
The woman's rights and spiritualist movements are jointly criticized in Lucy Boston, a satire which describes the movements as "Twins in their birth and ill begot;/ Twins in their grave - there let 'em rot" . Spiritualism is thus strongly linked with women's rights, and both are subject to ridicule. The emerging Spiritualist movement in the book is looked upon with both humor and scorn. Spiritualist demonstrations are made to look ridiculous. "'Spiritualism' has made its appearance in the neighborhood. Several meetings has been held and 'demonstrations' received, resulting in the institution of 'circles,' as they termed them, meaning, probably, the union of the visible and invisible worlds, thus constituting the great magnetic cycles" . Spirits are called through "a sort of spiritual hocus-pocus" , made even more ridiculous when a young medium professes that the spirits of Robinson Crusoe and Old Mother Hubbard are present. For the authors, the coming of Spiritualism was to allow for an extension of woman's rights. "Scepticism would vanish now. The destiny of America, of the world, was fixed. The extension of the 'area' of Spiritualism, with its cognate sovereignty of 'woman's rights', was hastening to embrace the circumfrence of earth and 'Spheres'" . The authors demonstrate their contempt at the spiritualist movement and the drive for women's rights that is it's 'twin'. "Whatever may be the cherished hopes of the New Lights, alias the Spiritual Reformers, we cannot withhold our conviction that these hopeful bantlings of theirs, although heirs expectant to the throne of universal sway, are but the incipient 'manifestations' of two mis-shaped bodies, the idols, indeed, of motherly pride and vanity, but doomed to be the laughing stock of the world" . In Lucy Boston, woman's rights depend on a religious or spiritual background; however, both spiritualism and woman's rights are portrayed as dangerous.
It is in this environment that The Woman's Bible would have been conceived and written. While its publication invoked a great deal of controversy and was regarded as "a radical rejection of Christianity" by critics, its conception of religion and spirituality is indebted to the religious and spiritualist movements. Like the religious reformers and spiritualists, Cady Stanton was critical towards the older forms of Christianity, and this attitude would carry over to The Woman's Bible. The Woman's Bible was more adamant in its rejection of traditional religious authority, holding the Bible itself in question. "Its hermeneutics sought to expand and replace the apologetic argument of other suffragists who maintained that the bible correctly understood does not preach wo/men's subordination. [In] their view the true message of the bible was obstructed by faulty translations and biased interpretations of clergymen... Although Cady Stanton agreed with them that the translations and interpretations of the bible reflected male bias, she nevertheless insisted that the bible has not just been misinterpreted but that it is in itself biased in the interests of men" . While this perspective might initially seem to mark a complete departure from the work of religion-minded feminists, it also represents a heightening of the trends in spiritual and religious reform and the work of feminist writers inspired by these reforms. Like earlier works, The Woman's Bible allowed readers to see "reflected in that work their new self-awareness as subjects who take matters that concern them into their own hands" . The Woman's Bible could therefore be seen as inciting women to examine religion and spirituality in the same manner as the spiritualists. Additionally, the religious worldview that Cady Stanton espouses is not far removed from the spiritualism of earlier writers. While denigrating the dogmatic laws of the Bible does not hesitate to praise the elements that hint at an individual-centered spiritual truth. The Woman's Bible also deals with female spiritualism, constructing a framework of the spiritual that takes the 'feminine' into account. While The Woman's Bible was in many ways a departure from the religious thinking of many religious reformers, it still retained many of the elements central to their mode of thought.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's background was to influence her attitudes towards religion, inciting her to criticize traditional Protestantism. The church that she attended as a child practiced a dogmatic form of Protestantism. "The family's religion was old school Presbyterianism... They frowned on revivals and continued to follow a strict form of Calvinism which attracted the conservative barrister and his wife" . As a child, she was critical of the dogmatism of her church. "I am so tired of that everlasting no! no! no! At school, at home, everywhere it is no! Even at church all the commandments begin 'Thou shalt not'" . While studying at Troy female seminary, she underwent a religious crisis when the Calvinist preacher Charles Finney, who "proved himself the equal of Savanarola" visited. His stern speeches proved highly detrimental to her. "Owing to my gloomy Calvinistic training in the old Scotch Presbyterian church, I was one of the first victims... There we learned the total depravity of human nature and the sinner's awful danger of everlasting punishment. This was enlarged upon until the most innocent girl believed herself a monster of iniquity and felt certain of eternal damnation" . Scarred by the experience, she eventually abandoned her Presbyterianism in favor of religious liberalism. Though religion took a less important role for much of her life, she came to see religious influences as a central element of women's continued oppression after continually running into opposition during her tours. "As the Bible is in every woman's hands, and she is trained to believe it 'the word of God,' it is impossible to describe her feelings of doubt and distrust, as she awakes to her status in the scale of being: the helpless, hopeless position assigned her by the Creator, according to the Scriptures... The orthodox religion, as drawn from the Bible and expounded by the church, is enough to drive the most imaginative and sensitive natures to despair and death" . Cady Stanton's experiences with religion would drive her away from religious dogma, particularly that of the strident Protestantism of her youth; this trend is evident throughout The Woman's Bible. Like the earlier reformers, she would reject the particulars of religious belief in favor of a more personal spirituality.
The Woman's Bible rejects religious dogma as uninspired; however, Cady Stanton goes one step further than feminists such as Sarah Grimké by denying that the Bible itself was divinely inspired. "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'" . Throughout the text, she cites laws that she views as contrary to a natural human morality and understanding. In one passage, she cites the example of a Zulu convert who is justly shocked by a biblical law that does not punish the beating of servantss: "his whole soul revolted against the notion, that the Great and Blessed God, the Merciful Father of all mankind would speak of a servant or maid as mere 'money', and allow a horrible crime to go unpunished" . To Cady Stanton, such laws are not inspired by a divinity, but rather come from ancient Hebrew social customs. From this historiographic perspective, she is able to attack the parts of the Bible that she views as unfairly debasing women. Denying these laws existence as immutable truth, Cady Stanton is able to denounce the doctrines that maintain women's subordination. "So long as [women] mistake superstition for religious revelation, they will be content with the position and opportunities assigned them by scholastic theology. They will remember and 'keep their place' as thus defined. Their religious nature is warped and twisted through generations of denominational conservatism; which fact, by the way, is the greatest stumbling block in the path of equal suffrage to-day" . Employing a critical stance towards Biblical authority, Cady Stanton criticizes the letter of cannon law.
Against the dogmatic laws that subordinate women, Cady Stanton posits the internal truths of the Bible that coexists with the parts that are corrupted by human error and prejudice. Significantly, she does not reject the Bible completely, but sees universal spiritual truths in the text that cannot be neglected. Viewing the Bible as "a book in which many a jewel has been buried under some rubbish" . To completely neglect religion out of contempt for its dogmas is to fall into a 'dogmatic materialism', thereby committing the same mistake as the traditionalist religious groups. Both groups lack an understanding of introspective or spiritual truths, and are therefore bound to inflexible and flawed systems that ignore the soul. The 'dogmatic materialist' "is to be 'brought in again' - brought to see that religion is of the soul and is individual; while dogma and doctrine are from the sensuous out-side alone. The one tends to true freedom, the other generates bondage" . As with earlier reformers, the solution lies in a search for spiritual truth within the text of the Bible. "We who love the Old and New Testaments take 'Truth for authority, and not authority for truth'" ; for Cady Stanton, the correct understanding of the Bible is in spiritualist terms, framed within a search for an inner truth.
The Woman's Bible also incorporates a specific vision of a more 'feminized' spirituality in which the 'masculine' is reunited with the 'feminine'. "The antagonism which the Christian church has built up between the male and the female must entirely vanish. Together they will slay the enemies - ignorance, superstition, and cruelty" . Religion, previously dictated by males, will ideally join with the elements of the 'feminine'; "the coming Bible will be the result of the efforts of both, and contain the wisdom of both sexes, their combined spiritual experience" . In her discussion of Genesis, she advocates texts that suggest a feminine element in the Godhead as well as the simultaneous creation of man and woman. "With this recognition of the feminine element in the Godhead in the Old Testament... we may well wonder at the contemptible status woman occupies in the Christian church of to-day" . Cady Stanton speculates that the efforts of a 'wily writer' served to downplay the initial equality of the male and female. She also laments the asceticism that is supported in parts of the Bible, believing that it creates attitudes of disrespect towards women and a lack of veneration towards the feminine. "The religion of the future will honor and revere motherhood, wifehood, and maidenhood. Asceticism, an erroneous philosophy, church doctrines based not upon reason or the facts of life, issued out of crude imaginings; phantasms obstructed the truth, held in check the wheel of progress" . Cady Stanton looks at the figure of Mary in a similar fashion. Constructing a narrative of Mary that did not include an Immaculate Conception, Cady Stanton associates her with a motherly virtue that should be revered. For her, "the best thing about the Catholic Church is the deification of Mary... the cruelty of Jehovah is softened by the mercy of Mary" . This duality speaks to Cady Stanton's ideal. As it was to other religious reformers, the admission of the 'feminine' into the religious realm is of great importance to Cady Stanton.
Though The Woman's Bible departs from the religious sentiments of many of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's contemporaries, it nonetheless operates within the context of the religious framework that had been set up by nineteenth century religious reformers. The stress on an introspective truth is carried to an extreme point Cady Stanton's text; not even the Bible is free from human errors. Likewise, the stress on a 'feminine' spirituality is significant. Both Cady Stanton and other reformers stressed the incorporation of the feminine elements into the masculine order to create a greater harmony. Though, in light of contemporaries' rejection of the book as too radical, it is tempting to simply analyze The Woman's Bible as a departure from other religious-minded reformers' ways of thinking, it is important to recognize that it is part of a larger movement in religious thought and religiously-motivated feminist discourse.
Go back to my main page.