Women, Church and God: About a thousandish years of Christian tradition!

During the first two eras of the Christian church, spanning from the death of Christ through the end of the medieval period, women became active participants in the church and then struggled to keep that involvement possible. The first six hundred years of the church is marked by an initial force of women in leadership that is quickly replaced by stringent patriarchal gender roles. These strict gender roles, which continue today in some branches of the church, shaped the dualistic mentality of women and spirituality during the medieval period.

In the decades immediately proceeding the death of Christ, women became heavily involved in church practices, preaching, teaching and leadership. Paul’s letters frequently refer to women workers in the church with the same titles used for men. Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1) and Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). Priscilla is always mentioned before her husband Aquilla (Rom.16:3). Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis for laboring hard in the Lord (Rom. 16:6, 12). Acts 16:14 reveals Lydia, a businesswoman and home church leader. During the ministry of Jesus while on earth, he consistently supports and uplifts women, and women are the followers to continue with Jesus through his death, whereas most of the men depart.

Some of the writings by Paul about women are radical and liberating. In Galatians, he pronounces that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal. 3:28, ESV), which is complete upheaval of the ethnocentricity of Judaism. However, some passages in his letters present a strong antagonism toward women. For example, in Titus 2:3-5, Paul commands older women to be reverent, to work in the home and to teach younger women to love their husbands and children. In Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition, Barbara J. MacHaffie argues that these antagonistic passages are not original to Paul’s letters, and that Paul himself shows an ambivalence toward women and is willing to accept them as peers in leadership (MacHaffie, 14).

This is the book that I'm working with.

This is the book that I’m working with.

Despite the initial prominence of women in the church, within the next few centuries, a new generation of patriarchal church leaders known as the church fathers began to vehemently exclude women from leadership and public roles. Because of the limitations placed on women, after the immediate beginning of the church, there is a near stopgap of information about women’s involvement. The Greco-Roman culture surrounding the early church separated men into public positions of honor and women into private spheres of shame. As the Christian movement further codified into a religion, women were once again relegated into the seclusion of private life (MacHaffie, 16).

The early church fathers believed that women were more prone to sin and that their menstrual cycles associated them with the flesh and fleshly desires. They all plea for virgin lives, and though they do not completely condemn marriage, they tend to view all sexual intercourse as tainted by sin. Thus, sex for procreation was the only permissible sex in their eyes (MacHaffie, 24). Widows occupied a special position within the church during the third century. They were appointed to pray for the church and they laid hands on the sick to pray for healing. Widows were legally independent and had life experience, and sometimes wealth, making them dangerous to the established patriarchal church system, so the official designation of widow eventually dissipated (18).

Virginity was highly regarded by the church fathers, and women could choose to lead a virgin life. This spiritual discipline in women was highly persecuted, and some women who would not consent to marry or to have sex with their new husbands would be martyred for their dissent from social norm. Despite this risk, dedicated virgins gained enough levels of autonomy and admiration within the church that eventually they were cloistered into heavily secluded monasteries (MacHaffie, 25).

This veneration of virginity continued through the medieval period, where it became an obsession. Unmarried women sequestered themselves in their parents’ homes or in cloisters, anchoresses locked themselves into isolation chambers and wives negotiated sexless marriages (MacHaffie, 52-56). Along with virginity, many women also chose asceticism. Through self-starvation, women could control or completely stop their periods, lose the feminine contours of their bodies and appear more and more like men. These ascetics were frequently venerated for their ability to separate themselves from the evil, sexual nature of womanhood (57).

The middle ages saw a rise in a dualistic impression of femininity. Women were either considered to be pure and pious or to be evil and heretical, both by nature of being women. Women who chose the virgin life associated themselves with the Virgin Mary, whose mythology had been growing and exploded during the medieval period. Mary, humble and pious and forever a virgin, interceded for sinful people and pled for grace (MacHaffie, 62). A woman that was not pursuing virginity ran the risk of being labeled a witch. Witch hunts across Europe became common during the later medieval period through the mid eighteenth century, the most famous of which being the Salem Witch Trials in the young British colony of Massachusetts in the 1690s. Witches were believed to be in sexual relationships with the devil, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of children and to pronounce curses on their neighbors that would result in failed crops or miscarriages (65). Though historians believe that this conception of witchcraft was probably never practiced, the image of the witch took root in the ideology of womanhood. Though some men were accused of witchcraft, four times as many women suffered the label through to the point of execution (66).

The medieval period hosted the time of the Christian mystics, a group that was largely dominated by women. Christian mystics received visions directly from God, met with and spoke to Christ and to the saints, including Mary. They received the Eucharist from the hands of Christ himself, lambasting the authority of the church. The famous Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reconceptualizes God and the Trinity in such a way that Jesus, instead of being associated with sonship, is associated with motherhood. Christ is the mother figure who gives spiritual birth to believers and who watches over the believers on earth (MacHaffie, 71). The mystics sought to experience God authentically and powerfully. Despite the womanhood of many mystics, and perhaps because of it, the church accepted their revelations from God as authoritative. The mystics would often describe themselves in denigrating terms, in order to elevate the importance of their messages from God (73).

julian-of-norwich

Everybody’s favorite mystic!

During these first two major eras of the Christian church, women found ways to subvert patriarchal power and pursue relationships with God. Pursuing virginity and asceticism gave women the opportunity to engage in monasteries and cloisters that would provide education and training in the scriptures. At different moments, women slipped either into leadership positions or the public eye, each time eventually causing further restriction on future generations of women. In order to pursue God and religion, women suffered in denying themselves their sexual natures and by starving themselves to reduce their womanhood. The virgins and the ascetics sacrificed greatly in order to succeed in a patriarchal society.

MacHaffie, Barbara J.  Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition. Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Minneapolis, MN

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A New Direction for the Spring

Welcome back, my history loving companions!  Last fall, with the help of amazing textbooks and my wonderful professor, Bethany Johnson, I took you on a blast through women in American history.  It was awesome!  I had so much fun, as I hope you did!

This semester, guided by one Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah, I will be continuing to explore women in history with a class called Women in Christian Tradition.  Starting this week, I’ll be taking you back even further through time to explore how women have been involved in one of the largest religions in the world.

Posts are going to include overviews of time periods and highlights on some amazing women, plus I might try to make some connections to the modern day church or society.

Keep checking back for more!  Updates will start coming soon!

Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!