Chapter 1: Arguments Adduced from Scripture against the Subjection of Women

The claim of superiority on the part of men is of so high antiquity, and from so great authority, that it can neither be slighted, nor passed over without notice. Before however one word more is said on this subject, let it be understood, that there exists not man, or woman, who has a higher veneration for the scriptures, than the writer of this work; and whose opinion it has ever been, that if any [2] object can be more professing a contempt for all religion, it is a woman of the same description.

After this declaration we may go on and occasionally mention, without the censure of levity, passages of that Book which of all others bear examination the best. And which independent of the veneration in which it is held by the author of this sketch as an individual, in a religious point of view; deserves attention and respect, as the foundation of all the laws of Christian and polished countries. This part of the subject however will be discussed in as few words as possible; for to enter into any laboured investigation of the matter were vain. Opinions on this particular point, however important, are soon and easily formed.

Indeed the reader will be disappointed who expects to find the following attempt any thing like a finished performance in any of its parts; it only aims at the merit of an outline or sketch; and is drawn rather from common sense, from [3] experience, and observation, – all however very keen searchers of human character and conduct, – than from philosophy or learning; to which, as the writer has no pretensions, she advances no claim.

It must be acknowledged then, that even before our first parents left the garden of bliss, a woman was positively, and unequivocally doomed to be – subject to the power and authority of her husband. When however it is attempted to bring this power forward, and into action, against women in general; there are I think two ways of obviating or evading the claim; either of which appear perfectly fair and satisfactory. It is not true, that the same chapter, almost the same verse, which entails this curse upon woman – for as a curse it is evidently given – entails, and for the very same crime, another upon man equally clear and explicit, and equally designed as should seem for the whole sex? It is not expressly said, that man should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, until his return to the earth from whence [4] he came? Yet did it ever occur to women, amongst all her imputed absurdities, to insist, that man, however favoured by different circumstances, was everlastingly bound to this servitude? By what mode of reasoning, by what rule of justice then can it be, that that part of a positive command which regards women, is supposed to hold good to all eternity, however different circumstances may favor them, and as is often the case, impel them to better their situation; while that part of it which regards men may be broke through the first opportunity, and ever after dispensed with?

I can indeed very well imagine, that to man and woman precisely in the state in which Adam and Eve are described to have been, such a submission as is enjoined the woman, might have been neither impracticable nor unreasonable. When she saw her husband daily toiling for her support and that of her offspring; when she saw that by the order of the Almighty thorns and thistles were produced by the earth, if he on his part were not a slave for her sake; [5] when added to this she felt the humiliating consciousness of having seduced her husband, and involved him in her guilt, and the calamitous consequences; was it possible that she on her’s should not look up to him, with a mixture of gratitude, affection, respect, and pity, which made this command, now deemed so hard, the sweetest part of her duty?

But now the scene is completely changed. The circumstances in which our first parents were places, were so extremely unlike whatever has, or can take place in common life, that to suppose subjection on the part of women to be from such a cause the constant and unalterable appointment of Heaven; is such a perversion of the spirit as well as of the letter of the law, as does not come short of absolute and decided absurdity. I must therefore repeat, that it is a most extraordinary circumstance, and not to be accounted for upon any of the common principles of reasoning; that a wise, a just, a beneficent Creator, should frame laws, and [6] enact punishments for a race of beings, all equally dependent upon him, and equally responsible for disobedience; yet allow some to deviate from his will with impunity, and others not. Indeed it has always appeared to me so shocking to imagine, if either of the maledictions had been intended by the Creator to have been handed down to posterity, that they should not have literally taken place; that if I may be permitted to give my explanation of the passages, I think the plain and obvious meaning of them must have been, – a punishment for the first pair, and for them only.

I therefore upon the whole sum up my argument with this conclusion, and if those texts of scripture that we allude to, are considered as binding and entailed upon the human race; absurd as it may appear, the men are as much bound to perpetual toil and hard labor, as the women to perpetual and undistinguished obedience. And that men, by breaking through laws of equal authority, with those by which they endeavour to enslave the other sex; [7] with all their boasted superiority, set women a very bad example, both in principle and practice. If however the passages in question are understood as I explain them; the antediluvian claim of divine authority, to domineer over women, falls with the first pair to the ground – Where peace to its manes! – And oblivion to its memory!

Thus much for those, who esteem it a main point of orthodoxy, to believe in the fall of man in its most literal sense.

But there are others, and those not unworthy of being attended to, who believe, and of this opinion were many of the primitive Christians; that the Mosaic account of the fall of man, was merely an allegorical, or mythological history; in which sense it cannot be denied, but that it is beautiful, rational, and comprehensible, accords with the usage of eastern nations, and is adapted to their taste and capacity; for, their most sublime instructions were couched under the veil of fable and allegory. And it is surely no impeachment on the veracity of Moses, and [8] does infinite honour to his judgment, that he took the shortest, the most impressive, and the most favorite mode of instruction, to inculcate good morality, upon an ignorant and obstinate race.

Many pious believers indeed there have been, and are, who assert, that a literal interpretation was never dreamt of by the early Jews, but was an after-thought of designing men, or of enthusiasts. Certainly the other sense is best suited to the reasoning faculty of man; and therefore most likely to be adopted by those, who are commonly esteemed, liberal and candid enquirers; and certainly taken in this view, a finer lesson of morality was never imagined.

But again, viewing it merely as a tradition somewhat obscured, of a former state of more perfect virtue, and consequently of purer bliss, it warms the heart of man, and inspires him with the divine ambition of regaining by the road of virtue, the height from which he hath [9] fallen. This indeed seems to be a light in some degree imparted to every nation under the sun, for he shines not upon that region, where some fond memorials are not to be found, some belief traced, of an early state of innocence, upon which the soul of man loves to linger with melancholy delight; but this melancholy is ever accompanied by the soothing and animating hope, that the return to such a state may at some period arrive – When, the pure spirit freed from the incumbrance of passions and frailties, from which even the most perfect of the human race in their present state of existence are not exempted, shall perhaps be permitted to know, why such pains and penalties were annexed to its moral condition – When perhaps we shall not only be permitted to believe, but be compelled by the force of consciousness to acknowledge, that it was for crimes committed by our proper selves that we suffered those many and heavy afflictions, to which even the happiest of mortals are doomed in this world of cares and calamities. [10]

I cannot however deny but that this view of the subject appears to involve it in the belief of the ancient, and nearly exploded doctrine, of the Metempsychosis, or Transmigration of souls; nor can I but acknowledge that this doctrine has ever appeared to me, not only rational and philosophical, but christian and consolatory. Far different indeed from the dreams of pagan philosophy in general, and those of Plato in particular, which one would imagine that no one awake to sober sense could attempt to understand, far less to explain; though beautiful and fascinating charms are scattered among them.

May I hope to be forgiven if I add that there are, who prefer this doctrine of the preexistence of souls, and that upon what they suppose to be christian and rational principles, to that of Original Sin, which has ever been a lamentable stumbling block to those, who not being able to ‘reason but from what they know,’ look upon it as totally inconsistent with the justice, the goodness, and mercy visible [11] through every display of the Almighty, to punish millions yet unborn, for one crime committed by one frail creature.

I believe it must be obvious to the reader, that the view now produced of the subject in question, is ‘though last not least in our esteem.’ I myself feel that it is written con amore, when compared to the frigid details which precede it.

But be all this as it may, nothing can be more true, than that in whichever light the history of the fall of man is here taken, all are equally compatible with a sincere belief of the Scriptures; and therefore in whichever sense it is adopted, it serves our purpose equally well; as it loosens every hold that might be taken of an original or divine claim, of authority over women.

It would far exceed the bounds I prescribe to myself in this slight sketch of an important subject, to search the Scriptures, and produce [12] every text, for, or against my argument. I have neither time, inclination, nor abilities for such a task; nor do I think it would tend much to enlighten the subject if I had. For, the mass of the Jewish institutions can only be considered as local, and suited chiefly to the people, for whom they were framed; and their gradual disuetude, in every Christian country, without reflection, and even without observation, evinces the truth of the remark; and which indeed is decidedly proved, by our Saviour’s answer to the Pharisees on the subject of divorce which will be afterwards more fully noticed. Amongst those institutions there may have been, and there surely were, temporary ones, some in favor of women, and some much against them, neither of which I am anxious to produce; but in the tables of the law, emphatically and pre-eminently called the Commandments, and to each of which every good man, may put his hand to his heart and say, ‘Lord incline our hearts to keep this law;’ amongst these in vain shall man search for an excuse, to assume an unreasonable power over his fellow creatures. If proofs were wanting [13] of the divinity of their origin this were one; for had they been fabricated by mere man, he undoubtedly would have introduced, some tyrannical, some unjust, some vexatious clauses against poor defenceless woman. Whereas, the fountain of justice, of mercy, and of peace, framed his laws such, as might be obeyed by all nations, peoples, and sexes. Would to God, that man, whom he has made after his own image, were able in this to imitate him! But, alas!---!---!

We come now to a part of our subject, which among Christians must be deemed of the highest importance, and I must therefore be excused if I enlarge a little upon it. I feel that I approach sacred ground, and it is necessary for my own vindication that I should put my sentiments in a fair point of view, though at the expence of a few more words than I could wish, or than perhaps I at first intended.

Little then, as men have to boast of in the Old Testament, in support of their favorite system, [14] yet less will there appear for it in the New; and especially if we consider only, such passages applicable to our subject, as were delivered by our Saviour himself. It is rather surprising that his restriction should run the risque of offending any calling themselves Christians, yet I am well aware that it may. For, most of them seem to regard the Apostles, and immediate successors of Christ, with the same veneration as they do their divine master. I think I may confidently say, that no good reason can be assigned for this; on the contrary it has perhaps been productive of every thing absurd and complicated, that has been imputed, to the most simple, pure, and rational religion, that mankind have ever been blessed with. Much respect is due to their writings, and much to their memories; and much we willingly bear them, as the contemporaries, the friends, and the disciples of Jesus; and the witnesses, and vouchers, and historians of his life and miracles; for so far nothing surely can be more conformable to Scripture and reason. But that we ought to carry our zeal for them [15] so far, as to consider their maxims and precepts as of equal weight in regulating our belief and obedience with those of our Saviour, is what one may be a perfect good Christian; and yet deny. For, what were they but men, subject to all the passions and prejudices of men; though no doubt refines and subdued, by the example of their great master, as well as by his advice and rebukes, which were not unfrequent?

In short what I mean to infer, from what I have said is this, that whatever is necessary for man to know to lead him to happiness in this life and the next, is to be found in the precepts of our Saviour; and that therefore we are under no necessity to take them at second hand. His are almost throughout, clear, simple, practical, and merciful; or where they are otherwise, they are so clearly figurative, that one would think they could scarcely be mistaken if not willingly. Theirs on the contrary, amid much wisdom, zeal, and sound precept, bear evident marks, – I hope I may say it without a charge of blasphemy, – of human frailty, and casual [16] inconsistency. But that they come short of perfection, it is not to stagger our faith, nor is it in the main against them. It only tells us they were men, and serves to remind us, again to ascend to the fountain head for instruction, where only instruction is to be found, in purity and in truth. And where all have access to go, the wise and the simple, the rich and the poor, the tyrant and the salve. And where all who pant for emancipation of soul, and who are happy enough, and wise enough, to hold this best of all books their rule of conduct, may see within what limits their desires are lawful and reasonable.

Having expressed my sentiments candidly on this subject, and I hope in such a way as not to give offense to liberal and charitable minds, it is time to come to the point in question, viz. what passages can be gathered as delivered by our Saviour himself, applicable to our subject; and I believe it will be readily and generally allowed, that every thing that can be collected, is clearly and decidedly in favor of women. [17]

In the first place then, he himself seemed so far from considering women, as in any degree inferior in point of understanding to the other sex; that on the contrary upon every occasion he talks to them on subjects of the highest importance; most of his miracles were performed in their presence and many of them at their particular request. I am well aware that the unbeliever in Jesus, and the contemner of women, may smile at this proof of their sagacity; and tell me, that the weakness of women, and their consequent belief and delight in the marvellous, made them very fit subjects to work upon, and very proper tools to use, on such occasions. I must beg however of such to consider, that their argument is very far from being conclusive, against the capacities of women in particular; for, upon what other or better proofs, have many men of the greatest judgment, and most acute penetration, and of all nations and ages, been most sincere believers?

As the general tenor of our Saviour’s conduct, bore honorable testimony to the character and [18] consequence of women; so his maxims with regard to them, were in the mist perfect conformity to his conduct. Accordingly, after the strictest examination it will appear, that not a word is attributed to him, that even glances at their inferiority in spiritual concerns; and if any thing can be of more importance in heaven or on earth, Judge ye!

We of course come next to that point so eagerly and so universally claimed by the men, and in general so severely felt by the women. Need I say the claim of authority over them, and of obedience and submission from them? But dies our benevolent and merciful legislator, by any means, or by any one hint, encourage such pretensions? It may be answered, that he came to fulfil the law, and not to destroy it; but it yet remains to be proved, that the law, I mean the law of God, was explicit on this score against women; which I think cannot easily be done, as our Saviour expressly says that it was not so of old, on a point where analogy enables us to draw, very clear inferences. [19] For, when the Pharisees came tempting him on that subject, is not his answer highly interesting, and worthy of the attention of both sexes? What I particularly allude to is on the subject of divorce. Indeed the whole passage is so forcibly told, that I cannot do better than transcribe it, for who ever yet substituted their own for Scripture narrative with any tolerable degree of success?

‘The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, – Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? – And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning, made them male and female? And said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother,’ &c.

‘They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?’ [20]

‘He saith unto them, Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’

These verses are repeated almost word for word in the four Evangelists, and it is in vain to argue that it is not a case in point; for though it does not include the whole of the authority claimed, it was at that time of a very material part of it, and what the men of those days with very ill will gave up. For, even the disciples of Jesus said to him, ‘If this is the case it is not expedient to marry;’ clearly intimating, that if such was the nature of matrimony, and such the equal terms on which man and woman went together; it was too great a confinement to the licentious ideas, and overbearing dispositions of men; – ever grasping at authority without controul.

I do not know if I am right, but this chapter has always appeared to me as strongly against the pretensions of the men to superiority, as [21] any one in the Old or New Testament; and as ample and honorable as testimony of the equality and consequence of the female character, and that from the first authority.

‘Have ye not heard that he who made them from the beginning, made them male and female, and for this cause a man shall leave father and mother’ &c. Too much license is certainly to be condemned, in explaining passages of Scripture, but to suit any opinion or system advanced. But surely he who runs may read, that our Saviour very clearly here says; that God created mankind male and female different indeed in sex, for the wisest and best purposes, but equal in rank, because of equal utility; that no human laws, though they may be adopted in peculiar situations, can supercede the law of nature; and that though such were permitted as the Pharisees alluded to, that were only suited to a hard hearted and stubborn race, and could not be other than temporary ones, and could hold no place whatever in a system founded on love, and charity, and equality; so far as human [22] circumstances and human frailty can admit of, to which every rational being must in some degree bow.

Accordingly we find that our Saviour is so far from giving men any encouragement to assume authority over their wives, and put them away for every cause; that he does not even allow them to put them away for any cause whatever; except for a crime which he seems clearly to consider as of equal enormity, whether committed by man or woman. For, when this very crime was actually proved against a woman, and she brought before him to be judged; does he not put all her accusers to shame and to fight by a simple, and unexpected appeal to their won consciences; by bidding him who is free cast the first stone? And does this not as clearly as words can express it, place woman on a footing of equality, where she could least of all perhaps expect it, and say – Ye unjust, ye unreasonable, ye tyrannical beings! Are ye not all formed by the same hand? made of the same flesh and blood? and subject alike to common frailties? [23] And shall this woman though guilty, be judged and punished by you not less guilty than she?

No case could be adduced more strongly in favor of women than this, because it is a crime to which our Saviour upon every occasion shews the most decided abhorrence, as it is indeed of all crimes, the one most subversive of the peace and happiness of society. And it is therefore to be presumed that he would have more severely censured the guilty woman, had he not seen it of still more consequence to mankind, to inculcate that useful lesson upon every individual, of doing to others as they would be done by. And would men conduct themselves more, upon this noble yet simple principle, they would either be less rigid to women; or what would still have infinitely more influence on the reformation of manners, be more correct in their own conduct; when, by adding example to precept, they would have an undoubted title, to animadvert on that of their other half of their species. [24]

It may perhaps be argued that I have been contending with a shadow, because that in no Christian country do men now pretend to the right of putting away their wives, save for the crime of infidelity alone. I know it; but I bring this very strong instance home, because, reasoning from analogy. – which is undoubtedly fair where there are no facts on the other side to oppose such reasoning, – it is clearly to be resumed that the same benevolent foresight which dictated these checks to the tyranny of man for the security and happiness of so great a proportion of the human race; designed that the same spirit of justice should pervade the whole of his system; and that it should not be left to the caprice or hardness of mean’s hearts to use authority over their wives for any cause.

Surely this reasoning is fairly and candidly deduced; for, if our Saviour puts woman on a footing of equality, where, as I hinted before, she could not make strong reasons least of all expect it; how much more shall she hope to be [25] so, in cases, where nature, humanity and every common rule of justice, seem to demand it!

Having I hope already said enough to convince unprejudiced readers, that in the Christian system, as delivered by its divine sounder, there is not I believe I may boldly say, a single sentence that even can be tortured into a meaning, against the liberty, equality, or consequence of Woman; I shall endeavor next to convince my readers, as much as I am myself convinced, that reason goes hand in hand with religion in opposing the claims of the one sex, to a right of subjecting the other. [26][no page 27]