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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
The Degradation of Woman
- The Claim of the Churches
- Women Before Christ
- The Greek and Roman Woman
- The Clergy and the Modern Struggle
The Claim of the Churches
I AM what is called a Feminist. Thirty years ago I left a monastery and began a sane human existence. Within two or three years, I find, I was defending the rights of women. Twenty-five years ago I sat in the lobby of the British Parliament with two of the oldest women-fighters, awaiting the issue of a “Suffrage Bill.” The cause was not then respectable, and I was the only writer who associated with them. Now it has the blessing of the church; and my services are not required or mentioned. It is successful. Only a few weeks ago I attended a great women’s meeting in the central park of London. There were a hundred orators, and half of them introduced Jesus and the Bible. Church banners glittered on the platforms. Pretty parsons evoked ripples of laughter and tears of sentiment. And I hung, unknown, on the fringes of the great crowds and smiled — rather cynically.
Some of us can remember the forty years’ fight, or forty years of the fight for the elementary rights of women. Why had this fight to be undertaken at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century? Had the age of Voltaire brought some worsening of the position of women? Were these injustices which we fought a creation of our “materialistic age”? What is the simple meaning of the fact that during eighteen hundred and fifty years of the Era of Redemption there was no struggle, and that the struggle began and was carried to a successful conclusion in the Era of Skepticism? At least there is no dispute about that fact; and nobody above the age of twenty is ignorant of it.
Yet the clergy and religious writers are able, unrebuked, to tell women all over the world that Christianity has been the best friend they ever had. The suffrage? That is a political matter, they say: a detail in a necessarily slow political evolution. Very few men had the suffrage in Europe a century ago. None had it a few centuries earlier. (It does not occur to them or to the women to wonder why no one had the suffrage.) The political sentiment of the times was for despotic monarchy. Religion was not consulted. And so on.
The clergy are poor sociologists. You have to remind them that it is not merely a question of the suffrage. Let me put the position in the words of one of the most respected of American women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She is describing the wrongs of woman in what was then, in 1850, the most enlightened city of the United States, Boston:
Woman could not hold any property, either earned or inherited. If unmarried, she was obliged to place it in the hands of a trustee, to whose will she was subject. if she contemplated marriage, and desired to call her property her own, she was forced by law to make a contract with her intended husband by which she gave up all title or claim to it. A woman, either married or unmarried, could hold no office of trust or power. She was not a person. She was not recognized as a citizen. She was not a factor in the human family. She was not a unit, but a zero, in the sum of civilization. … The status of a married woman was little better than that of a domestic servant. By the English Common Law [in force in Boston] her husband was her lord and master. He had the sole custody of her person and of her minor children. He could punish her “with a stick no bigger than his thumb,” and she could not complain against him. … The common law of the State held man and wife to be one person, but that person was the husband. He could by will deprive her of every part of his property, and also of what had been her own before marriage. He was the owner of all her real estate and her earnings. The wife could make no contract and no will, nor, without her husband’s consent, dispose of the legal interest of her real estate. … She did not own a rag of her clothing. She had no personal rights and could hardly call her soul her own. Her husband could steal her children, rob her of her clothing, neglect to support the family; she had no legal redress. If a wife earned money by her labor, the husband could claim the pay as his share of the proceeds. (“History of Women’s Suffrage,” vol. III, p. 290.)
The comfortable matron who now listens to mellifluous assurances from her Episcopal or Methodist pulpit ought to know these things. Let her imagine herself in this position of her grandmother. What a degradation, she will exclaim!
The degradation was brought upon woman by Christianity. Christianity found woman free and respected, and degraded her to the position described by Mrs. Stanton; and the degradation was lifted from her, mainly owing to the work of “infidels,” in this age which seems to you so materialistic and menacing to women.
What, then, is the Christian claim? On what sort of evidence is it based? Rhetorical claims are not, as a rule based upon evidence. Evidence is “cold.” Facts are rather boring, sometimes actually disagreeable. What we love is sonorous phraseology, delivered with eupeptic dogmatism or original bluntness, or softened with a tender glow of sentiment which it has taken many hours to make natural and spontaneous. What we love is the vague insinuation of horrors in the pagan past or the pagan future which religious delicacy forbids us to make more explicit. A sermon is not a mere lecture. We go to church, not to learn, but to be uplifted.
Some years ago I was invited to write a book (“The Bible in Europe”) on the question of the precise contribution of the Christian religion to the civilization of the world. Queen Victoria, not a learned person, though not as stupid as most members of the British royal family, had said that the Bible was the source of England’s greatness, and this authoritative assurance still reverberates from the pulpits. Since I do not care to waste either my own time or that of my readers, I asked a friend to ask a relative who is a learned divine what the Church really claimed to have done.
But my friend incautiously said that the information was for me, and the answer was very guarded. They do not, it seems, claim to have created civilization. There are specific contributions — there is the general sentiment of charity and justice there is the refinement of morals … in short, I was referred to certain standard Christian works, and I read them. Dr. Fairbairn, in particular, was recommended, and I learned from him that early Christianity put a “halo” about woman, “taught us reverence for woman.” Others contended that the pagan had regarded woman merely as “an instrument of his lust,” and Christianity changed all that. Others felt sure that the apotheosis of Mary must have uplifted the whole sex. Others, a little behind the times, ventured to quote the heroic virtue of Agnes, Catherine, Cecilia, and all the other dead myths.
In short, no religious writer, in talking of the change or improvement which Christianity is claimed to have effected, accurately sets out the position of woman before 400 A.D. (when the world was driven into the Church) and the position of woman, say, in 800 A.D. I doubt if there is a religious writer capable of doing it.
Women Before Christ
A preacher first abuses the pagan Romans, then, when you prove their greatness, he points out that Jesus was already in the world and in some subtle way, by some imperceptible means … But not even the most ingenious apologist will attempt to prove that the position of woman in ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Crete was lit by the light and uplifted by the spiritual force of a gospel which did not yet exist. Were these nations not notoriously in darkness and the shadow of death?
But, says the preacher, politely, do not forget that there was already a foregleam of Christianity in the world. A partial revelation had been communicated to the Hebrews. And the Hebrews were brought into contact with the Babylonians and may, by their superior ideals, have moderated the grossness of pagan conduct. People really do say these things in the churches.
In the year 586 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and carried away most of the Jews of the better class to his great city on the Euphrates. Let us imagine the dark-eyed maid Rebecca or the portly matron Susannah blinking in the light of the brilliant metropolis and then inquiring what the position of woman was.
We know well what the position of woman was in Judea. It is pithily put in Leviticus xii, 1-5. This book had in the year 586 not yet been forged, it is true, but it clearly gives an old law:
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying three-score and six days.
Pretty ironic to describe this bit of primitive tribal barbarism and superstition as a special revelation from the Most High! It just expresses woman’s position under this “foregleam of Christianity.”
The female was an inferior creature. She never had a lover or chose a husband. Her parents handed her over to a youth who became her very despotic lord and master. She was “unclean” about ten times in twenty years, as a rule, to say nothing of shorter periods. She had no property, no personality. Her husband could divorce her when he willed; she could not divorce him when she willed. Her husband could take a second wife or a concubine or dally with painted ladies. Rebecca had to disguise herself as a prostitute if she wanted a change (Genesis xxxviii, 14). And when she had fulfilled the whole Law, she was peppered with spiteful aphorisms (Proverbs, Ecclesiastics, etc.) about her malice and odiousness.
Women were as free and respected in Babylon in 586 B.C. as they are in Boston today. The deciphering of the literature of ancient Babylon has completely discredited those picturesque ideas of the vice of the great city which are still used to give purple patches to sermons. So far were the Babylonians from enjoying a remarkable looseness in sexual relations that they incurred sentence of death by adultery. We will hope that their practice was not as savage as their law. And there was not one law for the man and one for the woman (as in Christendom). The man and woman were bound together and thrown into the Euphrates. A man was burned alive for rape. A mother and son were burned alive for incest. A man was drowned for intercourse with his daughter-in-law. A retired priestess was burned alive if she went to a wine-shop for a drink. No woman was forced to prostitute herself at the temple, and there was probably no temple of that kind in Babylon. The marriage- contracts, of which we have a large number, commonly guarantee that the bride is a virgin.
In other words, if we were to return tomorrow to the “morals of ancient Babylon,” as preachers somberly announce that we may if their income is cut off, a woman would find herself protected from man’s “lust” by a series of drastic laws which no section of Christendom ever knew! Such is the imbecility of these dismal prophecies about the future of the race. When at last the truth, which has been known to scholars for decades, breaks through the dense mists of the religious world, we shall have the Christian Matrons of America demanding a return to pagan morals and the wicked people of America (secretly supported by the clergy) violently resisting the proposal.
The beginning of civilization is dated by different authorities at various periods between 3000 and 4000 B.C. This means that the stretch of time during which Egypt and Babylon were the chief representatives of civilization is far greater than the whole of subsequent history; and during all that time woman was free, independent and the equal of man. She was “treated with justice and respect.”
Looking back, in the light of what I have said, upon that evolution, and taking the position of woman as a test of civilization, we should have to divide the whole into two eras, the era of light and justice and the era of darkness and injustice; and it is an elementary historical truth to say that the era of light is the period before Christ and the era of darkness the time which we proudly call the Christian Era.
It is an elementary and uncontroverted historical truth that the recovery of woman, the removal of her wrongs, did not begin until the Christian domination of the world was profoundly shaken and reduced; it made progress in proportion as the Churches grew weaker; it received no assistance whatever from Christianity; and it was brought to a triumphant issue only when the majority of men in the cities of the world had thrown off their allegiance to Christianity.
The Greek and Roman Woman
Let us say at once that in the Greek and Roman civilizations woman had not the position of equality and freedom which she had had in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and, apparently, Crete. In different strains of the human family a different attitude was adopted toward woman. In the Semitic race, to which the Hebrews belonged, a harsh and masterful attitude was evolved, whereas amongst the Egyptians and Mesopotamians woman seems to have been treated from the first as a normal member of the community; not because she was the mother, but because her personality was as justly recognized as that of the man.
In the Indo-Persian-European family the attitude was totally different in different branches. The slavery of the Hindu woman of recent times is not, perhaps, her original situation; but there must from the first have been a domineering attitude toward women. In the Teutonic branch of the family, on the contrary, woman was highly respected. The Greeks and Romans come between these two extremes. Amongst the early Romans, especially, the man had a quite despotic power over the woman; though it was not abused, as one finds it abused amongst the Hebrews or Hindus, and it soon disappeared.
When the full light of history falls upon the Greek community we find woman in a position that certainly would not accord with modern standards. A special and secluded part of the home was set apart for the women, and, while their excursions from the home were restricted, the men had full liberty. Athens and most of the Greek city-states were democracies, yet woman had no part whatever in the political life. Her place was the home.
Girls, it is true, had a life of comparative freedom and, one feels that they would say, happiness. They had excellent athletic training, music, games, and graceful dancing. The old idea, that a woman was a man’s property, to be carefully guarded from a defilement that lowered her value, persisted; but there was no note of contempt, no insinuation, as in Judea, that she was unclean and useful only as a breeder of men. She was the companion of man; but it was understood that politics and war were not her concern. She was excluded from public life.
Quite early in Greek life, however, a movement began for the removal of whatever wrongs and disabilities she had. The “Medea” of the great tragedian Euripides is one of the most poignant presentments of the case for woman that was ever given to the world. Its exaggeration is so great, yet so sincerely and profoundly felt, that no woman-genius could have penned a more formidable complaint. Already, also, the Greeks had the poetry of Sappho. For three or four thousand years, in Crete, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, woman had been free and respected. Then for a few centuries we find her in Greece, not degraded or vilely used, for nearly every great Greek writer treats her with respect, but certainly in a position of dependence and inferiority. But at the very dawn of the Golden Age of Athens a movement for her emancipation begins, and it has the support of all the best elements of Greek life.
Unfortunately, Athens was ruined before the movement could reach a successful issue. Yet its ideals continued. The chief Greek writer about the time of Christ, Plutarch, maintained that woman was mentally and morally equal to man, and ought to have, as Plato had said, the same education. He denied that the moral law should be interpreted more liberally in the case of man than of woman. And the last glimpse that we have in history of Greek culture, before it is entirely lost in a Christianized and barbarized world, is a picture of the philosopher Hypatia taking a leading part in the life of the great city of Alexandria and by her culture and personality rising high above all her contemporaries.
The murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob is a fitting allegory of the murder of the new hope of women by the new religion. That may seem a harsh sentence, but even the broad historical facts must give the modern Christian woman ground for reflection. A movement for the emancipation of woman from grievances far lighter than those of a century ago began in Greece nearly two thousand three hundred years ago. It gathered force and was endorsed by the most influential Greek writers. But it completely disappeared when Christianity became the religion of Europe, and it did not reappear until skepticism about Christianity spread through the civilized world.
It is usual in religious literature to divide Roman history into two parts: a first part, until a century or two before the birth of Christ, in which woman was very virtuous but a slave, and a later part in which she was free but very wicked.
This generalization is as false as most of the other “historical” statements upon which the supposed service to the race of the new religion is based. The women of the Roman Republic (in its earlier centuries) were assuredly very chaste and virtuous. The names of some of them rank with the names of Christian saints. But, just as the chastity of the saint is a kind of commercial venture, the price of a colossal reward in heaven, so the virtue of the early Roman maid or matron may be attributed to fear of the lash or the knife. The women were the property of the men. They ranked with the children. The law did not enter a Roman’s house. He had power of life and death over his wife, his children, and his slaves. Small wonder that the wife and daughters were very “virtuous.”
Yet even here woman was far better treated than she was in Judea. One of the Roman historians, Valerius Maximus, makes the almost incredible claim that there was no divorce in the Roman Republic for five hundred and twenty years after its foundation! The Jewish civilization — the real, not the legendary, civilization of the Hebrews — was practically a contemporary of the Roman, and a record of woman’s experience in the two would be an instructive document. Roman women were not confined in special quarters of the house, were not forbidden to go out to dine or to the theater, and had no separate places in the temple. They were treated with the greatest respect at home and abroad.
Moreover, the tyranny of the older Roman custom broke down long before the time of Christ. Greece had been civilized only a few centuries — not fifteen hundred years, like Christian Europe when it started a movement for the emancipation of woman. Rome, similarly, was civilized only some three or four centuries when its women began a formidable movement for emancipation and admission to political life.
In the second century before Christ scenes curiously like those of the suffrage-struggle of modern times were witnessed in Rome. Crowds of women obstructed the way of the reactionary senator and loudly demanded their rights. And I may add that their greatest opponent, Cato the Elder, the personification of the old Roman discipline, is nevertheless reported to have said: “A man who beats his wife or his children lays impious hands on that which is most holy and most sacred in the world.”
The Christian scholars who claim that at least the new religion taught men a “reverence” for woman are almost completely ignorant of the facts. They rely only on the usual rhetoric about the vices of the pagans and the virtues of the Christians.
All this rhetoric is based upon the most scandalously loose quotation of particular instances. Even the best Christian writers ask us to blush at the crimes of Nero or Elogabalus, and never mention that during three-fourths of the empire its rulers were good men. They say dark and vague things about the vices of Messalina and Faustine (which are grossly exaggerated), and they never tell that there were ten good pagan empresses for every bad one. They quote St. Jerome about the virtue of his score of Christian pupils, and they entirely ignore his assurance, in the same letters, that the Christian world generally was vicious and corrupt.
There was no such general contrast of pagan vice and Christian virtue; and the notion that at the adoption of Christianity the world passed from an era of vice to one of virtue, from a period in which woman was the toy of “brutal lusts” to a period in which she was respected because of her Christian virtues, is one of the most fantastic and unjustifiable beliefs that zeal ever engendered.
The Clergy and the Modern Struggle
After about the year 500 “human life was suspended for a thousand years,” says a brilliant French writer. Something like that certainly will be the unanimous verdict of historians when our scholars have shed the last trace of subservience to the clergy. At present some of them have an affectation of showing that the Middle Ages were not quite so bad as the older historians had said. It is wrong, it appears, to call the early Middle Ages “the Dark Ages,” because, by diligent search, we can find a lamp in it here and there!
As far as our present subject, the degradation of woman, is concerned, no one is quite so foolish as to try to defend the Church. By the year 300 A.D. woman was in a position of freedom and respect. She had enjoyed that position throughout nearly the whole four thousand years of civilization. After the year 500 A.D. — allowing two centuries for the application of the principles of the new religion — woman fell to a state of degradation which has no parallel in the history of any pagan nation. For more than a thousand years, during which Christianity absolutely dominated the life of man, she remained in that condition of degradation. That requires a good deal of explaining if you are reluctant to admit the obvious fact — Christianity degraded woman.
And there is no room here for the familiar quibble that it was not Christianity, but the men who professed it, that injured woman. It was quite plainly the doctrine. It was the morbid puritanism about love and the legends of Genesis. The men who most drastically relegated woman to an inferior position were the men whom the Churches regarded as their religious heroes and oracles. The perfectly attired modern preacher in a “Fifth Avenue Chapel” somewhere will scarcely venture to say that he knows more about Christianity than did St. Gregory, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, or St. Bernard.
Nor is there any room for the further familiar quibble, that it took the world a long time to realize the true implications of the Christian spirit. Modern Christianity, wherever it makes this claim, has not discovered a new meaning in the words of Jesus, but has disowned his teaching. The medieval and Catholic doctrine of monasticism is a perfectly sound implication of Christ’s teaching. Jerome and Athanasius, and all genuine monks and nuns, did exactly what Christ advised. The Fundamentalist is in this respect a Modernist. He rejects whole chunks of the teaching of Jesus and Paul just as cheerfully as he rejects the prediction of the end of the world. Christian teaching — the teaching of Jesus and Paul — implied that woman was inferior, that her moral weakness handed the race over to the devil and lost us paradise, and that her sweetest charms are so many baits on the devil’s hooks.
The emancipation of woman was impossible as long as people really believed the teaching of Jesus and Paul. A well-known preacher once showed me, with some pride, a sermon of his on the woman question. The text was one of St. Paul’s consecrated bits of rudeness to woman, and the sermon then began: “That is where Paul and I differ.” Precisely.
The true story of woman’s recovery of the position she had held under paganism can be told in a few lines, and it is actually more significant and instructive when it is so told. From the fifth to the fifteenth century, from the death of Hypatia to the time of Petrarch at least, no one had a good word to say for woman. Not a scholar in Christendom, not a priest or writer, was inspired to make a syllable of protest against the disgraceful injustice of the system. It was the literary men of the Renaissance who began to raise woman — the woman of their class — to a position of equality; and the Renaissance was, notoriously, the rebirth of paganism and skepticism.
Then came the Reformation and what Catholics humorously call “the Christian Renaissance,” or a half-hearted attempt to reform the morals of Rome under the lash of Protestantism. Europe became again intensely interested in religion. Many millions of people cut each other’s throats in the name of religion. The civilization of Europe was put back a hundred years by the zeal for religion. And the attempt to emancipate woman was at once crushed.
The opinions of feminist writers about the effect of the Reformation vary remarkably. Out of six which lie before me Mrs. Stanton regards the Reformation “one of the most important steps,” and Mrs. Gage thinks that the anti-Christian bias against woman “took new force after the rise of Melanchthon, Huss and Luther.” Lecky believes that, in restoring the credit of marriage, the Reformers rendered a great service, and Professor Karl Pearson finds that they caused a material increase of prostitution — which is impossible in the opinion of anybody who knows the Catholic Middle Ages — and darkened the prospect for woman.
Most of these writers argue from a theoretical point of view. Luther gave a shrewd and healthy blow at the Catholic glorification of virginity and all the hypocrisy caused by it — but he also said such things as: “No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise.” To say that he robbed women (how many?) of opportunities by suppressing nunneries is fatuous; but he certainly provided no other opportunities for them. The “three K’s” (Kirche, Kuche, Kinder — church, kitchen, and children) were stereotyped as the ideal of the German woman.
The Reformation did nothing for women on the continent of Europe. In England, in the Elizabethan age, educated women (a tiny minority) had more freedom, socially, though they lost their last hold on public life. But their new freedom was plainly due to the fact that in England the Reformation and the Renaissance occurred together. The Reformers, through a statute of Henry VIII, forbade “women and others of low condition” to read the Bible. The Humanists invited them to read.
But the historical facts are clear enough. Protestantism, of a pure or Puritanical type, was as deadly to woman as Catholicism. What did she get from the Puritans of England or New England? From the Calvinists of Switzerland? From the Lutherans of Germany and Scandinavia? Nothing whatever. Protestant divines were as blind to the injustice of the system as Catholic divines were. The service of Protestantism was indirect; and I would stress that in this sense it was mighty. It smashed the tyranny of Rome and could not set up a lasting tyranny of its own. Yet to use a phrase of Emerson’s in a different connection, Luther would, if he had foreseen the revolt of the women, have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door of the cathedral.
This is the stark truth about the redemption of woman from all the injustices which Christianity had brought upon her. Not one single Christian clergyman the world over raised a finger in the work until it had so far succeeded that the clergy had to save their faces by joining it. No amount of pulpit rhetoric, no amount of strained apology from Christian feminist writers, can lessen the significance of that fact. And to it you must add another of equal significance: The men and women who started the revolt against the injustice and carried it to the stage of invincibility were non- Christian in the proportion of at least five to one.
Take the movement in America. Three of its greatest leaders, Mrs. Cady Stanton, Mrs. Gage, and Miss Susan B. Anthony have described it minutely and conscientiously in their monumental “History of Woman Suffrage.” It began in 1820, when Frances Wright, a Deist, a pupil of the British Agnostic Robert Owen, invaded the States. She was joined by the brilliant Ernestine L. Rose, a Polish Jewess who had cast off all theology: by Lucretia Mott, a Quaker whose views were regarded as “heresy” even in the Society of Friends; by Abby Kelly, another Rationalistic Quaker: and by the sisters Grimke, also Quakers. I have shown in my “Biographical Dictionary of Distinguished Rationalists” that Mrs. Cady Stanton, Mrs. Gage, and Miss Anthony, who led the fight in the next generation, were all Agnostics. And for fifty years, as this detailed history shows, the clergy of America were the most deadly enemies of the movement, basing their opposition expressly upon the Bible.
I smiled when, in 1917, I was invited to speak for the movement in New York. It was then respectable. Parsons were available by the score. Few women in the movement had ever heard of Fanny Wright or Abby Kelly or Ernestine Rose and the other splendid pioneers. None knew of the time when pastoral letters had circulated amongst the American clergy calling their attention to “the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury.” That was all over. Preachers were now assuring them that Christianity was the best friend, the only friend, that woman had ever bad!
It was the same everywhere. In Britain the pioneers were Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Wright, George Eliot, Harriet Martineau — all Rationalists — supported by Godwin, Robert Owen, Jeremy Bentham, G.J. Holyoake, and J.S. Mill — all Agnostics or Atheists. In Germany the work was done by Max Stirner, Karl Marx, Buchner, Engels, Bebel, and Liebknecht — all Atheists. In France it was Sieyes and Condorcet — Atheists — who first pleaded for the emancipation of woman, and George Sand, Michelet, Saint-Simon, and Fourier — all deep-dyed heretics — who raised the plea again in the nineteenth century. In Scandinavia Ibsen and Bjornson and Ellen Key — all Rationalists — lead the protest.
Let the women of the world read their remarkable story once more, with open eyes. They will … No, not yet. But a time will come when the women of America — and it may be this generation in your high schools today — will put away forever, not ungently, the figure of Christ: will burn Paul in effigy: and will raise a superb monument to Voltaire.