Having recently re-read Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, a now classic text on feminist biblical hermeneutics, I am prompted to mention a highly significant moment in the field that came almost a century earlier. Schüssler Fiorenza leads off with a discussion of The Woman’s Bible, a commentary project spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton that appeared in 1895 and 1898. She outlines two main contributions from her predecessor:
1) Biblical interpretation is a political act. At the turn of the twentieth century as at the twenty-first, readings of Scripture function for good or for ill in concrete experience – and for women it is surely most often the latter. Cady Stanton found a major impetus for scholarly and feminist interpretation of the Bible in the fact that “throughout history and especially today the Bible is used to keep women in subjection and to hinder their emancipation.” Christian biblical apologetics – efforts to “rescue” Paul as a “liberationist,” for example – attest to the force of this function. Some of Cady Stanton’s suffragist companions and forbears adopted a similar apologetic path by distinguishing androcentric interpretations – often including skewed translations, which these women were able to root out with their study of Greek and Hebrew – from the Scripture “itself.” Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza herself fruitfully and incisively attends to this dimension in contemporary scholarship.
2) But where she sees Cady Stanton making a distinctively valuable move for her time is in this second contribution. Beyond the need for a “depatriarchalization” of male-dominated biblical interpretation, Cady Stanton argued that “the Bible is not just misunderstood or badly interpreted, but that it can be used in the political struggle against women’s suffrage because it is patriarchal and androcentric.” Her analysis thus brought to the fore a human authorial role that challenged doctrinal understanding of the Word of God as verbally inspired revelation. In this sense she also foreshadowed the work of scholars such as Phyllis Trible who writes of “texts of terror.” While concluding that much would have to be jettisoned, Cady Stanton did advocate the retention of many biblical teachings and lessons; each passage on women warranted careful evaluation.
Schüssler Fiorenza will go on to undertake a feminist reconstruction of the life and practice of the early Christian communities that adds an additional hermeneutical layer to what is operative in Cady Stanton’s project. However, The Woman’s Bible continues to exercise a considerable – if elsewhere implicit – influence on feminist biblical scholarship. Likewise it foretells the response well-known to feminist theologians trying to carve a way between disciplines and within political and ecclesial commitments. Despite being a hot seller (okay, maybe publishing success is not so familiar!), The Woman’s Bible was met with ire and condemnation from clerical authorities and churchly status-quo types. Unsurprising. Yet, Cady Stanton also found herself at odds with other suffragists who considered her biblical endeavor an unnecessary and irrelevant foray; the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association “formally rejected it as a political mistake.” Schüssler Fiorenza’s summary of one of Cady Stanton’s arguments for the political necessity of feminist biblical interpretation resounds still today:
No reform is possible in one area of society if it is not advanced also in all other areas. One cannot reform the law and other cultural institutions without also reforming biblical religion which claims the Bible as Holy Scripture. Since ‘all reforms are interdependent,’ a critical feminist interpretation is a necessary political endeavor, although it might not be opportune. If feminists think they can neglect the revision of the Bible because there are more pressing political issues, then they do not recognize the political impact of Scripture upon the churches and society, and also upon the lives of women.
While I vaguely remember reading something of The Woman’s Bible in a high school text book, I was edified to learn more of its history and history of effects by way of Schüssler Fiorenza’s work. Now as a Christian feminist (feminist Christian? — let’s save this one for another post!) myself, I am also challenged. In recent weeks I have continued to reflect on and appreciate Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s wit, acumen, and perhaps above all, courage.