Women’s History: Give Credit Where It’s Due

Often evangelicals teach that women were content with their lot in life until Betty Friedan came along and started the feminist movement. Yet this version of history is inaccurate. And no matter where we stand on the role of women in ministry, if we believe Jesus is the Truth, we need to tell the story accurately.

On May 7 of this year Stephanie Coontz published an article in The New York Times titled “When We Hated Mom” in which she referred to the tendency to misread American history by blaming Betty. And while at one time I might have challenged what Coontz wrote, having spent the past few years reading primary historical sources, including those by godly women, I find I now agree with her.

Because Protestants do not celebrate saints’ days, we miss out on learning about many great women in Christian history. Take for example the one whose “day” falls on November 17. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby (born 614), led a large community of men and women studying for God’s service, five of whom went on to become bishops. She brought the gospel to ordinary people, but kings and scholars also sought her counsel. She was a missionary, teacher and educator, and her abbey became one of the great religious centers of North Eastern England. Hilda is one of many such women in history.

Few writings by and about women have survived from centuries prior to the printing press. Yet some do remain, including The City of Ladies by fourteenth-century author Christine de Pizan (c. 1365–1430). Later came defenses of women from Quakerism’s founder, Margaret Fell Fox (1614–1702); Tory pamphleteer, Mary Astell (1668–1731); abolitionist Hannah Moore (1745–1833); and the author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). Most of these writers acted out of a religious impulse with the relatively unified objective of elevating women.

In the eighteenth century the first Great Awakening with its revivals in the 1730s brought a rise in lay power. Women’s involvement in missions sometimes included preaching, and on the frontier Christian women experienced increased levels of autonomy.

By the nineteenth century the pro-woman consciousness had a label: “the woman movement.” Today we identify these efforts as first-wave feminism. Red-letter dates marking the start of first-wave feminism are July 19 and 20, 1848. The place was Seneca Falls, New York, and the event was the Seneca Falls Convention. Those organizing and in attendance were mostly male and female Bible-believers. A group organized the meeting to feature Lucretia Mott, an eloquent Quaker who favored full sex and race equalization. Together the group drafted a Declaration of Sentiments addressing the role of women in society along with an accompanying list of resolutions.

In the half-century that followed, many joined the fight for women’s suffrage. During that same period thirty-three foreign mission societies sent one thousand women missionaries. That their work evoked criticism is seen in Lucy Rider Meyer’s 1895 defense. As editor of the Message and Deaconess Advocate, she wrote, “In deaconess ranks to-day may be found physicians, editors, stenographers, teachers, nurses, book-keepers, superintendents of hospitals and orphanages… A bit of history shows that the ‘new woman’ is not an invention of the last decade but that, in the character of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby.”

The “new woman” was not an invention of second-wave feminism either. Betty did not start the “woman movement”; Christians did. Motivated by the belief that men and women were made in God’s image to “rule the earth” together, they sought to right injustices for those who had less social power.

Isn’t it time Christians reclaimed our own story?

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • SonShine

    What a great reminder
    Thanks Sandi for reminding us “women” that this is not new news but old news of years past and that it was because of the Hilda’s that we have the freedoms today. What strikes me most is that is truly a Christian phenomena and sadly our Muslim “sisters” (put in quotes) have not these same freedoms. Recently I read an article that stated that in countries where Muslim women had the freedom to work, to drive, to be educated there was less violence, less strife, less anger and other points.This is a reminder of Paul’s words: no longer free or slave, male or female we are all one in Christ. If only our Muslim “sisters” could have that same freedom in Christ.
    Terrific post…I hope this is part of your dissertation idea coming forth that we will be reading from time to time.

  • Sandra Glahn

    You always leave interesting comments

    Thanks, Gaye. You always add insight to the posts with your interesting comments.

    What you wrote reminds me of a favorite quote from Dorothy L. Sayers in "Are Women Human?":

    "Perhaps it is no wonder that women were the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words or deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about woman’s nature."

  • Becky Loe

    Credit Where Credit is Due

     Jesus was definitely loving, accepting, and respectful in His treatment of women.  Wherever true Christianity has spread, it has elevated both men and women as beings made in the image of God.  However, the quote from Dorothy Sayers didn't draw my focus to the uniqueness of Christ, who was perfect in His interactions with everyone.  Rather my thoughts were drawn to an unpleasant stereotype of men. Neither men nor women have been "content with their lot in life" since the Fall.  Jesus was the only perfect man, but through His grace there are many wonderful, respectful, loving, strong, wise male followers of Christ in the world.  (I'm blessed to be married to one of them!)  If we are not careful, we will fall into the trap of denigrating men in our attempts to honor women.  Both sexes are fallen.  At times both sin in their treatment of the other, Both need to cultivate the humility and love of God in treating the opposite sex with honor and respect. 

  • Sandra Glahn

    Jesus Was the Perfect Man

    Becky, thanks for your comment. I think Ms. Sayers would have agreed with you that both men and women are fallen. Unfortunately I could not include the entire text of "Are Women Human?" but if I had, I think you could see she is not dissing men or seeking to advance a stereotype about them. She was simply trying to challenge stereotypes of women at the time she wrote–about 40 years before Betty published her book.

    I think we could all agree that many women have been guilty of putting down women while many men have treated them with dignity. And I think we could also agree that Jesus set the bar high for cross-gender relationships. Many would find it astounding that he would be alone with women of ill repute and engage them in conversation when others would have avoided them for the sake of "reputation." I believe this is because Jesus took women seriously as persons. What a wonderful Savior!  

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