Early Cultural Feminist Concepts
Early cultural feminist’ religious ideas can be seen in the work of such women as Matilda Joslyn Gage. In 1893 she wrote, Woman Church & State: A Historical Account of the Status of Women Through the Christian Ages: With Reminiscences of the Matriarchate.4 Gage’s book not only attempted to show how badly men had treated women but how badly Christianity had treated women. Gage offered her readers a religious alternative based on the nature of women.
Gage believed in a natural goodness in women and that woman’s goodness would be the salvation of humanity. While rejecting the authority of the Church, she wrote:
It is through a recognition of the divine element of motherhood as not alone inhering in the great primal source of life but as extending throughout all creation, that it will become possible for the world, so buried in darkness, folly and superstition, to practice justice toward woman.”5Another cultural feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in 1923, wrote His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers.6 Gilman was a social darwinist with a twist. She lived during a time when many in the United States were enthralled with the idea of eugenics, that is, the idea that only those people who were fit should be allowed to have children. Many people are unaware that there was a time in the United States when thousands of people were sterilized because they had various disabilities or records of criminals in their families.
Gilman, like her contemporary, Margaret Sanger, did not agree with abortion but advocated sterilization. Gilman believed women possessed the correct characteristics for shaping humanity and that it was the responsibility of women to choose their mates for the sake of the proper development of humanity. Her theology was founded on her understanding of social darwinism. The virtues of her religion included “social development,” which meant that adherents must see woman as “the race type and her natural impulses” as “more in accordance with the laws of growth than those of the male.”7
Elizabeth Cady Stanton tends to fit in both the cultural feminist and Enlightenment categories. She grew to hate Christianity and flirted with some very bizarre ideas including free love and racism.
Some common themes among early cultural feminists were the goodness of human nature as seen in women’s nature, the oppression of women by most world religions especially Christianity, an ancient golden age when a matriarchal society existed and a time in the middle ages when male Christian leaders had burned millions of witches mainly because they were women who possessed some form of power.
Matilda Joslyn Gage, who detested the Christian Church, is the person who was to give to contemporary radical feminism the understanding that nine million witches had been burned during the Middle Ages. She stated that number in her book Woman Church & State without any proper historical reason. Ronald Hutton, professor of History at the University of Bristol, and author of The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, points out that “the scale of her overestimate was breathtaking, especially as it was apparently undertaken on no rational basis whatsoever.”8
Mary Daly in her book, Beyond God the Father refers to 30, 000 to several million but in her book Gyn/Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism, she not only refers to her earlier statement but also refers to Gage’s number of nine million.9
Hutton, a Professor who leans toward paganism himself, explains that the real truth about the reasons and numbers of the burning of witches is historically different than what has been until recently understood by both members of Wicca or radical/cultural feminists. Hutton states that, “It has [been] established beyond any reasonable doubt that there was no long-lasting or wide-ranging persecution of witches in early modern Europe, trials which involved the charge being neither routine nor common in any district.”
Writing of the victims of such accusations, Hutton points out that they were mostly “poor, marginalized, and anti-social, and where accusations spread they mostly reflected tensions between neighbors in lower reaches of society.” He states:
Accusations of witchcraft were not merely made against women but very often-in some areas mostly-initially made by women, not in the name of male power but because the alleged spells cast by witches most commonly affected those spheres of activity-small children, domestic work and the physical home, the animals of the in-field-which were normally the responsibility of females.10That cultural feminists, who are in leadership in the mainline churches, have not easily given up this accusation against the church and men in general can be seen by one of the articles on witchcraft in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies. Moshe Sluhovsky admits that, “where most denunciations took place, accusations had less to do with learned views of witchcraft than with local rivalries.” Yet, she goes on to write that women accusing other women “could be attributed to conformism in a patriarchal society, to competition among women for social standing within the community or to women’s prominent role as healers.”11
Women in leadership positions in the mainline women’s organizations continually refer to and extol the radical feminist writer Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson who wrote, She Who is, writes, “The innocent blood of women shed for this word [God], the burning of thousands of wise and independent women called witches, for example and the continuing injustice of subordination done to women in God’s name is only coming to light, and it is grave. Perhaps we should have done with the word God altogether.”
She also writes, “A very public though by now suppressed chapter in the history of women’s affliction is the trial and execution of women accused of being witches by the inquisition. For reasons that had much to do with the threatened patriarchal dominance of spiritual and healing power, hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million women were annihilated in the name of God.” 12 Here Johnson cites the writer Mary Daly, and her book Gyn/Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism, who, remember, cited Gage. And so one of the myths of early cultural feminism continues to be held, as well as told over and over through the books that mainline women leaders find acceptable and recommend.
My next posting will continue with cultural feminist’s concepts and phobias and how they relate to those who are in leadership in the Church today.
4 Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman Church & State: A Historical Account of the Status of Women Through the Christian Ages: With Reminiscences of the Matriarchate, (New York: The Truth Seeker, 1893). In a reprint with a forward by Mary Daly the book name has been changed to, “Woman, Church & State: The Original Expose of Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex, (Watertown, Mass: Persephone Press 1980);
5 Gage, Woman, Church, State, 48.
6 Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. (New York: The Century Co. 1923).
7 Gilman, Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers, 275. In Viola Larson, An Exploration: Feminist Ethics and the Principles of Orthodox Christianity, thesis, 1994, California State University, Sacramento, 18.
8 Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999)141. Hutton is referring to Gage, Woman, Church, State, 106-07.
9 See Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press 1973) 63; and Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, reprint (Boston: Beacon Press 1990), 183.
10 Hutton, Moon, 379.
11 Moshe Sluhovsky “Witchcraft,” in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, Letty M. Russell & J. Shannon Clarkson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 1996), 315, 16. It could be pointed out that Sluhovsky’s last reason for women accusing women, “women’s prominent roll as healers,” is also an idea which was found in Matilda Joslyn Gage’s book Woman Church & State.
12 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad 1993), 43.