Cover photo © LDS Church
Recently I realized that I am a feminist. I want to see men and women treating each other as equals and seeing each other with equal value and potential. This newfound identity as a feminist came as a surprise to me, because all my life I have been bombarded with so many conflicting stereotypes about feminism. For years, I thought feminists were radical men-haters. With the rise of the Ordain Women movement, feminism has also been cast in a negative light within the Church. But I learned that feminism, like all ideologies, has a spectrum of belief that can’t be defined by its outliers. When I looked into both sides of the feminist spectrum, I found a middle ground that I totally identified with: men and women on equal playing fields, working together toward common goals. What a beautiful concept! What I’ve realized, however, is that we aren’t there yet. In my exploration of feminism, I’ve also realized that we have a perfect example to look to to get there, and that example is the Savior himself, Jesus Christ. Jesus was one of the only prominent men in written history that was recorded as treating women as equals, and a lot can be learned from his example.
Throughout history, women have been treated as unimportant or corrupt. One example of someone who gets a bad rap is Mother Eve. Christian and Jewish commentators alike have viewed her succumbing to the temptation of the serpent and partaking of the fruit as the cause of all the sin and evil in the world. Many believe that if it wasn’t for Eve, we’d all be living in some fantastic paradise without sin or worry. They subsequently extended that blame onto all women, and we quickly became viewed as unholy and inferior to men. Ancient Jewish tradition also cast women in a negative light. As seen in the Mosaic Law, women were deemed as ritually impure after giving birth. While they had some responsibility over household religious rituals, they were largely excluded from religious activity, which was handled by men. An early Christian philosopher, St. Augustine (354-430 a.d.), argued that only men were created in the image of God, and women were intellectually, physically, and morally inferior. St. Jerome (347-419 a.d.) said that if women choose a life of virginity, they could become more spiritual: “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is as different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.” Woah. These are Christian thinkers, the men who founded modern religious thought. Talk about a bad influence.
Views on women got really interesting with the Greeks. Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato saw women as mere casualties of a birth defect. Women were simply imperfect men whose primary purpose was to procreate rather than companionship. The relationship that existed between men and women paled in comparison to the relationships between men and men. These prominent thinkers and philosophers have peppered history with ideas of women’s subordination and inferiority. Keep in mind, these commentaries and ideas were all written by men because females were not given voice in ancient times. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks in her book Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe quoted a verse taken from Canterbury Tales (1483) where the Wife of Bath said:
My God, had women written histories
Like cloistered scholars in oratories
They’d have set down more of men’s wickedness
Than all the sons of Adam could redress.
How would history change if there were more female voices? What if male historians painted females in a more positive light? Unfortunately we will never know. Modern feminist initiatives have led to a huge shift in the ancient views on women and gender roles. But due to the intense repression of women throughout history, this paradigm shift was never made earlier, except with one distinct exception: Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ contradicted the traditional stereotypes held against women. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks pointed out this contradiction to the male perspective on women when she said,
“Jesus himself spoke frequently to women and included them in his followers, sometimes to the embarrassment of his male associates. He preached that men and women were equally capable of achieving life after death and that women as well as men should not let their domestic responsibilities come before their spiritual well-being. Many of his parables use women as positive examples or relate things that would have more meaning for women, leading some contemporary scholars to view Jesus as a feminist” (Wiesner-Hanks, 20).
Jesus came into a heavily patriarchal setting and treated men and women as equals and preached that both were equal in the eyes of God. There are three examples in the scriptures that really demonstrate Christ’s love and compassion towards women.
The first example comes from John 4, where Christ stops at a well while traveling through Samaria (a place Jews normally avoided). At this well, he meets a Samaritan woman who has been put away by five husbands who all left her for one reason or another (perhaps due to a lack of fertility). She was not married to the man she was with at the time of meeting Christ. Christ discerned all of this about her without having to hear her story, yet with her less than desirable status as a Samaritan woman living outside of the law, Christ spoke to her with all the respect and understanding He gave to His own disciples. Here was a man who didn’t give a thought to any societal constructs, but loved the individual.
Next we have a very tender scene where a woman was caught in adultery. This was one of the most severe accusations that could be placed on a woman at the time, punishable by stoning or even death. Instead of taking care of the problem themselves according to the law, the men who accused the woman wanted to humiliate her further by taking her to be judged by Jesus. They saw this as an opportunity to catch Christ contradicting himself, and they gave no thought to the woman they were making a public example. The first thing Christ did when they asked what should be done with such a woman was point out the weakness of everyone present in keeping the Law of God. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). He made sure everyone understood their equal status as sinners in the eyes of God. Once the accusers had left, He then tenderly turned towards the woman and made sure she understood that everyone, her and her accusers, would have an equal opportunity to become reconciled with God and forgiven of all their trespasses. He admonished her as he would admonish his male disciples: “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Finally, we have a beautiful example of the woman who bathed Christ’s feet with her tears. He went to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. A woman who was a notorious sinner heard he would be there and went to meet this Great Rabbi. She brought with her an alabaster box full of ointment and washed the Savior’s feet with her tears, anointed them, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. First off, the feet were considered unclean and unholy in the Jewish tradition — the most humble gesture a person could make was to wash the feet of another. Not only did this woman kneel before her master and wash his feet, she wiped them with her hair which was considered to be the glory of the woman (1 Corinthians 11:15). Thus, this woman put forth the greatest demonstration of love and humility a person could exhibit. She didn’t do it to show weakness. She wasn’t forced to do it because of her station. She simply wanted to do it. The Pharisees were shocked that Jesus was letting this sinner touch him. Christ gently reminded the man that this woman was showing the kind of courtesy that His guest had denied Him and told him that she is free to love much because she was forgiven much. Christ taught us not to be afraid to express the love that he gives to us.
Christ loves women, He always has and He trusts them with His work and He wants us to come back to Him. Thanks to His Atonement, Eternal Life is available to all men and women and if we are willing we all can participate in His great work and glory.