Women’s work through time

WHEN I teach the second half of my European Women’s History class, covering around 1215 to 1918, I use my own interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s phrase “a room of one’s own” to explain the historical differences in continuity. of women’s lives.

Women throughout history have lived within the confines of patriarchy. Bennett describes this as the patriarchal balance. Whatever freedom women have, they always have less than men. Yet patriarchal balance is a continuum. The frontiers of patriarchy grow and shrink; the size of a woman’s bedroom – the space in which she is able to make her own choices – changes.

Historical circumstances, such as the aftermath of the Black Death in Europe, temporarily enlarged the chambers of women by increasing their independence as salaried workers, while other historical circumstances, such as Athenian democracy, reduced the chambers of women. women.

When political and social structures are less centralized and less clearly defined, women often experience greater capacity for action. It is no coincidence that the stories of the most influential women in Christian history date back to the 4th century to the 10th century, when the authority structures of Christianity – not to mention the political structures to which Christianity became attached – were more fluid. It is also no coincidence that after the ecclesiastical hierarchy became more centralized and powerful during the central Middle Ages, the ability of women to exercise formal authority declined; the women’s rooms have become smaller.

There are always exceptions, of course, but these general trends are clear. Consider, for example, the modern mission field. Margaret Bendroth notes that “when the China Inland Mission called for two hundred volunteers in 1929, 70% of those who left for China the following year were women, and all but four were single. But the offices that sent them were run mostly by men, and when the women returned home, they were quickly reminded of their place – under male authority.

THE Reformation ushered in a theology on ecclesiastical leadership which, ironically, reduced the chambers of evangelical women. Taken literally, the theology of the Reformation should have enlarged the women’s rooms. Priests were no longer needed, as all believers had direct access to God.

While the female body was still the “weaker sex”, it was no longer considered unclean. Men and women were both seen as created in the image of God, and the union of man and woman in marriage was seen as the ideal state intended by God – even for the clergy.

Medieval women had to transcend their gender in order to gain authority in the medieval Church. But Protestant women didn’t have to do this – their bodies were not a spiritual problem. Indeed, Protestant women were celebrated for their roles as wives and mothers. So couldn’t women now preach and teach like men? Did not the priesthood of all believers apply to women as it applied to men?

The problem was what Roper calls the “holy house”. The theology of the Reformation could have suppressed the priest, but replaced him with the husband. The Tudor homilies of 1563, a series of sermons authorized by the Anglican Church, make it clear: “Let wives be in subjection to their husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head.” from the church. . . . God has commanded that you recognize the authority of the husband and bring him the honor of obedience.

In a disturbing echo of the ancient Roman paterfamilias, the ordained house again became the barometer of state and Church, and the decreasing power of the Catholic priest was counterbalanced by the growing power of the Protestant husband.

The medieval world pleaded for the exclusion of women from ecclesiastical leadership, based on the inferiority of the female body and the subordinate role of wives. But since not all women were wives, and since some women could transcend their bodies, special allowances existed for women to preach, teach, and lead.

Historian Nicole Bériou describes how the 13th-century Franciscan priest Eustace of Arras explained the preaching of women. According to Eustace, the Holy Spirit indeed inspired women like Mary Magdalene and Thecla to preach, and gave them spiritual authority, just like men. But these women were exceptions.

They were not married, and thus, explains Eustace, “the prohibition of Saint Paul did not concern them, but it only aimed at married women”. Women in general did not have the right to preach, but “a certain right to speak with authority could be granted to women who had the special gift of prophecy” and were not married. This changed after the Reformation.

The early modern world advocated for the exclusion of women on the basis of an emerging gender theology that emphasized the differences between women and men rather than their spiritual similarity and on the basis of a expanded understanding of Pauline prescriptions and domestic codes.

Paul’s words now applied to all women, not just wives, and the importance of women as wives was emphasized.

MEDIEVAL preachers preached Paul. In fact, the most frequently cited passages of Scripture in late medieval English sermons, after Matthew 25: 31-41 (which is cited in over 50 sermon manuscripts), are Pauline texts. Yet these sermons are almost completely silent on Pauline prescriptions and housekeeping codes for women.

On the rare occasions when these Pauline texts are used in medieval sermons, they generally do not focus on female roles. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved in procreation. “

In one of only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon presents the woman as an example for all Christians, who must go through pain (such as childbirth) to cleanse themselves from sin before experiencing joy. of salvation (the child himself). In other words, the sermon interprets Paul’s assertion that women “will be saved through procreation” not as a means of imposing strict gender roles, or of emphasizing women’s domestic responsibilities, or even of highlight women as mothers.

The main objective was to teach parishioners how to find redemption by getting involved in the sacraments and practices of the medieval Catholic Church. Paul was used to reinforce these medieval lessons, and women as examples of faith became much more important to the medieval religious agenda than women as examples of submission and domesticity.

The first modern sermons emphasize godly behavior as reflecting spiritual status. Adherence to Pauline prescriptions became a barometer of the spiritual health of families, and women as models of submission and domesticity became critical examples for Protestant theology. It was a break with the sermons of the medieval world.

Lancelot Andrewes, in a sermon published posthumously in 1657, interprets 1 Timothy 2.15 thus: “The domestic duty of preserving the house belongs to him, as in Proverbs 31.21. It should be the property of the Snail, still at home. . . The house in Holy Scripture is taken for children, whom it must carry and bring up in the fear of God; The woman bearing children will be saved, says Paul in 1 Tim.2.15.

The author of the medieval sermon uses Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15 to encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they may be reborn in the joy of salvation. Andrewes, on the other hand, uses Paul’s words as proof of the divinely ordained submission of women and their divinely ordained vocation as housewives.

ABOUT the Reformation, Paul came to define Christian womanhood. The question is, why the change in the way the Pauline texts were used in relation to women?

First, the preaching program put forward in the 13th century, and reinforced in the 15th century, dictated a teaching centered on the foundations of the faith. It actively discouraged preaching to ordinary people on more complex and potentially controversial topics.

Second, the theological emphasis on redemption through penance rooted in the sacramental community of the medieval Church deeply shaped the way preachers preached Paul in medieval sermons, stressing that the faith of women was more important than their gender. .

Finally, the medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them – strangely enough – on a more spiritual par with women.

The spiritual direction of a husband was not so important in a patriarchal world where husbands and wives had to go through a priest individually for the necessary sacraments. But it mattered in a world where patriarchy was already the norm and where women potentially had as much spiritual power as men.

As Roper explains: “The values ​​of evangelical moralism were tied to an ancient conservative tradition that defined women as submissive wives to their husbands. . . Far from endorsing independent spiritual lives for women, the Institutionalized Reformation was most successful when it most emphasized a vision for the incorporation of women into the household under the leadership of their husbands.

The emphasis placed on Pauline texts by the early modern reformers was born in a secular world already supported by a hierarchy of genres. Rather than reviving a Biblical model by Protestant reformers, they were simply mapping the Scriptures to a previous secular structure. Instead of transforming society through the scriptures, Paul’s writings were used to support patriarchal practices that were already developing in the early modern world.


This is an edited excerpt from
The Making of Biblical Femininity: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos press, £ 14.99 (Church Times Bookstore € 13.49); 978-1-58743-470-9) by Beth Allison Barr, Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA.


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