In the 1830s, Mary Stewart was the first to advance issues of gender equality and social justice in the United States.

The Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, contributed the treatises “Appeal to the Christian Women in the South” (1836) and “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women” (1837), respectively, claiming that the Bible had been misunderstood and mistranslated.5

The Seneca Falls “Declaration on Women’s Rights” issued in 1848 summed up women’s concerns with regard to the male-dominated system in their day.

The Quaker Lucretia Coffin Mott argued in an 1849 sermon that Scripture was not supremely authoritative or inspired. In the same year, Antoinette Brown published an article in the Oberlin Quarterly in which she set forth the argument that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 merely proscribe inappropriate teaching by women.6 She was ordained in the Congregational Church, New York, in 1853—probably the first American woman to undergo ordination.

Other outspoken women in the second half of the nineteenth century included Catherine Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army; Frances Willard, who established the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; and Katharine Bushnell, leader of women’s equality Bible studies.

First-wave nineteenth-century feminists used two primary methods for interpreting Scripture. The first method sought to counter the argument of those who limited the role of women by reasoning from passages that spoke of the “equality”7 of men and women in Christ. The second method made use of female characters in Scripture that could serve as role models for women in leadership, such as Deborah, Ruth, and Esther.8 Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a more critical approach began to take hold. This approach labeled the actual biblical texts as sexist and challenged their integrity, including their view of women. All of these approaches mark the first stage of feminist hermeneutics—methods of interpretation—and form the foundation of feminist biblical interpretation.

The rising tide of women active in Christian ministry and scholarship reached a culmination point in The Woman’s Bible, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1895, 1898).9 The work resembles a commentary more than a translation, with twenty women contributors enlisted to comment on selected biblical passages judged significant for women.10

Stanton herself did not consider the Mosaic law to be inspired,11 yet she acknowledged the powerful influence of the Bible as the bedrock of male-dominated Western law and civilization. Believing that women’s emancipation would be impossible if Scripture’s position continued to be accepted, Stanton applied a supposed “higher criticism” to erode its authority, particularly with regard to biblical teaching on women.12 The historicity of biblical narratives was challenged and certain criteria of authenticity were applied to test their reliability. In so doing, Stanton attempted to correct traditional interpretations of passages related to women and sought to achieve legislative reform through a reinterpretation of the Bible.

The Second Wave of Feminism  

Through the efforts of Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony and many others, women in America gained the right to vote in 1919.13 The decades subsequent to this female milestone (1920–1960) saw little growth in the women’s movement. It was only when American society entered a major social upheaval in the 1960s, with an anti-establishment message and a civil rights emphasis, did modern-day feminism emerge. Initially, this second wave of feminism was a radical, secular phenomenon seeking only to extend the feminist movement to the social and economic realm.14