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Between the feminine and the feminist

What happens when Protestant women become biblicists? They discover that the biblical texts which reduced them to being “the weak sex” or seductresses were subject to interpretations distorted by ancient cultures. Thus, according to these pioneers, it was necessary “to save the Bible” from similar reductive attitudes. Biblical research thus started from social feminism to result later in a “female” theology.

Since the 19th century the most important contribution of Protestant women has been the reinterpretation of the biblical texts traditionally used to argue for the submission of women, in the perspective of a liberation from stereotypes. In 1838 the American Quaker sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké wrote their Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, calling for the abolition of slavery and the pursuit of women’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, together with a group of 20 women, published a Women’s Bible between 1895 and 1898, selecting passages which concern women with a highly critical evaluation.

a portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

They were barely noticed, even by women biblicists, but the rebellion that had begun demanded that they return to the texts with attention, starting with theological studies and biblical research. In 1847 Antoinette Brown, a Congregationalist, was one of the first women theology students in Ohio. She analysed the Pauline letters, explaining that the excesses condemned by the Apostle in his time could not be transposed to the 19th century.

These biblicists were aided by the historical-critical exegesis which opposed literal interpretations and imposed on them rigid roles in the Churches to which they belonged. This exegesis did not lead to a revolution but rather to a slow fecundity. Although between the two World Wars an Englishwoman, Margaret Brackenbury Crook, a Unitarian minister, was the first woman to be admitted to a biblical society, it was only in 1964 that she decided to publish the results of her research into the situation of women in Christianity, where she showed the androcentrism of theology. Nevertheless she declared that her intention was solely documentary.

Feminism advanced in the society of the 1960s, but not in theology, at least not in European theology. Protestant theology was content with questioning sexual stereotypes (Francine Dumas, L’autre semblable, 1967), anthropology (Kari Børresen, Subordination and Equivalence, 1968), and tradition (France Quéré, La femme. Les grands textes des Pères de l’Ėglise, 1968), in a “feminine” perspective, aimed at recalling women’s qualities. Protestant theology felt disturbed by this but not called into question. It was to be the feminist biblicists alone who thought of a true project of liberation… starting with the Bible!

In fact this theology moderated by its feminist component, evolved towards more demanding reinterpretations. As the original reformers, feminist exegetes claimed that the Bible should be accessible to all and not reserved for the elite (no longer clerical but doctoral). The aim was to rediscover the liberating power of the biblical texts, starting with the Gospels where Jesus Christ makes room for women. Helped by their knowledge of the cultural processes involved in the production of the texts, these women biblicists, who had learned to read and understand the nuances of the biblical languages, discovered errors or falsifications in the interpretation. Moreover many of them reinterpreted the texts with the help of psychoanalytical, literary or panoramic points of view. They keenly hoped not for an official theology but rather for a “kitchen theology”, interwoven with the experience and pragmatic questions of women who possessed a “wisdom” that differed from the philosophical and intellectual speculations. It was suddenly obvious that it was not enough to rehabilitate only Eve, but also women who had been left in the shadows.

Hugues Merle (1822-1881, “Les Orphelines” (detail)

They revisited the texts which served to justify the secondary role of women. The importance of Gen 1:27 – humanity created as “male and female”, created “in the image of God” – was concealed to the advantage of Gen 2, where Eve, created second, was made submissive to her husband as his servant. Something even worse, with the “fall” in Gen 3 Eve was rendered guilty of the first sin and of being “the woman” sinner or seductress. However, they noted that only two small passages in the Bible took up Eve’s sin. One was Sir 25:24 (“From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die”), which was fortunately not a book contained in Protestant Bibles. However the other passage, 1 Tim 2:11-15, had caused harm, in spite of being the only biblical text which affirms salvation through motherhood. These exegetes gave importance to the figures of powerful or influential women such as Miriam, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, Lydia and others, who could be related to the centrality of Mary, Mother and Virgin.

The reinterpretation of the Letters, which had so deeply marked the Church of the Reformation, was more difficult. The insistence in Eph 5:21-24, Col 3:18-10, 1 Cor 11:18-19, 1-16 on the necessary submission of the woman to the man, since the man is the head, just as Christ is the head of the Church, was not interpreted according to their author’s intention, which was to describe Christ’s love for the Church, but rather in order to justify placing women under guardianship. This interpretation still lives on today in the fundamentalist Protestant Churches, while the texts clearly show how a conversion of mentality is needed if men are to “love” their women.

The exegetes demonstrate that the Letters contained strong affirmations, neglected by tradition, such as in Gal 3:26-28. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. This text is interpreted in a spiritual sense by theologians, who attributed full validity to the Letters only for the kingdom of God!

The most feminist women exegetes showed God as a woman or mother: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is 49:15). The Lord is even provided with a maternal womb and suckles (Is 46:3-4, 66:12-13). In Job (38:8-9, 28-29) his creative activity echoes an act of procreation. The psalmist rests in God with total trust, “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast” (Ps 131:2). Moses considers the Lord a mother (Num 11:12) and reminds the people: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut 32:18). God is also compared to female animals: the eagle that flutters over its young (Deut 32:11), bears them on its wings (Ex 19:4) and protects them in the shadow of its wings (Ps 17:8; 57: 2, 91:4) and the bear that defends its cubs (Hos 13:8).

The feminist exegete Helen Schüngel-Straumann analyses Hosea 11, showing that the crux of the passage (v. 9) was often attenuated by translation: “I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man”; (in the male sense), I am “The Holy One in your midst”. What matters to God is not doing justice but preserving the relationship with his own people, and in this, as expressed here by Hosea, he is partial and incoherent. For this reason the last possibility which the Prophet Hosea glimpses for his people lies in the motherly love of God. If the maternal aspects of God are more frequently found in the prophetic tradition as a polemic against female deities, the message is the following: why would you need a goddess mother? Yaweh is even more dependable than a mother!

Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1984), sought women in Christian history, not only those in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s writings but also martyrs and community leaders. The translations of the New Testament have enabled tradition to minimize their responsibilities, as Rom 16:1 shows, where Phoebe is called “deaconess” or “servant”, depending on the translation, whereas the term used to describe her ministry is “deacon” in the masculine, which suggests that she had a real ministry. Rom 16:7 mentions two “apostles”, Andronicus and Junias. Since these names are in the accusative in Greek, in French a final “s” was added (Junias), whereas this was in fact Junia, a woman apostle!

Such research obviously calls the Churches into question, especially when the feminist exegetes base their interpretation on “the experience of women”, which can ensure that the text is read in terms of what it is desired to find in it and that passages are taken selectively from the Bible. There are also many feminist exegetes who claim that other writings can be invested with the same authority as that of the Bible, especially writings of other religions or cultures, which reduces Scripture to a “prototype”, a model for other interpretations, and does not make it a closed canon (Schüssler-Fiorenza). However such choices are not only the domain of women and these discussions are also shared by other exegetes.

The exegetes have contributed to a true renewal of biblical literature and to a passion for the diversification of methods. Today such studies are also conducted by women biblicists from the south and the work of women exegetes is bearing fruits widely adopted in exegetical research by men. Since the beginning of the 21st century this research has no longer been a prerogative of Protestants and continues in an inter-confessional – indeed interreligious – spirit of emulation. 

Elisabeth Parmentier




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 9, 2019