We were taught about saints, you and I, lots and lots of saints.
And even though most of the church’s work is done by women, the great majority of Catholic saints are male. I’m guessing you’re not surprised. Men are priests and bishops and popes, so it makes sense that they’re most of the saints as well. Because, in the world we grew up in, men matter more than women.
Does this mean we need to reject the whole idea of saints, because for us sainthood is tainted with the church’s hostility toward the female? Not at all. One of the functions of saints is to provide inspiration, which we all need. As we journey through life and run into difficulties, asking ourselves what our favorite saint would do, or reading our favorite saint’s writings, can help us find the right path.
We don’t need to get rid of saints. We just need saints who are relevant to us.
And so, dear sisters, I’m launching a new list of saints. These are special people who have the wisdom and insight we need on our journey. How do we heal from the damage of our Catholic education? How do find our voice? How do we find our path? These saints will help to show us the way.
And while it’s tempting to restrict membership on this list exclusively to women as one small gesture of payback, I’m resisting the urge. A large part of the reason the Catholic church is so successful at dis-empowering women is its relentless focus on separating the pool of human beings into men and women. To the church we are people second, men or women first. More on this in another post; for now, you’ll find both women and men on the list of our saints.
I’m starting our list with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 19th century suffragist and abolitionist. You may remember Stanton from your high school history class if you studied women’s suffrage. Stanton was a leading figure in the early women’s rights movement. Along with British abolitionist Lucretia Mott, she organized the world’s first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls NY in 1848, and along with Susan B Anthony, she founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869.
You may not know about Stanton’s other passion, which was her fight against the damage organized Christianity did to women.
In her view, the foundation of the problem was the Bible, and she wrote in her memoir Eighty Years and More,
"I know no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of woman… ... When our bishops, archbishops and ordained clergymen stand up in their pulpits and read selections from the Pentateuch* with reverential voice, they make the women of their congregation believe that there really is some divine authority for their subjection."
*The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament
Stanton was a woman of action, and she decided that what the world needed was a Bible that did not present women as subservient to men. So she organized a committee of 28 women, and together they wrote the two-part The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895 and 1898.
Here’s one example of how Stanton and her committee tried to redefine Christianity’s teaching about women
Stanton believed that all the subjugation of women by religion, and by Western society, had its origin in one single Biblical event - the creation of Adam first. And so The Woman's Bible examines those passages in Genesis:
1:26 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.
1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female image, created he them.
This is what Stanton wrote about the passage:
"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.
...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." (italics mine)
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman's Bible (p. 9-10). Kindle Edition.
The Woman’s Bible was denounced by the clergy (of course), who called it the work of Satan. It was also denounced by a majority of the National American Woman Suffrage Association membership, which voted in 1896 to censure Stanton, even though she was a founder and had been president.
This in particular underlines how hard it can be for many to examine what they have been taught about themselves, even when those beliefs are about their own inferiority.
Stanton was a tireless speaker and an avid letter-writer. She had so much to say that's critical for us to hear, like this quote about living our truth, from an 1890 speech to the National American Woman Suffrage Association:
"The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls. Every truth we see is ours to give the world, not to keep for ourselves alone, for in so doing we cheat humanity out of their rights and check our own development.”
And so, dear sisters, just as the Catholic church canonizes those it decides are good examples for its faithful, I hereby canonize Elizabeth Cady Stanton as one of our saints, to whom we can look for wisdom, guidance, and inspiration. May she help us find the courage to question our beliefs about ourselves.
You can find The Woman’s Bible here (Kindle edition is free)
Eighty Years and More is here (Kindle edition also free)