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Cover of Women: a cultural review

Women: a cultural review

Volume 21, Issue 3, Dec 2010
Pages 266-278

  • DOI: 10.1080/09574042.2010.513490
  • Print ISSN: 0957-4042
  • Online ISSN: 1470-1367

The Bible and the Cause: Freethinking Feminists vs Christianity, England, 1870–1900

This article examines Victorian debates on scriptural interpretation and women's rights, when feminists and anti-feminists, Christians and secularists battled over whether the Bible assigned women a subordinate sphere. It argues that scriptural debates were of central importance to the nineteenth-century ‘woman question’, while women's rights provided the discursive terrain upon which Christians and secularists competed for power and legitimacy. The article focuses on the contributions made by women activists in the secularist or freethought movement. These ‘freethinking feminists’ have been largely ignored in the historiography, though they formed a longstanding and active current within the Victorian women's movement. They were often marginalised, however, because of their violently anti-Christian views and their insistence that the Bible needed to be rejected in full for women to acquire freedom and equality. They argued not only with conservative Christians but with other activists in the women's movement who sought to demonstrate that women's rights could be reconciled with scriptural teachings. Highlighting this alternative tradition reveals the ‘religious roots’ of Victorian feminism to have been diverse and highly contested, and expands our understanding of the multiple processes by which modern definitions of ‘secularism’ came into being.