The Woman’s Bible: the Feminist Book that Suffragists Rejected

by Nona Blyth Cloud

Sunday, January 16, 2022, will be Religious Freedom Day, a celebration of this statute, written by Thomas Jefferson, and passed by the Virginia Assembly on January 16, 1786, which became the basis for the protections of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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PLEASE NOTE: I have quoted extensively from The Woman’s Bible. It is out of copyright, the contributors are dead, and the entire book is available online:  https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/9880/pg9880.html  – under these terms:

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org

It was produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare

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There have always been individual women, and even a few men, who spoke out against the subjugation of women, but they were single voices, or a chorus of the few drowned out by the silence of the many women, and the roar of Patriarchy.

But in the 19th century, the chorus of the few began to grow, and in July, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York – which was already a hotbed of abolitionist activity – Jane Hunt, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock organized a woman’s rights convention. The Seneca Falls Convention became the launch pad for the women’s movement in America.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave the keynote address:

“ … we are assembled to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty. It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century. We have met to uplift woman’s fallen divinity upon an even pedestal with man’s.”

And then she put forward the most radical idea of all:

 “And, strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live.”

She had no illusions about what they would be up against:

“… We do not expect our path will be strewn with the flowers of popular applause, but over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banners will beat the dark storm clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and unholy. But we will steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. Undauntedly we will unfurl it to the gale, for we know that the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it, ‘Equality of Rights.’ “

Ironically, the issue that would become the main focus of the movement for the next 72 years – Woman Suffrage – was the one demand out of the 12 resolutions decided upon at the convention which almost didn’t pass – many felt it was too radical a demand, and would cause all the other issues not to be taken seriously.

The closing words of Stanton’s keynote address were prophetic. For proclaiming “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal …” and especially for asserting a woman’s right to vote, the Seneca Falls Convention was subjected to public ridicule, and even some backers of women’s rights withdrew their support.

The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, was one of the few papers to write favorably about the convention, which he attended on the second day, as the first day was for women only, so women alone could determine what to include in their Declaration of Sentiments.
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a key figure in the early days of this woman’s revolution, the closest friend and ally of Susan B. Anthony. They were naturally complementary, Cady the writer and philosopher, and Anthony the inspired speaker and debater – the twin voices leading the growing chorus.

There were many other issues, but suffrage became The Issue, giving the most promise of women’s equality as citizens.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the first to propose the fight for suffrage, would lose her all her influence in the movement because of this focus on winning the vote. She would not give up the issue of the suppression of women by religion and in particular, by Christian men using the Bible to justify all the laws and customs which held women down. Stanton’s stubbornness cost her dearly.

Just as the Continental Congress left the issue of slavery out of the Declaration of Independence to prevent the revolution from ending even before it started, the Woman Suffrage movement disavowed The Woman’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s brainchild, and shunned her, so the huge controversy over the book would not derail the drive for woman suffrage. And just like the consequences of leaving slavery unsettled, the ramifications of not addressing the Biblical underpinnings of British and American law, though not an actual bloody war like the Civil War, nevertheless has helped keep the war against women’s equality going, even into the 21st Century.

Consider the different time frames for the American Revolution and the Fight for Woman’s Suffrage. From the first day the Continental Congress convened – September 5, 1774 – to the  date that the Bill of Rights was ratified – December 15, 1791 – is just a little over 17 years. Seventeen years from thinking about declaring independence, through fighting a revolutionary war, to coming up with a workable form of government.

It took women in the same country over four times longer just to get the vote. And it undoubtedly would have taken even longer if the leaders of the women’s movement had not narrowed the focus down to this single goal. Alice Paul, who led the final push to get the vote in the 20th century, was only 10 years old when the first part of the Woman’s Bible was published in November 1895. (It was Alice Paul who first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1923 — it has yet to be accepted, nearly 100 years later.)

The second part of the Woman’s Bible was published in 1898, but by that time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the book had been publically damned by corresponding secretary Rachel Avery at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1896:

During the latter part of the year [1985] the work has been in several directions much hindered by the general misconception of the relation of the so-called “Woman’s Bible” to our association. As an organization we have been held responsible for the action of an individual … in issuing a volume with a pretentious title, covering a jumble of comment … without either scholarship or literary value, set forth in a spirit which is neither reverent nor inquiring.

She further proposed a resolution:

“That this Association is non-sectarian, being composed of persons of all shades of religious opinion, and that it has no connection with the so-called ‘Woman’s Bible’, or any theological publication.”

Her resolution was not brought to a vote, but Stanton was never again invited to sit in a place of honor on stage at any NAWSA convention.
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What is The Woman’s Bible? Though now an almost forgotten relic of the late 19th century, at the time it was a best seller, especially after it was thundered against by an overwhelming majority of preachers and priests from pulpits across the land, and in newspaper editorials, condemning it as a “work of Satan.”

It was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s idea, but she gathered nearly three dozen women to contribute to the ambitious project: to go through every reference to women in the Bible, and every place where women were conspicuously left out, and see what could be shown to be merely the words of men, and what might reflect the “Word of God.” Stanton had contacted all the women who were established as notable Biblical scholars, but not one of them would take it on – they had all spent years of hard work overcoming the prejudice against women as scholars in any field, let alone the study of God’s Word, and knew that lending their names to this enterprise would end their credibility. So her group were women who weren’t renowned scholars, but women who had a keen interest in exposing the fallacy of all the “Christian” arguments which “proved” woman’s inferiority to man was ordained by God, and which were so often the basis for the discriminatory laws and customs that women were struggling to overturn.
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The Revising Committee, as they declared themselves, were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lillie Devereux Blake, Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Clara Bewick Colby, Rev. Olympia Brown, Rev. Augusta Chapin, Frances Ellen Burr, Ursula N. Gestefeld, Clara B. Neyman, Mary Seymour Howell, Helen H. Gardener, Josephine K. Henry, Charlotte Beebe Wilbour, Mrs. Robert G. Ingersoll, Lucinda B. Chandler, Sarah A. Underwood, Catharine F. Stebbins, Ellen Battelle Dietrick, and Louisa Southworth. And the “Foreign Members” – Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg of Finland, Ursula M. Bright of England, Irma Von Troll-Borostyant of Austria, Priscilla Bright Mclaren of Scotland, and Isabelle Bogelot of France.

Matilda Joslyn Gage is probably the only member of the Revising Committee other than Stanton whose name might still be familiar today, although Mrs. Ingersoll’s husband may be familiar to some.

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In her Introduction to the Womans’ Bible, Cady Stanton laid out what they were up against:

From the inauguration of the movement for woman’s emancipation the Bible has been used to hold her in the “divinely ordained sphere,” prescribed in the Old and New Testaments.

The canon and civil law; church and state; priests and legislators; all political parties and religious denominations have alike taught that woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man. Creeds, codes, Scriptures and statutes, are all based on this idea. The fashions, forms, ceremonies and customs of society, church ordinances and discipline all grow out of this idea …

The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man’s bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.

Those who have the divine insight to translate, transpose and transfigure this mournful object of pity into an exalted, dignified personage, worthy our worship as the mother of the race, are to be congratulated as having a share of the occult mystic power of the eastern Mahatmas.

The plain English to the ordinary mind admits of no such liberal interpretation. The unvarnished texts speak for themselves. The canon law, church ordinances and Scriptures, are homogeneous, and all reflect the same spirit and sentiments.

These familiar texts are quoted by clergymen in their pulpits, by statesmen in the halls of legislation, by lawyers in the courts, and are echoed by the press of all civilized nations, and accepted by woman herself as “The Word of God.” So perverted is the religious element in her nature, that with faith and works she is the chief support of the church and clergy; the very powers that make her emancipation impossible. When, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible for an answer.

This led to a general and critical study of the Scriptures. Some, having made a fetish of these books and believing them to be the veritable “Word of God,” with liberal translations, interpretations, allegories and symbols, glossed over the most objectionable features of the various books and clung to them as divinely inspired. Others, seeing the family resemblance between the Mosaic code, the canon law, and the old English common law, came to the conclusion that all alike emanated from the same source; wholly human in their origin and inspired by the natural love of domination in the historians. Others, bewildered with their doubts and fears, came to no conclusion. While their clergymen told them on the one hand, that they owed all the blessings and freedom they enjoyed to the Bible, on the other, they said it clearly marked out their circumscribed sphere of action: that the demands for political and civil rights were irreligious, dangerous to the stability of the home, the state and the church. Clerical appeals were circulated from time to time, conjuring members of their churches to take no part in the anti-slavery or woman suffrage movements, as they were infidel in their tendencies, undermining the very foundations of society. No wonder the majority of women stood still, and with bowed heads, accepted the situation …

[Some] fear that they might compromise their evangelical faith by affiliating with those of more liberal views, who do not regard the Bible as the “Word of God,” but like any other book, to be judged by its merits. If the Bible teaches the equality of Woman, why does the church refuse to ordain women to preach the gospel, to fill the offices of deacons and elders, and to administer the Sacraments, or to admit them as delegates to the Synods, General Assemblies and Conferences of the different denominations? They have never yet invited a woman to join one of their Revising Committees, nor tried to mitigate the sentence pronounced on her by changing one count in the indictment served on her in Paradise …

Others say it is not politic to rouse religious opposition.

This much-lauded policy is but another word for cowardice. How can woman’s position be changed from that of a subordinate to an equal, without opposition, without the broadest discussion of all the questions involved in her present degradation? For so far-reaching and momentous a reform as her complete independence, an entire revolution in all existing institutions is inevitable.

Let us remember that all reforms are interdependent, and that whatever is done to establish one principle on a solid basis, strengthens all. Reformers who are always compromising, have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon. The object of an individual life is not to carry one fragmentary measure in human progress, but to utter the highest truth clearly seen in all directions, and thus to round out and perfect a well balanced character. Was not the sum of influence exerted by John Stuart Mill on political, religious and social questions far greater than that of any statesman or reformer who has sedulously limited his sympathies and activities to carrying one specific measure? We have many women abundantly endowed with capabilities to understand and revise what men have thus far written. But they are all suffering from inherited ideas of their inferiority; they do not perceive it, yet such is the true explanation of their solicitude, lest they should seem to be too self-asserting …

… Bible historians claim special inspiration for the Old and New Testaments containing most contradictory records of the same events, of miracles opposed to all known laws, of customs that degrade the female sex of all human and animal life, stated in most questionable language that could not be read in a promiscuous assembly, and call all this “The Word of God.”

The only points in which I differ from all ecclesiastical teaching is that I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked with God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code, or told the historians what they say he did about woman, for all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible … 

… There are some general principles in the holy books of all religions that teach love, charity, liberty, justice and equality for all the human family, there are many grand and beautiful passages, the golden rule has been echoed and re-echoed around the world. There are lofty examples of good and true men and women, all worthy our acceptance and imitation whose lustre cannot be dimmed by the false sentiments and vicious characters bound up in the same volume. The Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, its teachings are varied and its lessons differ widely from each other. In criticising the peccadilloes of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, we would not shadow the virtues of Deborah, Huldah and Vashti. In criticising the Mosaic code, we would not question the wisdom of the golden rule and the fifth Commandment … A few of the more democratic denominations accord women some privileges, but invidious discriminations of sex are found in all religious organizations, and the most bitter outspoken enemies of woman are found among clergymen and bishops of the Protestant religion.

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I do not have the space here to cover even a small section of the Woman’s Bible, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s opening salvo – the examination of the Book of Genesis – is more than enough to make the heads explode of today’s Christians of the Far Right, be they Evangelical, Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, or some other sect.  The discussion of Genesis in the Woman’s Bible remains just as anathema to today’s upholders of the Patriarchy as it was to their counterparts of the 19th Century. The Christian religion as interpreted by patriarchal men remains to this day one of the biggest barriers to the completion of women’s emancipation.
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THE BOOK OF GENESIS

Genesis i: 26, 27, 28.

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female image, created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

The Woman’s Bible

Here is the sacred historian’s first account of the advent of woman; a simultaneous creation of both sexes, in the image of God. It is evident from the language that there was consultation in the Godhead, and that the masculine and feminine elements were equally represented. Scott in his commentaries says, “this consultation of the Gods is the origin of the doctrine of the trinity.” But instead of three male personages, as generally represented, a Heavenly Father, Mother, and Son would seem more rational.

The first step in the elevation of woman to her true position, as an equal factor in human progress, is the cultivation of the religious sentiment in regard to her dignity and equality, the recognition by the rising generation of an ideal Heavenly Mother, to whom their prayers should be addressed, as well as to a Father.

If language has any meaning, we have in these texts a plain declaration of the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead, equal in power and glory with the masculine. The Heavenly Mother and Father! “God created man in his own image, male and female.” Thus Scripture, as well as science and philosophy, declares the eternity and equality of sex—the philosophical fact, without which there could have been no perpetuation of creation, no growth or development in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms, no awakening nor progressing in the world of thought. The masculine and feminine elements, exactly equal and balancing each other, are as essential to the maintenance of the equilibrium of the universe as positive and negative electricity, the centripetal and centrifugal forces, the laws of attraction which bind together all we know of this planet whereon we dwell and of the system in which we revolve.

In the great work of creation the crowning glory was realized, when man and woman were evolved on the sixth day, the masculine and feminine forces in the image of God, that must have existed eternally, in all forms of matter and mind. All the persons in the Godhead are represented in the Elohim the divine plurality taking counsel in regard to this last and highest form of life. Who were the members of this high council, and were they a duality or a trinity? Verse 27 declares the image of God male and female. How then is it possible to make woman an afterthought? We find in verses 5-16 the pronoun “he” used. Should it not in harmony with verse 26 be “they,” a dual pronoun? We may attribute this to the same cause as the use of “his” in verse 11 instead of “it.” The fruit tree yielding fruit after “his” kind instead of after “its” kind. The paucity of a language may give rise to many misunderstandings.

The above texts plainly show the simultaneous creation of man and woman, and their equal importance in the development of the race. All those theories based on the assumption that man was prior in the creation, have no foundation in Scripture.

As to woman’s subjection, on which both the canon and the civil law delight to dwell, it is important to note that equal dominion is given to woman over every living thing, but not one word is said giving man dominion over woman.

Here is the first title deed to this green earth giving alike to the sons and daughters of God. No lesson of woman’s subjection can be fairly drawn from the first chapter of the Old Testament.

The most important thing for a woman to note, in reading Genesis, is that that portion which is now divided into “the first three chapters” (there was no such division until about five centuries ago), contains two entirely separate, and very contradictory, stories of creation, written by two different, but equally anonymous, authors. No Christian theologian of to-day, with any pretensions to scholarship, claims that Genesis was written by Moses. As was long ago pointed out, the Bible itself declares that all the books the Jews originally possessed were burned in the destruction of Jerusalem, about 588 B. C., at the time the people were taken to Babylonia as slaves to the Assyrians, (see II Esdras, ch. xiv, V. 21, Apocrypha). Not until about 247 B. C. (some theologians say 226 and others; 169 B. C.) is there any record of a collection of literature in the re-built Jerusalem, and, then, the anonymous writer of II Maccabees briefly mentions that some Nehemiah “gathered together the acts of the kings and the prophets and those of David” when “founding a library” for use in Jerusalem. But the earliest mention anywhere in the Bible of a book that might have corresponded to Genesis is made by an apocryphal writer, who says that Ezra wrote “all that hath been done in the world since the beginning,” after the Jews returned from Babylon, under his leadership, about 450 B.C.

When it is remembered that the Jewish books were written on rolls of leather, without much attention to vowel points and with no division into verses or chapters, by uncritical copyists, who altered passages greatly, and did not always even pretend to understand what they were copying, then the reader of Genesis begins to put herself in position to understand how it can be contradictory. Great as were the liberties which the Jews took with Genesis, those of the English translators, however, greatly surpassed them.

The first chapter of Genesis, for instance, in Hebrew, tells us, in verses one and two, “As to origin, created the gods (Elohim) these skies (or air or clouds) and this earth. . . And a wind moved upon the face of the waters.” Here we have the opening of a polytheistic fable of creation, but, so strongly convinced were the English translators that the ancient Hebrews must have been originally monotheistic that they rendered the above, as follows: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . . And the spirit of God (!) moved upon the face of the waters.”

It is now generally conceded that some one (nobody pretends to know who) at some time (nobody pretends to know exactly when), copied two creation myths on the same leather roll, one immediately following the other. About one hundred years ago, it was discovered by Dr. Astruc, of France, that from Genesis ch. i, v. 1 to Genesis ch. ii, v. 4, is given one complete account of creation, by an author who always used the term “the gods” (Elohim), in speaking of the fashioning of the universe, mentioning it altogether thirty-four times, while, in Genesis ch. ii, v. 4, to the end of chapter iii, we have a totally different narrative, by an author of unmistakably different style, who uses the term “Iahveh of the gods” twenty times, but “Elohim” only three times. The first author, evidently, attributes creation to a council of gods, acting in concert, and seems never to have heard of Iahveh. The second attributes creation to Iahveh, a tribal god of ancient Israel, but represents Iahveh as one of two or more gods, conferring with them (in Genesis ch. xiii, V. 22) as to the danger of man’s acquiring immortality.

Modern theologians have, for convenience sake, entitled these two fables, respectively, the Elohistic and the Iahoistic stories. They differ, not only in the point I have mentioned above, but in the order of the “creative acts;” in regard to the mutual attitude of man and woman, and in regard to human freedom from prohibitions imposed by deity. In order to exhibit their striking contradictions, I will place them in parallel columns:

[Compare] Genesis ii, 15-25:

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and be took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh thereof.

22 And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.

24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.

25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now as it is manifest that both of these stories cannot be true; intelligent women, who feel bound to give the preference to either, may decide according to their own judgment of which is more worthy of an intelligent woman’s acceptance. Paul’s rule is a good one in this dilemma, “Prove all things: hold fast to that which is good.” My own opinion is that the second story was manipulated … in an endeavor to give “heavenly authority” for requiring a woman to obey the man she married.

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Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I find the order of the creation in Genesis i to be more logical – the planet is prepared to provide for humanity’s needs before they arrive. In Genesis ii, Adam is dropped down on bare land with nothing else but water, then animals and vegetation appear, and the Lord God seems to have run out of materials to make Adam’s “help meet,” so he just grabs a rib from Adam.

As Cady Stanton notes, God forbid Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge before He created “the woman,” so she only heard from Adam second-hand that she shouldn’t eat from that tree. And yet Adam, who had been told directly by God not to eat from that tree, takes the fruit she hands him and eats it, without a single word of argument!

Then when God asks Adam, “Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

Adam had gone around naming all kinds of things, but he doesn’t name “the woman” until after God had handed down their punishments.

If Adam is the one God gave dominion to, and “the woman” is just one of his body parts, shouldn’t Adam have been the one in the biggest trouble?

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Back to the Woman’s Bible:

The curse pronounced on woman is inserted in an unfriendly spirit to justify her degradation and subjection to man. With obedience to the laws of health, diet, dress, and exercise, the period of maternity should be one of added vigor in both body and mind, a perfectly natural operation should not be attended with suffering. By the observance of physical and psychical laws the supposed curse can be easily transformed into a blessing. Some churchmen speak of maternity as a disability, and then chant the Magnificat in all their cathedrals round the globe. Through all life’s shifting scenes, the mother of the race has been the greatest factor in civilization …

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You can see why today’s Far Right Christians would be infuriated by The Woman’s Bible, and why they selectively quote scripture to bolster their arguments for all the draconian laws they make, trying to keep women in subjection.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was turned into a footnote in the history of the women’s movement because she went to battle with the whole of Christianity over its doctrine of woman’s inferiority. Even the women in the movement in which she had blazed so much of the trail they were following left her behind.

She did not waiver:

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About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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