There were feminists prior to the early twentieth century, that is, before women’s suffrage. This may come as a surprise, and indeed, very little is known about these earlier feminists beyond the work of a few scholars. Nevertheless, there were women philosophers throughout Europe who were busy arguing against patriarchal oppression. Thinkers such as Damaris Masham (1659-1708) and Mary Astell (1666-1731) offered especially compelling arguments for improving women’s lot, and they did so within a religious framework.
To appreciate the force of Masham and Astell’s arguments, it is necessary to see what they were up against. Some of the greatest minds of the early modern era were convinced that women were dim-witted. For instance, Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) said that women in general have “delicate brain fibers” that allow them to be sensitive to things such as “fashions” and “manners,” but hinder them from the more rigorous work of abstract thought. John Locke (1632-1704), a little slower to the punch, argued that a husband and wife should have equal input regarding the lives of their children, but he quickly backpedaled and added that in moments of dispute, the wife should surrender to her husband who is “abler and stronger.”
Women were deemed unintelligent, but Malebranche also argued that they were responsible for humankind’s moral depravity. His reason? Women were still paying for Eve’s sloppy decision-making in the Garden of Eden. Sure mothers nurture their offspring in vitro, but he also insisted that they morally corrupt them. He wrote: “The unity that we had with our mothers in their womb, which is the closest there can be between men, has caused two of the greatest evils, sin and concupiscence, that are the source of all our misery.”
It is not surprising, in this light, that many early modern philosophers restricted women to the domestic sphere and subordinated them to men¯an early modern form of damage control. At the same time it was acknowledged that women were of value, because without them the species would become extinct. And so women were perceived to be a necessary evil: destructive to the good life but necessary for biological reproduction.
Masham and Astell countered such views of women. They argued that women were not liabilities but indispensable to the common good. What gave them an edge over their misogynist contemporaries, they believed, was that God was on their side.
Masham argued that there was evidence God had great expectations for them, which, incidentally, were not being met. Beginning from her assumption that God does nothing in vain, she discerned that women were more nurturing than their male counterparts. She said that there is a “softness, gentleness, and tenderness, natural to the female sex.” As God is a perfect being, she attested that there must be a reason for this nurturing capacity, which she concluded was that women were “much more capable than men are of insinuating condescension to the capacities of young children.”
Masham saw raising children to be a serious task, because it involved shaping the citizens of tomorrow. Contrary to Malebranche, Masham argued that mothers were in fact the source of human virtue. It was only through a mother’s love and care for her children that people were able to develop into moral beings.
To be a good mother, she argued, required an understanding of the purpose of the state, the basic principles that organize human society, human psychology, and the methods necessary to provide the foundation for a character that can not only thrive in society but also contribute to it in a meaningful way. For this reason, she demanded that women have a right to be educated in science, history, and philosophy¯subjects once deemed appropriate only for men.
Like Masham, Astell believed God intended women to have more influence than society currently allowed them. Yet, she had a very different vision from Masham. Where Masham steered them toward the home, Astell guided them from it.
Astell said, “whatever other great and wise reasons men may have for despising women, and keeping them in ignorance and slavery, it can’t be from their having learnt to do so in Holy Scripture.” As evidence, she cited biblical passages depicting women writers, political advisers, and rulers. She pointed to Deborah, who was not only an excellent poet, but a ruler “whose Government so much excelled that of the former Judges.” The Queen of Sheba, she noted, also employed her reason and “shows her own good Judgment” rather than relying on the opinions of men. She said that “one place then was sufficient, but we have many instances wherein Holy Scripture considers women very differently from what they appear in the common prejudices of mankind.” Thus, she wrote that “Scripture is for us and not against us.”
What about the passages in Scripture that do portray women as men’s subordinates? If we accept that Scripture reveals God’s intentions, then we should take seriously the passages that depict women as inferiors just as much as those that present them in positions of power. Astell did not think so. She wrote:
But what says the Holy Scripture? It speaks of women as in a state of subjection, and so it does of the Jews and Christians when under the dominion of the Chaldeans and Romans, requiring of the one as well as of the other a quiet submission to them under whose power they lived. But will anyone say that these had a natural superiority and right to dominion?
To her detractors: If they accept passages of women’s subordination as God’s command for women’s inferiority, then they must also read passages of Christians’ subordination as God’s command for their inferiority¯something she is certain her detractors would not accept.
In addition to arguing that women were destined for a life outside of the home, Astell also maintained that women had the capacity to surpass men in their contributions to the well-being of political society. Astell, like Masham, accepted that woman’s nature was more nurturing than that of man’s. But where Masham used this as evidence that the mother’s judgment should trump the father’s, Astell interpreted it to suggest that women were far more disposed than men to contribute to a stable social environment: “A woman may put on the whole armor of God without degenerating into a masculine temper.”
In similar passage, she argued that maternal insight could lead the world into a new age of politics: “The whole world is a single lady’s family . . . her beneficence moves in the largest sphere . . . the glory of reforming this profane and profligate age is reserved for you ladies.”
The history of Western feminism reminds us that our concepts of liberation and equality are not always antithetical to the Christian tradition and that Christian theology and Scripture have served as a source of women’s liberation. That said, it would be naive to think the two completely harmonize. The current struggle between the religious right and feminists on issues of abortion, for instance, attests to this. Yet attention to the history of Western feminism gives us reason to step back from current debates and to clarify what is really at stake: The agreement between religion and feminism is no less real than the tension.
Regan Penaluna is an assistant professor of philosophy at Luther College and is writing a book on early feminist thought.