In recent years, whenever there have been marches and protests about women’s issues, it is common for some women to don red robes and white bonnets, the attire of the handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In the book (and Hulu series), fertile women are treated as sex slaves by a twisted group of fundamentalist Christians. While the show is an attack on religion being used improperly to oppress people, there are those who believe that all religion, specifically Christianity, is oppressive, especially to women. Protesting women fear the rise of a Christian theocracy and the control of all women and their bodies, thus becoming handmaidens in the real world.
The irony, however, is that Christianity may be the biggest force in history to protect women and promote their human rights, which is why so many flocked to Christianity in its early days. In fact, while males greatly outnumbered females in the pagan world, early Christianity developed a surplus of women, causing Christianity to spread through childbirth and “secondary conversions” of Christian women’s husbands. Thus, sociologist Rodney Stark concludes that “The rise of Christianity depended on women.”1 In other articles, we looked at how Christianity teaches that women have equal value to men, and how women must be cherished and loved, not harmed or oppressed. In this article, we will examine how Christianity has elevated the status of women throughout history, and thus has been so attractive to women.
Abortion and Infanticide
In ancient Roman culture, both abortion and infanticide were common and acceptable. Boys were more desirable than girls, so newborn girls were most likely to be killed or left to die. Abortions were conducted in such a dangerous and brutal way that it was a major cause of death for women. In most instances, it was the man who made the decision for a woman to have an abortion, as that was his right according to Roman law. The main reasons for abortion in the Greco-world were to hide affairs or for economic reasons, both rich and poor alike. Poor women would abort their children since they could not afford to care for the child, and rich women would do so to avoid having too many heirs.2
However, the early church forbade abortion and infanticide, even taking in unwanted children and rescuing abandoned newborns—male as well as female. Unwanted pregnancies would also be less likely as Christianity condemned sexual activity outside marriage. Even today, girls are more commonly the victims of abortion and infanticide, both of which are condemned by Christians. While many in our culture believe that abortion is a woman’s right, Nancy Pearcey says, “A culture that practices abortion and infanticide is a culture that demeans women and disrespects their unique contribution to the task of reproduction.” In contrast, “the Christian church stood out for its high view of women. By prohibiting abortion and infanticide, it showed that it cherished the female contribution in bringing new life into the world, treating it as something worthy of respect and protection.”3 Christianity promotes women’s rights simply by allowing young girls to live to become women.
Sex and Marriage
In the Greco-Roman world, it was acceptable for men to have sex with whomever they wished: prostitutes, slaves, mistresses, and such. However, Christianity forbids sex outside of marriage, for men as well as women. Married men are to be faithful to their wives, something that was extremely countercultural in the early days of Christianity. In the broader society of Jesus’ day, it was believed that men couldn’t commit adultery because women’s bodies were property that could be used as desired. Yet, Jesus condemned adultery of both men and women, as well as divorce (Mark 10:11-12). Men were not to simply discard their wives whenever they wished but to stay committed to them for life.
Paul continued Jesus’ radical commands on sexuality by teaching that wives have as much authority over their husbands’ bodies as their husbands have over theirs (1 Cor. 7:3-4). This was absolutely countercultural, as men in those days had complete authority over their wives, who had practically no rights at all and were treated as property. Instead, men were to “love their wives as their own bodies,” and to show their headship through self-sacrifice modeled on Jesus’ sacrificial love for the church (Eph. 5:25-33). Instead of abusing their wives verbally and physically, Paul commands husbands to “love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19).
The way of Jesus also benefited widows. In ancient cultures, they were pressured to remarry, but Christians respected and cared for widows. This gave them the choice to remain unmarried and thus allowed them to keep their family estate and wealth instead of it being given to their new husbands. Christian women also married at an older age, allowing them to choose their partners, unlike the pagan women who were likely to be forced into marriage and at younger ages. Again, this shows how Christian women enjoyed greater freedom than their peers.
Sex slavery was common in the Greco-Roman world, as weak and poor women had no rights. It was Christians who gained enough power to outlaw sex slavery around the fifth century. In fact, Pearcey notes that “The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery.”4 Sadly, sex slavery still continues around the world, whose victims are overwhelmingly female. Yet, there are Christian organizations, such as International Justice Mission and Love146, that seek to rescue victims of sex trade.
Around the World
Beyond the initial impact of early Christianity on women’s rights, Christianity has continued to improve the lives of women throughout the centuries and around the world. William Carey is known as the “father of modern missions” for his decades of work in India. Carey fought to end many oppressive practices, such as infanticide, forced euthanasia, polygamy, child marriage, and female illiteracy. Carey also helped end the practice of sati (or suttee), in which a widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Pandita Ramabai was another follower of Jesus who sought to improve human rights in India, especially for women and girls. She heavily criticized the caste system, even though she was born in its highest tier, as well as traditional Hindu practices of child marriage, polygamy, and widowhood. She also helped found the Mukti Mission, translated “the home of salvation,” which housed, fed, and educated girls and women.
Around the tenth century, the practice of footbinding began in China. Young girls would have their feet broken and tightly bound as a sign of status and beauty. While the practice began in the upper classes, it made its way throughout the culture over the centuries. The Manchu emperors tried to outlaw the practice in the seventeenth century, but failed. However, in the nineteenth century, Western missionaries and local Chinese Christians successfully challenged the practice and led to its eventual decline.
During his life and ministry, Jesus always showed the equal dignity of women as he interacted with them, such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Paul’s teachings about marriage were also radical and counter cultural in a society in which women were treated like property. As a result, Rodney Stark notes that women found Christianity “unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”5 This influence continued throughout history and across the world as Christians have sought to improve the rights and lives of girls and women, treating them as equal in value to men as bearers of God’s image. As Dr. Jeff Myers notes, “It was Christians, not Secularists, who helped secure rights for women based on a conviction that men and women are equal in the sight of God.” While our modern culture may see Christianity as oppressive to women, this is plainly false. There is no movement in history that has fought for the rights of women like Christianity.