Faith In Feminism

Women airbrushed from Church history?

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Today’s Christianity may seem hierarchical and male dominated. Was this the case back in the earliest days of the Church? Did women play a bigger role back then, and have they become invisible due to the male authors of our Biblical texts and church histories? I asked these questions to Kate Cooper, Professor of Ancient History at Manchester University and author of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women.

VB: Hi Kate, your book suggests that women have been “airbrushed” out of Christianity’s history?


           // Professor Kate Cooper //     

KC: That’s right. The number and vitality of women in the history of Christianity just dazzles the imagination once you begin to notice them. The annals of Christianity are full of heroines – thousands of them – women of all ages and all walks of life. Interestingly, many of them were independent women, for whom the Christian movement offered a safe social space for living without a husband or father.

People aren’t aware of this because the evidence was never ‘picked up’ to become part of the grand narrative. But if you dig into the data, you see that the women were there, and they had enormous influence in their own time. We are not talking about wallflowers!

While I was writing Band of Angels I was thrilled to discover that the many individual early women I had studied over the years were not an isolated phenomenon – they were part of a bigger picture. Once you start to notice them, your view of the whole picture changes – it’s like having a black-and-white image suddenly come into living colour. Actually, I think this is probably true in many traditional societies –women are there behind the scenes, networking like mad and getting a lot done, but our eye is trained not to notice them.

VB: Why haven’t we heard more about them; in what ways are our eyes trained not to notice them?

KC: People in who control channels of information tend to privilege stories that are of interest to the powers that be. We see this today as well – the London Review of Books was recently outed for producing entire issues in which not a single book reviewed was by a woman, and not a single reviewer was female. The people responsible don’t see this as favouritism – they simply imagine that everyone finds men more interesting than women, since that is their own view.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find a trace of women if we look for it. Across the Middle Ages, women had their own religious communities, which meant that they were able to preserve their own traditions of memory. Oral traditions within families tend to die out within three or four generations, whereas a monastery – especially if it has a library and members who are willing to write things down – can keep its own distinctive traditions alive for centuries.

Christianity started on a high for women, but sadly, as the Church became more institutional women played less and less of a role in the decision-making process. This meant that their concerns and interests were often side-lined, even in writing the history of the Church.

VB: Today many people tend to think of Christianity as intrinsically paternalistic and hierarchical. Has it always been that way?

KC: Nothing could be further from the truth – there has never been a single Christian position on this issue. People have been arguing about women’s role since the days of Mary and Martha. Historically we can see that Christianity has a strong tradition of supporting inspired female leadership – the lives of the saints are full of powerful women. But there has always been an undertow of male self-infatuation and posturing. Christianity hasn’t been the only movement in history to suffer from male self-posturing, but it has certainly had its share of it!

The earliest Christian movement was an unstructured ‘viral’ movement similar to the Arab spring. The evidence suggests that women played a central role – this is something I go into in depth in Band of Angels. But over time, as the Christian communities started to drift toward becoming more structured, there seems to have been a leadership crisis.

It is very difficult to keep strong-arm tactics from beginning to dominate in an unstructured and idealistic movement, especially one that is going to last across time. To the extent that Christianity has solved that problem, it has been by cultivating a cycle of periods of reform and revival, to give a voice to people who feel that the core values of the movement are being distorted by the powerful.

VB: Can you give us an example of this?

KC: My favourite example of ‘growing pains’ in early Christianity over the issue of leadership comes from the second-century Gospel of Mary, which records an argument between Mary Magdalene and two other disciples, Peter and Levi.

Peter argues that anything which Jesus said privately to Mary – not in front of the male disciples – should be discounted, because Jesus would never have said anything important to a woman. Essentially, if Mary knows something Peter doesn’t, it has to be suppressed in order to flatter his claim to greater importance. To his credit, Levi steps in on Mary’s side. He tells Peter that his arrogance is destroying the Church – now that Jesus is dead there are too many people who want to establish new structures and are willing to distort Jesus’ original message in order to do so. Levi then exits, announcing that he is going forth to preach the Gospel of Mary.

We can’t be sure that this conversation ever took place, but we do know with absolute certainty that by the early third century people were telling stories like this about the age of the apostles. (This is the date of the earliest papyrus fragment to attest that part of the text, so it is the latest possible date for the story.)

VB: I like the Gospel of Mary – glad to hear that you’re championing it. How would you answer those who say it shouldn’t be read by Christians as it’s not in the official canon?

KC: Some people have dismissed the Gospel of Mary as a ‘Gnostic’ gospel, but this is inaccurate. The gospel’s theological views are not indisputably Gnostic, and it was never condemned as heretical. In all likelihood, it simply represents the diversity of the earliest Christian movement which was later ‘written out’. (Indeed, many Biblical scholars think that Gnosticism itself reflected older traditions of diversity that were written out in the third and fourth centuries, but that’s another story.) Second-century Christians were worried that the Church’s original tradition of honouring women’s contribution was being compromised.

91e--LRyBgL._SL1500_VB: Let’s talk about women bishops – does your research shed helpful light on to the debates we are currently having in the Church?

KC: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that those of us who want to see women in charge are not inventing something new –are trying to learn from the earliest era of the Church.

But bishops as we know them aren’t a phenomenon of the New Testament period in any case. The greek word ‘episkopos’ as it is used in the New Testament simply means ‘supervisor’. Early Christian community structures were very informal, and there is a lot of evidence that women were often in charge. So all the arguments about biblically based male headship are really just the elaborations of a later tradition of male privilege anyway. They don’t really reflect the historical core of the faith.

VB: How do you see the relationship between Christianity and Feminism; predominantly compatible or incompatible?

KC: Christianity carries a lot of baggage about gender issues – there is no question about that. It is the product of an ancient Mediterranean peasant society. But on the other hand, across two thousand years it has proclaimed the message that in Christ ‘there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female’ (Galatians 3:28). That single phrase has offered strength to every generation of women – and quite a few men – since the days of the Apostle Paul.

In fact, the nineteenth-century traditions of female critique of the powers that be – especially but not only the Abolition movement – had their roots in Christian activist networks and Christian traditions of prophecy against injustice. This is not to say that the Bible isn’t frequently used by bullies as an excuse for their bullying – but bullies can always find an excuse.

VB: How do you feel about it personally?

KC: For my own part, I can’t see the point of having to give up my faith just because men have behaved badly. Also, it would be throwing away one of the most important things that connects me to women of earlier generations – to my own mother and grandmother, of course, but also to the amazing early Christian women who lived in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria – women who faced enormous hardships with bravery, and whose sayings have been handed down through the centuries as a source of inspiration.

VB: How would you answer those who say non-religious feminism is purer and free from the baggage that comes with patriarchal religion?

These days, secular feminism tends to be in bed with a Richard Dawkins view of the world, and I find that disturbing. Dawkins and co. have taken advantage of people’s historical and theological ignorance, and made them feel that they can’t be religious if they don’t want to believe in fairy tales. That is a view of faith that has nothing to do with the early Christians. For them, faith was a matter of trusting relationship – to a human community and to an essentially unknowable force governing the universe.

Ancient theologians were very clear that talking about God in an anthropomorphic way was a pastoral short-hand for thinking about the vast and unknowable reality of Being which Plato had described centuries earlier (they were very ecumenical in their reading). But people who see money to be made in bashing Christianity try to take advantage of the fact that most people imagine ancient people’s heads were full of nonsense.

VB: So you see patriarchal elements within secular world-view that concern you as much as the patriarchal elements within Christianity?

KC: Religious feminists – whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim – tend to argue that a secular framework has its own dangers for women, because its communication systems are all controlled by the capitalist race for profit. The capitalist cultural framework is driven by exploitation – whether of labour or of resources.  For women, a particularly important knock-on effect of this emphasis on profit is the exploitation of bodies and sexuality. Advertising and the media encourage both men and women to perceive women and children as sexual objects. This is patriarchy at its most insidious.

As a parent, you worry about the message that your kids are getting – that their primary identity is as a consumer or an object of exploitation – one or the other. Exploitative images are in use everywhere to sell a product or gain an audience, and this leads young women to internalize the message that making themselves visually and even sexually attractive is the best way to gain value in the social game. I’d argue that it’s urgently important to counteract their influence.

As a scholar, I worry about how many feminists have been ‘taken in’ by the capitalist mind-frame to the point where they distrust anything else.

Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ movement, for example, has been criticised for suggesting that the glass ceiling for women in the corporate world is caused largely by women’s own unwillingness to be more assertive. It’s good that business women are doing what they can for other women within their commitment to the capitalist philosophy, but there needs to be an alternative out there. We need to complement Facebook Feminism with something a bit more humanistic, and to tell women that they are valuable aside from their ability to be an attractive object to look at. That’s where faith comes in.

VB: Before we finish, tell us a bit more about the inspiring early Church women you have been writing about…

KC: Gladly. My all-time favourite is a figure of legend, a teen-ager called Thecla whom second-century Christians believed had run away from an arranged marriage to join the circus as it were – except that the circus was the missionary community of the Apostle Paul. She was enormously plucky and lived through terrifying adventures, and the crazy thing is that from the second to fourth centuries, early Christian girls were repeatedly encouraged to look to Thecla as an example. She is still revered as an apostle by the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have another young woman who is all-too-real. This is the martyr Perpetua, who kept a prison diary in the days before she was thrown to the beasts. Surprisingly, half of the diary covers successive arguments with her father, who kept coming to the prison and trying to talk her into accepting an offer of amnesty if she would burn incense as an offering to the gods of Rome.

Finally, another of my all-time favourites, the child-empress Pulcheria, who lived in the early fifth century. The last chapter of the book is about her struggle to defend her brother, the emperor Theodosius, who was only seven when their father died – she was nine. Her stroke of genius was to choose the Virgin Mary as their protector from the various usurpers who were threatening to claim the throne. Pulcheria encouraged the Christian poets of the day to write hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary as a kind of warrior-goddess protecting the imperial city of Constantinople and its emperor, and this flutter of court patronage seems to be at the root of what became the Cult of the Virgin Mary. So it turns out that Mary is quite a feminist icon after all!

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You can follow Kate on Twitter @kateantiquity

For more information on Kate’s book, Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, visit

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

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