Foundations of Women's Ordination, part 2: First Wave Feminist Theology

Larry Kirkpatrick
Our first article summarized the three fundamentally differing approaches toward the Bible (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Neo-Protestant). That necessary background helps us in this article consider the source from which first wave Feminist Theology draws its encouragement. Feminist Theology is generally seen as coming in three waves. Köstenberger offers the consensus view:

Rise of Movement
Central Concern
First wave
Racial and social justice
Second wave
Gender equality
Third wave
Radical pursuit of feminine self-realization
(Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say That He Is?,
p. 18).

The main persons involved in the first wave are seen in the landmark Seneca Falls, NY meeting in 1848. Leaders there present included Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Quaker women. Stanton went on to create The Women’s Bible (Old Testament, 1895, New Testament, 1898). From the beginnings of Quakerism (c. 1650s), that movement was characterized by no role differentiation between men and women. Involvement by the Quaker women was unremarkable. Stanton’s, however, was another matter.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the product of a firm Calvinist, Presbyterian upbringing. Chief among her interests was to obtain for women the right to vote. She was responsible for adding the women’s suffrage clause to the Seneca Falls statement.
The Women’s Bible
Stanton, while no biblical scholar, became convinced that the Bible was a primary source behind societal resistance to her goals for women’s rights. Stanton persisted in the project she called The Women’s Bible, although her friend Susan B. Anthony consistently sought to dissuade her. In the end, The Women’s Bible was essentially a commentary by Stanton and others on those portions of the Bible that touched questions of male and female roles. Its publication marked the culmination of first wave of Feminist Theology.
To help the reader understand her views, consider Stanton’s thoughts as expressed in The Women’s Bible:

. . . I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked with God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or told the historians what they say he did about woman, for all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, p. 5). p. 233,

Stanton argues from Genesis one for the simultaneous creation of man and woman. She considers chapters one and two of Genesis to offer contradictory accounts—contradictory because they represent edits by different writers, at least one of whom she claims added spurious material.

It is fair to infer that the second version [seen in Genesis ch. 2], which is found in some form in the different religions of all nations, is a mere allegory, symbolizing some mysterious conception of a highly imaginative editor. . . . it is on this allegory that all the enemies of women rest their battering rams, to prove her inferiority. . . . The equal position declared in the first account must prove more satisfactory to both sexes; created alike in the image of God—The Heavenly Mother and Father. . . . it is evident that some wily writer, seeing the perfect equality of man and woman in the first chapter, felt it important for the dignity and dominion of man to effect women’s subordination in some way (Ibid., p. 236).

Another sample of her work, again from her commentary on Genesis:

Recent historians tell us that for centuries woman reigned supreme. That period was called the Matriarchate. Then man seized the reigns of government, and we are now under the Patriarchate. But we see on all sides new forces gathering, and woman is already abreast with man in art, science, literature, and government. The next dynasty, in which both will reign as equals, will be the amphiarchate, which is close at hand.

The manner in which the writer of these chapters presents the women so in conflict with chapters i and v, which immediately precede and follow, inclines the unprejudiced mind to relegate the ii, iii, and iv chapters to the realm of fancy as no part of the real history of creation’s dawn (Ibid., p. 240).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton clearly applied her own measure to the Bible and felt that the Scriptures came up short of what she felt they should have said. This was the shape of first wave Feminism in the church. Stanton’s model was the higher-critical approach, although, to be fair, her notions were more superficial than reflecting of biblical scholarship. The fundamental point is that she applied her arbitrary external measure to the Bible. She came from outside the text and judged it.
Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza (the preeminent scholar of second wave Feminism) notes with appreciation that “Elizabeth Cady Stanton conceived of biblical interpretation as a political-act” (Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 7). More than this,

. . .[I]t was exactly her critical insight that the Bible is not just misunderstood or badly interpreted, but that it can be used in the political struggle against woman’s suffrage because it is patriarchal and androcentric. . . she maintains that all these degrading texts emanated from the heads of men. By treating the Bible as a human work and not as a fetish, and by denying divine inspiration to the negative biblical statements about women, she claims her committee has shown more reverence for God than have the clergy or the church. . . . In the face of the biblical opponents of the women’s movement of the last century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated an investigation of all the passages on woman in terms of ‘higher’ exegetical criticism (Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza, pp. 12, 13, emphasis in original).

Cady Stanton proceeds albeit in a primitive manner, along a pathway which continues to develop in the second wave. First wave feminism precedes Liberation Theology by most of a century. Liberation Theology will provide the major philosophical underpinnings and direction for what shall become a full-blown Feminist Theological project.
Differing Spirits
Ellen G. White commented on the Women’s Rights movement in her day and its relation to the movement represented by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of women’s rights and the so-called dress reform might as well sever all connection with the third angel’s message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 421).

The preceding material, we trust, has helped provide some insight into White’s statement. The Women’s Bible was published in 1890s, but White’s statement came in 1864. In other words, White, more than three decades before the publication of The Women’s Bible, foresaw in at least some respects its trend. In particular, she saw a basic conflict concerning the role of the sexes, between the teachings of the Bible and what became the teachings of first wave Feminist Theology. In other words, White notes precisely the same issue in play today in Evangelical Feminist Theology. But that point must wait to another article.
First wave feminism sets parameters that will be persistent. It makes human judgment of the Bible determinative. It takes an essentially Neo-Protestant stance toward the Scriptures, subdividing its witness into accepted and not-accepted portions. It judges the Scripture from the standpoint of the imposition of external ideas. Finally, it defines the text of Scripture itself as tainted by an essential patriarchy—a man-centeredness and bias that is an alleged fault of such proportion as to legitimize picking and choosing from the Word.
Feminism in the church has an inauspicious beginning. And while there is more to first wave feminism than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by all counts she is seen as the central historical figure in its origin.
The next article in our series we move forward to uncover the underpinnings of second wave of feminism; we shall look at Liberation Theology.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick has served churches in Nevada, Utah, California. They presently serve in the forest fastness of Northern Idaho where Larry lives with his wife Pamela and their children Seamus (age 7) and Mikayla (age 6).

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