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The Christian Origins of Feminism

Muriel Porter lives in Melbourne and is a familiar speaker at Anglican meetings such as Synod. She’s written ‘The Christian Origins of Feminism’, found in Maryanne Confoy, Dorothy A Lee and Joan Nowotny’s Freedom and Entrapment: Women Thinking Theology. Porter has an agenda in writing this piece: she’s an avid supporter of women’s ordination and wants to show that the movement for it in the Anglican church is not a product of selling out to the women’s lib movement.

Although the tone of this article is difficult, Porter has some valuable things to contribute.

Porter traces the development of a women’s rights movement in Britain, the US and Australia to show that first wave feminism (the women’s suffrage movement) was a Christian movement. Her treatment of Australia is pretty eastern-states-centric, focusing on convict identity and omitting the earliest suffrage afforded to women, like in South Australia in 1894. However, she convincingly demonstrates that those calling for women’s suffrage were Christians.

Porter then argues that the Christian call for women’s suffrage was not limited to the political sphere. Firstly, it was given religious grounding. For example Judith Sargent Murray argued in 1790 that women ought to receive education now because they were to spend eternity “contemplating the works of the Deity”. Secondly, discussing women’s role in society in these early days was not separated from their role in the church. For example, the ‘religious rights of women’ were to be discussed alongside their social and civil rights at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights. Social emancipation was thought to go hand in hand with religious emancipation for women.

Thirdly, Porter notes that the first Australian woman minister was ordained in 1927 and that it continued to be discussed in the ensuing decades with Methodist Coralie Ling ordained in 1969. Because these precede the women’s liberation movement in any organised sense in Australia (she dates its beginning to 1969-70), Porter argues that it is incorrect to see the women’s ordination movement as a reaction to the women’s liberation movement.

What is Christianity’s relationship to feminism then? Porter argues that the second-wave women’s movement is the daughter (or perhaps granddaughter) of the church though it has left it far behind, a separation she laments as “tragic and unnecessary”. She and others calling for the ordination of women ought not to be identified with the second wave but rather with the first, that is, those Christians who struggled for the suffrage of women. It’s at this point that I found Porter a little naive. I take it that even if advocates of women’s ordination don’t identify as women’s libbers, they have gained momentum from the movement. Her evidence for the ordination of women prior to 1970 is just a little too sparse. It’s not that there’s no evidence there; just that there’s a marked increase after 1970. I think you have to see an interplay there; even if only by an accident of history, the women’s ordination movement has in some way been fed by the women’s lib movement.

The most difficult thing about this article is its tone. It’s dotted with short sentences (“About time.”) and exclamations (“Shock! Horror!”), along with value judgements: “How quickly the knives were out… to destroy the women’s movement.” It also brands today’s conservatives as just as backward as those who refused women the vote. (“Nothing has changed.”) For an article that seeks to distance itself from the stereotype of the angry feminist, it comes across a little bitchy.

However, what I appreciated about this article was an attempt at recognising that there’s more to being an egalitarian than being sold out to culture. It also reminds us that there’s more to being a feminist than the 1970s stereotype.

Categories: History Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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