Blog Post

Did You Know the First Feminists Were Christian?

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

Isn’t it ironic that because of the Women’s March that took place in January of 2017, a march that deliberately excluded Christian women who embraced a life-affirming vision of women's equality, the word “feminism” became the most looked-up word in the dictionary for 2017. Obviously, the organizers of the March had no idea that the very concept of feminism began with Jesus Christ.

As we teach our young girls in the Young Women of Grace program, Christianity is what led to the emancipation of women. Ancient pagan cultures treated women as possessions and gave them no rights or privileges. They were generally uneducated in those days and had no way to support themselves and were forced to rely on their fathers and then their husbands to provide for them. However, if her husband decided to divorce her, which was quite common in ancient Rome, she was tossed out with nothing more than her dowry and the clothes on her back. If her dowry was not substantial - which most weren't - and she had no other family to take her in, she spent the rest of her life in destitution.

But Jesus’ teaching on marriage changed everything for women. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11–12).

This teaching marked the first time that men as well as women were forbidden to divorce their spouses, which resulted in unprecedented protection from what was a major cause of female impoverishment and oppression in the ancient world.

In addition, Jesus’ rigorous defense of marriage amounted to another way that Christianity elevated the position of women. It established one moral code that was obligatory on men and women alike, thus putting the sexes on an equal footing that fostered love and commitment between spouses and protection for the family structure.

So when we consider the Merriam-Webster’s definition of feminism as “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes; and organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests,” it becomes overwhelmingly clear that the teachings of Jesus Christ are where the idea of equality among the sexes was born.

But there’s a silver lining in the irony of it all. As Teresa Tomeo points out in her article, "Feminism is a Good Excuse to Spread the Truth," given the fact that the word “feminism” was the most looked up word in Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary, “it’s obvious people are searching for answers.”

What a gift if we could lead them to a better understanding of the true dignity of women, Tomeo writes.

But most of them have no idea what that is unless they are fortunate enough to be introduced to it through programs such as Women of Grace®.

As Johnnette Benkovic writes in Full of Grace: Women and the Abundant Life, everything about woman is ordered to the task of bringing life into the world – and not just physical life.

“Her body, her psyche, and her soul equip her to be a nurturing influence in family life, in professional life, through her religious vocation, and in the world at large.”

This is a critical mission that is desperately needed in the ever darkening world in which we live - and it's a mission in which women should take pride.

But we must be careful not to become overzealous in our haste to help the “pink hat” ladies understand their true vocation. As Tomeo warns, this only turns people off to the message of Christ. However, we can and ought to capitalize on current events such as the #metoo campaign to “start a buzz about what the Catholic Church has identified as ‘New Feminism’, which is really true feminism at its best,” she writes.

“You could discuss how new feminism helps women embrace their unique qualities as well as build on those qualities. . . . You could casually toss out names such as Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta, of course) a brilliant educator, philosopher, and speaker who addressed women’s rights in Nazi Occupied Europe. . . . And most folks, even those who don’t consider themselves religious, are familiar with and might even have a fondness for the very popular Pope St. John Paul the Second; the man who came up with the phrase in the first place.”

As Christian women, we should speak up about the real feminism that we live every day, the feminism that has its roots in the teachings of Christ.

As Teresa says, “ . . . [W]e simply have to start getting up more courage to talk about the beautiful way the Church promotes, protects, and dignifies all of us, especially women.”

It’s only right because, after all, the first feminists were Christians.

© All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace®  http://www.womenofgrace.com

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