Women’s History: Give Credit Where It’s Due

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St_HildaToday’s guest post is by author and Dallas Theological Seminary professor Sandra Glahn.

Often evangelicals teach that women were content with their lot in life until Betty Friedan came along and started the feminist movement. Yet this version of history is inaccurate. And if we believe Jesus is the Truth, we need to tell the story as it actually happened.

Last May Stephanie Coontz published an article in The New York Times titled “When We Hated Mom” in which she referred to the tendency to misread American history by blaming Betty. And while at one time I might have challenged what Coontz wrote, having spent the past few years reading primary historical sources, including those by godly women, I find I now agree with her.

Because Protestants do not celebrate saints’ days, we miss out on learning about many great women in Christian history.

Take for example the one whose “day” falls on November 17. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby (born AD 614), led a large community of men and women studying for God’s service, five of whom went on to become bishops. She brought the gospel to ordinary people, but kings and scholars also sought her counsel. She was a missionary, teacher and educator, and her abbey became one of the great religious centers of North Eastern England. Hilda is one of many such women in history.

Few writings by and about women have survived from centuries prior to the printing press. Yet some do remain, including The City of Ladies by fourteenth-century author Christine de Pizan (c. 1365–1430). Later came defenses of women from Quakerism’s founder, Margaret Fell Fox (1614–1702); Tory pamphleteer, Mary Astell (1668–1731); abolitionist Hannah Moore (1745–1833); and the author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). Most of these writers acted out of a religious impulse with the relatively unified objective of elevating women.

In the eighteenth century the first Great Awakening with its revivals in the 1730s brought a rise in lay power. Women’s involvement in missions sometimes included preaching, and on the frontier Christian women experienced increased levels of autonomy.

By the nineteenth century the pro-woman consciousness had a label: “the woman movement.” Today we identify these efforts as first-wave feminism. Red-letter dates marking the start of first-wave feminism are July 19 and 20, 1848. The place was Seneca Falls, New York, and the event was the Seneca Falls Convention. Those organizing and in attendance were mostly male and female Bible-believers. A group organized the meeting to feature Lucretia Mott, an eloquent Quaker who favored full sex and race equalization. Together the group drafted a Declaration of Sentiments addressing the role of women in society along with an accompanying list of resolutions.

In the half-century that followed, many joined the fight for women’s suffrage. During that same period thirty-three foreign mission societies sent one thousand women missionaries. That their work evoked criticism is seen in Lucy Rider Meyer’s 1895 defense. As editor of The Message and Deaconess Advocate, she wrote, “In deaconess ranks to-day may be found physicians, editors, stenographers, teachers, nurses, book-keepers, superintendents of hospitals and orphanages… A bit of history shows that the ‘new woman’ is not an invention of the last decade but that, in the character of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby.”

The “new woman” was not an invention of second-wave feminism either. Betty did not start the “woman movement”; Christians did. Motivated by the belief that men and women were made in God’s image to “rule the earth” together, these pro-woman, pro-justice believers sought to right wrongs for those who had less social power.

Isn’t it time we reclaimed our own story?

Sandra Glahn, ThM, is editor in chief of Kindred Spirit, the magazine of Dallas Seminary, where she serves on the faculty. She is a PhD candidate in the Aesthetic Studies program at the University of Texas at Dallas and the author or coauthor of seventeen books, including the Coffee Cup Bible Study series.  You can find more from her at aspire2.com.

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19 thoughts on “Women’s History: Give Credit Where It’s Due

  1. Linda

    Love the reminder that so many of our positive social reforms in the west were led by strong women who were acting out their faith. Clsoer looks at history usually reveal something important that influenced the next generation without them even knowing it. It has taken time but thankful we evangelicals are willing to relook at what was thrown out with the “bath water” and will be richer for it. Always have felt that way coming from a historically rich main line church

  2. Jonathan

    “Often evangelicals teach that women were content with their lot in life until Betty Friedan came along and started the feminist movement.”

    Really? Please cite at least one source. I have never heard any evangelical claim any such thing. I’m heard plenty of them claim that society functioned better and was more Godly before the rampant promiscuity ushered in by the 60s (an argument which would be hard to refute given the direction our country is headed) but I’ve never explicitly heard anyone claim that women were “content.”

    Thanks in advance for your citation(s).

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      Hi Jonathan, I don’t have any citations for you, but I can tell you that many books were written and Chrstian-school courses created to counter second-wave feminism, and that they usually implied exactly what the author said–everything was rosy until Betty Friedan came along. Of course, most of those were (and are) marketed almost exclusively to women, so I don’t know if men would be as familiar with the phenomenon Glahn is explaining. My father, who has been in ministry for over 35 years, was absolutely bowled over when my mother and I started telling him about some of the things written in popular studies for Christian women–many of which talk more about being a homemaker than being a disciple of Christ. Rest assured, the ethos you are questioning is alive and well.

    2. ed Post author

      Jonathan,
      There are a couple of responses below that aren’t threaded in reply to you. However, for many of us who grew up in conservative churches, we often heard that feminism was a problem without any kind of rational discussion about what it was trying to address. I assure you that even though you don’t have your own anecdotes here, there is a widespread evangelical culture that is opposed to the legit critiques leveled by folks such as Friedan.

  3. Meg

    I have frequently lamented evangelicalism’s ahistorical bent, not least because of what it has done for the key roles women have played throughout church history. A caution to to author of this article, however, that we do not engage in historical cherry-picking as though to make it seem that women’s experience within Christianity has been an altogether positive one.. Moving forward, let’s not repeat history’s mistakes. Let’s make room for women to speak in a multitude of voices regarding the variety of experiences women have within the church.

  4. Sandra Glahn

    Ms. Armstrong has made true statements. I myself believed this to be the history of women in the church because this is what I was taught. It is reflected in books such as Men and Women in Ministry, which I consider one of the more moderate and generously worded books on the subject from a complementation perspective. Nevertheless, this view of history gets passed on:

    “The focus on the role and status of women in the culture at large, raised by the modern feminist movement, has evoked similar concerns in the church…. The role of women in church ministry was simply not a burning question until it asserted itself in recent decades in conjunction with the modern women’s movement…. I cannot recall a great deal of teaching or controversy that delved into the meaning of [headship/silence] statements.” –Men and Women in Ministry, p. 20.

    The author of the chapter attributes the questions about women in ministry to the modern feminist movement; yet such questions have existed for centuries.

    As for Meg, my “cherry-picking” was not to argue that women have had an altogether positive experience throughout history–they have not. Rather, the examples I included were intended to support my thesis: That long before second-wave feminism and Betty Friedan, men and women alike have supported women in ministry, and the church has benefited from their involvement. Such involvement is not a new impulse. This is our history, and something about which both complementarians and egalitarians can be proud.

  5. Sandra Glahn

    Here’s another from the president of one of the SBC seminaries on the death of Betty Friedan in 2006:

    “The modern feminist movement’s beginnings can be traced directly to a deep dissatisfaction with the arena of the home — and to the denial of the roles of wife and mother as truly satisfying, truly important — and truly worth the devotion of a woman’s life.”

    The beginnings happened much earlier. And perhaps if we had said to women like Betty, “Indeed, you were made for more–you were made for Christ and His people; you were made to have spiritual gifts; you were made to long for another world, to have eternity in your heart,” we would have provided a more satisfying and Christ-honoring answer to the dissatisfaction than, “Stop this secular rejection of your God-given role as wife and mother.”

  6. Chrystal Westbrook Southwell

    Thank you for the wonderful focus on women who have gone before us and have served equally with men before God. I agree….it is time that we reclaimed our story. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but I heard similar comments about Betty Friedan and the women’s movement made from the pulpit by evangelical pastors in my own family. I’ve always found it encouraging that throughout history, times associated with great revival in the church also tended to see much greater freedom for women to fully inhabit the ministry gifts God gave them (and for that matter, greater interaction between different races and different socio-economic groups). Thank you, as well, for your desire to have thoughtful conversation about a topic that frequently raises temperatures on both sides.

  7. Joy @ Joy In This Journey

    This was very helpful. I took a class in college called “Women in America” which introduced me to the past 200 years or so, but I am very unfamiliar with the full breadth of the history of women in Christianity. This was an excellent appetizer for that kind of study.

  8. Stephen

    As a history major, I recognize the danger of revisionist history, elided history, and forgotten history. You do well to highlight an area of Christian history which evangelicals may know little about. Truth. Nothing to be afraid of here…

  9. Diane Mc

    I love how you brought way way more historical context to the discussion than anyone else has. Boy, does it give perspective. Thank you!

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  11. Diana Trautwein

    Thank you for this thoughtful reminder that history is deeper and more broadly inhabited than the thinking of the evangelical church over the last 150 years or so. It is good to be reminded that the impulse for inclusion comes from the message of the gospel, first and foremost. This is our heritage and we need to claim it boldly and gratefully.

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