Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1848 “Address on Woman’s Rights” is full of Christian imagery. From her unconventional analysis of the Adam and Eve story to her reverence for Saint Joan of Arc, Stanton fills her speech with religious references and biblical allusions. In doing so, the speech advocates for feminism that’s rooted in piety and the pursuit of Christian charity. The speech argues that in devoting themselves to the pursuit of holiness, women can find purpose and meaning in allegiance to God. While they wait for the rest of the world to recognize their worth and bestow upon them their earthly right to equality, Stanton suggests, women should focus on being as morally and spiritually pure as possible.
Throughout her speech, Stanton calls attention to how men have weaponized the Bible against women for centuries. Stanton first points out how men have used the story of the fall of man—the story of Adam and Eve—to claim that men are creatures of “intellect” while women are creatures of “affection.” But in her assessment of the biblical tale, Stanton suggests that Eve was the creature of intellect, and that is why the serpent appealed to her and urged her to consume the apple that would give her the knowledge of good and evil. Adam only ate the apple after Eve urged him to, demonstrating that it was he who was solely motivated by his affection for Eve. Stanton also overturns the presumption that the Bible tells women they must “obey their husbands in the Lord.” Stanton suggests that it is up to women to decide “what is in the Lord”—in other words, women should be able to decide for themselves who is worthy and godly. Women, Stanton suggests, shouldn’t feel compelled to obey men who don’t aspire to moral purity and godliness just because the Bible tells them to. It is up to women—who have developed superior moral fortitude, in Stanton’s estimation—to “sit in judgement on the character of the command.” By pointing out both the fallacies in the biblical creation story and the emptiness of the command for women to “obey their husbands in the Lord,” Stanton suggests that men have used scripture to demean and control women for millennia.
In spite of all this, Stanton argues, women are actually closer to God than men due to the suffering they’ve endured and the moral purity they’ve maintained in the face of “degradation and woe.” Because women have suffered so much for so long, Stanton suggests, they find “earthly support unstable and weak” and more easily recognize that the “only safe dependence is on the arm of omnipotence,” or on God. In other words, women have come to understand that their male counterparts will not readily provide them with the support and validation that faith in God will. Demonstrating faith and courage in the face of “degradation and woe” is a quintessentially Christian value modeled after the struggle of Jesus Christ. Because women have had no choice but to accept inferior treatment for so long, Stanton suggests, women possess an intrinsic “fallen divinity” that makes them more generous and patient. Women aren’t inherently morally superior to men—but their difficult circumstances have taught them to be more tolerant and enduring, which are qualities that allow them to be closer to God.
Stanton reminds the women in her audience that while the fight for women’s rights will be long and difficult, God has promised them equality. “Now is the time […] for the women of this country to buckle on [their] armor. […] ‘Voices’ were the visitors and advisers of Joan of Arc, ‘voices’ have come to us, oftimes from the depths of sorrow degradation and despair,” Stanton tells her audience toward the end of her speech. By comparing the struggle of American women in the mid-1800s to the long-ago struggle of Joan of Arc—a young girl whose visions of angels compelled her to join the French army and resist an English occupation—Stanton suggests that God actually wants women to lift themselves up from the “depths of sorrow.” “Our struggle shall be hard and long but our triumph shall be complete and forever,” Stanton tells her audience, assuring them that what they’re fighting for is something they’ve already been promised by their creator. God, after all, placed women alongside men to enjoy Earth as their home. Now, it is time for women to place their faith in the idea that while there will be a difficult struggle ahead, their creator will not leave them behind.
Until that struggle does compel society to recognize their worth, Stanton suggests, women must focus on maintaining their moral purity and their relationships with God. “Let her know that her spirit is fitted for as high a sphere as man’s,” Stanton urges her audience. She wants women to draw strength from the knowledge that in God’s estimation, men and women are equal. While human society has relegated women to positions of obscurity and inferiority, their “spirit[s]” are just as strong and pure as ever before. “That same voice [that created men] called us into being, that same spark which kindled us into life is from the Divine and […] we are responsible to Him alone.” Stanton wants the women in her audience to recognize that while men hold positions of power in American society, women aren’t going to answer to men at the end of their lives. God “alone” will judge women, and He has already endowed them with the “spark” of the “divine.” Thus, women should rest easy in the knowledge that they’ve been deemed worthy of the same rights as men by a much higher authority than men themselves.
Christianity and Women’s Worth ThemeTracker
Christianity and Women’s Worth Quotes in Address on Woman’s Rights
Suffice it to say for the present, that wherever we turn the history of woman is sad and drear and dark, without any alleviating circumstances, nothing from which we can draw consolation. As the nations of the earth emerge from a state of barbarism, the sphere of woman gradually becomes wider but not even under what is thought to be the full blaze of the sun of civilization is it what God designed it to be.
[Satan] thought that [Adam] could be easily conquered through his affection for [Eve]. But the woman […] could be reached only through her intellectual nature. So he promised her the knowledge of good and evil. He told her the sphere of her reason should be enlarged […] so he prevailed and she did eat. […] Eve took an apple went to Adam and said "Dear Adam […] if you love me eat." Adam stopped not so much as to ask if the apple was sweet or sour. […] His love for Eve prevailed and he did eat. Which I ask you was the "creature of the affections"?
In my opinion he is infinitely woman's inferior in every moral virtue, not by nature, but made so by a false education. In carrying out his own selfishness, man has greatly improved woman's moral nature, but by an almost total shipwreck of his own. Woman has now the noble virtues of the martyr, she is early schooled to self denial and suffering. […] Then [man] says by way of an excuse for his degradation, God made woman more self denying than us, it is her nature, it does not cost her as much to give up her wishes, her will, her life even as it does us. We are naturally selfish, God made us so. No!
Let woman live as she should, let her feel her accountability to her Maker— Let her know that her spirit is fitted for as high a sphere as man's and that her soul requires food as pure as refreshing as his—let her live first for God and she will not make imperfect man an object of reverence and idolatry— Teach her her responsibility as a being of conscience and of reason—that she will find any earthly support unstable and weak, that her only safe dependence is on the arm of omnipotence.
Wives obey your Husbands in the Lord. Now as the command is given to me, I am of course to be the judge of what is in the Lord and this opens a wide field of escape from any troublesome commands.
I think a man who under the present state of things has the moral hardihood to take an education at the hands of woman and at such an expense to her, ought as soon as he graduates with all his honours thick upon him take the first ship for Turkey and there pass his days in earnest efforts to rouse the inmates of the Harems to a true sense of their present debasement and not as is his custom immediately enter our pulpits to tell us of his superiority to us "weaker vessels" his prerogative to command, ours to obey—his duty to preach, ours to keep silence.