Women's Rights


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    The souls of women are so small,
    That some believe they've none at all.
    Samuel Butler (1612-1680), Miscellaneous Thoughts


    Historically the church's position on this matter followed the biblical texts such as Genesis 3:16, where God tells Eve that her husband will rule over her, and passages where wives are listed along with a man's other goods and chattels. This view is comprehensively confirmed in the New Testament:

    Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
    Colossians 3:18; cf. 1 Peter 3:1 and Ephesians 5:22

    ... I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man ... For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. 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.
    1 Corinthians 11:3 and 7-9

    Let your women keep silence in 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 14:34, cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3-9 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12

    In line with these statements women were until recent times not permitted to speak in church, and they are still expected to cover their heads in traditional churches. Under Christian emperors and bishops the rights that women had enjoyed under the Roman Empire were gradually pared away. As early as the fourth century it was decreed by a synod that women should neither send nor receive letters in their own name (Synod of Elvira, canon 81 ). They were also confined to minor Orders and forbidden to sing in church. Later they would be deprived of Holy Orders altogether. By 581 a Church Council at Mâcon was debating whether or not women had souls. Church law followed the bible:

    Wives are to obey their husbands.
    There is a natural order in human affairs such that wives obey their husbands, and children their parents [Col. 3:18, 20], because it is just that the lesser serve the greater.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q IV, C12)

    A wife has no power of her own, but is to submit to her husband's dominion in everything.
    It is fitting that a woman be subject to her husband's dominion and have no independent authority [cf. Col. 3:18]. She is not to teach him, testify against him, bind him, or judge him [cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35].
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q V, C17)

    The woman ought to veil her head [1 Cor. 11:7-10], since she is not the image of God. Rather she should wear this as a symbol of her subjection, because the Fall began with her.
    Out of respect for the bishop, let her not have her head uncovered in church, but covered by a veil [1 Cor. 11:5]. Let her have no power to speak, because the bishop represents the person of Christ [1 Cor. 14:34]. As she would be before Christ the Judge, so let her be before the bishop, because he is the Lord's vicar. Let her be subject, on account of original sin.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q V, C19)

    The great Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that women were defective men, imperfect in both body and soul. They were conceived either because of defective sperm or because a damp wind was blowing at the time of conception*. Leading scholars accepted Aquinas's teaching that women had a higher water content than men and that this made them sexually incontinent*. Since they were so watery, weak and unreliable it became a fundamental premise of canon law that they were inferior beings. Following Aquinas*, canon law decreed that women could not witness a will. Neither could they testify in disputes over wills, nor in criminal proceedings Generally women suffered the same sort of legal disabilities as children and imbeciles. They could not practice medicine, law or any other profession, nor could they hold any public office. Here is a piece of reasoning from two famous Roman Catholic scholars: after saying that women are intellectually like children, they explain why women are given to the practice of witchcraft:

    But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives*.

    Women, as inferiors to and possessions of men, were not free to choose their own marriage partners:

    Only those who have authority over a woman, and from whose custody she is sought as wife, can make a lawful marriage.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 30, q V, C1)

    Protestant Churches were no better than the Roman Catholic Church. Luther observed that "Women ... have but small and narrow chests, and broad hips, to the end that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children". The idea is often abbreviated in English to "A woman's place is in the home". Luther was often quoted with approval during the Nazi period, and in strongly religious areas of Germany it is still commonplace to hear that women should concern themselves only with kinder, kirche, küche (children, the Church and cooking), an attitude that has caused a modern childcare crisis in Germany according to the country's Minister for Family Affairs.*. Luther also insisted on a man's traditional Christian right to beat his wife. He also held firmly to the traditional line on a woman's duty to bear children, even if it killed her: "If they become tired or even die, it does not matter. Let them die in childbirth — that is why they are there"*.

    Under canon law a woman's husband was both her sovereign and her guardian. In practical terms this meant that she could not legally own property or make contracts. She could not sue at common law without her husband's consent, which meant that in particular she could not sue him for any wrong done to her. If she deliberately killed him, she was guilty not merely of murder but, because of the feudal relationship, treason*. Within living memory it was common in Christian countries for a married woman to be denied credit, and to require her husband's consent for surgical operations. This is still the case in some particularly devout areas, for example in Switzerland After all 1 Corinthians 7:4 states that "The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband ...". (The Bible goes on to state the converse — that a wife has power over her husband's body — but canon lawyers either missed this part or else deduced that it bore a completely different interpretation. As Gratian put it "The woman has no power, but in everything is subject to the control of her husband".

    The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women is a polemical work by the Scottish reformer John Knox, published in 1558. It attacks female rulers, arguing the traditional Christian line that rule by females is contrary to the Bible.


    So it was that under the Christian Salic Law, women were debarred from inheriting throughout much of Europe. As one chronicler put it in the Fourteenth Century with reference to Isabelle sister of the French King Charles IV: "the realm of France was so noble that it must not fall into a woman's hands." (Jean Froissart {c. 1337 – c. 1405}, Chronicles Ch XXI)

    Even an English queen's job, spelled out in an old marriage service was “to be bonay and buxome in bed and at board*”. In the words of the Anglican marriage service a married couple were one flesh, and the canon lawyers held them to be a single person: erunt animae duae in carne una.

    The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband*.

    It was this legal doctrine that gave rise to Dickens" observation, put into the mouth of one of his characters, that the law is an ass*. The doctrine enabled an Englishman to lock up his wife and not be liable for the tort of false imprisonment. He could beat her and not be guilty of assault. The same principle permitted him to rape her without the law recognising it as rape. A wife could not proceed against her husband, nor be called to give evidence in court against him. Most such constraints were done away with in Britain by Acts of Parliament in 1935 and 1945* in the teeth of fierce opposition from the organised Churches. In England it remained impossible for a man to be charged with the rape of his wife until the 1990s.

    Unmarried women were also inferior beings, or as the Bible puts it weaker vessels (1 Peter 3:7). Fathers were free to treat them as their personal property and swap them for other goods or for political advantage, which is what arranged child marriages often amounted to. Unmarried adult women were not permitted many of the privileges allowed by law to men, nor thought capable of fulfilling the duties expected of men. Like married women, they were prohibited from practising all professions and all but a few trades. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V even forbade them to appear on the public stage within his dominions. Soon the whole of Western Christendom had banned actresses and female singers.

    Throughout the whole Christian period and into the 1960s, it was taken for granted that a man was entitled to beat his wife. The idea would have seemed slightly old-fashioned when this advertisement was made, but people would still be expected to recognise the biblical reference: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness". (Matthew 23: 27)

    Women's lives were of such little consequence that they carried no wieght in moral decisions. For example what should a man do if he has promised to marry a woman, but then decides he wants to become a monk. The answer has no moral merit, but satified the Church:

    One who has sworn to contract marriage with a woman, if he wishes to enter religious life, ought first to contract marriage to fulfill the vow, and then he may enter a monastery before having carnal intercourse.
    Decretals of Gregory IX , Book Four, title I, C. 16

    The woman had no say in this, and being officially married was not permitted to divorce and remarry. If she was a good Christian, her life was completely ruined. The business of women was to marry and have children, and failure to do this was deeply shameful, an idea enshrined in cannon law:

    Bearing children is the sole reason for marriage.
    It is shameful for a woman when her marriage bears no fruit, for this alone is the reason for marrying.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 32, q II, C1)

    Failure to marry at all was even worse. According to Christian thought old maids would spend eternity "leading apes in hell", a sobering idea when one considers that in this context the word "lead" is probably intended as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (though images of Old Maids on church miserichords, like the one shown on the right, show the apes being led around or into hell in chains)

    Old Maids Leading Apes, a hand-coloured etching of 1797, published by: Laurie & Whittle .
    Text underneath says:
    "In Ancient sayings we hear tell
    Of Maidens leading Apes in Hell;
    But Younger Maidens it is said,
    Lead Puppies to their Wedding Bed."

    British Museum number 1991,0720.42

    Women who failed to behave towards their husbands in the deferential way approved by the Church were regarded as "scolds". Their punishment was to wear a ridiculous mask, often locked onto their heads. Such masks were made of iron, and often had a piece to depress and imobilise the tongue, intentionally causing accute pain.

    Church law made provision for husbands who killed their wives, such husbands apparently being regarded as less culpable if they were young:

    As to those who killed their wives without trial, since you do not add that these were adulteresses or anything like that, should they be accounted other than murderers subject to penance? They are absolutely forbidden to remarry, unless they are young men...
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q I, C5)

    Whoever kills his wife without right, cause, or certain proof, and takes another, must put aside his arms and do public penance.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q II, C7)

    Gratian: The foregoing authorities forbid killing adulterous wives, but permit sending them away after seven years of penance. Those who kill them lose all hope of remarriage, unless mercy is granted them to contract marriage on account of their falling into youthful incontinence.
    (Decretum gratiani, Case 33, q II, C9)

    The Natural Order, as explained in traditional Christian books, based on Ephesians 5:23


    Well into the twentieth century women were debarred from sitting on juries and were permitted only a few selected jobs, such as school teaching and nursing. Even these they were generally obliged to give up when they got married. Women were so little regarded that until this century they were often excluded from Church membership rolls. No one knows with certainty how large some denominations were until recently, because they did not count women in their membership statistics.

    Throughout their histories, the Churches have consistently opposed women's right to the franchise. Only after the Church's influence had seriously weakened did women obtain the vote. In England this happened in 1918, when the franchise was extended to women over the age of thirty. Even now women do not enjoy equality in all spheres of life. In England, for example, the taxation laws and laws of inheritance still discriminate against them. There are areas of Europe where traditional Christian values prevail and women were denied the vote until recent times*. There is one area in the European Community, Mount Athos in Greece, where for religious reasons women are not even permitted to set foot.

    "Loud Mouth Women" like feminists apparently love the devil.
    As so often, modern fringe groups of Christians are the ones adhering to traditional Christian belief.


    The traditional position of the Church, that women were mere chattels of their husbands, was challenged by the usual selection of freethinkers such as Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham. The atheist Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Her husband, the philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836), was a campaigner for women's rights, and so was their atheist son-in-law, the poet Shelley. Other prominent proponents included the unbelieving Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), whose pen name was George Eliot, and Harriet Law (1832-1897). The Utilitarian J. S. Mill launched the women's suffrage movement in England with a petition to the House of Commons on 7 th June 1866. He published The Subjection of Women in 1869. Other active campaigners included the atheists George Holyoake, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant. In France the argument for women's rights was led by enemies of the Church like Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), and much later in the USA by atheists like Ernestine Rose, Matilda Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony.

    Poe's law, named after its author Nathan Poe, states that without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.


    It seems that a disturbing number of men, bolstered by Christian attitudes, still assume that they have the right to subjugate, abuse and beat their wives*. A sociological study in 1962 revealed that religious orthodoxy was positively correlated with social conservatism on issues such as women's rights*. It is notable that the Church continued to discriminate against women for years after such discrimination was abandoned outside the Church. It was not until 1970 that a woman was authorised to teach Roman Catholic theology*, and throughout the world Churches are still given exemption from sex discrimination legislation. Senior Anglican clergymen could still be outraged in 1996 at the idea of a woman playing the part of God in the York Mystery Plays — denouncing it as paganism*. Christian mainstream thought is now in the process of change. The more liberal sects have started ordaining women again, while the more traditional ones still hold out against it. For them feminism is little short of demonism. .

    The ardent Christian evangelist Pat Robinson spoke for many traditionalists when he pointed out that feminism has anti-Christian consequences in a 1992 Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment ("Equal Rights Initiative in Iowa Attacked", Washington Post, 23 August 1992)


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    § Mr Justice Buller in the eighteenth century felt obliged to limit the right of a husband to beat his wife. He said it was acceptable as long as the husband used a stick no thicker than his thumb — a criterion that coincidentally had been favoured by the prophet Mohammed some 1,000 years earlier.

    §. The views of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, which shaped theologians" views of women, are discussed in Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, chapter 16.

    §. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q92, a1.

    § St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II/II, q70, a3.

    §. Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, Pt I, q6.

    §. BBC Website, 9 th June 2005http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/crossing_continents/4076396.stm “ The legacy of kinder, kücher, kircher - children, kitchen and church - where women were expected to stay at home, has left the country with a childcare crisis.”, also citing the Germany's Minister for Family Affairs as saying "When it comes to childcare, Germany is a third world country."

    §. Joachim Kahl, The Misery of Christianity (English translation by N. D. Smith), Penguin Books, p 86 citing Paul Althaus, Die Ethik Martin Luther, Gütersloh (1965), p 100, note 82.

    §. J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, p 258.

    §. "I, Katharine, take thee Henry to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonay and buxome in bed and at board, till death us depart, and thereto I plight unto thee my troth." Katherine Parr's marriage on 12 July 1543. From: 'Henry VIII: July 1543, 11-15', Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 18 Part 1: January-July 1543 (1901), pp. 480-489.

    §. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries, vol. I, p 442.

    §. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, chapter 51.

    §. Law Reform Act 1935, 25 and 26 George V, chapter 30; Married Women (Restraint upon Anticipation) Act 1949, 13 and 14 George VI, chapter 78.

    §. Women were denied the vote for example in local elections in the strongly Catholic Swiss Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. See press reports in The Independent on 28 th and 30 th April 1990. This decision was overturned by the Swiss Supreme Court in the same year.

    §. "The violent Chauvinism that hides behind the Church", The Independent, 24 th August 1988.

    §. W. S. Salisbury, "Religiosity, regional sub-culture and social behaviour", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1962), 2, pp 94-101. Cited by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 118.

    §. In 1970 Professor Uta Ranke-Heinemann became the first woman anywhere to be authorised by the Roman Catholic Church to teach theology.

    §. The venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, declared that it was paganism for a woman to represent God, explaining mysteriously that "we are made in God's image, not the other way round": "Beyond Understanding", The Independent on Sunday, 3 rd March 1996.

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