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Is Christian feminism an oxymoron?

Is Christian feminism an oxymoron? For the past century or so, it’s often seemed that way. But it wasn’t all that long ago that many women not only considered Christianity and feminism compatible, but in fact believed each was essential to the other. Perhaps no figure makes this case more powerfully than Katharine Bushnell.

An internationally-known anti-trafficking activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bushnell repeatedly encountered Christian men who had perpetrated acts of appalling cruelty against women, often without remorse or consequence. Ultimately, she concluded that “the crime is indirectly the fruit of the theology”—that men’s cruelty toward women must be rooted in patriarchal theology.

Yet Bushnell refused to abandon Christianity in its entirety. Suspecting that Christian patriarchy was a distortion of the true gospel, the result of misogynistic mistranslations of God’s word, she turned instead to Hebrew and Greek texts. Spending years retranslating portions of the Scriptures, she developed new readings of the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelations. Upending traditional notions of women’s subordination, her translations defined patriarchy as a sin, and women’s liberation as redemption. According to Bushnell, Christianity—rightly understood—provided an essential foundation for women’s rights.

What’s most remarkable about Bushnell’s work is that she achieved her dramatic revisions while upholding the authority of the Scriptures. Indeed, by the 1920s she had come to identify as a fundamentalist, staunchly opposed to theological modernism. For this reason, her writings continue to speak powerfully today to those who hold a high view of Scripture, and to those who understand the gospel of Christ as one of liberation for women, as well as for men.

The following quotes provide a small glimpse into Katharine Bushnell’s intriguing theology.

  1. “The Bible is all that it claims for itself. It is inspired…infallible…and inviolable.”
"Standing in the Light of your halo, Arequipa" by Geraint Rowland. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.
“Standing in the Light of your halo, Arequipa” by Geraint Rowland. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.
  1. “We would rather believe that the expositor is mistaken, than that the very term “Gospel,”—“Good News,”—proclaims oppression to women.”
  1. “The world, the Church, and women are suffering sadly from woman’s lack of ability to read the Word of God in its original languages. There are truths therein that speak to the deepest needs of a woman’s heart, and that give light upon problems that women alone are called upon to solve.”
  1. “What wonder that all versions [of the Bible], having for all time been made by men, should disclose the fact that, on the woman question, they all travel more or less in a circle, in accordance with sex bias, hindering the freedom and progress of women, since…the self interest of man led him to suppose that woman served God best as his own undeveloped subordinate?”
  1. “Cows were made before men—even before theologians—[therefore] men must be subordinated to cows.”
  1. “Any argument drawn from the ‘image’ [of God] idea must apply surely quite as equally to woman, who was created at the same time as man, and by the same act. It is the spirit of phallic worship which contends that this image inheres in physical sex, not the spiritual characteristics.”
  1. “Servility and weakness are two contemptible vices. They have been too often recommended to women clothed in the names of “humility” and “meekness,” to which virtues they are as opposed as north is to south.”
  1. “We imagine [some male expositors] would have been pleased had God sent into the world, an additional female Christ, to set women a female example; but since God did not see fit to do so, women are under obligation to endeavor, as best they are able, to follow the ‘manly’ example of Jesus Christ, and leave the consequences with God. [This] is woman’s truly humble place. Any other is sham humility.”
  1. “Woman can never be matured as a useful instrument in God’s hands or an efficient servant of His church until she comes to understand that ‘she is not her own; she is bought with a price,’ and it is neither her duty nor her privilege to give herself away to any human being, in marriage or in any other way.”
  1. “Here is where the great mistake is being made on the ‘woman question.’ Is it ‘prudent’ to allow women to do thus and so? men ask themselves at every step of woman’s progress. The only question that should be asked is, ‘Does justice demand this?’ If so, ‘let justice be done though the heavens fall’; anything short of justice is mere mischief-making.”

Recent Comments

  1. Sean

    Yet another source that provides evidence for what we already know: religion means whatever you want it to mean. There are no universal truths contained in religious writings, and certainly no evidence that would validate the claims of truth therein. It is far more telling that, despite being wide open to interpretation, humanity has consistently chosen to interpret these texts to impose tribal authoritarianism over other people for any number of reasons and justifies it as divinely ordained. Perhaps instead of relying on new translations of meaningless, archaic writings in order to invent meaning in life via superstition and supernaturalism, we should simply teach the next generation that tolerance, reason, open inquiry, critical thinking, and thoughtful reflection are the virtues to live by. Isn’t that a world with living in?

  2. […] Bushnell wrote, “cows were made before men — even before theologians — [therefore] men must be subordinated […]

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