How the Other Half Lived

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Early church father Tertullian called women "the Devil's gateway … the first forsaker of the divine law." Jerome, another early giant, wrote, "Is it not to women that our Lord appeared after His Resurrection? Yes, and the men could then blush for not having sought what the women had found." Obviously, Christian attitudes toward women have been all over the map for a long time, and much recent scholarship has taken on the task of tracking these attitudes, as well as pursuing pathways never before explored. The resulting "new landscape" rounds out our understanding of history, though sometimes we have to scramble over the scholars' ideological berms to get a good view.

Christian ideas about women, like Christian ideas about pretty much everything else, begin with Scripture. Yet only between 5 and 8 percent of the people named in the Bible are female, only two books (Ruth and Esther) are named for women, and, according to traditional assessments of authorship, no portions of Scripture were written by women. But this does not at all mean the Scriptures yield no information on the subject, as evidenced by the breadth and heft of the recent book Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Houghton Mifflin; Carol Meyers, general editor).

The bulk of this book is divided into three sections: "Named Women," "Unnamed Women," and "Female Deities and Personifications." The first section, with 206 names, represents the most extensive such list ever made. The second section includes close to 600 entries, both for specific unnamed women (Wife of Noah, Woman Who Anoints Jesus) and, predominantly, for groups of unnamed women (Israelite Wives, Women in Illicit Sex, Wife of One's Youth). The entries in both sections are helpful for highlighting characters who might otherwise be skipped over, for exploring the way translation choices have influenced the way we see these women, and for explaining relevant socio-cultural issues. For example, in the entry on Leah, we learn that she might not have been "dull-eyed" (as rendered in the RSV, NEB, and elsewhere) but "soft-eyed" or "cow-eyed" (possibly a positive reference to her fertility, and a reinforcement of her name, which means "cow"). We also get an inside look at polygamy and understand why, when Leah really wanted something, her best bet was to team up with Rachel: "When co-wives unite in purpose, husbands must comply."

For the most part, entries in these two sections are light on agenda and long on explanations of ancient marriage laws and customs, childbearing, property transferral, food provision, and ideals of beauty—concepts that shaped the woman's world. Agenda looms larger in entries on major figures like Eve and Mary; the author of the first suggests that God's first human creation might have been androgynous, and the author of the second argues that Luke's nativity narrative purposefully and maliciously un-empowers Mary.

The third section, on deities and personifications, is more charged as it questions why negative things like enemy cities and wickedness are identified as female, describes how the Earth functions as mother, and probes God's feminine side (though the author stops short of suggesting that we call God "Mother" and also admits that "ancient Israelites would have not understood our contemporary interest in the sex or gender of God"). Overall, Women in Scripture greatly helps us see the biblical era through women's eyes, though I got very tired of the persistent hints that most Bible translators are closet misogynists.

Another recent book, Noble Daughters: Unheralded Women in Western Christianity, 13th to 18th Centuries (Greenwood Press), depicts a different world of women—one that seems about as foreign and inscrutable as the biblical sphere. It wasn't hard for the author, Marie A. Conn, to find "unheralded" women from those centuries, because most Christian women from the time have attracted little attention (exceptions include Catherine of Siena, Hildegaard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, none of which are even listed in Conn's index). However, despite this seemingly narrow focus, Conn still manages to assemble quite a varied group, which could have been a positive feature had Conn not tried so hard to explain how they all "fit in."

Conn seeks to elevate four often overlooked groups of women: thirteenth-century Belgian Beguines (women who lived in convent-like settings outside the church's jurisdiction), Anabaptist women martyrs (an interesting choice, I thought, for a Catholic scholar), victims of the European witch craze, and the nuns at Port-Royal (a convent in Paris known for its counter-Reformationist views). These women fit together, Conn suggests, because "they envisioned a particular way of living a Christian life and remained true to that vision in the face of daunting obstacles and opposition."

The "fit" seems loose to me. The established church certainly opposed them all, but Conn doesn't prove that the women burned as witches were Christians, let alone that they envisioned a unique spirituality. Nor does she show how Anabaptist women differed significantly from Anabaptist men. For independent spirit, unique vision, and a specifically feminine experience, the Beguines and the nuns at Port-Royal are by far the stronger choices. Chapters on the other two groups are more helpful for describing broader historical context—the Reformation as a whole and Europe's shift from faith in magic to faith in science.

Unlike last week's featured book, these two are not meant for historical newbies. But for those who are already somewhat familiar with the historical landscape and have wondered, "Where are the women?" Women in Scripture and Noble Daughters provide some answers.

* For Christian History's take on topics covered in these books, see issue 17: Women in the Early Church and issue 30: Women in the Medieval Church (both available in the CH Store at

Elesha can be reached at