Christian feminism, pioneered in the 19th and early 20th centuries by such notable figures of Catherine Booth, Frances Willard, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made huge strides in the advancement of women’s rights, religiously and politically. However, this advancement came at the cost of increasing anti-judaic rhetoric. In forming their theological position, many Christian feminists did so by blaming the Old Testament and Judaism for its patriarchal systems. To them, it was only in Christ and the “New Kingdom” that one could find a table of equality.
This theological supersessionism is nothing new. Christianity has a long history of anti-Judaism, filled with the political power to forbid, restrict, and kill Jews, and as Judith Plaskow writes, “they have had the more subtle power of any dominant group to impose their own world view without the slightest idea that they are doing so” (101). Out of this context, Christian feminism emerged, and just because feminists declared equality for all women, did not mean the inherent prejudices of their social context dissipated. Instead, the anti-Judaic fervor of the New Testament became interlaced with feminist rhetoric. The “Old Testament” was the hotbed of the God of wrath and patriarchy and the “New Testament” was a life-giving spring of Christ and grace. Many Christian feminists have worked ardently to reclaim the figure of Jesus and to proclaim his uniqueness against the backdrop of his patriarchal context.
However, by positioning the conversation in this way, Jesus is pitted against his own religious context of ancient Judaism. Christian feminists believe he somehow represents an entirely new order, yet as Plaskow implores, “If we acknowledge that the Jesus movement was a movement within Judaism, however, then whatever Jesus’s attitudes towards women, they represent not a victory over Judaism but a possibility within early Judaism” (105). Patriarchy was not born from the Bible. Patriarchy is a pervasive social habitus that communicates women are subordinate. People participating in patriarchal systems may use texts, ideas, and religious rhetoric to support and perpetuate said structure, but that is their conscious and subconscious interpretive choices.
Christian feminists can do more than decry the ethos of the Old Testament in favor of the freedom of the New Testament. While Jesus may have treated women better than others, all one has to do is read the gospel of Thomas’ closing line, “Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males,'” to see how patriarchy has always been present within the Christian story. It does not serve us well to soften the patriarchal undertones of early Christian texts in our supersessionist theology; this only serves to erase the tangible oppression of Christian women’s history.
By elevating the figure of Christ as a feminist icon over and against the wrathful God of the Old Testament, we not only perpetuate the centuries long anti-judaic supersessionism of Christianity, but we ignore the ways in which patriarchy is as much a part of the Christian story as any other religious community. Christ may represent an important step within an ancient Jewish context of recognizing women, but we have 2,000 years of patriarchal suffering to account for. Treating women better is not the same as treating women socially, politically, and economically equal. There is more work yet to be done, and we do not need to continue the trope of justice/mercy, law/grace, wrathful Father/ savior Son in order to achieve equality.
I am much indebted to the work of Judith Plaskow. Quotations are taken from her seminal paper, “Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God.”