The First True Champion of Women’s Rights: Jesus Christ

Even though International Women’s Day celebrates many champions of women’s rights, too many of these figures represent a narrow view of women’s rights that are mostly defined by liberal versions of “gender equality.” But anyone who knows their history knows that the single greatest champion of women’s rights – and the one who set the tone for all others to come – is none other than Jesus Christ.

Even though this secular culture is loath to admit it, the fact remains that the emancipation of women began when Jesus Christ came into the world and created a whole new meaning of the dignity and vocation of women. He did this not with His words, but with His whole attitude toward women.

As St. John Paul II explains his landmark encyclical on women, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women). “It is universally admitted – even by people with a critical attitude towards the Christian message – that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promotor of women’s true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity. At times this caused wonder, surprise, often to the point of scandal.”

In the time of Christ, men did not converse publicly with women, but Jesus openly defied those conventions. Not only did He speak with them, He ministered to them, healed them, cast out demons, and allowed them to follow Him.

For example, He spoke with Mary Magdalen when she was crying over his feet (Luke 7:39); He healed the woman who was suffering from a hemorrhage for 18 years (Mark 5:25-34); He cured Simon’s mother-in-law who was dying of cancer (Matt 8:14-15); He brought the daughter of Jairus back to life by speaking tenderly to her, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mk 5:41); He brought back to life the only son of the widow of Nain whole death would have plunged the woman into abject poverty (Luke 7:11-17).

Although these passages highlight the tender mercy of Jesus, they also point to another quality of His that is too often overlooked – that of ministering to women in a time when this behavior was almost unheard of.

“In all of Jesus’ teachings, as well as in His behavior, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in His day,” St. John Paul writes. “On the contrary, His words and works always express the respect and honor due to women.”

The Church has continued Jesus’ tradition of defending womankind in her teachings and although she has done this very imperfectly at times throughout the centuries, these core beliefs remain embedded in her teachings. In fact, these teachings are what caused so many women to convert to Catholicism in the earliest days of the Church because of the unheard of protections they provided for women.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the area of marriage and divorce.

In many ancient cultures, when divorce occurred, a woman was stripped of all rights to her property, which automatically reverted to her nearest male relative. Because women were generally uneducated in those days and had no way to support themselves once their husband left them, divorce usually meant instant poverty for a woman.

Jesus’ prohibition of divorce not only established Christianity as the only religion in the history of the world to demand monogamy from its members, but it offered women unprecedented protection from what was a major cause of female impoverishment in the ancient world.

“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).

In all of the thousands of documents written on this subject by the Fathers of the Church, there is not a single dissenting voice on the essential core doctrines of marriage, divorce and remarriage.

“You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it; but divine law forbids it,” wrote Basil the Great in his Commentary on Luke (Sec. 8.5). “Anyone who obeys men should stand in awe of God. Hear the Word of the Lord, which even they who propose our laws must obey: ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’”

In the misogynistic world in which women lived at the time, such a rigorous defense of marriage amounted to yet another way that Christianity elevated the position of women. It also established one moral code that was obligatory on men and women alike, thus putting the sexes on an equal footing that in turn fostered covenantal love and commitment between spouses and protection for the family structure that mirrored Christ’s covenantal relationship with the Church.

The Church’s long-standing defense of human dignity has also been a source of protection for women through the ages because it opposes anything that offends this dignity, such as all kinds of violence and abuse, viewing these acts as a sin against the whole of humanity and a sign of serious disrespect for the image of God. This is yet another teaching that dates back to the time of Christ.

As John Paul explains in his 1995 Letter to Women: “When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever-relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love (No. 3).”

Modern feminists might apply their own definitions to “gender parity,” but the Church has been preaching true gender parity since the time of Christ. And not because it’s the latest politically correct position. Her belief in gender parity is based on that fact that because God created women as equal to men, they deserve to be treated equally in society.

In its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, she states: “The feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, therefore the presence of women in the workplace must also be guaranteed. The persistence of many forms of discrimination offensive to the dignity and vocation of women in the area of work is due to a long series of conditioning that penalizes women who have seen ‘their prerogatives misrepresented’ and themselves ‘relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.

“These difficulties, unfortunately, have not been overcome, as is demonstrated wherever there are situations that demoralize women, making them objects of a very real exploitation. An urgent need to recognize effectively the rights of women in the workplace is seen especially under the aspects of pay, insurance and social security.”

On this day when women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to thank and praise the Man who was the first to not only recognize the dignity of women, but who was also willing to die for them.

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