(Note: This post was written for Blog Against Sexism Day.)
One of the greatest enemies of the feminist movement is and has always been religion. Regardless of when or how this tendency originated, the monotheistic tradition that gave rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam has historically stood in vehement opposition to the simple and obvious truth that women are human beings with the same rights, abilities and privileges as men.
Consider, for example, the flagrant and revolting sexism in one of the most famous English-language epics, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Throughout his text, Milton repeatedly describes Eve as the inferior of Adam, made only to be his servant. For example, on one occasion he puts these words in her mouth as an address to him:
My Author and Disposer, what thou biddest
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
But Milton is not even the most extreme misogynist in the Christian tradition. That dubious honor must surely go to John Knox, an influential figure behind the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, who in 1558 published The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. This book is an extended polemic against women ruling over men, primarily targeted at the queens of Knox’s day, but more generally attacking any woman who would presume to place herself in a position of authority above any male. In its pages can be found some of the most loathsome, vindictive anti-woman rhetoric that has ever been written. The authors of the Muslim sharia code would find much in common with Knox. Some examples:
To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.
First, I say, that woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him… woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head.
As [though] God should say, “Forasmuch as you have abused your former condition, and because your free will has brought yourself and mankind into the bondage of Satan, I therefore will bring you in bondage to man. For where before your obedience should have been voluntary, now it shall be by constraint and by necessity; and that because you have deceived your man, you shall therefore be no longer mistress over your own appetites, over your own will or desires. For in you there is neither reason nor discretion which are able to moderate your affections, and therefore they shall be subject to the desire of your man. He shall be lord and governor, not only over your body, but even over your appetites and will.”
And first, where I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature, I mean not only that God, by the order of his creation, has spoiled woman of authority and dominion, but also that man has seen, proved, and pronounced just causes why it should be. Man, I say, in many other cases, does in this behalf see very clearly. For the causes are so manifest, that they cannot be hid. For who can deny but it is repugnant to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to lead and conduct such as do see? That the weak, the sick, and impotent persons shall nourish and keep the whole and strong? And finally, that the foolish, mad, and frenetic shall govern the discreet, and give counsel to such as be sober of mind? And such be all women, compared unto man in bearing of authority.
Lest anyone mistake him, Knox also says that for women to reign over men is “monstrous”, “abominable, odious, and detestable”, “repugnant to nature”, “a thing most odious in the presence of God”, a sin “more heinous than can be expressed by words” and “treason and conspiracy committed against God”. He also compares it to “that possession whereunto thieves, murderers, tyrants and oppressors do attain by theft, murder, tyranny, violence, deceit, and oppression” and says that “amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth”, it is “[the] most detestable and damnable”. He writes that women are “weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish; and experience has declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel, lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment” and that “as for woman, it is no more possible that she, being set aloft in authority above man, shall resist the motions of pride, than it is able to the weak reed, or to the turning weathercock, not to bow or turn at the vehemence of the inconstant wind”.
Lest anyone think that this bloodcurdling sexism is merely Knox’s personal opinion, he hastens to assure us that it is solidly grounded in Christian scripture and tradition – which it is. First, he helpfully cites the biblical verses that establish the oppression of women:
“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
1 Corinthians 14:34
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”
1 Corinthians 11:8-9
“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
1 Timothy 2:12
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Next, he cites several of the most prominent and influential doctors and theologians of the early church, including Tertullian (who says to women, “You are the port and gate of the devil. You are the first transgressor of God’s law”), Augustine (who writes that women who seek power should be “repressed and bridled”), Jerome (“Adam was deceived by Eve, and not Eve by Adam, and therefore it is just, that woman receive and acknowledge him for governor whom she called to sin, lest that again she slide and fall by womanly facility”), Ambrose (“Woman ought not only to have simple arrayment, but all authority is to be denied unto her. For she must be in subjection to man…as well in habit as in service”), and John Chrysostom, whose name literally means “golden-mouthed” and who, according to the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia, was “the greatest preacher ever heard in a Christian pulpit”. This famous preacher writes that women “ought at all times to have the punishment which was given to Eve sounding in [their] ears” and that “in the nature of all women lurks such vices as in good governors are not tolerable”.
As Knox puts it, the oppression of women has been carried out with “the uniform consent of the most part of godly writers since the time of the apostles”. And in case anyone is deceived as to how seriously he takes this matter, he writes that people who disagree with him or advocate female equality should be executed:
First, they ought to remove from honour and authority that monster in nature: so I call a woman clad in the habit of a man, yea, a woman against nature reigning above man. Secondarily, if any presume to defend that impiety, they ought not to fear, first to pronounce, and then after to execute against them the sentence of death.
The Christian legacy of sexism that Knox and others like him defended persists even today. To name some of the most obvious examples, the Catholic church still denies women entrance into the priesthood, and numerous Protestant and evangelical groups such as the Southern Baptists still demand that women submit to and obey their husbands. The Presbyterian church still names church buildings and ministry centers after Knox with no sign of embarrassment. Some Christians even believe that women should be denied the right to vote. And then, of course, there is South Dakota’s recent abortion ban, the horrible theocratic law that denies women the right to control their own bodies.
Even when it comes to the denominations that no longer officially discriminate against women, their repudiation of historical figures like Knox has been tepid at best and nonexistent at worst. And even the most liberal and progressive Christian churches still own Bibles that contain these immoral passages intact. This is unacceptable. No woman – and for that matter, no man – should follow this religion until these reprehensible misogynist laws are ripped from its pages.
I, on the other hand, am a humanist. I believe in the equal dignity and worth of all human beings, without exception. And I believe in following the evidence, which shows without any shadow of doubt that women are absolutely equal to men in every positive quality required for leadership. It is not surprising that sexism has been so long propped up by religion, which more than any other system of thought excels at sustaining beliefs that are not supported by a shred of evidence. Only by joining the battle against religious fundamentalism, and all the sinister falsehoods and harmful superstitions it entails, can we as a people ever hope to see these vile dogmas finally overcome, and the full equality of men and women recognized in fact as well as in law at last.