Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Struggling for women’s rights in the nineteenth century, the early feminists were constantly told that the Bible ordains woman’s sphere as helper to man and woman’s status as inferior to man. Having heard this throughout her decades of labor in the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton determined in 1895 to investigate the Bible and what it really says about women. She attempted to obtain the assistance of a number of female scholars of Hebrew and Greek, but several turned her down, fearing that their reputations would be compromised. Other women were afraid to critique the Bible for religious reasons. Still others, Stanton notes in her introduction, did not want to bother with a book they felt was antiquated and of little importance.

She finally chose a committee of women she believed would make a valuable contribution, primarily based on her perception of their liberal ideas and ability to make sense out of what they read. This was the “Revising Committee” that shared billing with Stanton for the work. Stanton herself, however, wrote most of the commentary, and it contains her own beliefs and values.

When women struggling for their rights in the nineteenth century were referred to the Bible with the explanation that God ordained their inferior position, Stanton notes that there were a variety of responses. Some glossed over the most antiwoman aspects of the Bible and interpreted the rest liberally, thus maintaining...

(The entire section is 525 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

After the publication of the first volume, one clergyman opined that “It is the work of women, and the devil.” Stanton replied: “This is a grave mistake. His Satanic Majesty was not invited to join the Revising Committee, which consists of women alone.” Stanton’s stand in questioning the religious authority of the Bible and the beliefs about women which were based on it led to ridicule, vitriolic attacks by the clergy, and even a move by her fellow feminists in the suffrage movement. In 1896, against the impassioned advice of Stanton’s friend Susan B. Anthony, even the National American Woman Suffrage Association repudiated any connection with The Woman’s Bible, the official reason being the nonsectarian nature of the association.

The book was controversial by its very nature, since it attacked not only the Bible’s use as an authority on which to base women’s subordination but also its divine inspiration. For many years, Stanton’s work was all but forgotten, existing chiefly in the attics of a few remaining supporters in the early twentieth century. With the revival of feminism in the late 1960’s, however, interest in the book as a historical document was revived. It was reprinted in 1972 by Arno Press and also in 1974 by the Coalition Task Force on Women and Religion.

Although full of inaccuracies and quaint interpretations, the questions that Stanton raised were still important, and the arguments from the Bible for women’s subordination could still be heard. Therefore, Stanton’s interest in the portrayal of women in the Bible was also revived along with the twentieth century feminist movement. The Woman’s Bible presaged a large number of scholarly works. Because more women have had the opportunity to become learned in biblical studies, these works are highly sophisticated and professional biblical scholarship when compared with Stanton’s largely amateurish work. The names of Phyllis Trible, Phyllis Bird, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Alice Laffey, and Carol Meyers represent only a tiny sampling of the most well known of these biblical scholars. Their work stems from a similar concern about what the Bible really says about women.

The Woman’s Bible

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

Although it was intended to be a product of a committee of women, on the order of the all- male boards that produced Bible translations, The Woman’s Bible was written mostly by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; she assembled a revising committee of women to lend the project legitimacy. Stanton, a leader of the women’s movement in the nineteenth century, originally envisioned the text as a feminist translation of the Bible but could find no female scholar of Greek or Hebrew willing to risk her reputation on such a controversial project. In her preface, Stanton states her object as “to revise only those texts and chapters directly referring to women, and those also in which women are made prominent by exclusion.” Such passages comprised one-tenth of the entire Scriptures.

An appendix in part 1 describes the life and work of Julia Smith, whose translation of the biblical text was, at the time, the only one made by a woman. Stanton used Smith’s translation, as well as the 1881 revised version of the Bible. It was likely the failure of this version to take sexism into account that prodded Stanton to undertake a feminist Bible.

Much of The Woman’s Bible reiterates feminist creeds that Stanton had long preached, stressing that the Scriptures “bear the impress of fallible man, and not of our ideal great first cause.” She believed that “the chief obstacle in the way of woman’s elevation today is the degrading position assigned her” in the Bible and Western religions: “an afterthought in creation, the origin of sin, cursed by God.” She took the opportunity to point out that women in the Scriptures were little more than chattel of fathers and husbands, drawing parallels to the position of women in the nineteenth century. Stanton emphasized the patriarchal nature of biblical society, in which polygamy and prostitution flourished, and she admonished contemporary social reformers who sought to abolish these ills while espousing the Scriptures for teaching morality.

The Woman’s Bible failed to be accepted as a major work of biblical scholarship, though it became a best-seller. It also outraged...

(The entire section is 894 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Banner, Lois W. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. This biography of Stanton covers the reformer’s long and productive life, from her childhood through her marriage and years as a mother of seven, her organization of the first Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, her association with Susan B. Anthony, and her continuing activism until her death in 1902.

Laffey, Alice L. An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988. An example of modern biblical study about women. Laffey takes readers through the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible with analyses from a feminist point of view of both the texts and the cultural factors behind them. Although this work deals only with the Old Testament, it illustrates the kind of feminist biblical scholarship being done.

Oakley, Mary Ann B. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1972. Another biography of Stanton, this one is somewhat shorter than Lois Banner’s (above). Written in a narrative style, including many conversational quotations. Takes the reader from Stanton’s childhood in New York through her older years.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriet Stanton Blatch. 2 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1969....

(The entire section is 461 words.)