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Rushdoony on Women’s Rights and the Enlightenment

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Rushdoony on Women’s Rights and the Enlightenment |

The view of women among “Christian Reconstructionists” is often assumed to be one of traditional patriarchy a la “the way things used to be” back when America was great. After all, this is what the Bible says, right? And just look at all the feminized men we have today. Look how far we have fallen. We obviously need to get rid of this feminism and restore manhood the way it used to be, right? You are partially correct. Too often we do not have a good understanding of our own history or what the Bible says. This is where what Christian Reconstruction actually has taught is important.

The following sermon became a section by the same title in Rushdoony’s Institutes, pp. 346–353, but the print-published version is more polished and edited. This version maintains some interesting comments I think should get a little more emphasis—e.g., “women’s rights was a legitimate movement,” and why that was the case, and much more, particularly regarding the historical nature of 19th and early 20th century patriarchal views being a product in pagan thought rather than biblical. These actually had roots, as Rush intimates, even before being imported into American law (specifically) in the early 1800s. They go back to the restoration of Charles II in the 1660s and have deep ties both historically backward and forward from that point, from ancient Rome to even modern America.

I commend this section to you, as well, the several following comments from various sermons in which Rushdoony made the same point over and over again. It was clearly important to him. And while I would disagree with him on some points, I agree we should be very careful in looking back at the allegedly more “biblical” good old days and trying to make our families great again in that way. It simply will not do to trade one paganism (feminism) for another (old-fashioned patriarchalism), but it is necessary to look at what is paganism, see the paganism that it came from, and call it paganism.

In fact, if we have our wits and humility about us, we will get Rush’s point here: it was the old patriarchy that rightly led to the reaction that was the women’s rights movement. It quickly devolved into feminism. I would simply add to Rush that the reason it quickly devolved so was that the men of the era clung to their pagan empowerment (while calling it “biblical”) instead of repenting of it, and this led to the polarization Rushdoony describes.

Rush is further correct, therefore, when he notes that “when we condemn feminism, we must condemn the men who created it.” While today we certainly see the result he mentions, of “the masculinization of women and the feminization of men,” we nevertheless do not realize that feminism is not the root; a paganistic patriarchy was. The path back to biblical manhood and womanhood, and biblical family, is not going to be to commit the same mistake of the very past generation that created the problems to begin with.

There is much more to say on the topics, but without further ado:


R. J. Rushdoony, Marriage and Woman”:

[T]he role of women has not always been enviable, and the somewhat depressed role of women outside of Moslem society, is a fairly modern thing. It has come about primarily as a result of the Enlightenment. The so-called age of reason. The enlightenment treated women as an ornament, that is, upper-class women. The age of reason said that man was the rational creature, and women were emotional. And since reason was to rule the world, then women had better bow out.

And it was the function of women to be pretty, and to be charming, and to be ornamental. To be on a pedestal as it were, and no more. This very quickly with the enlightenment took over in Europe. This had not been true previously, if you go back to 17th century England for example what you find is that women were normally partners with their husbands in business. They were very highly competent managers. If their husbands were ill, or if their husbands were abroad, or if their husbands died, women took over and ran the business, and you find in 17th century England, women prominent in the shipping trade, as insurance brokers, as manufacturers, in every branch of life. This was brought over to America by the Puritan women, this same tradition, and this is one reason why the Yankee shipping vessels were so successful. The Yankee shipping traders could go to China and be gone a year or two years, or three years, and come back in the confidence that their wives were managing the business successfully and competently.

Up to the 18th century therefore, this older tradition which was thoroughly Biblical, of women as a help-meet, prevailed throughout western Europe. A legal revolution, brought about by the Age of Reason, the enlightenment, changed the status of women. Because the Age of Reason saw men as reason incarnate, and women as pure emotion and will and therefore inferior, the Age of Reason therefore progressively destroyed the legal status of women.

Incidentally, it also contrasted the Age of Reason to the age of faith as though reason and faith were contradictory. And therefore since faith was a thing of emotions, women therefore were to be concerned with religion, and religion, church work and all that was of the 18th century relegated to the women’s realm.

Thus the more pronounced the triumph of the Age of Reason, the more pronounced the reduction of women to ornaments. The man who almost single handedly wrote this into the law of England, it happened through other men elsewhere in the continent, was Chief Justice Edward Coke of England, who as some recent judges, rewrote the law when he was chief Justice of England.

Now, Sir William Blackstone codified Cokes legal revolution, and after about 1800 between 1800 and 1815, Blackstone’s works on law became the textbook for lawyers in this country, and the legal revolution was written into American Law. And the result was a radical change from the 1700’s to 1800’s, from the colonial and the early constitutional period, to the period that followed.

Let me read to you from some law manuals of about 1815, here in America as they speak of women’s status. From Walks introduction to American law: “The legal theory is, marriage makes the husband and wife one person, and that person is the husband. There is scarcely a legal act of any description that she is competent to perform. . . . In Ohio, but hardly anywhere else, is she allowed to make a will, if haply she has anything to dispose of.”

Then from Roker’s Law of Husband and Wife from the same period: “It is not generally known that whenever a woman has accepted an offer of marriage, all she has or expects to have, that is by inheritance, becomes virtually the property of the man thus accepted as a husband. And no gift or deed executed by her between the period of acceptance and the marriage is held to be valid. For were she permitted to give away or otherwise settle her property, he might be disappointed in the wealth he looked to in making the marriage offer.”

Then from the same period also, Wortons Law: “The wife is only the servant of her husband.”

Now there is one phrase that is significant in all these quotes from law books of the period, from Roker’s Law of Husband and Wife he begins: “It is not generally known. . . .” You see, this was new. It had just been read into American law by lawyers who had been brought up on Blackstone. It was the educational revolution of the day that was effected in legal training. Now, the full implications of this therefore were not known around 1815, but they came to be known very soon, and unfortunately were supported by men and by the churches, as this legal revolution was gradually known and accepted.

And so the attitude of men was precisely that of the age of Reason in Europe. Women belonged on a pedestal. They are ornaments. They are to be charming and no more, they know nothing about anything practical, and they should never attempt to know anything. It is not surprising therefore that the woman’s rights movement began.

Certainly, some such movement should have begun, because a woman was rendered by law, as a result of this legal revolution, completely helpless. At one of the early women’s rights meetings, when some of the men hecklers said that they were going to destroy the position of women, women should be on a pedestal, the next speaker, Sojourner Truth . . . who had been a slave in New York, answered these hecklers with this statement. . . .

Well children, when there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that with the Nigger of the south and the women of the north all talkin’ bout rights, the white man will be in a fix pretty soon.

But what’s all this you’re talkin about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and aint I a woman?

Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me; and aint I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man when I could get it, bear the lash as well; and aint I a woman?

I have born 13 children and seen most all of them sold off into slavery, and when I cried with my mothers grief, none but Jesus heard me. And aint I a woman?

That little man in the black there, he said women can’t have as much rights as men ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from, from God and a woman, man had nothin’ to do with him.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now Old Sojourner aint got nothin’ more to say.

Well, women’s rights was a legitimate movement. But the tragedy of women’s rights was that it developed very quickly into feminism, it pitted women against men, and it was the men’s fault. So, when we condemn feminism, we must condemn the men who created it, and before long the women’s rights movement was speaking about the father/mother god, which Mary Baker Eddie inherited, and before long they were referring to god as “She,” and were rewriting the Bible to eliminate anything that was pro-male.

And as a result we have today an unhappy situation, because of the legal revolution of the Age of Reason. Instead of men and women working together as God’s law requires, you have the competition of men and women. You have the masculinization of women and the feminization of men. In March of this year, the Paris couturier Pierre Cardin had a fashion show for the new advanced styles for men, and “the first garment displayed was a sleeveless jumper designed to be worn over high vinyl boots. In other words, a dress for men.”

The Age of Reason brought about the irrational supremacy of men, and it has led to the war of the sexes. And as a result today the legal situation of men and women is ridiculous. The law in many, many states is pro-feminine. It is true in California. In some states, especially Southern, it reflects the old Age of Reason, anti-women position. And this incidentally is why the Southern women used to concentrate so much on charm, that was about all they were allowed to have.

But in some Southern states within recent years, things like this have happened—because the woman has no property rights—where a man has deserted his wife, and disappeared for a few years, and she because there is no reason to know whether he is dead or alive, has to wait a certain period of time before she can have him legally declared dead, has gone ahead and worked and built up a business or property. He on his return has been able to take it all, and sell it, and go off again, because she has no rights.

Our position today therefore is one of the rationalistic pro-male legal situation, and the feminist legal situation, and as a result family life has been thrown out of kilter because of this. . . .

We have a very vivid description of what the biblical woman is like in Proverbs 31 where we are given a picture of the woman whose price is far above rubies. And it tells us that because such a woman is a competent manager, he [the husband] can be involved in sitting at the gates, which meant in those days to be a city councilman to a judge, because his wife was fully capable of handling all the business. Her husband can trust in her moral, commercial, and religious integrity in confidence, we are told. She manages her household and the family business with ability. She is a good merchant or a capable farmer, as the case may be. She can manage the business or the farm with equal ability. She is good to her family, to the poor and to the needy, she is in every respect competent.

And very important is the 26th verse of Proverbs 31: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Now this is important. Women have acquired a reputation as being flannel-mouthed and gossipy. Now where does this come from? You do not find it in Biblical literature, which is an interesting fact. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that women have a monopoly on loose talk or in gossip. It is spoken of as a common evil in some men and in some women. Where does this come in? Well, again, in the Age of Reason. When women were rendered ornaments, upper class women, in the highest society of Versailles and of London, and later of Boston and New York, and in the South in southern society, the woman having been rendered an ornament, talked about trifles. And talk became her realm. And so it is that it was the useless woman who was given to loose talk, and you find to this day that it is, say, the old-fashioned southern belle who talks and talks; and the socialite and the Jet-set women, as well as men. Because they are basically useless creatures. They don’t worry about consequences, and so they can run at the mouth.

But, the godly woman because she is a working person and responsible, “openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue, is the law of kindness.” When women are trifles, they can then be triflers in word and deed. Loose talk is the luxury of the irresponsible.

Then we are told, “She does not eat the bread of idleness.” That is, she is not a mere luxury; she more than earns her keep. “Her children arise up and call her blessed. Her husband also, and he praiseth her. Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who reveres the Lord will be praised.” Scripture does not say anything about physical beauty as though it were not a wonderful thing, but states that above all else, a woman who reveres the Lord, who is Godly, is the one to be praised.

Now, as we have analyzed these passages that deal with women, there is an important point that appears by absence. When the Bible speaks directly of woman and her significance, it says next to nothing about her as mother. Now this goes completely contrary to the modern description of a woman wherein she is primarily a mother. But the Bible presents her essentially as a wife, as a helpmeet. Whenever her role as a mother is referred to it is never in isolation, it is the man and women together as parents, as father and mother. But today the woman is seen primarily not in reference to her husband, but in reference to her children, and this is a mistake many women make. They often have a greater loyalty to their children than to their husband. And this is wrong, because God defines her as a helpmeet, primarily thus in reference to her husband and his calling in terms of the kingdom of God, to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it.

Marriage, thus, is not primarily in terms of procreation, or in terms of sex—important as these are. There are some branches of the church, the Catholics in particular, although they are beginning to change in this direction, have said that marriage is primarily as a remedy for the sexual instinct, and to provide for children, and that is the basic purpose of marriage. It is interesting that even with respect to the sexual side of marriage, that Luther had a change of heart there after his marriage. And Edith Simon in her biography of Luther writes, and I quote:

Before Luther had himself cast of celibacy, he had condemned it merely as a source of continual temptation and distraction, to those who are not equal to perpetual chastity.” In other words, his attitudes then were still basically Orthodox, that is, orthodox in terms of the Catholic tradition. Accounting chastity as the higher state. “Upon his own experience of marriage, however, that attitude was changed dramatically to one more positive. Perpetual chastity was bad, only in marriage were human beings able to acquire the spiritual health which they had used to seek in the cloister. So, the strange thing was that before he had ever experienced sexual release himself, Luther saw marriage as a primarily physical affair, and afterwards saw its benefit as primarily spiritual, evidently not for want of physical communion.

And that I think puts it very well. Gods own definition of Eve as we have pointed out is that she is or was a helpmeet. Thus, as important as motherhood is, it cannot take priority over God’s own declaration concerning the nature of a woman. She is in her single estate as well as her married estate, a helpmeet to man in exercising dominion over the earth and in subduing the earth to God and His kingdom.



From “Sade to Genet The New Morality

The woman’s lib people have a rather distorted view of past history when they feel that women had a very subordinate role throughout the centuries. As a matter of fact, in the Christian era women had quite a high position. The medieval merchant who often travelled a great distance with a considerable amount of difficulty, normally found that there was one person he could trust to manage his business, his wife.

The Renaissance only accentuated the independence of women, the Elizabethan era certainly showed a very prominent role of women in national life, the Puritan movement strengthened the position of women. This was especially true in America. Consider for example the situation in New England, where women reached a position of enormous power. So many men, both merchant seamen as well as ordinary seamen, would be overseas for 6 months, occasionally 3 years. Who handled the farm, the shop, the business in their absence? The woman did, and their knowledge of economics, of bookkeeping, of pricing and so on had to be good or while her husband was away the business would go under. As a result women had a tremendous amount of economic power, a great deal of practical business knowledge, they knew how to run and manage businesses, farms, manufacturing enterprises, and very commonly did so. The position of women only began to fade in this country after about 1800. Earlier, a century earlier, it had begun to collapse in Europe, especially after 1660.

What was the reason for the collapse of the position of women into the role of dolls as it were? The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment with its ideas of reason developed a very peculiar psychology where by it saw men as the epitome of reason, of rationality, and women as irrationality, and the strong aspect of women being faith, trust, dependence. As a result of this view, it progressively subordinated women, legally and socially. Moreover, because religion involved faith, why religion became the province of women. And we are still under the influence of this kind of thinking.

It is assumed that the church and religion is the duty and the area of women, and by and large across the world, women predominate in membership in the churches with one single exception, the Mormons.

Now, women being regarded as irrational, they were progressively eliminated from the business world, their legal rights were progressively withdrawn; and they were either put on a pedestal or regarded with fear as a part of that horrible world of the irrational. And as a result you had among philosophers and others, this strange ambivalence, the love/hate relationship with regard to women, regarding them as monsters, the thing to be feared; “When you go into a woman take your whip.” Or else, idolizing them as Comte did, who carried on a religion of worshipping his ex-mistress, and virtually invented a church in her honor.

But by and large the relationship was one of distrust, of fear. Man as reason now, because reason had left the outer world. Reason did not belong in God, if he existed, or in nature. Reason was only here in the mind of man, and around him was a vast world of unreason. And then he was compelled to confront unreason in his life. This was a horrible thing. And so the philosophers began to regard women as a dread figure, something to be feared. Women now became a symbol of the world of nature, irrational, dangerous, volcanic, ready to erupt all over you at any time. And if you were to talk to the average man now a days, he would give you that image of woman.

Of course he can blow up all the time, and that’s pure reason when he blows up, he is rationally motivated in his temper tantrums. But not the woman you see, by definition never. The world of unreason was represented in women. Ideas you see, have consequences. They are not only an academic discipline but a plan for living. Most abstract ideas within a very few years become marching orders for civilization. . . .



From the Easy Chair, “Masculinity,” August 5, 1991

With the Enlightenment some very far reaching changes came into the western world. Prior to that time there were no legal discriminations against women such as began to prevail after about 1660. But you had a strange circumstance whereby women were at one and the same time legally robbed of their rights—including the right to their own property which fell into the hands of the husband—and at the same time began to be treated as less intelligence . . . intelligent. The enlightenment had decided that that reason was the supreme factor in all things and that men represented reason whereas women represented emotions.

Well, this is nonsense. The studies of Dr. Stephen Goldberg have indicated that men excel at abstract reasoning, but women far surpass men at practical reasoning.

At any rate, it was, you might say, the men’s liberation movement that came into being after 1660 headed up by Charles II and his corrupt court including a number of degenerates, homosexuals and the like. . . .

One of the things that . . . to get back to the Enlightenment that they did in saying man represented reason and women emotion was to turn away from the education of women to treat them as incapable of learning on the same level and also to pamper them, the pampering of women began with their legal deprivation. . . . And they were told they were more sensitive which is something I thoroughly doubt. Women are not more sensitive than men. That is, I think, a myth. In fact, in some respects women have greater toughness. I am not talking about the physical sense, but in their ability to take things. . . .



From “The Preaching of the Cross”

From the enlightenment on a disregard for women has been basic to philosophy. The debasement of women was an Enlightenment fact. Women were assumed to be like children, emotional rather than rational beings. Their social and intellectual status was thus downgraded. Biblical thinking bars women from authority in the church and headship in the family but Proverbs 31:10-31 is very clear about the managerial and economic abilities of women in business and in other fields. To assume the Enlightenment view as a Biblical one is absurd.



From “Foreign Languages–Sexual differences

How do you correlate Paul’s statement with regard to women being keepers at home and what Proverbs has to say concerning the virtuous woman who runs a household while her husband sits in the gate? Now sitting in the gate doesn’t mean he was a lazy lout. That meant he sat on the town council or was a judge. That was a technical term. It meant he held some kind of public office because the biblical doctrine with regard to any kind of legal proceeding was that it had to be in the open, and in those days, they felt that since the weather was usually good, they held it at the city gate at a special place provided in the open where all trials, council meetings, and the like could be attended by all who came and went. So, here was a case of a woman whose husband was either a councilman or a judge, and she ran the business. It meant a very sizable one. Her husband apparently was an important man, and well-to-do. She handled buying and selling, so her husband obviously had status as an outstanding merchant. She also handled farm and ranch properties, a considerable household, and she’s held up as an example of a virtuous woman. We meet one such woman in Paul’s epistles, so obviously Paul didn’t object to them. Do you know who the woman was? . . . What no. Yes. That’s a second example. But in this case a married one. We don’t know Lydia’s husband, but Priscilla and Aquila. Alright. Now they, we meet in several places so apparently, they had business in more than one city, and her name is mentioned first, meaning that she was the important one in the partnership. Paul didn’t see anything wrong with it. Now, what does he mean that the women should be keepers at home? What he’s talking against there is being gadabouts and busybodies, and neglecting their work to go up and down the neighborhood as gadabouts. As a matter of fact, in no other culture have women exercised more authority because they are not regarded as helpless things, but as help-meets, as you might say prime ministers working with the king. It was only with the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment that women were suppressed, and the reason for it was the eighteenth century said that men represent reason, and reason therefore must dominate in a society, and women represent emotion, and emotions must be suppressed. So, women were stripped of all legal rights by the end of the eighteenth century. It happened in this country only in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Puritan women exercised tremendous amount of power. It reached the point where a woman was considered legally the same as a minor child. She had no legal rights. In one or two states, I think in Texas this still may be true, a married woman really has no title to her property, her husband controls it totally. This was not the biblical pattern. I won’t go into biblical laws with regard to property. So, you see, we must recognize that was Paul was dealing with there was correcting a problem, and asking them to stick to their duties at home. Not to be gadabouts. . . .

Now this may come as a shock to the males here. Some of you who are married and have been married long enough may have suspected it, but women, on the whole, are smarter than men. [laughter] They very definitely test out better, in every area except two. Women either are the same as or far ahead of men. The two areas in which men test out better are first, aggression, or in biblical terms we would say dominion. The simple aspect of it would be aggression, and abstract thinking. Women’s thinking is concrete, person, particular. A man’s thinking tends to be abstract. . . .

Well first of all, there’s a difference between dominion and domineering, so the first thought of your statement, I would differ with because men are not called upon by God to be domineering of women, but to exercise dominion, and remember, and I’m glad I have this opportunity, what scripture says about dominion and lordship, and our Lord manifested it to be a servant, that you use your authority for the welfare of the family, or the church, and our Lord showed what He meant by lordship, and he said the Lords among the Gentiles love to domineer, to make people bow down to them, but he said, “It shall not be so among you.” This is why the idea of having the boys at a very early age learn to hold doors open and that sort of thing is so good, to know that, yes, we do have dominion under God, but the purpose of our dominion is a thoroughly Christian one, to manifest grace and courtesy, to manifest that we do it to serve others, so that {?} is, we are told that Christ, as the bridegroom of the church gave His life for the church. So, by analogy, the husband is to work and to serve the family’s welfare and if need be, give his life for it, you see. That’s the analogy. So, we must never confuse the biblical doctrine of dominion with the pagan and sinful versions of it. Fallen man turns it into a very different thing. . . .

Alright now, with regard to the role of women teachers. One of the things that is important for all of us to learn before we can exercise dominion, we must learn how to be under authority, and so I think it’s altogether good for a boy to be under authority {?} men and women. To learn how to be under authority is the best way to exercise authority, so if he has women in home school, what’s wrong with that?

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