A Scripture of Their Own: Nineteenth-Century Bible Biography and Feminist Bible Criticism

Article excerpt

The now well-established school of feminist Bible criticism has its nineteenth-century forebears. The movement to interpret the Bible from a gendered perspective began as a product of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, although scholars recognize their ancestor in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose book The Woman's Bible caused controversy in the 1890s. But there is an earlier tradition of female-centred Bible interpretation, which is to be found in collective biographies written by British and American women across the nineteenth century. These writers constructed "lives" of female characters in scripture in ways that anticipate some of the strategies of feminist scholarship of recent times, while addressing their own contemporary concerns abut the role of women. It would be inaccurate to classify these biographers as "feminist" in today's terms because they maintained a belief in essential male and female characteristics and differentiated gender roles. And, unlike modern feminist scholars, they took at face value the whole of scripture as the word of God. However, the nineteenth-century writers shared with their later counterparts a desire to read the Bible self-consciously from a woman's perspective and thereby to "bring their own experience into the public formation of the tradition" (Ruether 112). The biographers bypassed male-centred interpretive traditions and recast female Bible characters as powerful role models for themselves and their readers. John Stuart Mill, an advocate of women's liberation, conjectured in his 1861 essay The Subjection of Women that, if given the freedom, female authors would write "a literature of their own," distinct from the traditions of male discourse (77). In the form of collective Bible biography, nineteenth-century women created what may be termed "a scripture of their own."

The genre of collective biography flourished during the nineteenth century, during which hundreds of titles were published in a bid to highlight the qualities and achievements of women of the past, both ancient and modern. These works included series of short life accounts united around a common theme, biographical dictionaries, and a few panoramic histories of "woman" with some focus on key individuals. Most were in prose, a few in verse, and virtually all were prefaced with an introductory essay in which the author outlined her theme. The genre was, as the reviewer Margaret Oliphant quipped, a uniquely "feminine preserve," since it was written by women, about women, and primarily for women readers and formed a self-enclosed genre in which women could debate their role, safe from any "male intruder" (qtd. in Maitzen 374). Biography has long been important to the formation of political identity, and Alison Booth and Judith Johnston have both in recent years recognized collective biography's importance in providing role models for women at a time when their social role was the subject of much debate (Booth, "The Lessons of the Medusa" 263; Johnston 20). Rohan Maitzen in her 1995 work considered the biographies from a historian's perspective as an incursion into the male-dominated realm of historiography: "as supplements to the historical master-narratives ... they vigorously assert a feminine place in history" (372). This article, by focusing on biographies specifically of Bible figures, reveals how the nineteenth-century writers were able also to enter the male-dominated territory of Bible criticism, to reclaim women as important figures within their religious heritage, and to claim scriptural authority for their liberating perspectives on women's place.

Given the sheer number of collective biographies published, this study is necessarily selective, focusing on examples from across the century that find in the Bible resources to challenge cultural restrictions on women. Some works to be discussed focus exclusively on the Bible, such as Clara Lucas Balfour's Women of Scripture (1847) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Women in Sacred History (1873). …