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
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.