By Michelle Rafferty
God vs. Woman. One longstanding rivalry that I wanted to learn a little bit more about this Women’s History Month. So, I spoke with author David Sehat who discusses the influence of the moral establishment on the women’s rights movement in his new book The Myth of American Religious Freedom. See g-chat conversation below! (Find Part 2 here).
Me: So while reading your chapter on the beginnings of the women’s rights movement, I was surprised to learn that there was actually a split in ideology when it came to religion…
Sehat: Exactly. The women’s movement was not monolithic. Henry Ward Beecher, who was the most famous preacher in the last half of the nineteenth century, was in the branch that thought that God had created women to be more inherently moral. So women needed the vote and greater participation in public life in order to increase the moral tone of public life. Beecher thought that women were crucial to upholding communal moral standards.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on the other hand, believed that the notion of women’s inherent moral superiority was a ruse to keep them isolated and in the home. She thought it excused a lot of philandering on the part of men (because their moral deviance didn’t matter as much as women’s). She concluded that women needed first to be seen as individuals, rather than matrons or mothers or ciphers of morality to society at large, in order to reform society in a just way.
Me: Which is why she also took on marriage?
Sehat: Right. She thought marriage law was the linchpin that held together Christian patriarchy. When a woman married, she lost control of nearly everything when women surrendered her legal identity and then couldn’t get out of the marriage because it would upset society’s morals.
Me: And if a women didn’t hand over her identity she was seen as immoral? I believe the quote from your chapter was “a demon bent on moral destruction”?
Sehat: She was seen as potentially immoral. That quote is actually a paraphrase of Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher’s father. The elder Beecher thought that when women were obeying their divine calling, they embodied “whatsoever things are pure and lovely.” But should they stray from their divine calling as a mother and wife, they became “a paragon of deformity, a demon in human form.” If a women didn’t marry, that wasn’t good. You know the negative stereotypes. The spinster. The mannish woman. Etc.
Me: Hmm. And going back to Stanton, her legal background gave her a certain, eh, objectivity? Like, when it came to the whole Garden of Eden thing…
Sehat: She was partially trained in law by her father, Daniel Cady, who was a Congressman and Associate Justice on the NY Supreme Court. She read his law books and realized how discriminated women were in law. Later in life, after reading biblical criticism and fighting religion in public life, she published what she called a Woman’s Bible. It’s a remarkable book – social critique, cranky commentary, intramural fighting. But she begins with the two different creations stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first, man and women are both created in God’s image at the same time. In the second, woman is created after man only to address man’s solitude. The entire exercise of pointing out the different accounts was to show that the Bible should not be seen as an authoritative document used to oppress women.
Me: Boom. Was she the first woman to really take on the Bible?
Sehat: No, going back to the beginning of the women’s movement, there was a woman named Frances “Fanny” Wright. She was a Scottish immigrant to the United States that got involved in the freethought movement and the labor movement in the 1820s and 1830s.
Actually, Wright was an interesting example of the obstacles women faced. Lyman Beecher was talking about Wright when he referenced an immoral woman as a “demon in human form.” Wright had money and bankrolled a labor and freethought paper, working with Robert Dale Owen, who was the son of the utopian socialist, Robert Owen. She became romantically involved with the publisher of the paper and became pregnant out of wedlock. To avoid social stigma, she went to Europe to have the baby, not an uncommon thing back then, so that people couldn’t establish a timeline for the pregnancy, and then married the father. He promptly took all her money, turned her daughter against her, and left her lonely and broke.
Me: Geez. Is it logical to say that the stigma – that women who have sex are “whores,” men bachelors – stems from the moral establishment’s grip on the public sphere?
Sehat: Yes and no. As long as there are traditional attitudes about sex and the family and whatnot, that stigma will be there. And Stanton (and Wright) thought that arose out of the place of religion in public life. But there was even more back then. Religious partisans used the force of law to establish – to compel – people, especially women, to behave according to their standards. So the stigma might come from religious ideas of gender roles. But the difference between then and now is that the law has changed.
Actually, there is one area where the past and the present have a strong correlation, and that is gay marriage/gay rights. What the moral establishment sought to do was to use law to maintain their view of the family. That is the same thing going on today with gay marriage.
Me: Ah yes, this is what I wanted to ask you next!
Sehat: One step ahead of you!
To be continued… (Part 2 here)