By the 1870s, the topic of women’s rights, and specifically a woman’s right to vote, was a matter of common public discussion. The fifteenth amendment, which was ratified in 1870, gave black men the right to vote, but it ignored the question of women’s suffrage. Women’s suffrage and anti-slavery had been linked since the beginning of the abolitionist movement, but the separation of those two political aims led to the founding of the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, both of which institutionalized the pursuit of women’s suffrage. The question of women’s suffrage was no longer one that could be ignored, as when abolitionists made it a secondary concern to the pursuit of emancipation and black male suffrage.
But, just like abolition and black male suffrage, the cause of women’s rights stirred up fierce opposition, often based on readings of the Bible. Both American Protestants and American society more generally had long discussed the roles of women. By the early republic, the assumption was that women’s roles ought primarily to be domestic. American Christianity, especially the endless array of benevolence and auxiliary movements to the church, did give women a source of authority and action in public, but even in those cases that authority was often assumed to come from women’s domestic role.1
Whenever those assumptions were challenged, the challenge provoked backlash. And very often that backlash was tied to discussion of key texts from the Bible, like Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands.” While other texts like Colossians 3:18 were also prominent, the text from Ephesians was especially important because of the other kinds of relationships discussed in that passage. Specifically, the following chapter also offered these commands: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1) and “Servants [i.e., slaves] be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh” (Ephesians 6:5). Women’s role in the home and in politics was tied, by suffragists and anti-suffragists alike, to wider considerations about authority and politics. Ephesians 5–6 thus gave commenters the ability to discuss these relationships broadly.
In sermons on Ephesians 5:22, but also in essays and editorials published in newspapers, that text was frequently used to associate women with the home and with obedience to their husbands. The lines of that interpretive consensus were fairly clear. One of the chief ideas about “the New Testament woman” was that the home was the “sphere of her activities and ministries” and that a woman “spontaneously and joyfully recognizes the husband as head of the household.” In contrast to the joyfulness with which Christian women were to accept their role, there was an implication that some women did not: “The New Testament woman is not of those who call the proper headship of the husband, tyranny, and the corresponding subjections of the wife, slavery, and seek emancipation and elevation in a persistent loud-mouthed cry for equality.”2
These sermons and essays had to acknowledge that submission was not likely to come by easy, even if it was supposed to be joyful. Why should women be expected to submit to their husbands? The common answer was that submission was not in fact natural for women, just as love was not natural for men. Men, who had “stern, strong natures” and a “high sense of manliness” had to learn how to love. A woman, on the other hand “needs no special encouragement to love,” because that was her nature. But by nature she was inclined to rebellion, and so she need encouragement to “subordination” and “submission.”3 The answer, in other words, was that both men and women had fixed natures, and that Ephesians 5 was targeted at the failings in each.
Women’s fixed nature, which desired to master her husband rather than submit to him, was sometimes explicitly connected to the fall and the curse God put on Eve in Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” That verse was often interpreted to mean that women’s desire would be to rule over their husbands, rather than by ruled by them. The key, as told in a serialized Christian novel called Her Lot; or, How She Was Protected, by a Mrs. A. J. Duniway, was that women needed to be loved, as husbands were commanded to do by Ephesians 5, if they were to submit.4 Women could, however, succeed in “governing husbands,” as a few tongue-in-cheek articles put it, if they tried a different tack. If she avoids “smart and pert opposition,” and instead submits to him and puts his judgement over her, then “he melts with tenderness and love; he is at my feet.”5
This passage in Ephesians 5 had a number of other potential applications in understanding the importance of the church and in explaining husbands’ responsiblities to their wives. By and large, the quotations that made it into newspapers did not address these questions. There were a few exceptions, such as the report of an ordination ceremony in the Methodist Episcopal Church which used this text.6 People who quoted the verse did frequently call for husbands to love their wives, an element of the text which could scarcely be avoided, and which was part of the theory about how women’s submisision should work.7 But it was rare that an essay or sermon was primarily about a man’s duties from this text, rather than a woman’s.
It was far more common, as long as slavery was the predominent issue in American politics, to understand questions about women’s rights in terms of the same kind of political and familial authority that justified American slavery.
Abolitionists argued that the Ten Commandments made the family the first institution and that slavery destroyed that first institution including by making it impossible for women to submit. For example, the minister John H. Power claimed that “the system of slavery … makes it impossible for the enslaved to perform the duties God requests of husbands and wives, parents and children, in the decalogue.” He concluded that “the decalogue—the moral law of God—is immutably opposed to the system of American slavery.”8
The other view, however, linked the submission of women, children, and slaves as part of the benevolent purpose of God. In 1844 James Shannon, the presdent of Bacon College, a small Christian college in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, argued that because human sin and “all the misery on earth originated in self-will,” “the philosophy of Slavery [i]s identified with the philosophy of Human Happiness.” To curb the human will, God benevolently cursed slaves to submit to masters, children to submit to parents, and wives to submit to husbands. “Man,” however could not submit to some other human, so God cursed him to submit to nature and to work for his bread (see Genesis 3:19).9 Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian pastor and ardent apologist for slavery and the South well after the Civil War and emancipation, likewise tied women’s submission to slavery. Because women refused to accept their natural place, to accept “Women’s Rights” was to “make up our minds to surrender our Bibles, and have an atheistic Government,” with each home presided over by “an infidel woman.”10
However strongly the authority of husbands, fathers, and masters were defended via this text, there was also both strong rejections of the text and alternative interpretations of it. Often the marriage vows were a point of contention. For instance, when a Richmond preacher spoke from this text, he claimed that “I have been asked over and over again to leave out of the marriage ceremony the word ‘obey.’ My reply has been, why should I leave it out, when the Word of God has laid such specific emphasis upon that condition of the marriage contract?”11 Another article attacked women who sought to revise the words “obey and serve him” out of the Book of Common Prayer.12
At other times, men (real or fictitious) who invoked this text were held up to ridicule. One humorous article recounted a wife’s complaints about a husband who chewed tobacco; the husband lamely attempted to bolster his authority by reading Ephesians 5:22 at family devotions.13 Another story told of a man who heard that a woman hit her husband with a hammer, and urged a newspaper editor to print this text lest other women follow her example.14 Another article, purportedly a news report, described a man who was sued for divorce by his wife for whipping her with a ramrod. He claimed to have the right to do so on the basis of Ephesians 5:22 and Proverbs 31:13.
Alternative interpretations of this text were not frequently found in newspapers, even though women like Katherine Bushnell were advancing interpretations of these texts that upheld traditional Protestant views of scriptural authority while rejecting the specific interpretations that subordinated women to men.15 But there was also evidence in the newspapers that women both accepted the legitimacy of the biblical text and supported women’s rights. For example, the author Elizabeth Wilson’s book, A Scriptural View of Woman’s Rights and Duties, received notice from several papers. One paper offered the backhand compliment that the debate over women’s rights would be revived until such time as Wilson had children who otherwise occupied her.16 Another review, though, praised the author for having “a very intimate knowledge of the holy volume, besides great controversial skill.”17
But whenever women advanced their interpretations of the Bible, they were just as frequently refuted. Women’s rights activists were attacked as supporters of free love and opponents of the home.18 Or they were attacked as infidels. The Bible and suffrage could have nothing to do with one another: “They have the same affinity as water and oil. If female suffrage is right the Bible is wrong; if the Bible is right female suffrage is wrong.” Lucy Stone and other women’s rights activsts were specifically attacked for denying texts like Ephesians 5:22.19
In one striking example, a newspaper article relayed mutiple layers of a debate. The Daily Missoulian ran an article in which a woman claimed that the “Kingdom of God knows no male or female” and that it “makes no distinction between man and woman” (a view attested to by Galatians 3:28). For each scriptural text like Ephesians 5:22, she mustered other texts from the Bible. The Missoulian subsequently ran a reader’s refutation, in which he dismissed her counter texts with his own arguments.20 The result was three layers of debate: text, countertext, and refutation.
The nineteenth century saw the start of a woman’s rights movement in the United States. There were essentially three poles around which opinions of texts like Ephesians 5:22 could be viewed. One view saw the Bible as a divinely ordained text that taught patriarchal authority: over wives, children, and slaves. Another view accepted that interpretation as being what the Bible in fact meant, and therefore rejected the Bible’s authority. A third view upheld the Bible’s authority, but rejected the notion that Ephesians 5:22 or other texts, rightly interpreted, subordinated women. The image above shows laid out on the newspaper page the ways in which these disputes played out, with text marshalled against text and with interpretations that saw women as equal usually coming in for opposition and ridicule (figure 4). These nineteenth-century debates then set the pattern for continuing discussion of the text into the present.21
Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013). ↩︎
Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA), 21 March 1871, p. 1. Dabney’s most famous work was a defense of slavery published after the Civil War: Robert Lewis Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, and through Her, of the South (Hale, 1867). ↩︎
See Kristin Kobes Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2015), 98, 141. ↩︎
Cf. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020); Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos Press, 2021). ↩︎