Why is Christianity full of noteworthy women, many of them martyrs for their faith, as Agnes, Thecla, Cecilia, Margaret, Blandina, Pulcheria, Eudoxia, Galla Placidia, Olympia, Melanie, Clotilde, Theodolinda, Berta Of Kent, Olga Of Kiev etc.?
Because, as explained by the great sociologist Rodney Stark, Christianity took to heart the esteem, the respect and the protection of women from its very beginning. In fact thanks to Christianity, women enjoyed a higher status than in the Greek-Roman world or than during the pagan world: Christians promoted marriage, fought polygamy, slavery and sexual exploitation, and forbade the practice of infanticide and abortion (which was often practiced against female newborns).
Many Fathers of the Church have spoken about respect toward women and of their equality to man, for example St. Augustine (354-430 AD). He underlined the equal dignity of man and woman, recalling the importance of loyalty, to which both men and women are called alike, remembering that the woman has the right to choose her husband by herself. In particular he reminded that “According to the Genesis it is human nature itself which was made in the image of God, and that nature is composed of both sexes and therefore does not exclude the woman, if we want to understand the image of God [ . ..]. The woman is, together with her husband, the image of God, in a way that the union of the couple forms a single image”.
Another great saint very attentive to the dignity of women was St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), a famous Franciscan preacher at the end of the Middle Ages. Bernardino also explained that the husband has no right to demand from his wife virtue that he does not possess himself and he has a duty to help his wife with the housework, especially if she is already at an advanced stage of pregnancy, or has too many children to provide for. “This whole work, as you can see, is only done by the woman, while the man idles away… Therefore you, husband, make sure you help her out with her duties”.
This son of the Church of the Middle Ages depicted with care and tenderness the daily life of women, of a mother tending her child: “She swaddles him and cleans him, and washes him when needed; she soothes him when he cries; she plays with him and shows him a cherry to call him to her”. He understood how difficult it was to be a mother and respected them, with admiration. In his sermons he often spoke in favor of the education of women, especially young ones, that needed to be “educated, even if it was only to read the Bible”. The Church itself already educated all of its many religious women so that Bernardino even emphasized how “some of them are more learned than any man”.
“Do you want your women to be fair?” he asked to the family men “Then let them learn how to read, because I warn you, they can not live without education, and if you will allow them to study it will be good for you”. As for the wives, Bernardino railed against corporal punishment, a legal practice sometimes even recommended by local sumptuary laws of the time, that neither the Church nor Bernardino ever acknowledged. The monk complained that there are husbands treating their wives worse than their hens, warning that the abused woman will only do the opposite of what they wanted them to, “Some fools will take better care of their hen, to receive a daily fresh egg, than their woman … as soon as she tells him a word he does not like, they will immediately seize the stick and beat her up, although no punishment ever did any good with women. But instead they are patient with their chicken, which annoys them all day, just for a miserable egg … So I am telling you, husband, stop beating your wife, as it will only cause grief. You’d better use kind words … and tell her if she did something wrong”.
The woman should be loved, not beaten, “between the woman and her husband there must be a unique friendships indeed … if one is lazy and the other is virtuous they will never agree together, but if both are virtuous and love each other with genuine feelings a true relationship is born, that will bring paradise on earth”. Like Augustine, he based his sermon in favor of respect for women on the Genesis: “God did not make the woman from the man’s foot, so that he’d subdue her under it. And He did not make her from the man’s skull, so that she may submit him instead. He made her from his chest, close to his heart … to make him understand that he needs to love her as his other self”.
The Church certainly did not have to wait feminism to advance certain demands on anybody’s “dignity”, and women in particular.
The editorial staff