Discovering feminism’s roots

Jennifer E. Morel follows the trail of the feminist movement and is surprised to find herself journeying back to the ancient Greeks, the beginnings of Christianity and the Middle Ages.

The word ‘feminism’ might conjure up ideas of Susan B. Anthony and the fight for suffrage, Rosie the Riveter calling women out of the home to support their men during World War II, and the struggles of the 60s to define women’s place in wider society. 

What many might not be aware of is how these realities are each in their own way reactions to the view of women promoted in the Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries which exalted human reason in opposition to the claimed superstition of previous times.

But as enlightened as this movement considered itself to be, it actually took humanity a step back in its evaluation of women and their place in society. And so in many ways these 19th and 20th century people and events were not the beginning of feminism, but rather the tail-end of a much larger, longer story, a renewed struggle for an emancipation which had already begun but which the Enlightenment had derailed.

feminism poster

As surprising as it might seem to some, one of the primary motors of women’s emancipation was Christianity. As Scripture scholar Francis Martin has demonstrated, a radical freedom for women was brought about by the Gospel. 

In the Greek philosophy that prevailed before the announcement of the Gospel, men and women were created and formed by their society to fit certain social roles. Pre-determined, these roles admitted of no exceptions.

For example, women and men in Plato’s 4th century work, the Republic, were considered equal and completely the same: the body said little about the person and was meant to be shed. Differences lay in the soul of individuals – in their capacities for work – but these differences were between individuals, not between the sexes: both men and women were capable of performing the same kinds of work and both could reach contemplation.  While such an idea of equality may initially sound exciting, the individual in this utopia existed only for society. 

Hence, women and men whom the State identified as having the capacities to be either leaders or to be cobblers were coerced into embracing the position society demanded of them. Their education and even their breeding, secretly arranged beforehand, all forced them into this role.

For Plato, men and women may be equal, but they are equally unfree.

Aristotle quickly countered Plato in his Politics, arguing for what he described as an observable difference between the sexes. Since they are members of the same species, this difference means that one sex must be superior to the other, since, according to his understanding, the distinction between two beings always implied one ruling over the other. 

Asserting that woman’s rationality is deformed by her body, and thus she can contribute nothing to her society outside of reproduction and house-keeping, Aristotle wrote that men have the sole responsibility for public life: they are alone in the spotlight, both for praise and for blame, despite their capacities or lack thereof. 

Difference and embodiment may have a place here, but they are used to insist upon a relationship of superiority and inferiority. An obligatory inequality and, once more, the dictates of society leave both women and men equally unfree.

However, with the advent of the Gospel, social roles and predetermination have no place. In the life of Christ, we see redemption preached to both women and men, acknowledging their equality. Parallel parables such as the lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14) and the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) are recounted, in which the differing actions of both men and women represent that of God witnessing to differences that can be equally praised. 

The gospels also show women stepping into what were considered to be male roles, such as that of disciples and witnesses (Luke 10:38-42; Mark 16:1-8), making it clear that sex does not predetermine one’s position. Indeed the first witness of the resurrection is not a male apostle, but the woman Mary Magdalen.

Hence, no longer are men or women forced either to abandon their difference for equality, or their equality for difference. No longer does the State determine their meaning and their identity. Both women and men, and each unique man and woman, have something of their own to give to one another and to society at large. This radical freedom of the Gospel began to quickly permeate life and culture.

However, the shocking novelty of this freedom was severely undermined by the Enlightenment.

Martin writes in The Feminist Question: “Public and private spheres were becoming increasingly separate [and] the Enlightenment not only failed to improve women’s lots but worsened it in some ways … 

“In keeping with the outlook of pre-Christian Greece … women generally are for man’s pleasure, some may contribute as well to his intellectual pleasure, and for the good of the state, he should have a wife to bear and raise his children. Although Christians may have behaved like this, there is nothing in the New Testament that can justify it. The 18th century recapturing of the Greek ideal was but the definitive act in the crystallization of the negative elements already present in the society that … proved stronger than the gospel ideals.”

So the Enlightenment could be said to have taken women’s rights back, instead of forward. For the fact is, medieval and early modern history are full of extraordinary women who were true protagonists in their time. 

These include Bathild, a young woman captured and enslaved by the French in the 7th century. Her modesty and lack of social-climbing, despite the possibility of an influential marriage, caused her to come to the attention of the Frankish king Clovis II.  Impressed, he took her as his bride, making her henceforth Queen Bathild. She then actively used her position to effectively eliminate the slave trade throughout the realm. 

Another woman who rose up through the ranks to challenge powerful interests was the 11th century German Hildegard of Bingen, who called herself ‘a frail virgo (or virgin) that God transformed into a thundering virago (female warrior)’. Originally offered to God by her parents at the age of eight, she became the abbess of a double monastery, effectively leading both men and women religious.

Conscious of her female sex in a primarily masculine ecclesial world, Hildegard was one of the first thinkers to develop a coherent system of thought that heralded an equality of dignity and yet a difference between women and men. As she dictated from one of her visions:

“Man and woman are commingled, as one …  exists through another – for man would not be called man without woman, nor would woman be called woman without man.”

Early feminist- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
[ Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz ]

Closer to our time, is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. A Mexican religious sister in the 17th century, she wrote poetry regarding love, feminism, and faith. Her poem, ‘Hombres necios’, or ‘Foolish Men’, argues against a male depiction of female sexuality which sees all women as objects to be used – and then discarded. She speaks of seduction and prostitution, challenging the misogynist mindset that she encountered to examine its actions:

You foolish men who lay

the guilt on women,

not seeing you’re the cause

of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain

with measureless desire

why wish they well behave

if you incite to evil…

In all your crazy shows

you act just like a child

who plays the bogeyman 

of which he’s then afraid…

Who is more to blame,

though either should do wrong?

She who sins for pay,

or he who pays to sin?

In fact, Sor Juana is part of a three century long international debate regarding feminism and misogyny, the Querelles des Femmes, which included Christine de Pizan, French philosopher and mother, and Teresa of Avila, the Spanish reformer of religious life. 

Queen Bathild, Hildegard of Bingen, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz are certainly examples of feminism writ large, but they are not the exceptions to the rule. It’s important to highlight this to make clearer our own understanding of feminism. 

The right to speak out and influence society, the right to work and pursue economic gain, and the right to vote all existed for women in different forms and fashions well before the current feminist movement was born. 

The youngest member of the city council in Paris during the 5th century was a woman, who inherited her position from her father, as the law at that time allowed. Her organization with other women and her influence among the population as a whole saved the city twice: once from invasion and once from famine. 

Women during the Middle Ages were also economically active, working and managing businesses. As the lists of guilds and the condemnations for usury and price manipulation testify, women were hairdressers, salt merchants, millers, schoolteachers, doctors, pharmacists, bookbinders, and all other sorts of professions and occupations. The public economic decisions of these women thus played an important role in society.

Middle ages feminists

Women in this period were moreover politically active, often voting in urban assemblies or rural towns. 

What, then, does all this mean? It means first of all, that our contemporary feminism is part of a much larger story, a story written by women throughout the world and often women of faith. Queen Bathild’s use of political power to aid the weak is a precursor to the best of the abolitionists found in Susan B. Anthony and her peers. 

Hildegard, in her philosophical and ecclesial commitments, traversing countries and centuries, worked just as ardently as the women of the 60s did to widen women’s place in society. 

And Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz joined with other women, in a manner analogous to that of Rosie the Riveter, calling also on men to support their women.

This also means that our contemporary feminism, which sometimes paints Enlightenment thought as the whole history of women, needs to make sure that it does not miss crucial feminist proposals of the past. 

Sometimes, it is hard for women of a more conservative bent – be it for religious or other motives – to find their place within the current feminist movement, as they struggle between an appreciation for rights gained and a sense that feminism may have created more wrongs in its attempt to eradicate others. 

Perhaps, the way forward is to seek both to value all that is right in the contemporary feminist movement and also to appreciate its ancient Christian roots, to rediscover and appreciate the political action, the philosophical thought, and the revolutionary poetry of the past. 

Only thus can we  promote a more authentic justice in our commitment to the equal dignity of all women and men, to all people in all places, to an  intersectionality that embraces all of the present and all of the past. 

Only by truly knowing our roots, can we, both contemporary and Christian feminists, proclaim a feminism worthy of the name.

This is a revised version (with the author’s permission) of an article which first appeared on the blog of the International Institute of Culture & Gender Studies.

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Cajun by birth, Dr. Jennifer E. Morel completed degrees in theology at the Pontifical Universities of the Angelicum and the Gregorian, studying as well at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. In 2013, she obtained her doctorate with a thesis in Catholic social doctrine at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Former coordinator of studies at the Markets, Culture and Ethics Research Centre at Holy Cross, Dr. Morel is currently a professor of moral theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and the Director of Research for the International Institute of Culture and Gender Studies, in collaboration with whom she is writing a book on “a theology of masculinity and femininity.”

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