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Christian Treatment of Women



Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner



Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (1858-1934) was the younger daughter of the famed British atheist and politician Charles Bradlaugh.  Born near London, her role, and that of her elder sister, Alice, was always to be supportive and helpful to her extremely busy and overworked father, for whom she served as secretary.  She was quick to defend his memory after he died, and often came to his defense against the tired charge (hurled falsely at every atheist of note since 1700) that he had taken out his watch in front of an audience and given God five minutes to strike him dead if God existed.  Bradlaugh always sued when this was claimed, and always won, giving the money to charity.


Alice Bradlaugh died in her early twenties, and Hypatia became the main support to her father.  After his death, she wrote the first important biography of him, Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work (with j. M. Robertson writing the section on Bradlaugh’s political career).  In 1885 Hypatia married Arthur Bonner, a printer and publisher, and together they republished collected editions of Charles Bradlaugh’s works, along with a number of other important free-thought books under the imprint “A. & H. B. Bonner” of London.  She also edited a magazine called The Reformer for a number of years, with J.M. Robertson.


Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner was the author of three books in addition to the biography of her father Christianizing the Heathen, The Gallows and the Lash and Christianity and Conduct She organized the celebration of the centenary of Bradlaugh’s birth in 1933.  She died the following year.


That her father & mother chose Hypatia is of pointed significance, for Hypatia of Alexandria became to free thinkers a symbol of Christian cruelty to women.  Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, and Platonic philosopher. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia The Suda, her father Theon was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria.  Hypatia's prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and pagan in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, Cyril was made the Christian bishop of Alexandria, and a conflict arose between Cyril and the prefect Orestes.  Orestes was disliked by some Christians and was a friend of Hypatia, and rumors started that Hypatia was to blame for the conflict. In the spring of 415 C.E., the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains.


The present selection is from her book Christianity and Conduct, first published in 1919.  The book has been out of print since the 1920s.



—Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner:


Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without desiring to speak with thee.  But he answered . . . Who is my mother?

Matt., xii, 47.


Woman, what have Ito do with thee?

Jesus to his Mother (John, ii, 4).


Let women learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.  For Adam was first formed, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.  Notwithstanding, she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness and sobriety.

First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, ii, 11-15.


It is difficult to exaggerate the adverse influence of the precepts and practices

of religion upon the status and happiness of woman.  Owing to the fact that women devolves the burden of motherhood, with all its accompanying disabilities, they always have been, and always must be, at a natural disadvantage in the struggle of life as compared with men.  Men have had courses open to them; in regard to women: (I) to minimize the disadvantages so far as it lay in their power to do so; or (2) to take advantage natural disabilities in order to impose artificial ones, and by this means their own power and authority.  The first course is the moral course, tending to the common good; the second is the immoral course, in which fish interests of one part of the community are made to triumph at the expense of the other part.  It is the second course which usually has followed.  With certain rare exceptions, women all the world over have relegated to a position of inferiority in the community, greater or less according to the religion and the social organization of the people; the more is the people the lower the status of the women.


In ancient Egypt, two thousand years before the Christian era, women n a position of closer equality with men, and had greater freedom dependence, than anywhere at any time since, at any rate until quite recently. Egyptologists such as Professor Flinders Petrie, M. Maspero, and Paturet describe the women who lived in Egypt four thousand years equal with men before the law, inheriting equally and having full I over their property and person.  Polygamy existed in theory in ancient but seems to have been rare in practice.  In Europe under Christianity my has been forbidden in theory, but has been by no means rare practice—in a clandestine form.


The women of ancient Greece and Rome had no such freedom as that enjoyed by the earlier Egyptian generation.  Under the Roman Republic they were, according to law, subject to the absolute control of the father or the husband.  In marrying, the woman merely exchanged one master for another.  During the days of the later Empire there was a general relaxing of restrictions; this reacted favorably in the case of women, who then reached their position of greatest independence in Europe.  They held property, took part in public affairs, had complete control over their own homes and establishments, and even held municipal offices.2   In a recent book, which professes to see in history the working of Christian principles, it is claimed that “it was in virtue of the faith of Christ, and that alone, that the position of woman was bettered, and respect for woman increased, in the later Roman Empire and in the dark ages that followed.”  3 But the records bear witness that on the advent of Christianity, with its doctrine of the inferiority of women, their liberties were curtailed, the range of their activities contracted, and their character lowered.4


Christianity is sometimes described as an essentially feminine religion, inasmuch as the Mother of God is a chief object of worship, and women have had a conspicuous place allotted to them as saints and martyrs; and also because in the New Testament there is much which appeals to the peculiarly feminine emotions of tenderness and pity.  It is very certain that Christianity has always found its chief supporters among women, although, with a few recent exceptions, they have never been permitted to aspire to the priesthood, and have been strictly forbidden to allow their voices to be heard as Christian teachers.


Tertullian, who lived in the third century, described women as “the devil’s gateway,” and declared that they ought to go about in humble garb mourning and repentant for the sin of their mother Eve.  The Canon law could neither forget nor forgive the seduction of Adam.5 St. Ambrose, in fact, puts this forward definitely as the reason why woman should take man as her ruler, so that he may not fall a second time through female levity.  The saint evidently thought that, with man and woman on equal terms, the man would stand a poor chance.  At a Church Council held at Macon at the end of the sixth century there was a bishop who expressed a doubt whether woman was a human being at all; but the Council decided that, in spite of all her shortcomings, she really did belong to the human species.  At a Council held at Auxerre, women were forbidden to receive the Eucharist in their bare hands; and some of the Canons of the Church forbade them to approach the altar during the celebration of Mass: in the Middle Ages the Church even employed eunuchs in the cathedral choirs in order to supply the soprano voices, which otherwise belong only to women.6 In parts of Europe women were obliged to enter the church by a separate door, and to sit and stand apart from the men—a practice which still prevails in certain churches at the present day.


It is notorious that the early Church took a very coarse and detestable view of marriage, and advocated celibacy as a far higher state.  Marriage, Fathers, prevented a person from serving God perfectly, since it him to occupy himself with worldly affairs.


This antagonism to marriage had a great influence on family life.  It is strange how seldom children are mentioned in the Christian writings of the second and third centuries.  Almost nothing is said of their training; no efforts are mentioned as being made for their instruction.  Tertullian describes children as “burdens which are to us most of all unsuitable, as being perilous to faith.”  7

Donaldson, Woman:  Her Position in Ancient Greece and Rome


After a prolonged struggle the Church succeeded in establishing the institution of celibacy, which, with its nominally celibate clergy and its congregations of nominally celibate monks and nuns, was one of the most frightful sources of immorality which it is possible to conceive.8 This position taken Christian Church towards marriage was accompanied by the most odious views concerning women generally.  And there is very little doubt contemptuous and hostile attitude adopted towards them by official Christianity has been largely responsible for the heavy disabilities under which n women have suffered even in the most progressive Christian States.  The Pauline doctrine of the subjection of women is alone answerable for much that is evil in the conduct of society towards women.


This contempt for women, carrying with it their exclusion from active participation in issues affecting the welfare of the community, has not been to any one branch of Christianity; it is to be found to a greater extent among all sects.  Nothing, for example, could be more insolent in Wesley’s attitude towards women as displayed in a rebuke he I to his wife: —


 Be content [he wrote to be a private insignificant person, known

and loved by God and me. Of what importance is your character

to mankind? If you was buried just now, or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?9

Denis Diderot, quoted by Morley


If we look at the position of women in Europe at any time between the rise of Christianity and the dawn of Rationalism at the end of the eighteenth we find them generally in a very low state of culture and condition.  There have, of course, been exceptions.  There always have been individual who, through force of circumstances and sheer driving power, have we their fellows; but these were the exceptions, the rare exceptions.  Too often, indeed, both men and women of the rural populations were sunken misery and degradation, and then the woman was just the slave of a slave.  Too often both lived and died in a condition scarcely better—


In some respects, infinitely worse—than that of the cattle in the fields.  Who that has ever read it can forget l.a Bruyere’s poignant description of the peasantry of Christian France in the century before the Revolution, in which he speaks of them as having fallen to such depths of misery that only the power of difficult speech distinguished man from beast?  Where humanity is sunk so low as this it is the bitterest irony for the Christian apologist to talk of the betterment of the position of woman and the increase of respect in which Christian influences caused her to be held.  The “faith of Christ” which could bring wealth to the coffers of the Church and enable its ecclesiastics to live in splendor with huge followings of courtiers and courtesans availed nothing to alleviate the lot of the man and woman who tilled the soil and sowed the seed.


What has Christianity done for the women of Abyssinia?  Abyssinia is one of the oldest of Christian countries, and its late ruler, Menelek, traced his descent back to the Queen of Sheba.  In Abyssinia there is no development of rationalism to dispute the claims of Christian influence. Whatever unaided faith in Christ could accomplish, we might expect to see it there.  The Abyssinians care a great deal about their religion, and believe that they are the only real Christians; they would not admit that the English who visited them were Christians at all.10  They may be quite right; there are so many varieties of Christians, each professing to be the only true one, that it is difficult for outsiders to decide.  In Austria, under the Empire, the Church of England, all-important as it is in Great Britain, was not accepted as Christian.  The Abyssinians, at any rate, are described as being extremely religious, and the clergy hold the people in their power by threat of excommunication and other clerical anathemas.  A favorite subject for church decoration appears to be martyrdom on earth and torture in hell; all the good people are represented as white, and all the bad people and the devils as black.  Education—such as it is—is confined to the Church, the women are regarded as beasts of burden who do all the hard work of daily life, and the people generally are described as being morally lax, while polygamy is a common practice.  In Abyssinia, where Christianity has been the prevailing religion for close upon sixteen hundred years, and where Rationalism is utterly unknown, the women folk are no better than beasts of burden.


Russia is another very Christian country untouched by Rationalism until quite modern times.  In Russia, among the so-called upper classes, it was the custom two hundred years ago for the husband’s horsewhip to hangover the bed of the married couple; and we are assured that it was no empty symbol.  The treatment of female serfs was often infamous to the last degree.  There were nobles who “plied a regular trade in young peasant girls, whom they sold to brothels.  Gangs of serfs were taken to the southern markets, where Armenian merchants bought them for the purpose of exportation to Turkey.”11   Until well within the last century the Russian peasantry lived

in great families composed of twenty, thirty, or sometimes as many r sixty members, all subject to the absolute authority of the eldest ally the eldest grandfather, unless he was too feeble to keep order.  The despotic authority in such families fell most heavily upon the women, upon the last new daughter-in-law; each generation was a slave to the elders, and the last comer was a slave to all, scolded, cursed, and without mercy.’2 These Russians were intensely pious, living on terms closest intimacy with God, the Holy Virgin, and the saints—if one may judge from their folklore, folk songs, and traditions.  The gross superstitions of the peasants were kept up and even fostered by the Church.13   It was the intellectual movement—not Christianity, but the movement away Christianity—which bettered the condition of the cultured classes and them increased respect.  Heresy is sometimes fanatical and irrational, at other times rational and temperate; and in so numerous, so varied, and so emotional a people as the Russians it has taken every variety of form.  One good result of the movement towards intellectual and personal emancipation was the break-up of the old despotic great family system and awakening interest in education; but emancipation was still very partial tentative when the War came [World War I]; then followed the on, and then chaos, out of which a new and greater Russia may be born.


The case of Russia and that of Abyssinia are extreme instances of the worthlessness of “faith of Christ” as an influence in the betterment of humanity; both in their brutal despotism towards women and in the unquestioning credulity of the people.  The Russians doubted neither Christ nor Mary, neither Heaven nor Hell, neither witchcraft nor sorcery; their faith no bounds, for it was commensurate with their ignorance.


The rise has taken place recently in the status of women in certain countries most wholly, if not entirely, to the decline in religious belief.  Among our own people, where circumstances have been specially favorable to the growth of the spirit of liberty, the independence of women and the equalization rights have come only little by little; every step has been gained defiance of the Church and the teachings of the Scriptures, and in no way through their aid.14   When women cease to kiss the rod which has chastized for the past sixteen centuries, their emancipation will be still further I, their characters strengthened, and their activities given full scope, in England, but in France, Italy, Spain, and in the other of the Christian countries of the world. The wider education of women should do improve their condition; it should make them more respected, and, of equal importance, it should make them respect themselves more.  The more women know, the less they will “believe.”  And once released from the thralldom of belief, they will be free to prove their own worth.  The more women become—i.e., the more they think, criticize, and make up their minds for themselves, instead of humbly asking their husbands, as enjoined by St. Paul—the sooner will they reach a position of dignity and independence.






I.           For a more detailed study of this subject see The Religion of Woman, by Joseph McCabe.

2. Donaldson, Woman: Her Position in Ancient Greece and Rome, Bk. II.

3. Mozley, The Achievements of Christianity, p. xiv.

4. Donaldson, Bk. III.

5. Ostrogorski, Rights of Woman, p. xi.

6. Westermarck, Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, I, pp. 663, 666.

7. Donaldson, p. 180.

8. No one can have any real idea of the grossness or the extent of the immorality of the clergy who has not read Lea’s Sacerdotal Celibacy, or consulted the records of ancient cities, visitations to religious houses, and similar documents. See also Coulton’s Medieval Studies (first series).

9. Quoted by Morley in his Diderot, p. 169.

10.           A. B. Wylde, Modem Abyssinia, p. 142; H. Vivian, Abys.~inia, p. 275.

II. Tikhomorov, Russia: Political and Social, I, p. 234.

12.           “The Little Russians have a very characteristic saying:— Who is going to bring the water? The daughter-in-law.

Who is to be beaten? The daughter-in-law.

Why is she beaten? Because she is the daughter-in-law.”


A song of the Great Russians, in which the young wife laments her weariness, shows that the husband is powerless to protect his bride from the “striking, roaring, striking, roaring,” of the angry father-in-law and the upbraiding of the angry mother-in-law (Tikhomorov, Russia: Political and Social, I, p. 185).

13. Ibid., p. 180.

14. What irony it is to boast of the respect in which women are held by virtue of the faith of Christ when twentieth-century Christians could defend the establishment of maisons tolerees, and a notoriously pious Prime Minister of England could authorize a police regulation under which young women—even decent, modest young women— could be arrested, while their men companions went free.  The Rev. A. A. Toms (Hunstanton) actually suggested that “frail women” should be compelled to wear red bonnets. There are no frail women without frail men, but there was no suggestion that frail men should wear red caps as a danger signal to weak women.


For an article written a century ago on Christian Treatment of Women.