The Woman's Bible | Bleader

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“Listening to the varied opinions of women,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the late 19th century, “I have long thought it would be interesting and profitable to get them clearly stated in book form.” Stanton proposed a book to augment the good book: The Woman’s Bible, which would append to the holy text feminist critiques authored by women’s rights activists. Their claim, an early expression of the sort of thinking that would later be called “liberation theology,” was that it was possible to read from the book an argument for the equality of women. Stanton wrote in the introduction:

These familiar texts are quoted by clergymen in their pulpits, by statesmen in the halls of legislation, by lawyers in the courts, and are echoed by the press of all civilized nations, and accepted by woman herself as "The Word of God." So perverted is the religious element in her nature, that with faith and works she is the chief support of the church and clergy; the very powers that make her emancipation impossible. When, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible for an answer.

The Woman's Bible was published in two parts: the first, in 1895, contained notes on the beginning of the Old Testament, Genesis through Deuteronomy. In her analysis of the creation story, Stanton argues that its text makes clear that Christians should pray not just to the Heavenly Father but also to a holy matriarch: “If language has any meaning, we have in these texts a plain declaration of the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead, equal in power and glory with the masculine,” she writes. “The Heavenly Mother and Father!”

(In this section Stanton also makes a case for something that’s still contentious today, at least in some linguistic quarters: the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, or a “dual pronoun,” as she calls it. It's at issue in another sort of bible: I recently attended a panel discussion on the Chicago Manual of Style, at which the University of Chicago Press's Anita Samen mentioned that the manual’s editors had slipped into the 14th edition a footnote—on page 76, she said—that gently condoned “they,” noting its use by writers as illustrious as “Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” The note hasn't reappeared in subsequent editions, though members of this panel thought that “they” is pretty much a done deal—“the best of many imperfect solutions,” linguist Ben Zimmer called it.)

The first part of The Woman's Bible was a best seller, and three years later came the second, which covered . . . the rest of the Bible, all the way through Revelation. About the latter, the apocalyptic last book of the New Testament, the Women’s Bible contributor isn’t as much in its thrall as are the Christians for whom the book predicts the end times; author Matilda Joslyn Gage thinks, on the contrary, that “whoever wrote The Revelation was evidently the victim of a terrible and extravagant imagination and of visions which make the blood curdle.”

In between editions, Mary Seymour Howell, who was on the book’s revising committee, wrote a long defense of it in the New York Times's letters section. Its critics weren’t just opponents of women’s rights—the book also drew criticism from women’s activists, who felt that it detracted from the suffragist cause. Howell, writing between the two volumes’ publication, said, “We want to tell to the world all the Christ said to woman, and how, when every disciple forsook him, woman was constant. She was last at the cross and first at the tomb. Oh, critics! wait until the Woman’s Bible is finished; and you, women of women, leading the world in the great battle for her freedom, before you cast a blow at your own high cause, wait until you can read the Omega as well as the Alpha of this book.”


Read more from Testament Week:

"Testament Week: Salvation terminator," by J.R. Jones

"Testament Week: the Book of Jim & Artie," by Ben Sachs

"Testament in Rogers Park," by Kate Schmidt

"In the beginning, God created smug teenage boys," by Tal Rosenberg