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Barbara G. Walker: Subjugation of women entirely based on religion

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Shutterstock image)

According to Genesis 3:16, God told Eve, “Thy husband shall rule over thee,” in revenge for her sin of apple-eating, and laid on her the curse of painful childbearing, to be endured as frequently as possible. All three Abrahamic religions made lavish use of this text, as we shall see.

Tertullian insisted that every woman is another Eve, “the devil’s gateway,” and women are responsible for bringing death into the world. On account of woman’s sin, he said, “even the son of God had to die.” Apparently, he regarded woman as more powerful than God, who should have had the power to eliminate death if he really wanted to. And he certainly should have had the power to protect his son, but instead, God actually arranged for this cruel death. As a child in Sunday school, I marveled at this. What kind of a father would kill his son to induce himself to forgive people that he knew in advance would be sinful, since he had made them that way? And what’s so wrong about wanting to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge? Aren’t we supposed to seek knowledge? And what kind of a god would create a hell in the first place? And this is a god who has such a hugely hungry ego that he wants continual praise from absolutely everybody for this kind of behavior? I tried to ask questions like these, but the Sunday school teacher simply told me that to ask questions was a sin.

Genesis myth

St. Augustine based the entire doctrine of original sin on the Genesis myth, and went on to claim that evil is transmitted into every child because of its birth passage through the female body, which carries the taint of sin, even in the womb. That is why they say baptism of the child is necessary. The Catholic baptism ceremony still involves a verbal exorcism to cast out the demon within the child. The church allowed baptism of a male infant 40 days after birth, but a female infant could not be brought into a church until 80 days after birth. Any child that died before this time was forbidden burial in consecrated ground and automatically relegated to eternal torture in hell, until Renaissance times, when the church finally responded to public outrage and invented “limbo,” where unbaptized infants could spend enough time to be purged of the sin they inherited from their mothers.

Over the centuries, male authorities have repeated again and again their conviction that, as St. Peter said, according to the Gospel of Thomas, “Women are not worthy of life.”

St. Paul said, in 1 Tim. 2:14: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was the transgressor.” This seems to indicate that the original sin was gullibility.

In the Gospel According to the Egyptians, one of the apocrypha, Jesus said: “I have come to destroy the works of the female.” Clement of Alexandria quoted this and added: “Every woman should be filled with shame at the thought that she is a woman.” St. Odo of Cluny identified woman as “no more than a sack of dung.” Bishop John Aylmer continued this theme in 1590: “Woman is the dregs of the devil’s dung hill.” John Scotus Erigena explained that “When the heavens finally open in glory, woman will be no more, because God embodied the sinless part of humanity in man and the sinful part in woman.” St. John Chrysostom commanded every Christian father to instill into his son “a resolute spirit against womankind.”

The Malleus Maleficarum, official handbook of the Inquisition, stated that women should be thoroughly tortured, because “all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” According to Henry Charles Lea, author of the definitive History of the Inquisition, over nine million women were slaughtered on false convictions of witchcraft in the five centuries during which the Inquisition dominated Europe. In some towns, nearly all the women were killed, only one or two left alive. Lea also said that while he was working from authentic documents in the Vatican Library in the early 1900s, monks were already beginning to destroy those documents in order to conceal the church’s horrendous history.

‘Lower than a slave’

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Every woman is birth-defective, an imperfect male, begotten because her father was ill, weakened or in a state of sin when she was conceived.” As for a wife, Aquinas opined that she is “lower than a slave, wholly in subjection to her husband.” This opinion was echoed even today by Pat Robertson, who said, “I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the leadership of a man. The husband is the head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period.”

A 15th-century ecclesiastical publication, The Rules of Marriage, stated that a husband has every right to scold and bully his wife, and if that didn’t work, then he must “beat her soundly, to punish the body and correct the soul; so readily beat her, out of concern for her soul, so that the beating will redound to your credit.”

In the old Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony, the bride had to kneel and place her husband’s foot on her head, and accept a token stroke from a small jeweled whip. Wedding cakes sometimes bore the toy figures of a man beating his wife. All the way up to the 1950s, American law upheld the so-called “doctrine of immunity,” which forbade police to invade a home to arrest a husband for wife-beating, because (this is a literal quote!) “it might destroy the peace of the home.” Only in 1962 did a judge rule that there was already a certain lack of peace in such a home.

Bear the children

Martin Luther regarded himself as an unusually kind husband because he didn’t beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head “to keep her from getting saucy.” His opinion of women was that their duty is simply to serve the husband and bear the children. He said, “If women get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that; let them die as long as they bear; they were made for that.” 

Of course, it has always been very clear to patriarchal men that motherhood has a strongly immobilizing influence on women, making them unwilling or unable to break away from a financially supportive marriage, no matter how abusive it may be in other respects. Laws against abortion are a direct result of ecclesiastical deprivation of women’s rights, and the greed of churches for more and more adherents. When Pope John II visited overpopulated and impoverished areas in South America, where desperate family planning often turned to infanticide, he lectured against contraception, saying “any woman who uses a birth control device commits a sin worse than murder.”

When chloroform and ether began to be used as anesthetics in the 19th century, English and American clergy loudly forbade their use in childbirth, because it was “a sinful denial” of the pleasure God took in hearing women’s screams, pursuant to his curse. A New England minister wrote that chloroform for women is “a decoy of Satan.” However, when Queen Victoria allowed her doctor to give her chloroform during the birth of her eighth child and hailed it as a great blessing, the clergymen were silenced. Queens, it seems, could overrule God.

‘An incarnate demon’

At the beginning of the women’s emancipation movement, the Rev. Peter Easton described the emancipated woman as “an incarnate demon, a creature of unbounded lust and merciless cruelty.”

An Episcopalian bishop wrote in 1971: “The sexuality of Christ is no accident, nor is his masculinity incidental.  This is the divine choice.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “The church has done more to degrade women than all other adverse influences together. Out of the doctrine of original sin grew the crimes and miseries of asceticism, celibacy and witchcraft, woman becoming the helpless victims of all the delusions in the brain of man. . . There is nothing more pathetic in all history than the hopeless resignation of women to the outrages she has been taught to believe are ordained by God.”

In many areas today dominated by fundamentalist Islam, the enslavement of wives goes on under a virtually medieval Allah. Women can’t leave home without a male escort, have no right to education, and may be executed for the “crime” of being raped, yet rape is all too common in Islamic countries. Highly patriarchal rules can be found even among Muslims who have emigrated to Western countries. In Atlanta, a 25-year-old Muslim woman was killed by her father for the “crime” of seeking a divorce from the husband who had been forced on her without her consent.

Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether notes: “The task of suppressing women into dependence on males is a never-ending struggle. It must be reiterated generation after generation, by repeating the myths of woman’s original sin to the young, both male and female, and by marginalizing women from power roles in society. Religion is relied on as both the foundation and the daily aid in this project.”

Were it not for religion — specifically the male god that replaced the original neolithic goddess — there would be no sexism. It is an invention of and a mechanism of religion, and should also go the way of unicorns, satyrs, dragons, witches, archangels and demons alike. Men, as well as women, need to play their part in this process. One of the first steps seems to be a realization that, in spite of all the virgins he seems to have impregnated during Roman times, God does not necessarily have a penis. The true life source for all of us is Mother Earth.

FFRF Life Member Barbara G. Walker is the author of Belief and Unbelief, Man Made God, Feminist Fairy Tales and many other books.