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amusing tidbit from history

sister suffragette

I’ve been buried neck-deep in research all summer, and I discovered something both hysterical and fascinating buried in the middle of The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain by Ben Griffin. In his chapter discussing the family law reform during the early days of British feminism, Griffin spent some time talking about the various movements both for and against the reforms being proposed– and that were eventually enacted.

Today, when a married couple divorces, it is likely that the wife will be awarded both custody of any children and the marital home. This has become an integral part of family law– in Pennsylvania, the case history is so biased in this way (whether or not it’s biased “for” or “against” women is another debate entirely) that a man can lose most or all of his assets– even the assets he acquired before he was married if those assets have ever been traditionally viewed as part of the marriage. For example, if a man pays off his home before he is married, there’s a huge chance that in the divorce proceedings his wife will be awarded his home, even though she did not contribute to its ownership in either time or money.

The reason why this bias is present, Griffin argues, is because of evangelicals.

During the law reforms, evangelicals apparently spent a lot of time arguing that a woman was “naturally” inclined to be more domestic, that being more emotional and more nurturing meant that she had certain matronly instincts that were far beyond the realm of men– that men were, by nature, not very interested in being good care-givers, and it was better for the children for them to go to the mother in the event of a divorce. This is really a load of malarkey, and is one of the most egregious gender stereotypes ever created or perpetuated, but at least I know where the idea comes from now.

The interesting– and incredibly funny– thing is that when evangelicals started arguing for this perspective about women and “motherliness,” the people who opposed them were theological conservatives. Their argument went that the evangelical presentation of a woman being the “queen of her home” or at all in charge of her “domestic sphere” wasn’t biblical. In short, they argued that giving a woman a “domestic sphere” by necessity meant that you were giving her “authority over men,” which they said was a big no-no thanks to their interpretation of 1 Timothy 2.

Turns out, in their own very strange way, evangelicals started out as feminists.

Too bad they haven’t really re-thought any of their positions about women in the last 150 years.