A Brief History of Women – Contemporary

(The first installment in this series is A Brief History of Women – Ancient Western World, followed by A Brief History of Women – Religion)

As time progressed and the modern age came into view, women gained more rights.  They were allowed to file for divorce, own property and dispense of it as they pleased, and do things on their own time and will.  Simultaneously with this advance in action and rights, their reputation in the world remained negative. Academic and literary circles still regarded them as immature children who needed protection.  “Lord Chesterfield’s letters speak of women as ‘only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle. . . .A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and flatters them.’. . . Schopenhauer and Nietzsche constructed elaborate portraits of women’s inferiority.  To Schopenhauer they were ‘childish, frivolous and shortsighted’ and existed ‘solely for the propagation of the species’; Nietzsche . . . thought that a man who believed they were equal to himself was a ‘shallow’ man.”[i]


Rousseau wrote in Emile that “the whole education of women should be relative to men.  To please them, to be useful to them, to win their love and esteem, to bring them up when young, to tend them when grown, to advise and console them, and to make life sweet and pleasant to them; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they ought to learn from infancy.”[ii]  Freud was among the worst misogynists because he was so well known and respected.  He spoke to an audience in 1933 about the “problem of femininity” and warned his audience “Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem—those of you who are men; to those of you who are women this will not apply—you are yourselves the problem.”[iii]

In the time since the 1970s, women have finally been awarded the proper respect and freedom that we deserve.  Harriet Mills describes the philosophy that drove the women’s liberation movement: “We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another portion, or any individual for another individual, what is and what is not their ‘proper sphere.’  The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.”[iv] Women have come miles and miles in terms of natural rights, freedom and opportunities. We can learn to read and write without getting into trouble.  We can even attend college with men.  It sounds ridiculous to even mention it, but that was not the case a few generations ago.  We can pursue careers and receive honors from the world.  We are given the position that we have been denied for so long and are finally free to achieve in our proper sphere “the largest and highest which [we] are able to attain to”.

This movement has been a blessing and a blight.  In the church we realize that the highest sphere we can attain to is still within the walls of our home as we work with our families and lead them back to God.  The women’s movement has helped to boost our respect and position in the world, but it has also tragically encouraged women to leave the place that they are most needed.

Differing opinions in the church and outside of it about the perceived status of women may be one of the reasons why the girls laughed in my institute class.  Even though women’s physical position in society has changed markedly in the last century, it has not changed in the church.  Most of the developed world has recognized women’s capabilities, talents and strengths as they have seen women competing and succeeding in a male-dominated world.  Our reputation and respect in the world has been helped by the efforts of feminism and women leaving the home for the business world, but, in the church we have not embraced the feminist movement because it takes women out of the homes.

Women in the church do not have the same view of their fellow women because many have rejected the parts of feminism that takes women out of their homes.  We understand that we do not need to leave our homes and our children to prove our worth to the world. Even though we have largely rejected the movement of women out of their homes, we need to embrace the thought of the feminist movement and see ourselves as equally capable, intelligent and talented in our own God-given roles.  Because we have not changed our physical situation, many women in the church have not found it necessary to shift their thinking to recognize how remarkable women really are and how worthy they are to be included in any gospel discussion and the Scriptures.

[i] Gilman, 52-53.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 41.

[iv] Ibid., 55.

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