The recent naming of Nancy Pelosi as the “most powerful woman in American history” has sparked national discussion on both the history of women in America and the nature of woman’s power. As Speaker of the House, Mrs. Pelosi holds the highest civic position any American woman has held to date, and her hand in putting through the recent Health Care Bill will have huge historic implications. Though we don’t see it as a great advance for women to finally be oppressed by one of our own, this is undeniably a kind of power.
But behind this recent tribute to Mrs. Pelosi is this presupposition: “Women find their power in holding the positions of men – the traditional women’s role has no power. The power traditional women exercised in the past doesn’t count.”
Americans are ready to believe this because they long ago adopted a feminist view of history. Before feminism led women from the kitchen to the boardroom, we are told, women’s minds withered in the confines of a “comfortable concentration camp,” their talents never developed or given room to benefit society. Before feminism bought women the positions of men, woman’s influence was hushed and smothered beneath the oppression of male dominance. Before feminism invented justice, equality, and rights for women, women were deprived of education, opportunities, property, and power.
All thanks to feminism, we are now surely the strongest, smartest, most capable, most valued, best educated generation of women the West has ever seen. So we are to believe.
But despite feminism’s revisions of history, the truth is impossible to fully conceal when the light of strong, brilliant women glimmers through from supposedly dark eras. The general response, when a particularly intelligent and spirited woman appears in a Christian, patriarchal society, is to quickly recruit her as a proto-feminist, an anomaly of her time. Consider this typical approach to Abigail Adams, from the feminist biography Dearest Friend: “Abigail Adams was, in many ways, a prisoner of the times in which she lived, and her views on women’s role in society and on politics reflect that fact.” 
Were the Abigail Adamses flukes of history, born out of a void? Or did they come out of societies that were all about producing women like Abigail Adams? In this article we would like to let the women and facts speak for themselves. We will see that the reason feminism must reinterpret the facts is because it cannot stand on the legs of real history.
Our Forgotten Mothers
America has a rich legacy of powerful womanhood, integral to its very foundation and strength. Consider the inscription on the Monument to the Pilgrim Mothers in Plymouth, Massachusetts: “They brought up their families in sturdy virtue and a living faith in God without which nations perish.” As America was fighting to establish herself as an independent nation, their foe British general Lord Cornwallis despaired, “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.” 
After 200 years of cultivated feminine strength in America, French journalist Alexis de Tocqueville concluded his great work Democracy in America: “[I]f I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.”
There is a great heritage of strength and even power that should be our birthright as American daughters. But how many of us are making good on that birthright? How many of us could claim to be as selflessly intrepid as the pilgrim women? How many of us are as brave as the wives of the signers? How many as enterprising and resourceful as those who helped build colonial culture and economy? How many as unflappable and capable as the women who civilized the Wild West? How many as poised and gracious as the White House hostesses and army wives whose savoir faire helped advance their husbands? How many as wise and educated as our founding mothers?
In many ways, our pajama-wearing, text-messaging, Me-generation is America’s weak generation of women. To paraphrase de Tocqueville’s quote, if you were to ask us now to what we would attribute the singular weakness and growing apostasy of America, we might say, to the selfishness and pettiness of their women. We’ve forgotten how to build strength into a nation; our idea of “power” is to leave the next generation for others to raise, ramrod through Health Care Bills most Americans don’t want, and put men out of a job.
But we will continue to feel good about where we are now as long as we continue to be ignorant about where we came from. It’s certainly easier to be excited about how “intelligent,” “educated,” and “valued” women are when we lose the historical point of comparison.
Examining Feminism’s Inheritance
“I disagree with the ideas behind radical feminism,” people sometimes write to us, “but you have to admit feminism has brought womanhood some good things.”  Some warn us against throwing the baby out with the bathwater, hating political feminism while refusing to be grateful for the strengths it has infused into us and our peers. If we examine four of the most popular claims people make, though, we may begin to be grateful for something completely different.
Claim 1: “Before feminism, women were not as valued and did not have as many rights.”
Before feminism, the Bible declared men’s and women’s equal standing and value before God – and in fact teaches this more consistently than any other religious or secular doctrine. In Scripture, man’s work and woman’s work are equally valid – wifehood, motherhood, homemaking, and femininity are not belittled, and women are not guilt-manipulated into living and acting like men. On the contrary; woman’s distinctiveness from man is praised and honored, and her unique role is held vital. Women were to be protected and cherished, to “attain honor” (Prov. 11:16) and be “praised in the gates” (Prov. 31:31). It wasn’t until the advent of women’s “liberation” that women were told, “Your value as a woman is determined by how well you can perform as a man. Being a woman is no longer enough.” And it wasn’t until feminism had raised up “an epidemic of thugs, dolts, and cads” that women as a mass began to be “valued” as objects to be used and discarded.
As for our new rights – where did these rights come from? All rights must be bestowed by some Higher Source, which Susan B. Anthony was not. God is the author of our rights, as our founders recognized – not feminism – and it was He who gave women property rights, marital rights, and divorce rights (for example). The Bible was there first.
Millennia before feminism, the Bible also gave the world strict laws to protect women from abuse, rape, incest, abandonment, injustice, and more. Moreover, it gave women something our legal system doesn’t: a whole system of provisions for women who end up in hard circumstances.
And there were societies long before suffrage-era America, attempting to construct themselves along biblical lines, which put these rights, laws, and provisions into action. One of these societies was Reformation-era Geneva, which “came to be known as ‘the paradise of women.’ There were good reasons for this. John Calvin was strongly protective of “women’s rights.” Under his guidance, church consistories went after wife abusers. They prosecuted guardians who had misappropriated trust funds of widows and orphans. …Rules were published to protect both men and women in marriage… Deserted wives were protected, and so on.” 
Yes, we will always be able to find single examples of women being mistreated in any era. But speaking historically as well as theologically, Christianity is the only social, spiritual, and political force that gives women true value and rights. It is the anti-Christian religions (including Marxism, Islam, and feminism) that demean, undervalue, and exploit women; throughout history, it was the Christian societies that truly valued women, protected women, and honored women (insofar as those societies were faithful to the Bible’s actual teachings).
Claim 2: Women are better educated today, thanks to feminism.
Women have more educational opportunities today, thanks to the cheap and almost-instant accessibility of information. So do men. But women are not necessarily making better use of their opportunities than they ever did (and feminism did not help Al Gore invent the Internet.)
There have never been enough deeply wise and learned women, and, certainly, some societies produced fewer than others, but we believe, historically, the chief barrier between a woman and her education is her own apathy and mental laziness.
Hannah More, regarded by Britain’s intelligentsia as one of the most learned people of her time (1745 – 1833), chided: “She who regrets being doomed to a state of dark and gloomy ignorance, by the injustice, or tyranny of the men, complains of an evil which does not exist.”
The Bible offers as much praise for women who are intelligent, wise, capable, prudent, gifted, well-spoken, prolific, and diplomatic, as it does men – and casts an intimidating vision for all that godly womanhood requires. Once again, the Bible was there long before feminism, telling girls not to be ignorant, foolish, lazy, myopic, or easily led (Prov. 9:13, Prov. 31:27, Lam. 1:9, 2 Tim. 3:6).
And history is replete with examples of Christian men who knew they needed to educate their daughters thoroughly. The Lady Jane Greys, Anne Bradstreets, Mercy Otis Warrens, Abigail Adamses, Hannah Mores, and others from the panoply of educated women in history did not come out of a vacuum. They were the products of Christian families that understood the importance of learned women to a Christian society.
In 1688, Francois Fenelon wrote an entire book to rebut those who “exclaim, ‘Why make them learned? Curiosity renders them vain and conceited: it is sufficient if they be one day able to govern their families, and implicitly obey their husbands!’” (an excuse he attributed mainly to “maternal caprice.”) His central thesis: “Great reservoirs of intellect can and must be cultivated in daughters. This will sustain them as well as equip them for the challenges of productive womanhood.”
Granted, there have always been boorish men who preferred stupid women, and there have always been women eager to accommodate them. Our society is no enlightened exception. And people who want to complain about the devaluation of female intellect in the past should consider that feminism’s sons are hardly known for valuing women’s brains over women’s bodies.
Feminism hasn’t stemmed the tide of boors and bimbos in society, or stopped girls from being too undisciplined to educate themselves. What feminism has done, chiefly, is change the goal of a woman’s education – for which we will decline to thank it.
Education expert John Taylor Gatto writes about the actual decline of education over the last 200 years, for men and women, through government schooling: “Anyone who reads can compare what the American present does in isolating children from their natural sources of education, modeling them on a niggardly last, to what the American past proved about human capabilities. The magnitude of the forced schooling institution’s strange accomplishment has been monumental. No wonder history has been outlawed.”
Claim 3: Thanks to feminism, women can now work and earn money.
Woman’s work has moved into a different sphere since feminism started creeping into American thinking, but so has industry in general. Part of the reason we are confused about woman’s relation to “work” today is because economy, industry, and work were redefined during the industrial revolution, when biblical domestic economy was moved into workstations and factories. Woman’s work at home, which had previously included broad opportunities for gainful employment in the family endeavors, dwindled to household chores and caring for children…until that last, too, was removed from the sphere of the home. The women’s movement was enlisted as an important player in this change, helping to bury the family economy by equating “real” work with jobs outside the home.
Anthropologist Allan Carlson notes: “Industrialization tore asunder this settled, family-oriented European world. In historian John Demos’ words: ‘Family life was wrenched apart from the world of work — a veritable sea-change in social history.’ …The reciprocal, complementary tasks of husbands and wives in household production were quickly leveled, and questions grew about gender roles in the new order. …In the industrial milieu, the inward-looking, autonomous, cooperative family changed into a collection of individuals in potential, and often real, competition with each other.”
Prior to both of these social movements, women worked. Their work was carried on in the household workplace (which could include fields, vineyards, family storefronts or offices, workshops, etc.), but was not limited to household chores. Women were productive members of society, producing goods of tangible value, bringing in money, and expanding the family holdings. In Scripture (just look at Proverbs 31), and in Christian societies in history, woman’s work included business transactions, production of goods, making investments, developing skills in diverse fields, and earning money – from home.
One such example is Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who at age 16 (in 1739) not only accepted the work of maintaining her family’s three plantations in her father’s absence, but used the fields to experiment with crops to strengthen the fledgling nation’s economy, including oaks for lumber when American would need fleets. According to Cokie Roberts, “Among her many accomplishments was the successful cultivation of indigo in South Carolina, which provided a source of income to the Mother Country that one historian of the era judged more important than the silver mines of Peru or Mexico to Spain. When Eliza Pinckney died, George Washington insisted on acting as a pallbearer at her funeral.” Though Cokie Roberts’ comments between the lines try to revise feminism into Eliza’s motives, Eliza’s own words breathe a focus on home and family; a desire to stay in her “proper province,” submitted to her father and then her husband. It would take a feminist to see a contradiction in her words and actions.
It would also take a feminist to think that Eliza and her contemporaries needed liberation.
Claim 4: Feminism gives us power.
Woman’s power is innate. Women are hugely influential, and always have been – for better or for worse. We have always had the power to build up or to destroy (Prov. 14:1). Much of the power we’re seeing women wield today, from the house to the House, is more of the latter – of course, the power to destroy generally makes itself more obvious, giving women the impression of being stronger.
We really should consider, as well, how much women have influenced every society, and when looking at cultures which marginalized women, to consider how much their women played a part in that.
We don’t mean to downplay the fact that there is real oppression and exploitation in this world, and there are real victims. But often, women are the ones who perpetuate their own exploitation and oppression. This is one case where “it takes two to tango”; it takes both to perpetuate pornography, unhealthy fashion trends, a sexually exploitive culture, and endless other harms to women. Male-female inter-connectivity and inter-dependency make it impossible for men to get away with much that women don’t allow. Women have always known, as Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, “…notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.” And she wasn’t talking about feminist insurrections.
Up From Liberation
The good news is this: we have God-given strength that we can use to rebuild and restore what feminism has taken away from us.
In muffling the truth and cutting us off from our heritage of strong, intelligent womanhood, they have defrauded even those of us who wanted no part of feminism. In exchange, they gave us “Women’s Studies” – a faulty concept, because it divorces “woman” from her context and tries to study her as an individual entity, as if “woman” can be understood apart from “human” and extracted from her environment. Avoiding what the best women in history have done, focusing on victims overcoming victimhood, “women’s studies” largely consists of erecting imaginary glass ceilings, planting territorial flags on discoveries feminism did not make, and recruiting spokeswomen from among its antithesis.
Thankfully, the Bible is our source of vision and inspiration. Even when we seem to have no good examples before us, Scripture is always there. Even when society is in shambles, the blueprint for rebuilding it is in front of us.
We have been given the opportunity to rebuild a culture of femininity from scratch. Let us be thankful that we have examples from previous generations of women to learn from, but let’s not restrict ourselves to copying the past. A biblical culture of femininity must be built on the right foundations – not Regency or Victorian England, not enlightenment romanticism, not fantasy lore, not 1st, 2nd, or 3rd wave feminism, and not Nancy Pelosi.
Feminists, hands off our heroines and our history. Because we have more coming.
1. Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend, Simon and Schuster, 2001) p. xiii)
2. Cited in Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts, (William Morrow, 2004) p. xix
3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1956), p. 246, emphasis added
4. We occasionally get comments like this even from conservative Christians, including one from a young lady thankful to feminism for the right to drive; supposedly she was concerned that, had she lived a few hundred years ago, she might not have been allowed to drive a car. We would point out to this young lady that she might also have been denied access to a cell phone or the internet — but not by an oppressive patriarchy. She can thank progress in general–increased mobility and communication technology do bring new opportunities for everyone, but that has nothing to do with feminism.
6. This system of provisions includes the gleaning system, the kinsman redeemer system, the family provision system, the poor-tithe system, the handmaid system, and more. Biblical Law presupposed that there will be sin and irresponsibility in every society, and that the true victims must be protected.
7. R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Ross House Books, 1991), p. 407, emphasis added
8. Hannah More, Essays on Various Subjects Principally Designed for Young Ladies, emphasis added
9. Franois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon, De l’ Education des Filles (The Education of Daughters), written 1688, published in English by Backus and Whiting, 1806
10. John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education (Oxford Village Press, 2001) p. 33. He notes: “Ninty-six and a half percent of the American population is mediocre to illiterate where deciphering print is concerned. This is no commentary on their intelligence, but without ability to take in primary information from print and to interpret it they are at the mercy of commentators who tell them what things mean. A working definition of immaturity might include those who excessively require others to tell them what things mean.” Ibid, p. 62
11. Allan B. Carlson, From Cottage to Workstation, from the Introduction
12. Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers (William Morrow, 2004) p. xvii
13. In Dearest Friend, Lynne Withey takes a similar approach with Abigail Adams: “She was contradictory in other ways too. She argued for improved legal rights and education for women long before they became popular issues; but she always believed that a woman’s place was in the home…Although she never actually stepped outside her role as wife and mother, she carried it to its limits. She managed all the family property and investments – including buying land, planning additions, to houses and farm buildings, hiring and firing laborers, contracting with tenants, and supervising far work. … She also served as John’s unofficial, unpaid, but most influential political advisor.” p. ix (History and Scripture teach us that none of this is “contradictory” – only feminists paint it as such. Buying land, hiring and firing, supervising work, and advising husbands with wise counsel is all there in Proverbs 31.)
14. The Quotable Abigail Adams, edited by John P. Kaminskiz (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009) p. 358
The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition)
Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762: Intriguing Letters by One of Colonial America’s Most Accomplished Women (Women’s Diaries & Letters of the Nineteenth-Century South)