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Mark Ellse: A history lesson for feminists. Not every man from ancient times was a chauvinist

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I happened across a debate involving the psychologist Stephen Pinker. En passant he said ‘I am a feminist. I believe that women have been oppressed and discriminated against and harassed for thousands of years. I believe that the two waves of the feminist movement in the twentieth century are among the proudest achievements of our species.’

Well, if one were of this opinion about the historical treatment of women, one might regard the feminist movement as nothing other than beneficial. But how does one know how women were treated in the past?

The problem with history is that we see it through our own prejudices. As a man I have to be careful how I say this, but one can either regard the existence of the ducking stool as evidence of the oppression of women, or evidence that, whatever the ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’ of the times, not every woman was in total subjection.

One always has to be careful about any use of the Bible in discussions of this sort. Not least the well-trained feminist is quick with the dismissal of ‘You know it was written by men!’ Let us take that remark at face value and, for a moment, ignore any claim about divine inspiration. What we have is a document whose composition covered at least hundreds of years in a period a couple of thousand years ago. Since it was ‘written by men’, it reflects some of their views over that period.

Can we find evidence for the men of old having a very different attitude towards women? Feminists jib at the creation account, the naming of woman by man and the authority that implies. They are less quick to refer to Jacob who ‘served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her’ (Genesis 29).

Feminists will point to the breakthrough of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, without reminding us that the wife of Proverbs 31 had her own income and acted independently. The women in the Gospels lived pretty independent lives. Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) had their own trades. Lydia (Acts 16) was wealthy. Can we seen any evidence for men having a negative view about these women?

It is an affectation to believe that previous generations lived in a savagery from which we, today, have emerged. We need to remind feminists that many women in the past were well treated by men, as they are now.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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