Freethought And Feminism

Remarks on the occasion of Wisconsin NOW Feminist of the Year Banquet Honoring Anne Gaylor, January 22, 1994.

Some time ago, at a celebratory occasion similar to the present one, a participant commended Anne for her advocacy of women's rights and her efforts to make choice of abortion possible for poor women, but she went on to express her disapproval of Anne's engagement in freethought.

I was taken aback by this because I had supposed that all feminists would surely know that these activities should be intellectually and practically inseparable. As President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a 3,300-member nationwide organization, whose agenda is promoting the separation of state and church and providing education on the philosophy of nontheism, Anne is as deeply involved in the pursuit of equality for women and their right to choose abortion as she is when more directly engaged in furthering those goals.

What got Anne into the freethought movement in the first place and led to her founding of the Foundation was her recognition that the source of the 2,000-year oppression and degradation of women was Christianity. The fact that its norms and values entered the public domain and thoroughly infiltrated the law has been inimical to the status of women in the social order. Look at the devastating effects the legal dictum--in marriage the husband and wife become one and the husband is that one--propounded by the great 18th century jurist, Sir William Blackstone, has had on women's rights. What could have served as the inspiration for that but the "one flesh" passage in the Bible?

What makes the disapproval I mentioned earlier all the more startling is that there has been, over the past 30 years, a steady outpouring of scholarly books by feminist theologians, sociologists, historians, freethinkers, and others documenting in excruciating detail Christianity's devaluation of women. Since time does not permit a thousand examples, two will have to suffice. The first is from the latest book, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, by that redoubtable scholar of Women's History, Professor Gerda Lerner of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In this book, there is an intriguing chapter titled, "One Thousand Years of Feminist Bible Criticism," in which it is said:

"Whatever route women took to self-authorization . . . they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible which were used for centuries by patriarchal authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women: Genesis, the Fall and St. Paul. . . . These biblical core texts sat like huge boulders across the paths women had to travel in order to define themselves as equal to men. No wonder they engaged in theological reinterpretation before they could move on to other, more original and creative ideas."

The second example is from Annie Laurie Gaylor's piece in the booklet, Why Abortion? by Anne Gaylor:

"The Bible is neither antiabortion nor pro-life but does provide a biblical basis for the real motivation behind the antiabortion religious crusade: hatred of women. The bible is anti-woman, blaming women for sin, demanding subservience, mandating a slave/master relationship to men, and demonstrating contempt and lack of compassion: 'I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shall bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee' Gen. 3:16. What self-respecting woman today would submit willingly to such tyranny?"

The number of books by Christian "true believers" opposing and expressing outrage at women's defiance of the plan God laid down to govern their lives probably exceeds that on the other side. Again, time frustratingly limits me to two examples. The first is from a Catholic source, Ungodly Rage:

"Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said 'Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.' This book is about darkness. Its pages document one of the most devastating religious epidemics of our, or any other, time--an infectious and communicable disease of the human spirit for which there is no easy cure . . . . This disease . . . has a name: 'feminism.'"

The second example comes from a 566-page tome, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited jointly by a senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It adds up to a powerful plea for women to come to their senses and stop foolishly and impiously thinking they can rightly be equal to men or can occupy positions of leadership over them:

"The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior. J. I. Packer [he is a highly respected academic theologian] suggested that 'a situation in which a female boss had a male secretary' puts stress on the humanity of both. I think that would be true in other situations as well. Some of the more obvious ones would be in military combat settings if women were positioned to deploy or command men; or in professional baseball if a woman is made the umpire to call balls and strikes and frequently to settle heated disputes among men. And I would stress that this is not necessarily owing to male egotism, but to a natural and good penchant given by God."

The sexism here is so deeply embedded and virulent that it can't possibly occur to the pastors that if it "puts stress on the humanity of both" when a female boss has a male secretary (only the reverse is "human"), it puts even more stress on the woman's humanity when she can never even aspire to be boss and must always be secretary.

Catholic or Protestant, except for a comparatively small number of modernist or liberal religionists, a very large proportion of theologians, the clergy, and their followers are appalled and sick at heart that some women are so contemptuous of the truths of Christian scriptures that they refuse to fashion their lives and distort their personalities in conformity with their dictates.

Freethought should be in the forefront of the battle for women to be treated as persons in their own right. I hope more feminists would see the connection--see the historical source of their plight--and find their way to the freethought movement, as Anne has.

Prof. Michael Hakeem serves on the Foundation's Executive Council, and is a regular volunteer.

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