In the minds of my secular friends, historic Christianity is not a pro-women movement. Last Friday, as International Women’s Day took the social media stage, there was something of a spirit of resistance: let’s throw off the shackles of misogynist religion and create a secular world where women can thrive.
I understand how they’ve got that impression. As in every other ethical area, we Christians have not lived up to the standards of our Savior. But if we dig beneath the surface, we’ll find a different story. Indeed, we find that Christianity is the most effective pro-women movement in all of history. Here are nine reasons why:
- The early church was comprised mostly of women
Due to selective infanticide and maternal death in childbirth, the Greco-Roman world was disproportionately male. But the early Christian movement was majority-female, and by some estimates, nearly two-thirds female. In the early days Christianity was ridiculed for its appeal to women. The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus snarked that Christians, “want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children,” while the third-century Christian apologist Minucius Felix records critics saying Christianity attracted, “the dregs of the populace and credulous women with the inability natural to their sex.” In line with the stereotypes, when the early second-century Roman governor Pliny the Younger wanted to find out more about Christianity, he interrogated, “two female slaves who were called deaconesses.” From the first, Christianity attracted women.
- Early Christianity benefited women
In a world that typically held women down, Jesus lifted them up—and Christianity benefited them in tangible ways. Roman families often gave their prepubescent daughters away in marriage, but Christian women could marry later. Christianity also condemned many male prerogatives that left women marginalized, abandoned, abused, or dead, such as divorce, incest, adultery, rape, polygamy, and female infanticide. Indeed, the radical expectation that men should be faithful, loving, and sacrificial to their wives was a key social innovation of the Christian movement.
When Christians finally gained political power, laws started to come into place to protect women and their children from abuse. For instance, the first Christian emperor of Rome outlawed infanticide in 315 and provided a nascent form of welfare in 321 so that poor women would not have to sell their children. In 428, the Eastern emperor issued a decree condemning “pimps, fathers, and slaveowners” who forced women into exploitative sex, and offering protection to “slaves and daughters and others who have hired themselves out on account of their poverty.” To be sure, progress toward equality was slow. But it was Christianity that fueled that progress with the idea—not at all self-evident in the ancient world—that women were equal in value to men.
- The global church today is comprised mostly of women
What about today? If Christianity began as a majority-female movement, the church today is similarly skewed. Across the globe, women are generally more religious than men, but the gender gap is most pronounced for Christianity. Indeed, women of color are the most likely to identify as Christian and to engage in Christian practice, such as church attendance and prayer. Yale law professor and black public intellectual Stephen Carter has observed “a difficulty endemic to today’s secular left: an all-too-frequent weird refusal to acknowledge the demographics of Christianity.”
- The church in America is comprised mostly of women
In line with global norms, the church in America is also disproportionately female, and disproportionately women of color. The racial gap is even larger than the gender gap, but the gender gap persists across racial difference. African American men are significantly less likely to practice Christianity than African American women, but significantly more likely than white women. Likewise, Latina/o Americans are more likely to be Christians than whites, while Latina women are more religious than Latino men. Black Christians are also strongly skewed toward evangelical beliefs and practices.
When we think of a church-going, Bible-believing, daily-praying, Jesus-loving Christian in the U.S., we should think of a black woman. Conversely, atheism in America is significantly overrepresented by white men: 68 percent of atheists are men and 78 percent are Caucasian (compared to 66 percent for the general public). Professor Carter cautions secular liberals, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are. [Y]ou’re mostly mocking women [and] you’re mocking black women in particular.”
- Christianity promotes education for women
Christians invented the university and Christianity has been a tremendous force for education globally. A primary reason is because the centrality of the Bible has pushed Christians toward literacy. It should therefore not be a surprise that Christianity is positively correlated with educational attainment of women. If you sort the world by religion, Jews (who represent 0.2 percent of the world’s population) are the most educated with an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling for both men and women. Christians (the largest global belief system claiming 31 percent of the world’s population) are the second most educated group, with the second smallest gap between genders: an average of 9.4 years for men and 9.1 for women. The religiously unaffiliated (16 percent of the world’s population) come in next, with lower averages and a larger gender gap—an average of 9.2 years for men and 8.3 years for women—though those averages are rising and that gap is closing for younger generations. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims have substantially fewer years of education on average, and substantially larger gender gaps.
- Christian sexual ethics benefit women today
The sexual revolution of the 1960s promised women more sexual freedom and therefore more happiness. But reported happiness for women in America has actually decreased, and changing cultural expectations around sex are likely part of the reason. A variety of studies have found a correlation between women having multiple sexual partners and decreased happiness and mental health. For example, one study found that “the prevalence of sadness, suicide ideation, suicide plans and suicide attempts increased with the number of sexual partners across all racial/ethnic groups.” Another found, “a strong association between number of sex partners and later substance disorder, especially for women.”
This is no disparagement of sex itself, or of women as sexual beings. Faithful marriage is correlated with more sexual frequency and greater sexual enjoyment, and a 2004 academic study found that the “happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year” is one. Moreover, while cohabiting before marriage is typically seen as a wise investment in future marital bliss, it is actually associated with increased risk for divorce and marital distress. This lines up with New Testament sexual ethics that call both men and women to keep sex within marriage, but also to enjoy sex in that space—with as much concern for the wife’s sexual needs as the husbands (see 1 Cor.7:3-5).
- Christianity opposes gendercide
In the East, abortion has resulted in massive gendercide. In China, due to selective abortion and female infanticide, an estimated 34 million women are missing from the population, while for the same reason, men outnumber women in India by approximately 25 million. China and India have the largest populations of any country and historically among the lowest proportions of Christians. That situation is changing rapidly, though, and China is expected to have more Christians than America by 2030, thanks in large part to the missionary activities of Chinese Christian women.
- Church-going men are less likely to be violent
Eliminating domestic violence is a top priority for advocates of equality for women. The fact that many women are not safe in their own homes is a tragedy and a disgrace. But far from Christianity enabling men to abuse their wives (as is sometimes claimed) Christian teaching on marriage should make Christian men the least likely to commit the sin of violence against women.
And while any level of spousal abuse is unacceptable for Christians, multiple studies have found correlation between regular church attendance and significantly lower levels of domestic violence. For instance, a 2001 study found levels of domestic violence were almost twice as high for men who did not attend church versus those who attended once a week or more.
- Feminism began as a Christian movement
The ministry of Jesus radically changed the status of women. He consistently lifted women up—from reaching out to women who were social outcasts, to protecting women from sexual objectification, to encouraging women to learn alongside his male disciples, to holding them up as moral examples. As in every other area, the church’s history has often failed to live up to Jesus’s standards. But there is a real sense in which equality for women was a Christian project from the first.
In more recent history, so-called “first-wave feminism” in the early 1920s, which gained American women the right to vote and inherit land, was due in large part to Christian activism. While some elements of “second-wave feminism” are at odds with Christian ethics (most notably with regard to abortion) the drive to ensure that women are treated as having equal value, empower women to pursue their various vocations in the world, and protecting women from denigration and exploitation, is at heart a Christian project.
Let’s reclaim International Women’s Day for Christianity, the greatest international pro-women movement in all of history.