Women and Religion
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (portrayed by Jane Page)
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
November 11, 2007
The following “sermon” delivered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (as portrayed by the Reverend Jane Page) was compiled from various writings by Stanton including letters, documents, articles, etc. Many of these were published in a work entitled: Women Without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters edited by Annie Gaylor. Transition words were added to the text and are italicized.
I have been invited here to speak to you today regarding religion and women. You may not like what I have to say. But I encourage you to open your ears and minds today.
I have been traveling the old world during the last few years and have found new food for thought. What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, “Thus saith the Lord,” of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us that as Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of the woman, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? You Christian women can look at the Hindoo, the Turkish, the Mormon women, and wonder how they can be held in such bondage. Observe today the work women are doing in the churches. The church rests on the shoulders of women. Have we ever yet heard a man preach a sermon from Genesis 1: 27-28, which declares the full equality of the feminine and masculine element in the Godhead? They invariably shy at that first chapter. They always get up in their pulpits and read the second chapter of this book --The bible.
In the early days of woman suffrage agitation, I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the bible. It was hurled at us on every side. The ballot for woman was contrary to God’s holy ordinance. Woman was born to be submissive, subjective; she must be subservient to her husband in all things and at all times. These were the admonitions of pulpit and press.
And of course they pick and choose what they preach on from this book. Well then, so shall I.
Here is part of a sermon that I preached based on Genesis 1:27 which says:
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
All the evils that have resulted from dignifying one sex and degrading the other may be traced to this central error, a belief in a trinity of masculine Gods from which the feminine element is wholly eliminated.
…. The subjection of woman has existed as an invariable element in Christian civilization. It could not be otherwise with the Godhead represented as a trinity of males…. The human race has not yet reached its maturity when (it shall be) governed by reason. It is still governed by its emotions, often by its reverse passions, as hate, fear, greed, rather than by love, attraction, devotion. It will glorify woman when it comes to its reason. Positivists, who have everything on reason….point to the church of humanity which makes woman and especially the mother the central figure, the actual Divinity. It remains for us to take the next step and reunite both in the trinity of Father, Mother, and Child….
There is no power by which the human soul can be held in such bondage as through the religious emotions; no realm of thought where it is so difficult to displace error with truth as the religious realm. And so long as we base our religions on the fundamental error of a “male God” it is in vain to struggle for woman’s equal status in the church; and until her equality is recognized, all talk of establishing a religion of humanity is idle since one half of humanity is in social, religious, political subjection to the other. I have often thought that we should take the first step for woman’s freedom, and for that of humanity – when we shall have outgrown the popular idea of a male God in the skies or elsewhere: Then we might see and worship God in humanity.
When woman discards its creed, dogmas, and authorities she too will be free, and a free enlightened woman in a divine being, the savior of mankind….
Many of you may deem that sermon heretical – so be it. It does not follow the church’s teachings – you say? Well, what of the Church’s teachings.
According to Church teaching, woman was an after-thought in the creation, the author of sin, being at once in collusion with Satan. Her sex was made a crime, marriage a condition of slavery, owing obedience; maternity a curse, and the true position of all womankind one of inferiority and subjection to all men; and the same ideas are echoed in our pulpits to-day.
To those not conversant with the history of the Christian Church and the growth of the canon law, it may seem a startling assertion; but it is, nevertheless, true that the Church has done more to degrade woman than all other adverse influences put together. And it has done this by playing on the religious emotions (the strongest feelings of her nature) to her own complete subjugation. The same religious conscience that carried the widows to the funeral pyre of their husbands, now holds some women in the Turkish harems, others in polygamy under the Mormon theocracy, and others in the Christian Churches, in which, while rich women help to build and support them, they may not speak or vote or enjoy any of the honors conferred on men, and thus their natural feelings of self-respect are held in abeyance to what they are taught to believe is God’s will.
Having decided that she was the author of sin and the medium through who the devil would effect the downfall of the Church, godly men logically inferred that the greater the distance between themselves and all womankind, the nearer they were to God and heaven. With this idea, they fought against all woman’s influence, both good and evil.
For the supposed crimes of heresy and witchcraft, hundreds of women endured such persecutions and tortures that the most stolid historians are said to have wept in recording them; and no one can read them today but with a bleeding heart. And, as the Christian Church grew stronger, woman’s fate grew more helpless. Even the Reformation and Protestantism brought no relief, the clergy being all along their most bitter persecutors, the inventors of the most infernal tortures. Hundreds and hundreds of fair young girls, innocent as the angels in heaven, hundreds and hundreds of old women, weary and trembling with the burdens of life, were hunted down by emissaries of the Church, dragged into the courts with the ablest of judges and lawyers of England, Scotland and America on the bench, and tried for crimes that never existed but in the wild, fanatical imaginations of religious devotees. Women were accused of consorting with devils and perpetuating their diabolical propensities. Hundreds of these children of hypothetical origin were drowned, burned, and tortured in the presence of their mothers, to add to their death agonies. These things were not done by savages or pagans: they were done by the Christian Church. Neither were they confined to the Dark Ages, but permitted by law in England far into the eighteenth century. The clergy everywhere sustained witchcraft as Bible doctrine, until the spirit of rationalism laughed the whole thing to scorn, and science gave mankind a more cheerful view of life.
One remarkable fact stands out in the history of witchcraft; and that is, its victims were chiefly women. Scarce one wizard to a hundred witches was ever burned or tortured.
Although the ignorance and crimes of the human race have ever fallen most heavily on woman, yet in the general progress of civilization she has had some share. As man became more enlightened, she of necessity enjoyed the results; but to no form of popular religion has woman ever been indebted for one pulsation of liberty. Obedience and subjection have been the lessons taught her by all alike.
Even so, the women are the chief, untiring pertinacious beggars for the church. They compose the vast majority of the congregations. Rich women give large sums to clear church debts, to educate young men for the ministry, and to endow theological seminaries.
Poorer women decorate the temples for Christmas and Easter, make surplices and gowns, embroider table covers for the altar, and slippers for the rector; and all alike think they are serving God in sustaining the Church and the priesthood. In return, the whole tone of church teaching in regard to woman is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading. Perchance the very man educated by some sewing society will ascend the pulpit, and take his text in I Corinthians 14, 34-35: “Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the Church.” Ephesians 5 – 23 “Wives, submit yourselves unto you own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.” I Timothy 2 – 11-13: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man…. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” I Corinthians 11, 8-9: “For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.”
Now my friends, what effect do you think such Epistles as these, written by Paul to the Ephesians, the Corinthians, and the Thessalonians, had on the men and women of those times; and what is the effect of sermons from such texts today, but to degrade woman and demoralize man? These teachings in regard to woman so faithfully reflect the provisions of the canon law that it is fair to infer that their inspiration came from the same source, written by men, translated by men, revised by men. If the Bible is to be placed in the hands of our children, read in our schools, taught in our theological seminaries, proclaimed as God’s law in our temples of worship, let us by all means call a council of women in New York, and give it one more revision from the woman’s stand-point.
In one of the essential doctrines of Christianity – namely, self-sacrifice, -- women have been carefully trained, until, as John Stuart Mill says, that has come to be their pet virtue. The thing which most retards, and militates against woman’s self-development, is self-sacrifice. Put it down in capital letters, that self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice. Women have always believed that they were born to be sacrificed, and I have made it my duty and my life-work to teach them the contrary. If I have succeeded in that, I have attained sufficient success.
Therefore, I have endeavored at many of our suffrage conventions to pass some resolutions embodying the idea that woman’s’ first duty was self-development; and at last, after a prolonged struggle and much imposition, even by women themselves, the following resolutions were passed at our thirtieth anniversary, held in Rochester, July 1978.
Resolved, That, as the first duty of every individual is self-development, the lessons of self-sacrifice and obedience taught woman by the Christian Church have been fatal, not only to her own vital interests, but through her to those of the human race.
Resolved, That the great Principle of the Protestant Reformation, the right of individual conscience and judgment, heretofore exercised by man alone, should now be claimed by woman; that in the interpretation of Scripture, she should be guided by her own reason, and not the authority of the Church.
Resolved, That it is through the perversion of the religious element in woman, playing upon her hopes and fears of the future, holding this life with all its high duties in abeyance to that which is to come, that she and the children she has trained have been so completely subjugated by priestcraft and superstition.
The following Sunday, the Rev. A.H. Strong, President of the Baptist Theological Seminary of that city, preached a sermon especially directed against these resolutions, which met strong clerical criticism and opposition by all the fraternity in the State who chanced to see reports of the proceedings.
One amusing episode in that convention is worthy of note. Frederick Douglas, who has always done noble service in our cause, was presents. But his intellectual vision being a little obscured that warm afternoon, he opposed the resolutions, speaking with a great deal of feeling and sentiment of the beautiful Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice. When he finished, Mrs. Lucy Colman, always keen in prickling bubbles, arose and said: Well, Mr. Douglas, all you say may be true; but allow me to ask you why you did not remain a slave in Maryland, and sacrifice yourself like a Christian to your master, instead of running off to Canada to secure your liberty like a man? We shall judge your faith, Frederick, by your deeds.” (I say) The time has come when women, too, would rather run to Canada to taste some of the sweets of liberty than to sacrifice themselves forever in the thorny paths marked out for them by man.
But most women remain under the strong influence of the church. And while many worked diligently on issues of abolition and temperance, they have failed to realize the terrible consequences of some of their actions.
For example: It is said that under the leadership of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union association 100,000 petitions were presented in Congress, asking that no appropriation be made to the (World’s Fair) unless the managers pledged themselves to close the gates on Sunday, the only day the masses could visit the grounds. Thus sacrificing large classes of citizens to the prejudices of a few for the sacredness of one day of the week above all others. If the Christians could close the gates on Sunday, why not the Jews do the same on Saturday?
Now they want God and the Christian religion recognized in the constitution….. (And) The women are generally in favor of the most rigid Sunday laws.
Seeing the danger of a union in state and church in the old world, our fathers determined to lay the foundations of our republic, in the equal rights of all citizens, without regard to sect or creed, Quaker, Baptist, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Infidel, Agnostic, all enjoy the same freedom. Any encroachments on this principle should be firmly resisted
Much as I desire the suffrage, I would rather never vote, than to see the policy of our government, at the mercy of the religious bigotry of such women.
It is one of the mysteries that woman, who has suffered so intensely from the rule of the church, still worships her destroyer and “licks the hand that raised to shed her blood.”
My heart’s desire is to lift women out of all these dangerous, degrading superstitions, and to this end will I labor my remaining days on earth.
I can truly say, after an experience of seventy years, that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointments of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my sufferings in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed, and the gloom connected with everything associated with the name of religion, the church, the parsonage, the graveyard, and the solemn, tolling bell….I early believed myself a veritable child of the Evil One, and suffered endless fears lest he should come some night and claim me as his own. To me he was a personal, ever present reality, crouching in a dark corner of the nursery. Ah! How many times I have stolen out of bed, and sat shivering on the stairs, where the hall lamp and the sound of voices from the parlor would, in a measure, mitigate my terror. Thanks to a vigorous constitution and overflowing animal spirits, I was able to endure for years the strain of these depressing influences. Until my reasoning powers and common sense triumphed at last over my imagination. The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one pour soul with any of the superstitions of the Christian religion.
Instead, I have endeavored to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at last that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church…. The less they believe, the better for their own happiness and development….
I believe we have reached a point where the world of thought is ready to accept anything which can be proved to be true, whether it is endorsed by the church or not. That is a great step in advance. People no longer ask – is this in the Bible, or according to Bible teachings – but is it true? Is it according to the nature of things? Nor does God’s word in a book, nor does the church, affirm or deny this – but does god’s human reason say it? Is it according to logic and mathematics? Then, can it be proved practically? Does it tend to make us happy? Will it work? Will it pay? These are the questions we ask today; they are signs and tokens of an extended emancipation that has come so gradually that we hardly realize it.
Thanks to the law of Progress, woman is awaking to the degradation she has endured in the name of religion and is interpreting the laws of life for herself.
As I read the signs of the times, I think the next form of religion will be the “Religion of Humanity,” in which men and women will worship what they see of the divine in each other; the virtues, the beatitudes, the possibilities ascribed to Deity reflected in mortal beings…. The new religion will teach the dignity of human nature, and its infinite possibilities for development. It’s believers will not remain forever in the valley of humiliation, confessing themselves in the Church service, on each returning Sabbath day, to the “miserable sinners: imploring the “good Lord to deliver them” from the consequences of violated law; but the new religion will inspire its worshippers with self-respect, with noble aspirations to attain diviner heights from day to day than yet have reached. It will teach individual honesty and honor in word and deed, in all the relations of life. It will teach the solidarity of the human race, that all must rise or fall as one. Its creed will be Justice, Liberty, Equality for all the children of the earth. It will teach our practical duties to man in this life rather than our sentimental duties to God in fitting ourselves for the next life….
It is folly to talk of a just government and a pure religion, in a nation where the State and the Church alike sustain an aristocracy of wealth and ease, while those who do the hard work of the world have no share in the blessings and riches, that their continued labors have made possible for others to enjoy. Is it just that the many should ever suffer, that the few may shine? To reconcile men to things as they are, we have sermons from the texts, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” “The poor ye have always with you,” “Servants obey your masters,” “Render unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s.” As if poverty, servility, and authority were decrees of Heaven!
Such decrees will not do for our day and generation; the school-master is abroad, Webster’s spelling book is a classic. The laboring classes have tasted the tree of knowledge and like the gods -- they begin to know good and evil. With new liberties and education they demand corresponding improvements in their environments; as they reach new vantage ground from time to time and survey broader fields of usefulness, they learn their rights and duties, their relations to one another and their true place in the march of civilization. Yes, -- not just for women, but for all. “Equal rights to all” is the lesson for this hour.
May It Be So!