Woman's Position According to the Bible

Woman's Position According to the Bible  (1885) 
by Annie Besant



One of the favorite claims put forward on behalf of the Bible by believers in its inspiration is that the position of woman in society has been greatly improved by its acceptance. "See women among the heathen, how degraded, how hard-worked, how enslaved!" say Christians. "Contrast her treatment among them with the liberty and respect enjoyed by women in happy Christian lands." Putting on one side the question whether an Indian squaw has, on the whole, a much harder life than a married factory "hand", who toils all day at the factory, and returns home at night to clean the house, wash, mend and make the children's clothes, cook the supper, etc, it should be remarked that in the suggested comparison the question of civilisation is entirely omitted. If the position of women in the higher ranks of society in England be compared with the position of women among the Australian savages, there is no doubt that the former enjoy an enormous superiority, but this superiority is the result of civilisation not of religion, of culture not of creed. It is noteworthy that the comparison is always made between the women in highly civilised Christian communities, and in savage heathen ones. All allusion to women in comparatively civilised heathen States is omitted, and we hear nothing of the venerated priestesses of the older civilisations, nothing of the women of Greece and of Rome. Subordinate as was the position of the latter in relation to their husbands and fathers, they stood far higher than women among the Hebrews. Yet the Hebrews possessed the Old Testament, which was unknown to the great Pagan States. The assertion that the improvement in woman's social position in modern times is due to civilisation and not to religion may be proved by examining the position assigned to women in the Bible, and by tracing the results of Biblical teaching on the community. We shall find that the position assigned to her by the earlier portions of the Bible is degraded in the extreme; that in the later portions it is still the position of a slave, though the slavery is somewhat softened—the New Testament being written in times less uncivilised than the old; that the laws which enslaved the married woman were the direct outcome of Bible teaching, and that the gradual and still incomplete enfranchisement of women has been the result of a struggle of justice against Christianity. In fact the position of women in any community may be taken as the gauge of its civilisation; as justice takes the place of physical might, women is more and more recognised as possessing equal rights with man.

Even now woman's position in England is inferior to that of man. The girl's education has been a mere pretence, and only lately have educational opportunities been placed within her reach. Woman's wage is lower than the wage paid to man for similar work. In marriage, until lately, her position was that of a minor. Her privileges, so much insisted on by opponents of female enfranchisement, are bought with the price of obedience. The outward respect to women is shown to a class, not to the sex; the "gentleman" who shows the most charming courtesy and deference to a "lady", speaks with sharpness to his maid-servant when he is in a bad temper, and with insulting familiarity when in a good. The respect for female purity is, again, only respect for the purity of a class, and the vaunted chastity of the "lady" is guarded and paid for by the prostitution of her poorer sisters. This position of woman is strictly biblical, and the enfranchisements of man from superstition and of woman from serfdom walk hand-in-hand.

The keynote of the part assigned to woman in the Bible is in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Eve is created as an after-thought out of one of Adam's ribs—having a mere bone for origin; she falls under the serpent's temptation, and then herself becomes the tempter of her husband, thus bringing into the world sin and death. Paul alleged her creation and fall as reasons for her subordination to man. "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 Cor. xi., 8, 9). "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, was in the transgression" (1 Tim. ii., 11-14). The argument is a poor one, for if priority of creation gave priority of right, then the beasts and fishes were superior to Adam; but a poor argument satisfies the true Christian, when it comes from inspired lips.

The contempt felt by Paul for women is strongly shown in his scoffing "If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home" (1 Cor. xiv., 35). He clearly could not conceive why they should want to know anything, but if they are so perverse that they will learn, then let them "ask their husbands". And if they have no husbands, O sapient Paul? Or if, still worse, their husbands . . . do not know? Many a man, I fear, tells his wife not to trouble her head about "things a woman can't understand," when, if he spoke the truth, he would have to answer: "My dear, I do not know".

There is no better way of finding the real position held by women in any community, than by studying their position in the sexual relation. In the lowest conditions of savagery no kind of ordered relation can be said to exist; the earliest form in which marriage is seen is marriage by capture, in which the woman is carried away by force by the man who covets her, and becomes as much his property as any other spoil he may take. Marriage by purchase gradually replaces marriage by capture, and the partly civilised savage buys instead of stealing his wife; he pays so much for a woman, and naturally owns her thereafter, as he owns anything else he may have bought. In both of these stages we find polygamy with its hopeless female degradation, the strong capturing, the rich buying, many wives. Gradually, with advancing civilisation, polygamy is replaced by monogamy with servitude, and this is gradually, but very slowly, yielding to monogamy with equality.

In seeking for signs of this succession in the Bible, we shall not find general among the Hebrews the custom of marriage by capture. It was resorted to on one occasion (Judges xxi., 10–23), under circumstances of special difficulty, in order to evade the fulfilment of a vow, and it was practised in times of war (Deut. xxi., 10–13; Numb. xxxi., 18); but women thus captured were not regarded as legitimate wives; such a woman could be turned away without formality (Deut. xxi., 14), whereas the Hebrew wife, though rejectable at will by the husband, was entitled to a "bill of divorcement" (Deut. xxiv. 1, 3). Marriage by purchase, however, was regularly practised among the Hebrews; Abraham's servant gives "precious things" to the brother and mother of Rebekah to buy her for his master's son (Gen. xxiv., 53); Jacob paid seven years' service for his each of his two first wives (Gen. xxix., 15–28); a man could sell his daughter into marriage (Ex. xxi. 7–10); and the quotations might be multiplied. Polygamy was general, though seldom carried to such excess as by many-married Solomon, with his 700 first-class, and 300 second-class wives. Polygamy appears to be also recognised in the New Testament, for the restriction to one wife is only made by Paul to apply to bishops and deacons (1 Tim. iii., 2, 12), and the rational implication is that non-clerical Christians might increase their marital households. Whether Christian marriage may be polygamous or not, there can be no doubt, as we shall see later, of the entire subjection imposed on Christian wives. The Bible idea of marriage never rises above marriage as servitude. There is not a trace of the higher ideal, in which marriage is the union of two free, self-respecting friends, devoid of masterhood on the one side as of submission on the other.

Passing from the forms in which marriage is found in the Bible, we will next consider biblical marriage laws. In the earlier times there appear to have been no laws concerning it; Sarah "gave" Hagar to be Abraham's wife (Gen. xvi., 3), and when she was tired of Hagar's presence Abraham "sent her away" (xxi., 14) without any formalities. The validity of a Hebrew marriage later depended on the social status of the husband. If the husband were a slave, and his master gave him a wife, then the marriage was broken when the man went free at the end of his term of servitude; "the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he [the husband and father] shall go out by himself" (Ex. xxi., 4). If the husband were a freeman he could determine the marriage at his pleasure: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes . . . . then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house" (Deut. xxiv., 1). There were no troublesome and lengthy proceedings, no divorce court, no judge, no jury, no evidence; the husband gave evidence before himself, summed up in his own favor, delivered a verdict of guilty against his wife, pronounced a sentence of divorce, wrote it, and turned out his divorced wife. The method had the merits of cheapness and simplicity, and avoided long arguments. Where the wife was of the second class, it was only necessary to turn her out when the husband was tired of her (Ex. xxi., 11; Deut. xxi., 14). The kind of position which is assigned to woman in the Bible is clearly seen in the following passage: "When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, and seest among the captives a beautiful woman that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; then thou shalt bring her home to thine house . . . . and thou shalt . . . . be her husband and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will" (Deut. xxi., 10—14). Woman is a spoil of war, and after she has been outraged she may be cast aside. Yet the book which teaches thus is held up as the raiser of woman!

The New Testament teaching on the subject is ascetic, not licentious as is that of the Old. Jesus and Paul exalt celibacy to the detriment of marriage, and only accept the latter as a concession to human weakness. When Jesus blamed the licentiousness of the Mosaic code—God-inspired as it was—the disciples naïvely answered with the simple unconsciousness of Jews that any duty could be owed to women: "If the case of the man be so with his wife [if he may not put her away at pleasure] it is not good to marry." In this view Jesus acquiesced, answering them: "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. xix., 10—12). When people really believed in Jesus, this extraordinary panegyric of self-mutilation had the most melancholy results, as in the world-famed case of Origen. Paul emulated his master in his exaltation of celibacy: "I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn" (1 Cor. vii., 7—9). He contrasts, to the disadvantage of the married, the married and unmarried conditions (32—34), and grudgingly remarks: "If thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry she hath not sinned" (28). To those women who did marry, a condition of the most complete and utter subordination was assigned. "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (Eph. v., 22—24). Great as the difference between God and man is the difference between man and woman. Paul speaks elsewhere with equal clearness: "I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man" (1 Cor. xi., 3). "Ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands" (1 Pet. iii., 1); their conversation is to be "coupled with fear" (2). Happy state, in which the woman is to be a trembling slave and her "lord" (6) a condescending and merciful master, rewarding his submissive serf with such parody of "love" (see Eph. v., 25) as is possible under the odious and revolting conditions of unnatural authority and unnatural obedience.

Whether in the marriage or in other relation woman is in the Bible regarded as man's property—a mere chattel. We have already seen that a man may sell his daughter (Ex. xxi. 7), and the commands about a woman's vows (Numb. xxx) show how devoid she was of any individual rights even in relation to her God. A man's vows were binding, but the vow of an unmarried woman could be set aside by her father and that of a married woman by her husband: "Every vow and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may establish it, or her husband may make it void" (Numb. xxx. 13). No penalty is put on a man who seduces an unbetrothed damsel, save that he must buy her from her father for "fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife" (Deut. xxii. 29); he has injured the father's property and must make it good by buying it. On the other hand if an unmarried woman is found to have erred, she is to suffer the penalty of death (Deut. xxii. 21). A similar penalty fell upon both man and woman if the woman who committed adultery was married or betrothed (22—24), for here again the sacred rights of property were infringed. In the case of the betrothed wife of a slave, the seducer was only commanded to give a ram as a trespass offering, for the slave being himself a chattel had no right of ownership in his wife or his betrothed (Lev. xix. 20—22).

It is significant also that the husband, being master and owner of the wife, could not commit an act of unfaithfulness to her; the owner has no duties to his chattel; there is no reciprocity of obligation. Thus the man who suspected his wife of infidelity could submit her to the ordeal of jealousy (Numb. v.), but no similar provision was made for the satisfaction of a jealous wife.

The influence of this Bible teaching may be very plainly recognised in the laws of this Christian land. Thus a father can sue for damages for the seduction of his daughter while a minor, and a husband can obtain damages from the seducer of his wife; in each case the money award recognises the damage done to the man's property. Again, a man can obtain a divorce from his unfaithful wife, but no such relief is granted to the wife whose husband has been disloyal to her, unless physical cruelty or desertion be added to the adultery. A short time ago a Mrs. Wodehouse sued for a divorce for adultery and cruelty, and the adultery was proved, but the relief she sought was denied her because the cruelty consisted in threats and cursings only, not in absolute blows.

A similar inequality marks the treatment of unmarried women. The female prostitute is an outcast from society, and the girl, once fallen, is excluded from every home; the male profligate, however flagrant his immorality, is welcomed and caressed, and the fairest maidens of English society lie at his feet for choice, if only wealth gilds his vileness and title covers his shame.

Until lately, the Bible theory that a woman was her husband's chattel was also carried out by law, and she forfeited on marriage all she possessed and became incapable of holding property. The more civilised view of woman as an individual has, however, now in matters of property become incorporated into the law, and the wife is no longer in the position of a minor.

While the licence of the Old Testament has thus colored our laws and our social opinion, the asceticism of the New has also exerted its baneful influence on Christendom. The hatred of women shown by Tertullian and by Jerome permeated the theology of the primitive church. Monasteries, nunneries, and the celibacy of the clergy, all grew out of the teaching of Jesus and of Paul. The frightful sexual immorality which invariably accompanies the enforcement of an unnatural asceticism is too well known to need proof or argument here.

Even in her motherhood woman cannot escape the degradation stamped upon her by the Bible. For forty days after the birth of a son, for eighty days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was unclean; "she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled" (Lev. xii., 4).

Paul's contempt for the desire of a woman for knowledge has been fully shared by those who believe in him as an apostle of Christ. The education of women has been shamefully neglected until our own time, and—still marking that woman's advancement accompanies scepticism—it was the secular University of London which first held out to women the educational honors which had been jealously preserved as the privilege of man.

Happily for women, the influence of the Bible is becoming feebler and feebler as education and heresy make their beneficent way among men. The chains bound round her by the Bible are being broken by Freethought, and soon she shall walk upright and unfettered in the sunshine, the friend, the helper, the lover, but nevermore the slave, of man.


Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, at 63, Fleet Street, London, E.C.—1885.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.