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The Woman's Bible

Along with a group of women reviewers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought to reposition women in conversations about Christianity.


By Jenna Michelle


Many people are familiar with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We know her as a suffragist, abolitionist, and activist. What fewer people realize, though, is that Stanton’s fight for women’s rights went far beyond the voting booth; her progressive ideas extended to the heart of many people’s worldview—religion. In a culture where most biblical commentary came from men, Stanton gave us The Woman’s Bible—a commentary that defies oppressive Bible interpretations that have been used to restrict women’s rights for centuries.


Background

The Woman’s Bible was the culmination of decades of thought and study. In fact, Stanton’s motivations behind the book become clear when we consider The Declaration of Sentiments which she wrote in 1848—decades before she published The Woman’s Bible in 1895. In this document, Stanton objected to women's subordinate position in the church. In response to critics, she wrote, "No reform has ever been started but the Bible, falsely interpreted, has opposed it."


Stanton studied the Bible thoroughly in the late 1880s, and sought out voices that had long been suppressed—those of women. Some of these women viewed the Bible as the infallible word of God, while others viewed it as the work of men—but many of them saw seeds for inclusivity buried within the texts. While Stanton did not hold the Bible to be infallible, she agreed that it could be viewed in a more progressive light. 


For this reason, Stanton decided to compile these insights in the form of a book, and established a committee to work on a progressive Bible commentary. The final version of The Woman’s Bible listed eight authors (including Stanton) and more than 20 women as members of the revising committee.


In her introduction to The Woman’s Bible, Stanton noted that many people used the Bible against women’s rights advocates. Clergy, legislators, and the press all cited the Bible to justify the restriction of women’s rights. Stanton’s goal was to provide a different perspective of the Bible—one that recognized the opinions of women and celebrated women as equals.


Content

Historically, the book of Genesis has been used to vilify and subjugate women. Using the story of Adam and Eve, prominent voices in Christianity have blamed women for original sin and claimed women were inferior to men.


An early Christian author named Tertullian illustrated this standpoint by writing the following: “Do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age... You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.” 


Understandably, these sorts of arguments struck a nerve for Stanton, who lamented the emphasis on the woman’s “temptation and man's fall, hence the necessity of a Redeemer and a plan of salvation.”


Thus, she started her Bible commentary with Genesis 1, which says that God created both men and women in God’s own image. After noting that the first step to women’s equality is recognizing female divinity, Stanton declares, “We have in [Genesis 1:26-27] a plain declaration of the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead, equal in power and glory with the masculine. The Heavenly Mother and Father!”


The Woman’s Bible subverts another biblical detail that has been used to repress women’s rights—creation order. Theologians had long used the order of creation as proof that men were superior to women, but Stanton held the opposite view. After pointing out that the man was created after the animals, The Woman’s Bible describes the creation story as “a gradually ascending series” in which woman is the “last and crowning glory of the whole”.


With this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that The Woman’s Bible provides a unique perspective on the story of Adam and Eve, noting that “it is amazing that any set of men ever claimed that the dogma of the inferiority of woman is here set forth. The conduct of Eve from the beginning to the end is so superior to that of Adam.” 


The Woman’s Bible points out that although Adam was with Eve the whole time, only Eve ever spoke against the words of the serpent. Adam never objected, even when he was offered the forbidden fruit. Moreover, this Bible commentary interprets what has historically been called the “curse of Eve” as a prediction—not a punishment or a command. It also draws attention to the true meaning of the name Eve—Life.


The Biblical commentary doesn’t end with Genesis—it touches on many different texts straight through the Book of Revelation. Of course, it tends to focus on texts that include (or explicitly exclude) women. For example, the commentary praises figures such as Mary Magdalene, who is described as “the tenderest and most loving character in the New Testament”, and Mother Mary, whose veneration is described as “the best thing about the Catholic Church”. Stanton also criticized aspects of the Bible she viewed as sexist—for example, that only firstborn males were consecrated to God in Exodus.


Reception

The perspectives presented in The Woman’s Bible weren’t entirely new. There have been many different views of women throughout Christian history—some more progressive than others. Even the veneration of God as a Mother dates back to some early Christian traditions


For the time when it was written, though, The Woman’s Bible was shocking—because of both its content and composition. Before the work was even completed, critics commanded the committee to stop the work, with one letter calling it “ridiculous” for women to "attempt the revision of the Scriptures". Not everyone held that view, however—Stanton also received many letters expressing appreciation for her project.


“The Bible needs explanation and comment on many statements therein which tend to degrade woman,” wrote one reader, Phebe Hanaford. “Christ taught the equality of the sexes, and Paul said: ‘There is neither male nor female; ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Hence I welcome "The Woman's Bible" as a needed commentary in regard to woman's position.”


With such mixed reception, The Woman’s Bible threatened the unity of the suffrage movement. Many evangelical members were unhappy with its content. Other suffragists argued it was “not politic to rouse religious opposition,” noted Stanton in her introduction to The Woman’s Bible. Some members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) formally denounced the book because they felt that it would cause people to take the suffrage movement less seriously.


Rachel Foster Avery, corresponding secretary of the NAWSA, described The Woman's Bible as "a volume with a pretentious title, covering a jumble of comment[…] without either scholarship or literary value, set forth in a spirit which is neither reverent nor inquiring."


Avery proposed a 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.” Despite Susan B. Anthony's plea that such an action would be “a vote of censure upon a woman who is without a peer in intellectual and statesmanlike ability," the resolution was adopted by a vote of 53 to 41.


Legacy

Despite heavy opposition, The Woman’s Bible became a bestseller—and while many scholars never accepted it, it has had a lasting influence on feminist theology. Prominent feminist theologians like Mary Daly, Phyllis Trible, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have drawn inspiration from The Woman’s Bible. In fact, Fiorenza wrote Searching the Scriptures in 1993 to honor the 100th anniversary of the text. Members of more progressive religious groups still discuss the book today, incorporating its insights into their own theological worldviews.


Conclusion

It should come as no surprise that Stanton would fight against repressive religious views: she supported the expansion of women’s rights in all areas of life—from dress and healthcare to education, career, divorce, and property rights—and the Bible was used as justification for many of her opponents’ arguments. By producing The Woman’s Bible, Stanton provided a more inclusive interpretation of scriptures, and offered women’s insights on texts that have historically been viewed mostly through the eyes of men.


Jenna Michelle is a writer and editor who has contributed to more than ten publications. When she's not writing, she can often be found diving deep into obscure topics related to health, religion, and spirituality.

 

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Further Reading:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Women's Bible, Parts 1-2 (New York: European Publishing Company, 1898).


"Discuss the Women's Bible," The New York Times (24 January 1896), 8.



Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton's Bible, Cornell University Press, 2001.





 

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