Oppression In Christianity
In Genesis 1:26-27, Adam and Eve were portrayed to be equal, for both were created out of God's image. Despite this, the many allusions to the word "man" in the Bible were, in earlier times, said to be because women were unimportant. Yet in Gen. 5:1-2, God calls both genders "man" – and hence it is understood that such disparity in treatment was actually not what he had intended. There are other references in the Old Testament regarding the status of women - namely in Genesis 2. God looked at a sleeping Adam, and decided that he needed a helper. This helper was created from Adam's rib, and was named "woman" by Adam. These references that women are helpers and were named by Adam however, contradict the earlier presented views that both had equal status. This was especially so in older times, where one was believed to have authority over any item/individual by naming it. Adam’s downfall is also credited to the creation of Eve - for Eve was the one who persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. This was another excuse for the discrimination against females. For example, Tertullian (known as "Father of the Latin Church") said to his female followers: "You are the devil's gateway". In fact, other than the earlier references that God intended both genders to be equal, and a minimal scattering of passages that seemed to suggest this (eg. Exodus 21:15-17), the Bible's stance can be seen to fiercely biased towards male dominance over females.
Thus, females were considered possessions of males (usually their fathers or husbands) - like any house or oxen - as seen in Exodus 20:17. Rape was also considered a less severe crime than homosexuality, and there are multiple passages in the Bible describing man who offer their virgin daughters to others for rape. (eg. Genesis 19:7-8 and Judges 19:23-26) Even Aristotle (a renowned Greek philosopher who was the student to Plato and the teacher to Alexander the Great) thought that women were inferior beings. He famously commented that women were defective because they could not reproduce semen which was the seed of life. He also believed that men were naturally superior by virtue of their greater intellect. Such misogynistic views and remarks depict that society was biased against the favour of women.
The rights of women were severely limited as a result of such subordinating views of women. Some of the limitations placed on them include:
- Unmarried women could not leave their fathers.
- Married women could not their husbands.
- Married women were subject to any punishment her husband inflicted.
- They could not hold any public offices.
- They were often considered in the same class as minors, slaves, criminals, the dumb and the mute etc., or in other words, incapable of sounds judgement or worthy of consideration.
- They could not testify in court.
- They could not speak to strangers.
- They needed to wear a veil when not at home.
- They could not inherit or hold any property.
- They could not even write or receive letters in their name.
Some discriminatory limitations were only removed in the late 19th century for most Christian nations. The slow eradication of such limitations can be credited to the absence of women ordinate. This law (preventing women from being ordained) was repeatedly passed in the first Council of Orange (441), the Council of Epaon (517) and the second council of Orleans (533), which can only be said to be aiding the suppression of women.
An alternative point of view offered by classicist Edith Hamilton (August 12, 1868 - May 31, 1963) points out that at least the Bible views women as human beings - and that Old Testament writers considered them as impartially as they did to men. Indeed, despite having a general bias towards males, there were some female leaders like Judge Deborah, Judith and Queen Esther who were credited to saving Hebrews from disaster. However, it is clear that the society and culture of the Old Testament is less than favourable to the fair sex. 3 most notable instances would include the Salem witch trials, the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a sinner, and Joan of Arc's trial .
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials began in 1962, and resulted in the deaths of at least twenty-five people. The trials took place in Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover and Salem Town. It was a period of much uncertainty and over 180 people were accused of witchcraft - most of whom were jailed. A overwhelmingly large proportion (more than 140) of the accused were women.
The people dwelling in Salem Village were Puritans - who believed that the Devil was as real as God, but children and women were more susceptible to Devil's incitation. Another possible cause for this skewed proportion was the threat that independent women posed to the economic system. The accused women who had property were seen to be preventing the proper transfer of property from father to son and hence hindered the functioning of the economy. They were also not performing essential roles in childbearing. An instance which supports this view is that of Abigail Faulkner, who was immediately accused of witchcraft when she took charge of the family estate. Whatever the actual cause for the trials is - the large proportion of females accused make it clear that women were seen as Devil’s advocates and subjected to severe discrimination.
Mary Magdalene was a devoted disciple of Jesus. She is considered a saint, and her life has been subjected to much historical debate. It is now agreed that Mary Magdalene led a life of morals and kept herself chaste, despite coming from the town o f Magdala which was infamous for its vices. Mary held a unique position among the disciples of Jesus - and bore witness to both his execution and resurrection. In fact, Mary was the one who alerted the Apostles of his resurrection. It has been suggested that she could be the Holy Grail who bore Jesus' progeny (an idea made widely known by Dan Brown's popular novel "The Da Vinci Code") or the yin to Jesus' yang – but there is a lack of sufficient evidence to affirm this.
Previously, Mary Magdalene was seen as a repented sinner and a prostitute. Her identity was confused with a "sinner" who anointed Jesus' feet with tears and perfume and Mary of Bethany (whom may have been the same person). Her role as a repented sinner was exploited as a lesson to bad girls - that they could repent and still receive God's Grace. The mix-up was made official as Pope Gregory the Great declared in A.D. 591: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark." This stance was then accepted widely, but not in Othodoxy or Protestanism when they split from Catholicism. When the Catholic Church revoked their earlier claim that Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner - they did so quietly such that word was spread slowly.
The story of Mary Magdalene and the gross misconception of her identity suggest misogyny at play. Her witness at the Resurrection was played down, reminding us of the lowly status of women in earlier times, especially of the fact that they could not bear witness to any trial. There are hints that this could also be due to a battle between the genders, for which the male priests won and thus smeared her name to consolidate their position and authority in the churches. This would downplay the role of women in Christianity and hence minimise doubt of dominant male church leadership. Gnostic (early followers of Christ) writings recently uncovered also bear evidence that Peter appeared jealous of Mary's favour (especially since she was only "a woman") with Jesus, and the fact that Peter was the first Pope suggests gender discrimination at play again.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (1412 - May 30 1431) was a 15th century saint. Joan was deeply religious, and asserted that she heard voices of saints and angels who told her to save the France from the English – both had been in war for nearly 100 years. The war started over a struggle over who the King of France should be. Joan persuaded uncrowned King Charles to let her lead his army and retook New Orleans for France despite severe opposition from the Orleans ducal family. The French rallied behind her and she went on to win more battles. After Charles was crowned the King of France, he took a different stance and began negotiations with the English and the Duke of Burgundy. However, the voices told Joan to rid France of the English forever. She fought on, but began losing and was captured by the troops of the Duke of Burgundy in 1430. The Duke sold her to the English. Enraged that they were defeated by a teenage girl – they threw her in a dungeon and tortured her. The English wanted her to admit that she had lied about the voices and she heard nothing. They forced her to remove her men's clothing, but she was hence subjected to attempted rape several times in prison. Thereafter, she reverted to wearing men’s clothes, out of retaliation of this attack and fear that she would be raped.
The English took advantage of the fact that she was illiterate to make Joan sign a statement which claimed that she was guilty of witchcraft and heresy. It was a serious crime she was admitting to (refer to Salem Witch Trials), and she was hence burnt at stake at the age of 19. Charles did not bother to save her from death, but only decided after her death that her label as a heretic might allow people to question the legality of his status.
The life of Joan of Arc clearly demonstrates the bias present in past times towards females. The sexual assault on her in prison highlights the lowly status of women, that rape was a less serious crime then homosexuality to the Christians. She was guarded by male guards instead of nuns - who were usually used to prevent such incidences of rape. This in itself shows the danger that females were in at that time from rape. The outrage of the English towards her, while attributed to the fact she led many of the battles they lost and that she was only a teenager, would probably have been less if she was in fact, male.