Wisdom's Voice and Women's Speech: Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, Hildegard of Bingen, and Rebecca Cox Jackson

By Schroeder, Joy | Magistra, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Wisdom's Voice and Women's Speech: Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, Hildegard of Bingen, and Rebecca Cox Jackson


Schroeder, Joy, Magistra


Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. " (Prov. 1 :20-23)1

Proverbs 1-9 depicts the personified Wisdom of God as a female figure who occupies both private and public space, speaking with a loud voice in the streets, the marketplace, and the city gates.2 Wisdom is anything but silent. She offers instruction to the wise and admonishment to the foolish. She sings a lengthy song about herself and her role at the beginning of creation in Prov. 8:4-36. In Prov. 9:3, she calls to people from the highest place in town to invite them into her home. More words are attributed to Wisdom than to any other female character in biblical literature, and it is for this reason - Wisdom's prolific speech - that women at various points in history invoked the figure of Wisdom as scriptural warrant for their own preaching and teaching roles.3

In the Christian tradition, women's appeal to Wisdom (Sophia) to provide authority for their speech may go back as far as the first-century Corinthian women prophets whom Paul found problematic. In the second century, the Montanist prophet Quintilla reported that, in a dream, Christ came to her in female form and placed Wisdom within her.5 Perhaps the best known example of a woman's use of Wisdom imagery is Julian of Norwich's celebration of Jesus as "God all wisdom" and "loving Mother."6 While women's reflections on Wisdom have been rich and varied throughout Christian history, this essay will focus on the theological creativity of three remarkable women who used the wisdom tradition to provide legitimation for female speech: Hrotswitha of Gandersheim (ca. 935-1000), Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1098-1 179), and Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871).

Women Preachers and Teachers: Wisdom Prospered their Works7

As numerous Christian women through the centuries have claimed for themselves public preaching and teaching roles, they have frequently encountered opponents who quoted to them the biblical mandates to remain publicly silent, such as those admonitions found in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline literature:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:33b-35).

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent (1 Tim. 2:11-12).

Feminist theorists such as Jean Bethke Elshtain have explored the numerous ways in which public speech, authority and agency have, for centuries in the West, been defined as a male prerogative, while women's speech was relegated to the private and domestic sphere.8 In Christianity, circumscription and silencing of women's public voices have taken various forms. In many cases, ecclesiastical legislation has specifically forbidden women from holding those church offices that involve teaching, preaching, liturgical leadership, and administering oversight and discipline.9 In other cases, opposition has taken the form of clerical denunciations of women's public preaching, writing and teaching activities. In extreme cases, women have been silenced through persecution, coercion, threats, physical punishment, mob violence, and even execution.10

Despite the biblical mandates to remain silent, women preachers, teachers, and prophets have countered such opposition with scriptural warrants of then" own, often employing great theological creativity and demonstrating their extensive knowledge of scripture. …

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