World Student Christian Federation - Asia-Pacific Region (WSCF-AP)
Contact Us !

Woman and Christianity

by Mother Mary John Mananzan, OSB

The roots of women’s oppression in religions were recognized in an ecumenical consultation of Church women held in Manila in November 1985 and attended by participants from seven Asian countries. They wrote in their composite statement:

As Church people, we have come to realize that the highly patriarchal churches have definitely contributed to the subjugation and marginalization of women. Thus we see an urgent need to reexamine our Church structures, traditions, and practices in order to remedy injustice and to correct misinterpretations and interpretations and distortions that have crippled us. We saw how theology itself has added to these distortions. We unearthed theological premises, traditions, and beliefs that have prevented us from becoming fully human and have blurred the image of God that we are.[1]

This is corroborated by Denise Lardner Carmody, who writes:

Beyond doubt, major religions of the world have a dubious record with regard to women... For example, Buddhist women could not head the religious community. Hinduism usually held women ineligible for salvation. Islam made a woman’s witness only half that of a man. Christianity called a woman the weaker vessel, the more blurred image of the Image. Jewish men blessed God for not having made them women.[2]

There was, however, an equal conviction that there are liberating forces in religion. Whether oppression or liberation, there is no doubt about the tremendous effect of religion on women. Much of women’s self and social image is derived from religious values. Thus a study of religions is of the utmost importance for women’s self-understanding of their situation. There is a need “to winnow the wheat of authentic religion... from the religious sexist chaff.”[3] This paper will confine itself to the reflection on women and the Christian religion.

The Goddess Cult

One of the problematic issues in religion that affects women is the prevailing male notion of God. It is interesting to go into the roots of the formation of this male God’s image because before patriarchal monotheism, religions existed with a Goddess as dominant divine image or together with a male God. It must be a surprise to Christians of today to find out that the most ancient human image of God was, as archaeology shows, female.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, in her book Sexism and God Talk, describes one of the different forms of these goddesses, the Goddess of fertility:

Their figures typically emphasize the breasts, buttocks, and enlarged abdomen of the female; hands and legs are given little attention. This suggests that the Goddess is not a focus of personhood, but rather an impersonalized image of the mysterious power of fecundity.[4]

There is also the Primal Matrix form, the great womb which generates all other forms of creation. In Sumer and Babylon, the Goddess is paired with male gods. A corresponding sacerdotal class of both male and female members presides over the cultic sacrifices. But there is no complementarity involved in this pairing of male and female forms of God. Rather there was an equality.

There is also the famous Goddess Isis in Egyptian religion whose cult encompassed the ancient Mediterranean world. This Goddess incorporated in herself the characteristics of other goddesses. She could cure the sick, raise the dead; she gifted nations with language and astronomy, the art of weaving, painting, etc. She is also full of mercy and compassion and is sometimes considered the precursor of the Mary-cult of Christianity.[5]

The great oriental religions also had female forms of God. Hinduism has a tradition of the Great Goddess religion which worshipped a female divinity under many names and forms.

In Philippine history there are no traditions of women goddesses. However, it is significant to note that the word for God, Bathala, does not have a sexist connotation. In the primitive Tagalog script, the word “god” is made up of three consonants Ba-Tha-La. The first consonant is the first syllable of word babae (woman) which symbolizes generation. The third consonant is the first syllable of lalaki (man) which symbolizes potency. They are joined by the middle consonant, an aspirated H which means light or spirit. The word “god,” therefore, means the union of man and woman in light. And when one reads the word backwards, it reads LaHatBa, meaning total generation, total creator (“to do,” or creador). In other words, the concept of god among the ancient Tagalogs was more closely linked with woman; and, when linked with both the concepts of man and woman, there is nuance of union and mutuality, not subordination. (See “The Filipino Woman: Before and After the Spanish Era” in Part 3.)

There are also Filipino legends concerning diwata, such as Maria Makiling, who was supposed to inhabit a mountain and who brought peace, calm, order, and well-being in the community.

The point of this discussion is to establish the fact that the male god image, which is taken for granted in Judaeo-Christian culture, evolved in a certain period of history during the establishment of patriarchal monotheism. It is therefore not true of all times and of all cultures, but is actually “a sharp departure from all previous human consciousness.”[7]

Women and the Christian Bible

Throughout the history of the Church until now the Bible has been used to justify the subordination and discrimination of women, and yet women, not men, are the most constant believers in the Bible or God’s word.

First it has to be noted that the Bible was written in a patriarchal society. Although its authors are unknown, the books of the Bible have been attributed to men writers, have been interpreted by men, and have been taught for the last two thousand years by men.

In the monotheistic patriarchalism of the Hebrews, God was considered a patriarch. There was a pronounced male domination over women. It had a double standard of morality favorable to men. Women were considered properties of their fathers or husbands. The women’s main contribution was bearing children. That was why to be barren was a curse. Needless to say, they were excluded from cultic participation except as spectators. They had to observe ritual purification for menstruation and childbirth.

However, in spite of these limitations, prominent women emerged in the Old Testament. There were such women as Deborah, the mighty prophetess; Esther, who saved her people; Ruth, a symbol of fidelity; Judith, who was considered an honor of her people and the glory of Israel; Delilah, Thamar, and others.

The movement that Jesus of Nazareth initiated was a movement critical to the then prevailing Jewish society. Elizabeth Fiorenza writes:

As a renewal movement the Jesus movement stands in conflict with its Jewish society and is “heretical” with respect to the Jewish religious community. The earliest Jesus traditions expect a reversal of all social conditions through the eschatological intervention of God: this is initially realized in the ministry of Jesus. Therefore the Jesus movement can accept all those who according to contemporary social standards are marginal people and who are, according to the Torah, “unclean”: the poor, the exploited, the public sinners, the publicans, the maimed and the sick, and last but not the least, the women.[8]

Therefore, it is not surprising that Jesus’ treatment of women went against the accustomed attitude of the Jews. Jesus took women seriously and chose them as disciples and primary witnesses: for example, Mary Magdalene and three women who witnessed the empty tomb. He not only talked publicly with the Samaritan woman, he even engaged her in a theological discussion and revealed his mission to her. He was forgiving of the woman taken in adultery and put up the Syro-Phoenician woman as a model of faith. He gave his Mother, Mary, a significant role in his mission.

In the early Christian communities, the character of the Jesus movement found expression in the abolition of social distinction of class, religion, race, and gender. (Gal. 3:28) Gentiles, slaves, and women assumed leadership functions in the missionary activities. Prisca, for example, together with her husband Aquilles played an important role equal to St. Paul’s. So did Thecla and Lydia, and other women who played prominent roles in the development of the early Christian communities.

Unfortunately, the egalitarian elements in the Jesus movement gradually got eliminated in what Fiorenza calls “ecclesiastical patriarchalization.” This was a part of the “apologetic development of cultural adaptation that was necessary because the early Christian missionary movement, like the Jesus movement in Palestine, was a countercultural conflict movement that undermined the patriarchal structure of the Graeco-Roman politeia.”[9]

This ecclesiastical patriarchalization led to the exclusion of women from church offices; women had to conform to their stereotyped role in patriarchal culture. It was no longer woman’s call to discipleship that wrought out her salvation but her prescribed role as wife and mother.

Women in Church History

The ecclesiastical patriarchalization went on relentlessly throughout Church history. The Fathers of the Church reacting against Gnosticism, which allowed the female principle in its concept of the godhead, became increasing misogynistic in their writings. Tertullian, for example, lashed out against Gnostic women as “heretical, bold, and immodest because they presumed to prophesy, teach, exercise, and baptize.”[10] To him is attributed the harsh words addressing women:

Women, you ought to dress in mourning and rags, representing yourself as patients bathed in tears, redeeming thus the fault of having ruined the human race. You are the door of hell: you, finally, are the cause why Jesus Christ had to die.[11]

Origen castrated himself because he believed marital relations lessened the efficacy of prayer. St. John Chrysostom blamed women for the sins of David and Solomon, and described women as a storehouse of spittle and phlegm. Augustine avowed: “I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the height more than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.”[12]

The doctors of the Church were no better. Thomas Aquinas considered women as “misbegotten males.” Gracian propounded:

Different kinds of temptations make war on man in his various ages, some when he is young and others when he is old: but woman threatens him perpetually. Neither the youth, nor the adult, nor the old man, nor the wise, nor the brave, nor even the saint is ever safe from woman.[13]

Because of this there was a significant stress on vowed celibacy both for men and women. With the establishment of monasteries, a communal life of celibates with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience took form. In time, convent life became circumscribed by the rules imposed by clerical authorities who are, of course, male. In the sixth century they prescribed the cloister of all nuns which was to be kept strictly.

In the Middle Ages there emerged a systematic persecution of charismatic women who were condemned as witches. In 1484 a tract was published entitled “Malleus Maleficarum” (The Hammer Against Witches), which was an anthology of the product of fevered imaginations regarding the alleged habits, characteristics, and evil techniques of females given over to Satan. Between the 13th and 18th centuries, about a million women including Joan of Arc were burned to death as witches.

In spite of this, some women of the Middle Ages broke through the repressive situation into the limelight, like Juliana of Norwich, a famous mystic; St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and St. Therese of Avila, who were famous for their scholarship; and St. Catherine of Siena, who had tremendous influence on popes and bishops in important ecclesiastical matters.

The Protestant Revolution that did a lot to promote the role of the laity failed to do the same for women. In fact by restraining devotion to Mary and by suppressing the convents, the Reformation removed several of women’s safety valves. Even Martin Luther was ambivalent about women. He failed to see the sexism in biblical patriarchalism. He still preached that the role of women was procreation and nurturing. However, the emerging Lutheran and Calvinist Churches did recognize the social and theological role of women. They accepted women preachers in the 17th century. The Quakers recognized sexual equality and produced great women preachers like Elizabeth Houton, Mary Dyer, and Elizabeth Fry.

In the 19th century Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science and renewed the Father-Mother image of God. Likewise Catholic women of the counter-reformation, such as Angela Merici and Louise de Marillac, broke through the restrictions to engage in social services.

In the 20th century, in the advent of the feminist movement, the emancipation of women in the Church sees its first real glimmer of hope.

Women in Philippine Church History

The pre-Spanish Filipino society cannot be called matriarchal, but the Filipino women did enjoy equal status with the men. The mujer indigena received equal inheritance; her training was the same as her male counterpart. The wife enjoyed the same right as the husband in marriage including the right to divorce. She participated in managing the domestic economy as well as in agricultural production. She could be a “pact holder,” which shows equality in political-leadership opportunities. She had a preeminent role in religious cult, being the priestess, babaylan, who offered sacrifices in all the important events celebrated by the community.

In the 16th century, Spain brought Christianity and Western civilization with its patriarchal society to the Philippines. The same misogynistic trend that was present in the Western Church was, of course, brought to the island, as shown in the following instruction to parish priests in the colony:

Woman is the most monstrous animal in the whole of nature, bad tempered, and worse spoken. To have this animal in the house is asking for trouble in the way of tattling, talebearing, malicious gossip, and controversies, for wherever a man is, it would seem to be impossible to have peace and quiet. However, even this might be tolerated if it were not for the danger of unchastity. Not only should the parish priest of Indians abstain from employing any woman in his house, but he should not allow them to enter it, even if they are only paying a call.[14]

The friars spared no effort to mold the Filipino women to the image and likeness of the Spanish women of the Iberian society of their time, where their lifestyle did not differ much from that of a contemplative nun of today. Schools for girls were established, and manuals for young girls were translated to the values, concept, and prescriptions of the friars ingrained in young girls. The cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary was introduced to complete their domestication. (There is of course a liberating way of honoring Mary.) The product of this friar education was later personified in the sweet, shy, docile, and pious Maria Clara, the heroine of Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere.

Later on, during the Propaganda movement, the ilustrados who were trying to awaken the national consciousness of the people denounced the friars’ exploitation of Filipino women and their domestication that Spanish religious education had affected. In spite of these massive efforts to subdue the Filipino women, individuals broke through the mold in different epochs of history, like Gabriela Silang, Tandang Sora, and Gregoria de Jesus. An interesting example is that of an unnamed woman during the Ilocos Revolt who dared to preach against the parish priest who made the indignant denunciation:

Last Sunday, I preached again to the people exhorting them to their obligation and vassalage to the sovereign so that those who have remained faithful until then would maintain their sentiment without prevarication. While I was preaching, a woman had the nerve to also preach, saying that they should not believe me, that everything I said were lies and that in the name of God and the Gospel, we do nothing but deceive them, so that we Spaniards could fleece them, well we (the friars) are also Spaniards like all the others.[15]

But apart from the individual women who have defied their domestication and in spite of the growth of the women’s movement even among Church women, the great majority have internalized the stereotyped roles Church and society have assigned to them.

Women in the Church Today

This section will have to treat separately the Protestant and the Catholic Churches. It will also discuss the matter taking into consideration the teachings, the practices, the structure, and the ritual of the Churches.

The Catholic Church still holds a conservative view of women. Church teachings on family life still emphasize the “obey your husband” dictum. It allows only the natural methods of family planning and has not lifted its ban on divorce.

Its moral theology still focuses on the “sins of the flesh” with a certain bias against women as “Eve the temptress.” It offers the model of Mary as Virgin-Mother, which is difficult for Catholic women to emulate.

The hierarchy refuses to take the ordination of women seriously even if progressive theologians find no fundamental reasons for the discrimination. Although women are the most active in Church service functions and activities, they are deprived of participation in the major decision-making processes. Celibate priests continue, in fact, to make the rules and prescriptions governing marriage and family life. The structure is hierarchical and clerical, and women have no part in both.

In the liturgy, there is still a sexist tone addressing the assembly as “brethren,” praying for the salvation of “mankind,” and exhorting to love one’s “fellowmen.” The women are given minor roles in the liturgy, but they shoulder the more burdensome preparations behind the scenes and the “making order” after each celebration.

In spite of the lack of legal authority, however, religious women have a vital role in the Church. In the Philippines they enjoy a credibility among the faithful which surpasses that of the priest. They are also among the conscientized and are active in groups and people’s organizations that are in solidarity with the struggle of the poor and the oppressed. Lately they have become aware of themselves as women concerned with the “woman question” and are contributing to the emancipation of their sisters toward a full development of their personhood.

The structure of Protestant Churches is less hierarchical than that of the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops are elected and pastors are petitioned by the parishioners. There is normally a national conference where the laity is represented in the decision-making. In some protestant denominations there is already ordination of women pastors. However, in actual church practice there are still many things left to be desired. I will let Protestant women speak for themselves. Ruth Kao writes:

There is a Women’s Department Secretary working in the main assembly of the Church… In the local Church we have women deaconesses and for about fifty years we have had women ministers. But there are very few women in the decision-making bodies of the Presbytery or the Assembly. But we are now educating ourselves to be more self-reliant and to encourage our women to take part in these activities.[16]

Audrey Rivera, associate general secretary of the Student Christian Movement in Sri Lanka, shares her views:

About two years ago, the Methodist Church accepted the ordination of women and right now at the Lanks Theological College they have about four or five women candidates for the ministry. They have already ordained two deaconesses into the full ministry of the Church. These two women [serve] as full-time pastors of their Churches. Since their involvement with the Church has been a long-standing one, their acceptance in the role of pastor was an easy transition. However, a great deal of new ground will have to be broken by the new candidates when they go into the pastoral role. This is in some ways an unequal expectation because there are higher expectations from the women than the people have of the male candidates.[17]

Saramma Jacob of the Syrian Orthodox Church of India pinpoints the problems of women in her Church:

Women in our Church have two urgent problems. They are: 1) to have voting rights in the Church, 2) to be admitted to theological seminaries. Though women are faithful in worship, they do not have equal rights with men in the Church. Men believe that they represent women as well. Regarding entering seminaries, there is a belief that women do not need theology.[18]

Cynthia Lam, women’s secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, laments:

In the Church, women play a traditional role, preparing Holy Communion. Women’s opinions are not respected. They are not taken into consideration. Women are expected to be obedient to the leaders and not to speak up. But it is the women who teach Sunday school, prepare the worship, and do home visitations. Although there are more men than women in most congregations, there are more men than women in decision-making bodies. So in practice the minority lead the majority.[19]

Efforts at Renewal: The Feminist Theology of Liberation

It is not enough to analyze the situation of women in the Churches or to pinpoint the roots of women’s oppression in religion. It is imperative that out of this analysis, efforts must be exerted to remedy the situation through participation in women’s movements. Women trained in theology must also rethink the discipline itself and bring about a transformation within the Churches. Hence, the feminist theology of liberation. Ruether delineates the critical principles of such a theology:

The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women: whatever denies, diminishes, distorts the full humanity of women, and is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of woman must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine nor to reflect the authentic nature of things, nor to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or the community of redemption. This negative principle also implies the positive principle: What does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, it is the true nature of the thing, the authentic message of redemption, and the mission of redemptive community.[20]

The agenda of renewal must include all aspects of theology: from the reinterpretation of scriptures, to the historical-critical reflection of Church doctrine from the women’s point of view, to the rediscovery of the great women of Church history, to the fundamental questioning of the Church hierarchical structure, its constricting prescriptions, its discriminatory practices, and the sexist language of its liturgy.

This will lead to the stripping away of women’s false consciousness, freeing them to discover themselves and their potential and to fully blossoming. In the running over of this bliss, they, together with all peoples of God, will use their energy towards the transformation of society into “a new heaven and a new earth.”

  1. From the Proceedings of the Asian Women Consultation (Manila, 1985), p. 221.
  2. Denise Lardner Carmody, Women and World Religious (Nashville: Pantheon Press, 1979), 14.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rosemary R. Ruether, Sexism and God Talk – Towards a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 48.
  5. Christa Mulah, Maria – die Geheime Gottin in Christent.
  6. Carmody, Women and World Religious, 41.
  7. Ruether, Sexism and God Talk, 53.
  8. Elizabeth Fiorenza, “You Are Not to Be Called Father: Early History in a Feminist Perspective.” Cross Currents 29/3 (1979), p. 315.
  9. Ibid., 316.
  10. Carmody, Women and World Religious, 120.
  11. Quoted in M.J. Mananzan, “The Filipino Women “ in Essays On Women (Manila: Institute of Women’s Studies, 1987), 22.
  12. Quoted in Carmody, Women and World Religious, 122.
  13. Quoted in C.R. Boxer, Mary and Misogyny (London, Duchworth, 1975), 100.
  14. Casimiro Diaz, quoted in Essays On Women, 27.
  15. Apuntes Interesantes sobre las Islas Filipinas por un Espanol de larga experiencia en el pais y amante del progreso (Madrid, 1870), 59.
  16. Ruth Kao, quoted in “Emerging Patterns in the Women’s Movement in Asia,” God’s Images, December 1985/February 1986, 15-16.
  17. Ibid., 17-18.
  18. Ibid., 22.
  19. Ibid., 24.
  20. Ruether, Sexism and God Talk, 18-19.