Dora B. Montefiore, New Age, June 1905

Women’s Interests

“The Religion of Women”

Source: New Age, p. 345-346, 1 June 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Mr. H.G. Wells, among some other of his startling prophecies, has announced that at the end of the twentieth century, when all educated men will have sloughed off dogma and revealed sanctions, women will still flock in crowds to the Churches and will still unquestioningly accept revelation, with its resultant intellectual and spiritual submission to ecclesiastical authority. Fortunately there are thinkers and writers of no mean merit who, realising that the word “educated” is the pivot on which the whole question turns, are striving to make up to women for that lack of real education which is still too often the lot of the girl of the family. We, as a nation, think we have made of late years great strides in education, and we flatter ourselves that girls have equal opportunities with boys in elementary instruction; but there are still huge gaps in the equality of opportunity between the sexes where real education is concerned; and immense inequality amongst the upper and middle classes in the amounts spent on the education of sons and of daughters. Such writers, therefore as Mr. John M. Robertson and Dr. Joseph McCabe, who, though possessing no illusions as to the educational disadvantages under which women suffer, yet feel that, given equal opportunities, there is no inherent reason why women in the mass should be for ever laggarts in the intellectual race – write with the special object of supplementing for women the niggardly store of intellectual training they may have received as girls; such writers are deserving the special gratitude of all women thinkers and workers. Among the most lucid and-stimulating of these books written specially for women is that which I am considering to-day: The Religion of Women, by Dr. Joseph McCabe.

A carefully made inquiry.

Dr. McCabe accepts the general consensus of opinion that woman in the main is a conservative force, both in thought and action; the tendency to variation, which is essential to any advance, having found embodiment more particularly in man. He reminds woman, however, that the consciousness of having such an “organic bias” should make her “more careful as to what she conserves, more resolute to use her reason and judgment on the opinions she hands to her children.” He then makes a careful inquiry into the possible reasons why women in the present day are more loyal than are men, as a sex, “to the faith that is passing from our midst.” He suggests three possible reasons for their loyalty; the widely spread belief that the Christian Church has a peculiar title to the gratitude of woman for the share it has had in liberating her from the tyranny or the contempt, or the ill-usage of man; the more emotional and refined nature of woman, which affords greater hospitality to the religious instinct than does that of man; and because women, as mothers feeling acutely the moral need of ideas in the training of children, are impelled to retain as much as possible the Church influence which has so long been the only agency in the formation of character. He then enters on a detailed inquiry as to the position of women under Pagan culture, in the early Christian Church, and in the Middle Ages, and makes it fully clear to any woman of ordinary intelligence, who is prepared to listen to the voice of reason rather than that of prejudice, that, far from having to thank Christianity or the protection of ecclesiastical authority for ameliorations in her position, woman has to record under the Canon or Church Law a steady loss of rights and of dignity. The fundamental principle on which this Canon Law was based was the inferiority of women; and inspired by this fixed idea of the inferiority of our sex, the Church “deprived her by law of the control of her person and property, of the resource of legal testimony, and made her morally and economically dependent to a pernicious extent on her husband.” The woman of the people was, even in later medieval days, a chattel of the estate; “she was sold into slavery to her husband by her father, and was treated with a different legal code from her brother. The ducking-stool, the scold’s bridle, the stocks, and other such institutions, ensured her submission and silence. From the Church she could get no word but ‘obedience,’ man was made in the image of God, but not woman.”

The effect on woman’s position of the Renaissance and Reformation.

Dr. McCabe quotes Burckhardt to prove that the effect of the re-introduction of Greek culture into Italy was “that women became equally esteemed with men”; and that culture was equally accessible to both sexes. “As regards the Reformation, though it altered the conditions of women, it can hardly be said to have improved them”; and in proportion as the Old Testament idea of women grew in strength, so the laws and the social customs which kept them in an inferior position prevailed. Our author then pursues his inquiries along the line of the present woman movement, and the attitude towards it of the Churches. He quotes from the recently published History of Woman Suffrage in America, in which the author writes: “Throughout this protracted and disgraceful assault on American womanhood the clergy baptised each new insult and act of injustice in the name of the Christian religion, and uniformly asked God’s blessing on, proceedings that would have put to shame an assembly of Hottentots.” When the gifted pioneer women here attacked by the Church came to London to speak at the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, they were preceded by a flock of these American clergymen, who came to stir up the clergy of England against this dreadful ambition of a hitherto docile sex to speak in public.” As a contrast to this blind hostility Dr. McCabe cites the names of Godwin, Robert Owen, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, George Holyoake – “just those who most radically abandoned Christianity.” Humanists and Rationalists in the widest sense of the words, who were the most logical and ungrudging in their plea for women. It is towards this “Humanism of To-morrow” that Dr. McCabe points the attention of the thinking and aspiring woman of to-day. He bids her inquire of the past and of the present, and take note of the reasons for the faith that may be in her. He appeals to her motherhood, to her inherited sense of the necessity for the moral training of the young, to her emotionalism, and her religious instinct in its highest expression, and charges her to fix her attention on, and study, the causes of “the vast transformation of the religious institutions of our time.” If, he urges, man can be persuaded that he is the maker of this world (on its moral side) and there is no other world beside it, he will begin to work at its amelioration with an energy he never knew before. Test this principle, and the application of it which most nearly concerns women. If this social order, which oppresses them, is purely man-made, how straight and clear the way becomes for the task of remaking it.” I recommend this most thoughtful and yet popularly written little book to all women who are thinking and working in the cause of the emancipation of humanity; and am glad to be able to add that it will soon appear in a sixpenny form, and in that guise can make its entry into every home in the land.