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.