Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity and Women's Rights


The souls of women are so small,
That some believe they've none at all.

Samuel Butler (1612-1680), Miscellaneous Thoughts

Historically the church's position on this matter followed the Biblical texts such as Genesis 3:16 where God tells Eve that her husband will rule over her, and passages where wives are listed along with a man's other goods and chattels. This view is comprehensively confirmed in the New Testament:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
(Colossians 3:18; cf. 1 Peter 3:1 and Ephesians 5:22)

... I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man...For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, foreasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
(1 Corinthians 11:3 & 7-9)

Let your women keep silence in churches: for it is not permitted unto them; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also sayeth the law.
(1 Corinthians 14:34, c/f 1 Corinthians 11:3-9 & Timothy 2:11-12)

In line with these statements women were until recent times not permitted to speak in church, and they are still expected to cover their heads in church. Under Christian Emperors and bishops the rights that women had enjoyed under the Roman Empire were gradually pared away. As early as the fourth century it was decreed by a synod that women should neither send nor receive letters in their own name (Synod of Elvira, Canon 81). They were also confined to minor Orders and forbidden to sing in church. Later they would be deprived of Holy Orders altogether. In some Christian meetings they were obliged to sit apart at the back of the congregation. By AD 581 a church council at Mâcon was debating whether or not women had souls .

The great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that women were defective men, imperfect in both body and soul. They were conceived either because of defective sperm or because a damp wind was blowing at the time of conception . Leading scholars accepted Aquinas's teaching that women had a higher water content than men and that this made them sexually incontinent . Since they were so watery, weak and unreliable it became a fundamental premiss of Canon Law that they were inferior beings. Following Aquinas , Canon law decreed that women could not witness a will. Neither could they testify in disputes over wills, nor in criminal proceedings. Generally they suffered the same sort of legal disabilities as children and imbeciles. They could not practice medicine, law or any other profession, nor could they hold any public office. Here is a piece of reasoning from two famous Catholic scholars: After saying that women are intellectually like children they explain why women are given to the practice of witchcraft:

But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.

Protestant Churches were no better than the Catholic Church. It was Martin Luther himself who coined the phrase "A woman's place is in the home" and in strongly protestant areas of Germany it is still commonplace to hear that women should concern themselves only with Kinder, Kirche, Küche (Children, the Church and Cooking). Luther also insisted on a man's traditional Christian right to beat his wife. He also held firmly to the traditional line on a woman's duty to bear children, even if killed her "If they become tired or even die, it does not matter. Let them die in childbirth - that is why they are there" .

Under canon law a woman's husband was both her sovereign and her guardian. In practical terms this meant that she could not legally own property or make contracts. Her property came under her husband's control upon marriage. She could not sue at common law without his consent, which meant that in particular she could not sue him for any wrong done to her. If she deliberately killed him she was guilty not merely of murder but, because of the feudal relationship, treason .

At the time of writing it is still common in Christian countries for a married woman to be denied credit, and to require her husband's consent for surgical operations. After all 1 Corinthians 7:4 states that "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband...". (The bible goes on to state the converse - that a wife has power over her husband's body - but cannon lawyers either missed this part or else deduced that it bore a completely different interpretation. As Gratian put it "The woman has no power, but in everything is subject to the control of her husband".) In the words of the marriage service a married couple were one flesh and the canon lawyers held them to be a single person: erunt animae duae in carne una.

The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband.

It was this legal doctrine that gave rise to Dickens' observation, put into the mouth of one of his characters, that the law is an ass . The doctrine enabled an Englishman to lock up his wife and not be liable for the tort of false imprisonment. He could beat her and not be guilty of assault. The same principle permitted him to rape her without the law recognising it as rape. A wife could not proceed against her husband, nor be called to give evidence in court against him. Most such constraints were done away with in Britain by Acts of Parliament in 1935 and 1945 in the teeth of fierce opposition from the organised Churches. In England it remained impossible for a man to be charged with the rape of his wife until the 1990's. Civil remedies are still in general unavailable to wives against their husbands. Thus for example, a wife who is locked up by her husband would have to rely on a writ of habeas corpus, like a medieval vassal .

Unmarried women were also inferior beings, or as the Bible puts it weaker vessels (1 Peter 3:7). Fathers were free to treat them as their personal property and swap them for other goods or for political advantage, which is what arranged child marriages often amounted to. Unmarried adult women were not permitted many of the privileges allowed by law to men, nor thought capable of fulfilling the duties expected of men. Like married women, they were prohibited from practising all professions and all but a few trades. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V even forbade them to appear on the public stage within his dominions. Soon the whole of western Christendom had banned actresses and female singers.

Well into the twentieth century women were debarred from sitting on juries, and were permitted only a few selected jobs such as school teaching and nursing, and even these they were generally obliged to give up when they got married. Women were so little regarded that until this century they were often excluded from Church membership rolls. No one knows with certainty how large some denominations were until recently because they did not count women in their membership statistics.

Throughout their histories, the Churches have consistently opposed women's right to the franchise. Only after the Church's influence had seriously weakened did women obtain the vote. In England this happened in 1918, when the franchise was extended to women over the age of thirty. Even now women do not enjoy equality in all spheres of life. In England, for example, the taxation laws and laws of inheritance still discriminate against them. At the time of writing there are areas of Europe where traditional Christian values prevail and women still do not have full voting rights . There is one area in the European Community, Mount Athos, where for religious reasons women are not even permitted to set foot.

The traditional position of the Church, that women were mere chattels of their husbands was challenged by the usual selection of freethinkers such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The atheist Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Her husband the philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) was a campaigner for women's rights, and so was their atheist son-in-law, the poet Shelley. Other prominent proponents included the unbelieving Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot, 1819-80), and Harriet Law (1832-97). The Utilitarian J S Mill launched the women's suffrage movement in England with a petition to the House of Commons on 7 June 1866. He attempted to amend the 1867 Reform Bill to extend the franchise to women, and to stop discrimination under the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts. He published the Subjugation of Women in 1869. Other active campaigners included the atheists Holyoake (1817-1906), Bradlaugh (1833-91) and Besant (1847-1933). In France the argument for women's rights was led by enemies of the Church like Denis Diderot and Condorcet, and much later in the USA by atheists like Ernestine Rose, Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony.

It seems that a disturbing number of men, bolstered by Christian attitudes, still assume that they have the right to subjugate, abuse and beat their wives . A sociological study in 1962 revealed that religious orthodoxy was positively correlated with social conservatism on issues such as women's rights . It is notable that the Church continued to discriminate against women for years after such discrimination was abandoned outside the Church. It was not until 1970 that a woman was authorised to teach Catholic theology , and throughout the world Churches are still given exemption from sex discrimination legislation. Senior Anglican clergymen could still be outraged in 1996 at the idea of a woman playing the part of God in the York Mystery plays - denouncing it as paganism . Christian mainstream thought is now in the process of change. The more liberal sects have started ordaining women again, while the more traditional ones still hold out against it.