How Christians Acting on Biblical Beliefs Secured the Basis for Women’s and Children’s Rights
By Dr. Jeff Myers, excerpted from Understanding the Culture: A Survey of Social Engagement
Christianity has done more for women’s rights than any other movement in history. Christianity sprouted in the seedbed of the Roman Empire, whose soil was nourished with the blood of the innocent. To say that Rome was distinctly anti-woman is an understatement. Families typically kept all their healthy boys and their oldest healthy girl. Other daughters were left to die as infants. Surgical abortion was available, and women often died from it or were left maimed. Surviving girls were typically married off at age twelve and were pressured into remarriage when widowed.
Christians opposed these practices. They took in abandoned infants, condemned surgical abortion, allowed girls to remain unmarried until they were ready, and provided support for widows. Welcomed by the church rather than shunned, women converted to Christianity at a far higher rate than men and rose to positions of leadership.Unsurprisingly, this led to a surplus of Christian women who, in marrying pagan men, provided the early church “with a steady flow of secondary converts,” as Rodney Stark drily phrased it. Also, because they accepted rather than rejected all children, Christians gained a distinct population advantage in producing the next generation.
Furthermore, Christianity’s acceptance of women’s dignity led to cultural innovations all over the world. In India, for example, it was only when Parliament forced the British East India Company to allow Christian missionaries into India that the practice of suttee was questioned. It took decades, but these missionaries, together with indigenous Christians like Krishna Mohan Bannerjee, eventually succeeded in having this gruesome practice banned.
In China, traditional culture held that tiny feet were a mark of status and beauty for women. In many parts of China, the feet of little girls were bound tightly to prevent them from growing. This broke the toes and bones in the arches of their feet, leaving many girls nearly crippled. In the 1600s, the Manchu emperors (who were not ethnically Chinese) tried and failed to stop the practice. In the late 1800s, however, Chinese Christian women, such as medical doctor Shi Meiyu, began agitating against this abuse of young girls and women and were eventually successful in making the practice illegal. Meiyu also exerted a transformational influence on China through her work in medicine and public health and the help she provided to opium addicts.
Historically in most cultures, women were often denied educational opportunities. Christian missionaries and indigenous Christian leaders changed that in country after country. In Japan, Nitobe Inazō, a scholar with five doctoral degrees and an innovator in Japan’s agricultural advancement, founded Tokyo Christian Women’s University and became its first president. Tsuda Umeko, a Japanese woman educated in the United States, became the private tutor of prime minister Ito Hirobumi’s children. She had such an influence on securing the right of women to education that Tsuda College, the most prestigious private women’s college in Japan, is named in her honor.
Pandita Ramabai, based on her evangelical Christian beliefs, dedicated herself to breaking down the caste system in India. In the midst of the 1897 famine and plague, Ramabai started the Mukti Mission (mukti means “salvation” in Marathi, the local language). By 1900, the mission was caring for two thousand girls, who studied literature, physiology, botany, and practical arts such as printing and carpentry. Girls at the mission were required to be involved in social causes, and the resulting impact was immense.
During the Industrial Revolution in England, children were often treated as slaves, working long hours in dangerous conditions in factories and mines and denied education and proper nutrition. Young girls were often forced into prostitution. Christian reformers, such as John Wood, a devout Christian and the owner of a cloth mill, led by example, limiting the workday and establishing a church and school as part of his operation. Others, such as Anglican priest George Bull and member of Parliament Michael Sadler, fought against a legislative system reluctant to intervene in economic matters, helping secure more reasonable work hours and some form of education for affected children.
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. Their work started the women’s movement two thousand years ago.
This is an excerpt from Understanding the Culture: A Survey of Social Engagement by Jeff Myers, available in Summit’s bookstore.