This article is about feminism, and how this idea and movement has its roots in the Middle Ages and Industrial Revolution.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1988. 4 pages.

The roots of modern feminism

I couldn't believe it — still can't — how angry I could become from deep down and way back, something like a five-thousand-year-buried anger.

These words were written by feminist Robin Morgan in her introduction to a collection of articles from the mod­ern women's liberation movement. This pervasive sense of anger can also be found throughout the writings of such prominent feminists as Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, and Simone de Beauvoir. Sometimes the liberation rhetoric became nauseat­ingly ugly and obscene, as in the lit­erature of the "Society for Cutting Up Men" (SCUM) and the "Women's International Conspiracy from Hell" (WITCH). These expressions of anger surely furnish proof for the 13th cen­tury saying that woman is "the confu­sion of man, an insatiable beast, a con­tinuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a hindrance to devotion"! More than ever before, the relations between the sexes has become "an in­cessant warfare," fueled, in large part, by the anger generated by the modern women's liberation movement. There is a general tendency to view the wom­en's movement as a recent develop­ment, a product of our selfish age. This is, of course, partially true, since the women's movement in its present stage of development has been shaped by modern philosophy and history. Yet, in reality, the modern women's movement originated two hundred years ago, and each succeeding genera­tion has built on the ideas of their feminist predecessors. In order to devel­op some understanding of this move­ment, we have to go back in time to medieval Europe.

Women in the Middle Ages🔗

Prior to the 16th century, Euro­pean women occupied a position of low status but high respect. Whether a woman was the aristocratic chate­laine of a castle, the wife of a peasant farmer, or a tradeswoman living in a town, she found an equality of func­tion, if not of status, with men. As chatelaine, she was expected to be able to supervise the raising of raw ma­terials for processing into food, cloth­ing, medicine, and armaments. It was not unusual for her to undertake the responsibility of defending her hus­band's territory in his absence. His­tory records the stories of many of these courageous women who ably de­fended their land and people under siege, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. While the peasant woman did not occupy such a prominent role, yet she also utilized her skills in the ser­vice of her family. Her work consisted of such domestic duties as cooking, baking, brewing beer, making candles, spinning wool, weaving clothes, thatch­ing the roof, and reaping the harvest. She was also permitted to hold tenan­cies independently of her husband, al­though she was paid less for rendering the same services. Women were also able to carry on various trades in the towns under the legal provision of femme sole. In England, for instance, tradeswomen worked as shipwrights, tailors, barber-surgeons, mercers, grocers, drapers, and healers. There were also some privileged women with ac­cess to education, who made contri­butions in various fields — women such as Laura Bassi of Milan who gave lectures in physics; Veronica Gambara and Vittoria Colanna who were Italian poets; Anna Comena who was a doctor and professor of medicine in Constan­tinople; Maria Schuurman of Holland who gained fame as a mathematician and philosopher.

However, the Middle Ages were not an idyllic age for women ... or for men. More often than not, life was harsh and difficult. Disease, a high in­fant mortality rate, poverty, frequent wars, drought, famine, and the oppres­sion of spiritual life by the Roman Catholic Church were part of daily life for many medieval Europeans. Rigid feudal class distinctions prevented any significant movement from the lower to the upper classes; people were ex­pected to remain within the social strata into which they were born. While women were given a large measure of respect in deference to the important role they played, they had virtually no legal rights. These restrictions were felt most acutely by aristocratic women who were most likely to be viewed as valuable "property" by their husbands and fathers. Yet, although forced into marriages for political and economic reasons, as married women they were able to exercise a significant degree of political authority and social respon­sibility. This power, however, was nor­mally limited to those occasions when their husbands were absent, fighting in the numerous wars of the era, or when death left them widows with underage male heirs.

Why did God create women?🔗

The major institution which experi­enced the greatest difficulties in its per­spective on the female sex, and which was also the loudest in its denuncia­tions, was the Roman Catholic Church. It held to an unbiblical view of women, as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas who worried over the question of why God had created women. He finally came to the conclusion that the pres­ence of the female sex simply had to be endured since women were neces­sary to the process of procreation! The clergy denounced women, on the one hand, for being the slaves of vanity and fashion and, on the other hand, for being preoccupied with children and housekeeping. One monk com­plained that women used so much paint on their faces that none was left over to color the religious icons! Others warned women that the wearing of wigs and the use of various ointments to improve the complexion would add centuries to their stay in purgatory. An inordinate amount of time seemed to be spent by the Roman Catholic clergy in criticizing female adornment. More seriously, the Romanist Church tend­ed to denigrate marriage and sexual relations. Celibacy was actively encouraged and, consequently, convents and monasteries flourished. Women were viewed as sexually immoral crea­tures and men were warned to practice utmost caution and restraint in their dealings with the "fair sex." Women were also seen as more sinful and de­praved than men; the clergy never tired of pointing out the pivotal role Eve had played in the fall into sin.

In spite of the difficulties women experienced during this period of his­tory, we must be careful not to con­clude that they alone suffered the par­ticular rigors of medieval life. Men equally suffered the restrictions of the feudal system and the dangers of that time. Several feminists, notably Mari­lyn French and Robin Morgan, have tried to find historical justification for the thesis that women were systemati­cally oppressed, living lives of virtual slavery imposed on them by fathers and husbands. I would venture to say that feminine resentment was not pres­ent to any significant degree; there is no evidence of the existence of a fem­inist mentality (most feminists concede this point), but, rather, of silence. Of course, there are feminists who have reached the conclusion that the very existence of such silence in the histori­cal record is sufficient proof that wom­en were oppressed. I agree with Barbara Tuchman's assessment that "in indi­viduals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record."

Feminists also claim that the many freedoms enjoyed by medieval Euro­pean women were slowly eroded by the end of the 16th century. They have posited various theories in an attempt to explain why women appeared to ex­perience this loss. Some feminists claim that the Roman Catholic Church be­came even more restrictive and intole­rant. Others claim that the fault lies with John Calvin, since his doctrinal teachings, in their view, contributed to the rise of capitalism and the domi­nance of the middle class which, in turn, aided the exploitation of women. Still others believe that women were persecuted for their opposition to tradi­tional religion and their involvement in witchcraft. The truth, I suspect, has more to do with the on-going drama of history than with a purposeful de­gradation of the female sex. For the sake of brevity, we will not focus on these theories, but must be restricted to a brief look at the influence of two important revolutions which had a great impact on family life and, in par­ticular, on the role of women.

Women and the Industrial Revolution🔗

The Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century trans­formed the face of Europe. It encour­aged industrialization and urbaniza­tion and, in the process, it weakened the traditional checks on man's evil nature: parental authority, moral in­struction, and the strength of Chris­tianity. Previously, in a society based on agriculture, the family was not only the most important unit of economic production but also ensured social order. The family worked together on the land under the discipline of the parents and the changing seasons. In­dustrialization, on the other hand, removed economic production as one of the family's responsibilities and thus fragmented the family into individual units. Children ceased to be economic assets and became financial liabilities. The use of birth control techniques began to spread. The new limitation on family size and the increasing avail­ability of mechanical devices freed women from maternal responsibilities and domestic chores.

This new freedom drew women into the factories and offices. As sons and daughters took longer to reach economic independence, the length­ened interval between biological and economic maturity began to erode the moral code which strong religious sanc­tions, early marriage, and early economic self-sufficiency had undergirded in the old agricultural order. The new industrial societies of Europe and North America began to drift in a moral and spiritual vacuum; the old Christian moral code was rejected in favor of a new one based on indivi­dualism and emancipation.

The new morality and the loss of spirituality produced by the Industrial Revolution found its philosophical roots in the ideals of the French Revo­lution: liberty and equality. The French Revolution could be described as the first mass atheistic movement to find widespread support in Western society; its influence reached into every area of life and, indeed, its effects are still felt today. It was to prove an important milestone in the development of the modern women's liberation movement (usually dated around 1820).

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the first woman to write a feminist manifesto. In 1792 she wrote A Vin­dication of the Rights of Women; its ideas were based on the new liberalism. She stated that women's faults such as a pretense of physical weakness; addic­tion to cards, gossip, astrology, and sentimentality; and absorption in ap­pearance were due to the inequalities in women's education and to men's success in getting them to think of themselves as sex toys before marriage and as maternity machines afterward. She proposed that both boys and girls should be given an equal chance to develop physically and intellectually. They should be educated together with the same curriculum and the same sports. Women should develop physical strength in order to be strong enough to earn their own living, should the need arise. In her opinion, the ideal marriage was that of an educated wom­an joined in equal union with an edu­cated man. These ideas probably seem rather commonplace to the contem­porary mind, but they exploded like a bombshell in Europe and America. Her ideas found widespread accep­tance among the early suffragists but suffered disdain from men. She was popularly characterized as a "hyena in petticoats." Mary Wollstonecraft was not to find the feminist utopia she en­visioned in her manifesto; she died at age thirty-eight giving birth to an il­legitimate daughter.

Radical feminism🔗

Thus the seeds of radical feminism were sown. Slowly but surely, from one generation to the next, the logic of Wollstonecraft's manifesto was worked out to its natural conclusions. Ideas take several generations before they become so rooted in society that they appear "natural," "inevitable," and "logical." Unfortunately, many Reformed believers accept the basic tenets of the feminist movement, often with­out a conscious realization of their negative effects. This acceptance is particularly evident in younger women under the age of forty. What do we observe in this younger generation? We see young Christian women em­phasizing independence as a virtue and a way of life; we see status, achieve­ment, and materialism dominating life's choices; we see a growing disdain and suspicion of men; we see an in­creasingly mercenary attitude toward so-called "uneducated" men who are considered poor choices as marriage partners. While the medieval clergy de­nounced women, now modern women denounce men. Thomas Aquinas' wor­rying question has finally come full cir­cle. In short, we see that feminism has made inroads among young Christian women.

Ironically, while Christians are hopping aboard the feminist bandwag­on, some feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, have come to the conclusion that much of its phi­losophy is completely unworkable in reality. In her new book, The Second Stage, Betty Friedan writes poignantly about the "undertones of pain and puzzlement, a queasiness, an uneasi­ness, almost a bitterness" and of the "devastating loneliness" experienced by the modern woman under the spell of feminism. Germaine Greer decries what she describes as modern society's hatred of the bearing and raising of children in her book, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility. If such feminists, who have refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ, are enabled to see some of the agonizing conflicts which feminism produces, can we, who are in possession of God's Holy Word, do less?


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  • Tuchman, Barbara W., A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1978).

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