Christianity transformed the world for women.
That is a very big claim, but it really is not an exaggeration. I’ll show you some of the evidence that backs it up below.
Today, we simply take it for granted that men and women are of equal value and equal ability, and we build our modern Western societies around that understanding. Women have the same rights in law as men, inherit equal shares with their brothers, have (at least in theory) the same access to education and careers, and so on. What most people don’t realise is that as a matter of history, it was, by and large, Christ and Christianity that made this possible. To put it somewhat simply, before Christ, women were not considered equal to men or treated as equal to men. The teaching and example of Christ are the foundation upon which equality of the genders came about. To claim that without Christ, women would still be unequal today would be speculative (equality might have come about some other way). But the claim that equality actually came about in history because of Christ is on pretty strong ground. Long before ‘feminism’ became A Thing, Christianity was turning the world upside down and revolutionising how we all think of women. Here, I am not engaging in the modern debates over the role of women in society and in Church. I am just pointing some very important facts of history—in very broad strokes (there’s a lot of detail and nuance that won’t fit in a blog post)—that are often neglected in such debates.
Social inferiority of women was the general case before Christ came into the world. There were always exceptions here and there, particularly among the rich or powerful, but the overall prevailing attitude and practice was that women were inferior. And this continues to be the case—to differing degrees—in societies that have not been influenced by Christianity, whether directly or indirectly. The sources of Western culture are paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, so I consider the place of women in each of these in turn.
The pagan worldview is a very hierarchical one, with the gods at the top and inanimate matter at the bottom. Somewhere in the middle sit human beings, below the gods but above the animals. And there is a human hierarchy too. At the top, just below the lesser gods, are the rulers, then the aristocrats, then the soldiers, the businessmen, the craftsmen, and so on. At the very bottom of this hierarchy, just above the animals and in some ways like them are children, slaves, and women. This was thought to just be the order of nature, as this recent book review of a book on the great Greek philosopher Aristotle (c. 300BC) explains:
It’s all about blood … Because moral virtues such as courage and moderation develop out of our natural character traits, which are largely the result of our physiology, which rests ultimately on the material composition of our blood, moral virtue has its origin in blood. If you have the right kind of blood — i.e., hot and thin, like that of Greek men — your chances of achieving moral virtue are good. If you don’t — if your blood is hot and thick, like that of the spirited but stupid northern barbarians, or cold and thin, like that of the cowardly but intelligent southern barbarians, or, worst of all, cold and thick, like that of women, who are naturally cowardly and stupid — your chances of achieving virtue are slim … It turns out, then, that there are, for Aristotle, what Leunissen calls ‘morally unlucky groups’ who have little to no chance of achieving moral virtue and living happy, flourishing lives. It turns out, in other words, that whether one becomes virtuous and happy is largely a matter of luck. Significantly, women, barbarians, and ‘natural slaves’ are among these morally unlucky groups. Full moral virtue is for free-born, male Greek citizens alone. For just about everyone else, bad luck.
This view is remarkably prevalent in ancient pagan cultures (though not always with such a clever explanation as Aristotle’s!) Women are—forgive me, this is not me saying it—naturally weak, stupid, and incapable of living good and moral lives. It’s not their fault, any more than it is the fault of an infant. It’s just nature.
Judaism represents a significant—though quite incomplete—advance on this view. In the Old Testament we find Adam and Eve described as being of one flesh and bone. Eve is formed from Adam’s side, so the stuff of which she is made (including her blood, presumably) is the same as the stuff of which Adam is made. Abraham and Sarah seem to have a very balanced relationship, with Abraham often consulting with and listening to his wife and doing what she suggests. Of course, throughout the history of the Hebrews, they were surrounded by pagan societies and influenced by them to some extent, culminating in the disastrous desertion of the True God for the worship of idols and the subsequent destruction of both Israel and Judah. It is no surprise that during these periods of pagan influence, the Hebrews often treat women as pagans did. And some of this ingrained pagan thinking echoes in later Jewish law and practice, such as the quaint ancient prayer to be prayed (till today) by devout Jewish men each morning:
Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a goy [Gentile].
Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me woman.
See https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/three-blessings/ for the history of this prayer.
Later in history, Islam would take on this pagan attitude to women in somewhat more emphatic form. Under Islamic law based on the Quran, the witness of one man is given the same weight as the witness of two women (Al-Baqarah282). Financially, a daughter’s share of an inheritance is just half the share of a son’s, even if there are no sons, in which case an only daughter only inherits half her father’s estate (Al-Nisa 11). Further, men are in charge of how a woman spends her money, while a husband is to discipline an unruly wife (but never a wife, her husband) by first scolding her, then depriving her of his bed, and finally beating her (Al-Nisa 34).
It’s important to remember that Jewish and Islamic believers have interpreted such prayers and instructions in very different ways in different times and places—the same also applies to Christian history. But the point here is that these assumptions of inequality are built into the teaching of these faiths, a very different situation to the Gospel of Christ.
At the core of this difference is the teaching that is the core of Christianity: divine, unconditional love. This is the love that is embodied in the Incarnation of the divine Logos in a human being. The Creator empties Himself to become one with the creation. The pagan natural hierarchy is turned upside down. This is one reason for the terrible persecution of Christians by the worried pagans: “If you Christians upset the natural hierarchy by claiming a god could actually become a puny man, the gods will be angry and hurt us all. We have to stop you at any cost!” But Christians did not think God needed to protect Himself and the hierarchical order of His creation. They understood the chief characteristic of divinity as being love—and therefore understood this love as drowning distinctions of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ in an ocean of loving self-giving: God to human; human in return, to God; and therefore; human to human. Today, we read Paul’s words without blinking an eye, but for many right-thinking pagans, these words are false, dangerous, evil, and appallingly irresponsible:
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The Gospel of Christ is first and foremost the Gospel of Love. Everything the Christian says, does, or understands must be built on this love, on pain of being not truly Christian. The pagans laughed and jeered the Christians because they were ‘stupid’ enough to love slaves and treat them as equals.
But Christians did not only love slaves and treat them as equals, they loved children and were horrified at the pagan practice of infant exposure (leaving weak infants out in the open to die) because they dared to think the life of a child of equal value to the life of an adult. And they loved women and treated them as equal to men.
This begins with Jesus who broke so many of the Jewish customs of His day in regard to women. In the Gospels we read of His female disciples who proclaimed the resurrection to the male disciples (Matthew 28:10). The sinful womanwho washes His feet with tears is righteous, while the prim man who judges her is the real sinner (Luke 7:36–50). Those who stand by Him in His darkest hour are mostly His female disciples, while His male disciples scatter in fear (John 19:25). And of course, while the male John the Baptist is greatest among those born of women (Matthew 11:11), it is a woman—His mother St Mary—who is the Queen of heaven, above not only every other human being (including males) but even above the angels, as later Christian tradition would attest.
We have already read St Paul’s attitude to human distinctions. He speaks of the relationship between husband and wife as being like that of Christ to the Church—that is, a relationship of mutual loving self-emptying and mutual humble self-giving (Ephesians 5:22–33). I wonder what the average pagan would make of the idea that a man should sacrifice his life to save an inferior woman’s life? And more practically, many of those who served with Paul were women, playing major roles in building the young Church (such as Lydia of Thyatira, Acts 16:14–15). Paul mentions the couple Priscilla and her husband Aquila—his fellow workers in the Church—three times in his letters. Two of those three times, he mentions Priscilla first.
This social equality of women is evident the early Church. In the third century, the Christian Origen responds to the pagan Celsus’ derision of Christianity as being a weak “religion of women.” When monasticism develops in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine from the third century on, both men and women flock to it. Stories and wise sayings of the Desert Mothers sit among those of the Desert Fathers, and visitors to Egypt observe that the women outdo the men in their zeal and asceticism. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop, sits at the feet of his sister Macrina and is gently corrected and educated by her on the nature of the soul.
From Christ, through the Apostolic Church, and then through Christian history, men and women are equal in Christ as a core matter of faith. Without the equality of ability, worth, and value of all humans—male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, adult or child—the Christian Gospel of Love rings hollow. It unravels and becomes self-contradictory. Sure, women were not always treated equally by Christians in real life. The pull of power corrupted many Christian communities throughout history, but these inequalities are not expressions of Christianity, but departures from it.
On the other hand, if Christ had never come into the world, if we were all still pagans, there is a good chance we would never had had the compelling foundation of a worldview where power distinctions are swallowed up and rendered meaningless in the ocean of divine love. Without such a foundation, who knows if we would ever have come to believe and to live as though every single human being is of equal value and worth, and deserves to live in a society that sees them as such?