"Our Struggle is for all Life": The Theosophist/Unitarian Feminist Pioneer Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898 CE).
Matilda Joslyn Gage was perhaps the most original and radical activist and theoretician to lead the nineteenth century American women's movement. Yet she herself has been largely forgotten, even in the field of women's history, which she fearlessly pioneered. Because of her bold criticisms of male domination in organized religion, especially Christianity, her legacy was suppressed--even by other feminists. Whether or not, or to what extent, one might share Gage's religious beliefs, even a brief look at her life and work shows how much she needs to be remembered, as she remembered so many forgotten women leaders before her.
Unlike most girls of her time, the young Matilda was given an intellectually challenging education at home. She often remarked that "the grandest training given her was to think for herself "(1) The family's home in Upstate New York was a gathering place for religious and political radicals and a station on the Underground Railroad. This family environment encouraged her to develop her many gifts and awakened a sense of social responsibility in her. Gage aspired to become a doctor but was barred from medical school on the grounds of her sex. She found other ways to be a healer. She established herself as an impressive activist/scholar, even as she married, bore and raised four children, and struggled with recurrent ill health.
Gage was involved in the women's movement from 1852 until her death, often bolstering her case for women's rights with forgotten or suppressed material she had painstakingly gleaned from archives and libraries. She was an organizer and officer of the National Woman Suffrage Association and edited its newspaper, The National Citizen and Ballot Box. She co-authored, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage.
Even in these endeavours, her attention was not devoted solely to winning women the vote. Her tireless research showed her that men had for thousands of years systematically robbed women of much else besides their natural right of enfranchisement. She could not remain silent about any form of male theft from women, or any other form of domination. For example, as editor of the NWSA newspaper, she spoke out plainly against men's sexual victimization of prostitutes and the court system's lack of commitment to punishing rapists rather than their victims. She defended the rights of Native Americans so strongly that an Iroquois Nation made her an honorary member and gave her the name "Sky Carrier." During a feminist action to protest the 1886 unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, Gage announced: "All the struggles for freedom are connected." She spoke out in favor of the labor movement, the peace movement, and the Irish independence struggle. She removed a bird-trimmed hat--a fashion of the day---from her head and t hrew it away. "The survival of animals, too is our cause....Fashion must not be bought at the expense of life.... Our struggle is for all life. Liberty is the key to maintaining it." (2)
Gage's long, brave career culminated in her 1893 volume Woman, Church and State, a critique of misogyny committed in the name of the Christian religion. The book was even more radical than another project to which Gage had contributed, the controversial Woman's Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Though little read today, Woman, Church and State anticipates many concerns and positions of the late twentieth-century women's spirituality movement. For example, a century before the work of Marija Gimbutas and Riane Eisler, Gage postulated the existence of the "Matriarchate," an ancient "golden age" in which "the femininity of the divine, and the divinity of the feminine" were both honored. The contemporary feminist thealogian Mary Daly has lavished praise upon Gage and sees in her erasure from history a warning of what must not happen again:
For some it has been ...shocking to come upon the work of Gage, and to read this very perceptive and learned woman's study. It is infuriating to discover that this foresister, and others like her, had already gathered and analyzed materials which feminist scholars are just beginning to unearth again....Such a painful discovery raises enraging questions: How could we-especially women historians, educated and legitimated by "degrees"--have been kept in such ignorance of our own tradition? And when women overcome this studied ignorance to some degree and publish our own works will these be as effectively concealed from our "educated" sisters of the future as the work of our foresisters has been hidden from us? One of the basic premises of Hag-ographers must be a promise to carry on the prcocess, to create in such a way that our creativity cannot be silenced....There is much to be done. Working with increased confidence and precision, Hags must continue in the spiritual tradition of such visionaries as Matilda Jo slyn Gage, continuing to uncover our past and paths to our future.(3)
Gage's detractors claimed that she was motivated by a bitter hatred of God, religion, and the male gender. On the contrary, her activism grew out of a strong belief that the Divine had created all human beings equal. She was affiliated with at least two religious movements with a strong emphasis on social transformation: Unitarianism and Theosophy. Unitarianism originated in early 1800's New England from the Congregationalist strain of Protestant Christianity. Unitarians were characterized by a belief in the Unity, the indivisibility, rather than the traditional threefold person of God: the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They were known, as they still are today, for professing values such as the following:
* The inherent worth and dignity of every person
* Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
* A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
* The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
* The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
* Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part (4)
These values can be readily discerned in Gage's work, as can the values of Theosophy, another nineteenth-century religious movement. It began in 1875 with the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York City by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and others.
Theosophy is nondogmatic, but many Theosophists believe in....the presence of life and consciousness in all matter; the evolution of spirit and intelligence as well as matter; the possibility of conscious participation in evolution; the power of thought to affect one's self and surroundings; the duty of altruism, a concern for the welfare of others. These beliefs often lead to such practices as meditation, vegetarianism and care for animal welfare, active support of women's and minority rights, and a concern for ecology. Knowledge of such ideas and practices derives from the traditions of cultures spread over the world from antiquity to the present in a "perennial philosophy" or "ancient wisdom." But it also derives from the experience of individuals....Theosophy is dedicated to increasing cooperation among human beings and understanding their cultures and religions. Theosophy holds that all religions are expressions of humanity's efforts to relate to one another, to the universe around us, and to the ultimat e ground of being. (5)
For all her radicalism, Gage was not, by any means, the only feminist of her time and place who believed that authentic religion upholds rather than undermines women's rights. The nineteenth-century American women's movement included not only Unitarians and Theosophists but Quakers, Spiritualists, atheists, agnostics, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and the Evangelical Protestants of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (among others). This diversity did make for spirited conflicts. Gage, who believed very strongly in the separation of church and state, often challenged the WCTU's ambition to create a "Christian nation, " and was wary of cooperating with them.
Gage did not, however, object to the WCTU's urban shelters for unmarried mothers who might, without this support, be inclined to abort or commit postnatal infanticide. For most feminists agreed that if people acted out of their deepest, most authentic values, the oppression of women would end. What would the world look like then? Everyone agreed, of course, that women would have the vote, but there was another point of agreement: abortion would cease. Early feminists all believed passionately in what they termed a "woman's right to her own body," and "voluntary motherhood." What did they mean by these phrases? They meant a woman's right, through abstinence or contraception, to make an educated, voluntary choice about the time and circumstances under which she would risk pregnancy. They did not mean a right to abortion. Abortion was, in their view, the killing of unborn children, often included with the killing of already-born children under the term "infanticide." They were not content to simply denounce abor tion, but sought to remedy the offenses against women that occasioned it: the denial of sex education and family planning options, male sexual exploitation, men's parental irresponsibility, and discrimination against single mothers. The phrase "forced maternity" meant motherhood resulting from unwanted sex. On this point at least, evangelical churchwomen stood surely on common ground with Theosophists and Unitarians such as Matilda Joslyn Gage. (6)
As the following documents show, Gage unequivocally considered abortion to be "child murder" and a "crime." She was not content to leave it at that. Like other feminists, she believed it vitally necessary to identify and remedy the underlying causes of abortion. Gage did not believe that abortion and other forms of infanticide were caused by "selfish" and "up pity" women, as antifeminist abortion opponents claimed, but by the "Patriarchate," the centuries-old system of male domination.
1.A Feminist Article On "Child Murder" And Her Response (1868)
The Revolution, the radical feminist newspaper published by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed abortion as a matter of editorial policy. The following was most likely authored by Stanton, the instigator of many other challenges to conservative religion.
Child Murder....The public attention has been much drawn to this frightful subject of late...Infanticide is on the increase to an extent inconceivable. Nor is it confined to the cities by any means. Androscoggin County in Maine is largely a rural district, but a recent Medical Convention there unfolded a fearful condition of society in relation to this subject. Dr. Oaks made the remark that, according to the best estimate he could make, there were four hundred murders annually produced by abortion in that county alone....There must be a remedy for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where being, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of woman? Forced maternity, not out of legal marriage but within it, must lie at the bottom of a vast proportion of such revolting outrages against the laws of nature and our common humanity.(7)
A few weeks later, The Revolution published Gege's response.
The short article on "Child Murder" in your paper of March 12, touched a subject which lies deeper down into woman's wrongs than any other. This is the denial of the right to herself. In no historic age of the world has woman yet had that. From the time when Moses, from the hardness of his heart, permitted the Jew husband to give his unpleasing wife a letter of divorcement--to Christ, when the seven male sinners brought to him for condemnation the woman taken in adultery--down through the Christian centuries to this nineteenth, nowhere has the marital union of the sexes been one in which the woman has had control over her own body...
The crime of abortion is not one in which the guilt lies solely or chiefly with the woman. As a child brings more care, so also, it brings more joy to the mother's heart....
History is full of the wrongs done the wife by legal robbery on the part of the husband. I need not quote instances; they are well known to the most casual newspaper reader. It is accepted as a self-evident truth--that those "who are not masters of any property, may be easily formed into any mould."
I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of child murder, abortion, infanticide, lies at the door of the male sex...
This reason and that reason have been pointed to by the upholders of equal rights, to account for the oppression of women during past ages, but not one that I have ever heard offered has looked to the spiritual origin of that oppression.... (8)
2. Passages From Her Magnum Opus Woman, Church and State (1893)(9)
Gage created her own singular account of the spiritual origin of woman's oppression. The following passages can help us understand the spiritual beliefs surrounding Gage's critique of abortion and many other forms of violence and discrimination.
From the Dedication
This Book is Inscribed to the Memory of my Mother, who was at once mother, sister, friend; Dedicated to all Christian women and men, of whatever creed or name who, bound by Church or State, have not dared to think for Themselves: Addressed to all Persons, who, breaking away from custom and the usage of ages, dare seek Truth for the sake of Truth. To all such it will be welcome; to all others aggressive and educational.
From chapter One, "The Matriarchate"
We are now informed as to the condition of early peoples.... The records prove that women had acquired great liberty under the old civilizations. A form of society existed at an early age known as the Matriarchate or Mother-rule.... The primal priest on earth, (woman) was also supreme as goddess in heaven. The earliest semblance of the family is traceable to the relationship of mother and child alone. Here the primal idea of the family had birth.... This priority of the mother touched not alone the family, but controlled the state and indicated the form of religion.... The earliest phase of life being dependent upon her, she was recognized as the primal factor in every relation....
Under the Matriarchate, monogamy was the rule....
Every part of the world today gives evidence of the system; reminiscences of the Matriarchate everywhere abound.... The most notable fact connected with woman's participation in governmental affairs among the Iroquois is the statement of Hon. George Bancroft that the form of government of the United States, was borrowed from that of the Six Nations. Thus to the Matriarchate or Mother-rule is the modern world indebted for its first conception of inherent rights, natural equality of condition, and the establishment of a civilized government upon this basis....
One of the most brilliant modern examples of the Matriarchate was found in Malabar at the time of its discovery by the Portuguese in the XV century...at a period when woman's position in England and on the Continent of Europe was that of a household and political slave....Cleanliness, peace, the arts, a just form of government, the recogition of the feminine both in humanity and in the Divinity were found in Malabar. To the question of a Danish missionary concerning their opinion of a Supreme Being, this beautiful answer was given:
The Supreme Being has a Form and yet has no Form; he can be likened to nothing; we cannot define him and say that He is this or that; He is neither Man or Woman; neither Heaven or Earth; and yet He is all; subject to no corruption, no mortality and with neither sleep nor rest, he is Almighty and Omnipotent without Beginning and without End.
Under the Missionaries sent by England to introduce her own barbaric ideas of God and man, this beautiful Matriarchate civilization of Malabar soon retrograded and was lost....
In many old religions, the generative principle was regarded as the mother of both gods and men. In the Christian religion we find tendency to a similar recognition in the Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary. The most ancient Aryans were under the Matriarchate, the feminine recognized as the creative power. The word ma from which all descendants of these peoples derive their names for mother, was synonymous with Creator....
The Patriarchate under which Biblical history and Judaism commenced, was a rule of men whose lives and religion were based upon passions of the grossest kind....Monogamous family life did not exist, but a polygamy whose primal object was the formation of a clan possessing hereditary chiefs ruling aristocratically. To this end the dominion of man over woman and the birth of many children was requisite..Not until the Patriarchate were wives regarded as property, the sale of daughters as a legitimate means of family income, or their destruction at birth looked upon as a justifiable act....The theory of a male supreme God in the interests of force and authority, wars, family discord, the sacrifice of children to appease the wrath of an offended (male) deity are all due to the Patriarchate. These were practices entirely out of consonance with woman's thought and life....During this period the destruction of girl children became a widely extended practice, and infantile girl murder the custom of many nations. Durin g the Matriarchate all life was regarded as holy; even the sacrifice of animals was unknown. The most ancient and purest religions taught sacrifice of the animal passions as the great necessity in self-purification. But the Patriarchate subverted this sublime teaching, materializing spiritual truths, and substituting the sacrifice of animals....
Both infanticide and prostitution with all their attendant horrors are traceable with polygamy--their origin--to the Patriarchate or Father-rule, under which Judaism and Christianity arose as forms of religious belief. Under the Patriarchate woman has ever been regarded as a slave to be disposed of as father, husband, or brother chose. Even in the most Christian lands, daughters have been esteemed valuable only in proportion to the political or pecuniary advantage they brought to the father, in the legal prostitution of an enforced marriage. The sacrifice of woman to man's baser passions has ever been the distinguishing characteristic of the Patriarchate. But woman's degradation is not the normal condition of humanity, neither did it arise from a settled principle of evolution, but is a retrogression, due to the grossly material state of the world for centuries past, in which it has lost the interior meaning or spiritual significance of its own most holy words.
...Holy Ghost, although in Hebrew a noun of either gender, masculine, feminine, or neuter, is invariably rendered masculine by Christian translators of the Bible. In the Greek, from whence we obtain the New Testament, spirit is of the feminine gender, although invariably translated masculine. The double-sexed word Jehovah, too sacred to be spoken by the Jews, signified the masculine-feminine God....The Hebrew word El Shaddai, translated "The Almighty"...means "The Breasted God," and is made use of in the Old Testament whenever the especially feminine characteristics of God are meant to be indicated....
The word sacred simply means secret....so also the word holy simply means whole, that is, undivided. In its ignorance, unwisdom, and fear of investigation, mankind has allowed a division of the two divine principles, male and female, to obtain firm hold in their minds....But now we have reached a period in history when investigation is again taking the place of blind belief and the truth, capable of making man free, is once more offered. It is through a recognition of the divine element of motherhood as not alone inhering in the great primal source of life but as extending throughout all creation, that it will become possible for the world, so buried in darkness, folly and superstition, to practice justice toward woman....
From Chapter Two "Celibacy"
Inasmuch as it was a cardinal doctrine that the fall of Adam took place through his temptation into marriage by Eve, this relation was regarded with holy horror as a continuance of the evil which first brought sin into the world, depriving man of his immortality....Consequently marriage was regarded as a condition of peculiar temptation and trial; celibacy as one of especial holiness.
The fact remains undeniable that at the advent of Christ, a recognition of the feminine element in the Divinity had not entirely died out from general belief....It was however but a short period before the Church through Canons and Decrees...denied the femininity of the Divine equally with the divinity of the feminine....There is abundant proof that even under but partial recognition of the feminine principle as entering in the Divinity, woman was officially recognized in the early services of the church, being ordained in the ministry, officiating as deacons, administering the act of baptism, dispensing the sacrament, interpreting doctrines, and founding sects which received their names....
As early as the sixth century a council at Macon (585), fifty-nine bishops taking part, devoted its time to a discussion of this question, "Does woman possess a soul?" Upon one side it was argued that woman should not be called "homo"; upon the opposite side that she should, because, first, the Scriptures declared that God created man male and female; second, that Jesus Christ, son of a woman, is called son of man. Christian women were therefore allowed to remain human beings in the eyes of the clergy, even though considered very weak and bad ones. But nearly a thousand years after this decision in favor of the humanity of the women of Christian Europe, it was still contended that the women of newly discovered America belonged to the brute creation, possessing neither souls nor reason....As late as the Woman's Rights Convention in Philadelphia, 1854, an objector in the audience cried out: "Let women first prove they have souls; both the Church and the State deny it."
Everything connected with woman was held to be unclean....Her person and her rights possessed no consideration except as she could be made to advance the interest or serve the pleasure of priest, noble, father, husband; some man-god to whose lightest desire all her wishes were made to bend....Through woman (it was believed) sin had entered the world, that woman's whole tendency was toward evil, and had it not been for the unfortunate oversight of her creation, man would then be dwelling in the paradisal innocence and happiness of Eden, with death entirely unknown. When the feminine was thus wholly proscribed, the night of moral and spiritual degradation reached its greatest depth....
Under all restrictions woman did not fail to show her innate power even within the fold of the Church. She founded devout orders, established and endowed religious institutions, and issued her commands to the pope himself, in more than one instance seating that holy personage in the papal chair. From St. Paulina, whose life was written by St. Jerome, to the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary by the Ecumenical Council under Pius IX, and the later canonization of Joan of Arc, woman has not failed to impress even the Christian world with a sense of her intellectual and spiritual power. Yet despite the very great influence exerted by so many women in the affairs of the church-notwithstanding the canonization of so many women, she has only been able to show her capacity at an immense expenditure of vital force against constant priestly opposition and the powerful decrees of councils....
The denial to women of the right of private judgment and the control of her own actions, the constant teaching of her greater sinfulness and natural impurity, had a very depressing effect upon the majority of women whose lowly station in life was such as to deprive them of that independence of thought and action possible to women of rank and wealth. Then, as now, the church catered to the possessors of money and power; then, as now, seeking to unite their great forces with its own purpose of aggrandizement....To the theory of "God the Father," shorn of the divine attribute of motherhood, is the world beholden for its most degrading beliefs, its most infamous practices. Dependent upon and identified with lost motherhood is the "Lost Name" of ancient writers and occultists. When the ferninty of the Divine is once again acknowledged, the "Lost Name" will be discovered and the holiness (wholeness) of divinity be manifested....
No greater crime against humanity has ever been known than the division of morality into two codes, the strict for woman, the lax for man. Nor has woman been the sole sufferer from this creation of Two Moral Codes within the Christian Church. Through it man has lost fine discrimination between good and evil, and the Church itself as the originator of this distinction in sin upon the trend of sex, has become the creator and sustainer of injustice, falsehood and the crimes into which its priests have most deeply sunk.(10) If religion has a lesson to teach mankind, it is that of personal responsibilty; it is that of the worth and duty of the individual; it is that each human being is alone accountable for his or her course in life; it is the lesson of the absolute equality of each human being with every other human being....
From Chapter Five, "Witchcraft"
The peculiar character attributed to woman by the church, led to the adoption of torture as a necessary means of forcing her to speak the truth--the testimony of two, and in some countries, three women being held as only equal to that of one man. At first, young children, and women expecting motherhood, were exempted, but afterwards neither age nor condition freed from accusation and torture, and women even in the pangs of materntiy were burned at the stake, Christianity in this respect showing much more barbarity than pagan nations. In pagan Rome the expectant mother was held sacred; to vex or disturb her mind was punishable; to strike her was death. She even possesed a right pertaining to the Vestal Virgins; if meeting a condemned criminal on his way to exceution, her word sufficed for his pardon. It scarecely seems possible, yet in some Christian countries the most prominent class subjected to the torture, were women expecting motherhood....
As soon as a system of religion was adopted which taught the greater sinfulness of women, over whom authority had been given to man by God himself, the saying arose "one wizard to 10,000 witches," and the persecution for witchcraft became chiefly directed against women. The Church degraded woman by destroying her self-respect, and teaching her to feel consciousness of guilt in the very fact of her existence. The extreme wickedness of woman, taught as a cardinal doctrine of the church, created the belief that she was desirous of destroying all religion, witchcraft being regarded as her strongest weapon, therefore no punishment for it was thought too severe...Although witchcraft was treated as a crime against the state, it was regarded as a greater sin against heaven, the Bible having set its seal of disapproval in the injunction "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The Church therefore claimed its control. It soon proved a great source of emolument to the Church, which grew enormously rich by its confiscat ion to its own use of all property of the condemned....
A most diabolical custom of the Church made these burnings a holiday spectacle. People thus grew to look unmoved upon the most atrocious tortures, and excited crowds hung about witch burnings, eagerly listening as the priests exhorted to confession, or tormented the dying victims with pcitures of an unending fire soon to be their fate....
Thirty thousand persons accused of witchcraft were burned to death in Germany and Italy alone, and although neither age nor sex was spared, yet women and girls were the chief victims. Uncommon beauty was as dangerous to woman as the possession of great wealth, which brought frequent accusations in order that the Church might seize upon the witches' property for its own use.
Children of the most tender years did not escape accusation and death. During the height of the witchcraft persecution, hundreds of little ones were condemned as witches. Little girls of ten, eight and seven years are mentioned; blind girls, infants and even young boys were among the numbers who thus perished. Everywhere the most helpless classes were the victims.
It was declared that witches looked no person steadily in the face, but allowed their eyes to wander from side to side, or kept them fixed upon the earth. To this assertion that a witch could not look anyone in the face, the present belief of a connection between guilt and a downcast look, is due; although the Church taught that a woman should preserve a downward look in shame for the sin she had brought into the world, and to this day, an open, confident look upon a woman's face is deprecated as evil....
Whatever the pretext made for witchcraft persecution we have abundant proof that the so-called "witch" was among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age. The Church having forbidden its offices and all external methods of knowledge to woman, was profoundly stirred with indignation at her having through her own wisdom, penetrated into some of the most deeply subtle secrets of nature; and it was a subject of debate during the middle ages if learning for women was not an additional capacity for evil....Ignorance and the anathemas of the Church against knowledge to be gained through an investigation of the more abstruse laws of nature, have invested the word "magic" with terrror. But "magic" simply means knowledge of the effect of certain natural, but generally unknown laws....
"Magic," whether brought about by the aid of spirits or simply through an understanding of secret natural laws, is of two kinds, "white" and "black," according to its intent and consequences are evil or good, and in this respect does not differ from the use made of the well-known laws of nature, which are ever of good or evil character, in the hands of good or evil persons. To the Church in its powerful control of the human will, must be attrributed the use of "black magic," in its most injurious form..
In reality the original meaning of "witch" was a wise woman....
But while for many hundred years the knowledge of medicine, and its practice among the poorer classes was almost entirely in the hands of women and many discoveries in science are due to them, yet an acquaintance of herbs soothing to pain, or healing in their qualities, was then looked upon as having been acquired through diabolical agency....A strong natural bias toward the study of medicine, together with deepest sympathy for suffering humanity, were required in order to sustain the "wise woman" amid the perils constantly surrounding her; many such women losing their lives as witches simply because of their superior medical and surgical knowledge. Death by torture was the method of the Church for the repression of woman's intellect, knowledge being held as evil and dangerous in her hands. Ignorance was regarded as an especial virtue in woman, and fear held her in this condition. Few women dared be wise, after thousands of their sex had gone to death by drowning or burning because of their knowledge...As kno wledge has ever been power, the Church feared its use in woman's hands, and leveled its deadliest blows at her. Although the Church in its myth of the fall attributes knowledge to woman's having eaten of its tree, yet while not scrupling to make use of the results of her disobedience for its own benefit, it has been most earnest in its endeavors to prevent her from like use....Every kind of self-interest was brought into play in these accusations of witchcraft against woman physicians: greed, malice, envy, hatred, fear, the desire of clearing one's self from suspicion, all became motives.
Aside from women of superior intelligence who were almost invariably accused of witchcraft, the old, the insane, the bedridden, the idiotic, aiso fell under condemnation....
It is computed from historical records that nine million of persons were put to death for witchcraft after 1484, or during a period of three hundred years, and this estimate does not include the vast number who were sacrificed in the preceding centuries upon the same accusation. The greater number of this incredible multitude were women....
In looking at the history of witchcraft we see three striking points for consideration:
First: that women were chiefly accused.
Second: that men believing in women's inherent wickedness, and understanding neither the mental not the physical peculiarities of her being, ascribed all her idiosyncracies to witchcraft.
Third: that the clergy inculcated the idea that woman was in league with the devil, and that strong intellect, remarkable beauty, or unusual sickness were in themselves proof of this league.
Catholics and Protestants yet agree in holding women as the chief accessory of the devil.... Luther said: "I would have no compassion for a witch, I would burn them all." He looked upon those who were afflicted with blindness, lameness or idiocy from birth, as possessed of demons and there is record of his attempt to drown an afflicted child in whom he declared no soul existed, its body being animated by the devil alone. But a magistrate more enlightened or more humane than the great reformer, interfered to save the child's life. Were Luther on Earth again today with the senitments of his lifetime, he would regard the whole community as mad. Asylums for the blind, dumb, and idiots, curative treatment for cripples and all persons naturally deformed, would be to him a direct intervention with the ways of providence. The belief of this great reformer proves the folly of considering a man wise, because he is pious.
...Old women for no other reason than that they were old, were held to be the most suscepctible to the assaults of the devil, and the persons most especially endowed with supernatural powers for evil....We discover a reason for this intense hatred of old women in the fact that woman has chiefly been looked upon from a sensual view by Christian men, the Church teaching that she was created solely for man's sensual use. Thus when by reason of declining years she no longer attracted the sensual admiration of man, he regarded her as having forfeited all right to life.
During the witchcraft period...the chief lesson of the church that betrayal of friends was necessary to one's own salvation, created an intense selfishness. All humanitarian feeling as lost in the effort to secure heaven at the expense of others, even those most closely bound by ties of nature and affection. Mercy, tenderness, and compassion were all obliterated. Truthfulness escaped from the Christian world; sorrow and cruelty reigned pre-eminent. All regard that existed for others grew up outside of church teaching and was shown at the hazard of life. Contempt and hatred of woman was inculcated with greater intensity; love of power and treachery were parts of the selfish lessons of the Church. All reverence for length of years was lost. The sorrows and sufferings of a long life appealed to no sympathetic cord in the heart. Instead of the tenderness and care due to aged women, they were so frequently accused of witchcraft that for years it was an unusual thing for an old woman in the north of Europe to die i n her bed. Besides the thousands of accused who committed suicide in order to escape the horrors incident upon trial, many others tired of life amid so much humiliation and suffering, falsely accused themselves, preferring a death by the torture of fire to a life of endless isolation and persecution.
From Chapter Nine, "The Church of Today"
The Catholic and Calvinistic doctrines of woman's inferiority of position and intellect taught from the pulpit, are by no means relegated to past centuries, but continue to be publicly taught by the Protestant clergy of every sect, as fully as by their Catholic and Greek brethren. At the first National Woman Suffrage Convention which assembled in Washington, 186g, having invited Rev. Chaplain Gray, of the House, to open its proceedings with prayer, he referred in this petition to woman as an after-thought of the Creator, an inferior and secondary being, called into existence for the special benefit of man. The noble old Quakeress, Lucretia Mott, sitting in an attitude of devout attention, suddenly raised her head, and at close of the prayer, Bible in hand, she read aloud the account of the Creation, Genesis 1: 27-28, woman and man equals, both having been given dominion over nature....
According to Rev. Knox-Little, woman possesses no responsibility; she is deprived of conscience, intelligent thought, self-respect, and is simply an appendage to man, a thing. As clergy in the Middle Ages divided rights into those of persons and things, themselves being the persons, the laity things, so the Rev. Knox-Little and his ilk of today, divide the world into persons and things, men being the persons, and women the things....
...Reasons presented by Rev. Mr. Crummel against woman's right of divorce, even for the infidelity of the husband, are :"the hidden mystery of generation, the wondrous secret of propagated life committed to the trust of woman." In thus referring to those laws of nature whose conditions are not yet fully understood, Rev. Mr. Crummel presented the strongest reasons why the mother and not the father should be regarded as the true head of the family. This "hidden mystery of propagation, this wondrous secret of propagated life, committed to the trust of woman," most forcibly demonstrates that she should be the one in whose power is placed the opportunity for escape from an adulterous husband, thus enabling her to keep her body a holy temple for its divine-human uses, over which as priestess she alone should possess control....By reason of certain "physiological mysteries," to which he refers, but to which he also shows absolute ignorance, the wrong done woman by reason of her potential motherhood is infinitely greate r to her than similar infidelity upon her part can possibily be to the husband. And not to her alone but to the children whom she may bring to life. His attempted justification of the husband's adultery upon the plea that "when a man begets bastard children, he does so beyond the boundary of the home," and so cannot "foist spurious children upon the household"...are the most sophistical and fallacious methods of reasoning, entirely inimical to truth and purity. Immorality of man everywhere presents a more serious and destructive aspect than that of woman. Aside from the unmarried mother whom society does not recognize as longer a part of it, is the irreparable wrong done to those innocent human beings whom Rev. Dr. Crummel designates as "spurious children;" whom the Catholics call "sacrilegious" when the father is shown to be a priest; and whom society at large terms "illegitimate." Closely connected with injury to the innocent child itself, thrust into being without provision for its future needs, is the det riment to society which thus finds itself compelled to assume the duties belonging to the bastard's father. Such children, for whom neither home nor fatherly care awaits, are allowed by him to grow up neglected street waifs, uneducated, untrained, uncared for, filling almshouses, reformatories, and prisons of the land, perhaps to die upon his gallows. The responsibility of such fathers is not a subject of Church teaching; it is simply passed carelessly by, regardless of the unspeakable wrongs connected with it....(But) it was to man alone that Christ spoke out against adultery saying: "Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her, in his heart." To man, Christ also said: "Owing to the hardness of their hearts, Moses permitted a man to put away his wife, but it was not so from the beginning." Man, and not woman, is commanded to leave father and mother; man is to cleave unto his wife, not woman unto her husband....
From Chapter Ten, "Past, Present, Future"
Freedom for woman underlies all the great questions of the age. She must no longer be the scapegoat of humanity upon whose devoted head the sins of all people are made to rest....While constantly teaching that woman brought sin into the world, the Church ever forgets its own corollary, that if she brought sin she also brought God into the world, thus throwing ineffable splendor over mankind....That (woman) was first created for herself, as an independent being to whom all the opportunities of the world should be open because of herself, has not entered the thought of the Church; has not yet become one of the conceptions of law; is not yet the foundation of the family . But woman is learning for herself that not self-sacrifice, but self-development, is her first duty in life....
A brighter day is to come for the world, a day when the intuitions of woman's soul shall be accepted as part of humanity's spiritual wealth; when force shall step backward, and love, in reality, rule the teachings of religion; and may women be strong in the ability and courage to bring about this millennial time. The world is full of the signs of the near approach of this period; as never before is there an arousing sense of something deeper, holier in religion than the Christian Church has given. The world has seemingly awaited the advent of heroic souls who once again should dare all things for the truth. The woman who possesses love for her sex, for the world, for truth, justice and right, will not hesitate to place herself upon record as opposed to falsehood, no matter under what guise of age or holiness it appears.
Endnotes for "Our Struggle is for all Life: The Theosophist/Unitarian Feminist Pioneer Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898 CE)"
(1.) The History of Woman Suffrage Volume One, ed. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 466.
(2.) Matilda Joslyn Gage, "To the Daughters of 1986," in Sally Roesch Wagner, A Time of Protest: Suifragists Challenge the Republic 1870-1887 (Carmichael, CA: Sky Carrier Press, 1988), 107-111.
(3.) Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) 216-217, 222. In this work, Daly attempts to reclaim the word "Hag" from its derogatory meaning within patriarchy and transform it into a positive term meaning "strong, creative women."
(4.) "The Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association," published online at http://www.uua.org/principles.html. Currently, the prevailing UU position is that abortion and assisted suicide are morally and legally valid individual choices. There appears to be little open critical reflection over whether a different position might better honor the professed values of UUs.
(5.) John Algeo, "A Portrait of Theosophy," in A Source Book for Earth's Community of Religions, Revised Edition, ed. Joel Beversluis (Grand Rapids: CoNexus Press, 1995), 82-83.
(6.) See Prolife Feminism Yesterday and Today, ed. Rachel MacNair, Mary Krane Derr, and Linda Naranjo-Huebl (New York: Sulzburger and Graham, 1995).
(7.) [Elizabeth Cady Stanton], "Child Murder," The Revolution, March 12, 1868.
(8.) Matilda Joslyn Gage, "Is Woman Her Own?," The Revolution, April 9,1868.
(9.) All passages in this section are reprinted from Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church and State (Chicago: Charles Kerr, 1893.)
(10.) The "priestly crimes" to which Gage refers are the many historical instances of clergy sexually abusing women--contrary to Jesus's ethic of respect for women. Gage discusses these incidents extensively.
The brilliant scholar/activist MATILDA JOSLYN GAGE (1828-1898 CE) has largely been forgotten--even in the field of women's history, which she pioneered. Yet a century ago, around the time of the first Parliament of the World's Religions, she predicted the re-emergence of the Divine Feminine and anticipated many concerns of the contemporary women's spirituality movement. It is time to remember and learn from her again--as she remembered and learned from countless women before her, including the millions of women systematically executed as witches.
Guest Editor MARY KRANE DERR is a poet, nonfiction writer and longtime participant in interfaith dialogue and other nonviolence projects. Her writing has appeared in Utne Reader, the feminist spirituality magazines Mother's Underground and Daughters of Sarah, the interfaith periodicals Sacred Journey and The Roll, and the disability rights magazine Ragged Edge, among other publications. She is affiliated with the Christian tradition of her Roman Catholic and Protestant ancestors and has also "taken refuge" in the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
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|Author:||Derr, Mary Krane|
|Publication:||Feminism & Nonviolence Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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|Women Without Superstition: "No Gods - No Masters."|
|Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. (Athenaeum).|
|Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. (Athenaeum).|
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