We begin with the life of Jesus, and then look at how Christian teaching influenced ancient Rome and other regions of the world. For each stage and region, I then offer an estimate of how many women have been benefited in some important way by the Gospel.
A. Life of Jesus.
The gospels show Jesus as helping women in many ways, including the following: (1) He saved a woman from getting stoned for adultery; (b) He raised a girl to life from the dead. (c) He healed innumerable women, including some who became followers, and Peter's mother-in-law. (d) He raised a widow's only son to life. (e) He provided wine for the wedding of a poor couple. (f) His compassionate teachings seemed to change the lives of several women for the better, such as the woman the well, the lady with alabaster bottle, the woman who washed his feet with her tears.
Of course these accounts are in dispute. If true, however, one can say that Jesus directly improved the lives of hundreds of women in dramatic ways. And in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, I argue that thirty characteristics of the gospels ("the fingerprints of God") show that they are, in fact, credible historical accounts of Jesus' life.
Number of women liberated by Jesus: hundreds directly.
B. Early Christianity
In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christianity helped women in the Greco-Roman world in six principle ways: (a) By discouraging abortion (early methods for which were dangerous, and killed a lot of women); (b) by discouraging female infanticide (extremely common in the Roman world); (c) by aiding widows financially, and giving them useful work to do; (d) by rejecting the "double standard" that men could fool around, but women must be punished for doing so; (e) by encouraging Christians to care for one another during common epidemics (small pox first struck Rome during this period), which improved chances of surviving disease; and by (f) encouraging girls to marry later. Stark cited research by Keith Hopkins of 320 girls, showing that while 20% of pagan Roman girls married before 13, only 7% of Christian girls married that early. While 44% of pagans married before 15, only 20% of Christian girls did. (Rise of Christianity, 107).
Even today, childbirth before the age of 15 (apparently in Third World Countries) reportedly leads to the death of the mother five times more often as childbirth after the mother is more mature. (See here.) Conditions were, no doubt, far worse for everyone in Antiquity: given the Christian and pagan populations of ancient Rome, it seems probable that later marriage alone saved the lives of thousands of Christian girls.
Number of women liberated by the Gospel: at least tens of thousands.
C. Medieval Christianity
Christian zeal was slowly diluted beginning especially with Constantine and Theodisius by three other religious influences: Greco-Roman cultural power; old European pagan traditions; and Islam. After the fall of Rome, literacy declined, the Church monopolized interpretation of the Bible, and few people read the words of Jesus directly. So the so-called Age of Faith was ironically, not always an age in which the teachings of Jesus easily reached ordinary people.
However, the status of women in Medieval Europe was undoubtedly far higher than in its three main rival civilizations: India, China, and the Islamic world. Bernard Lewis, one of the leading scholars of Islam and himself Jewish, noted:
"The difference in the position of women was indeed one of the most striking contrasts between Christian and Muslim practice, and is mentioned by almost all travelers in both directions. Christianity, of all churches and denominations, prohibits polygamy and concubinage. Islam, like most other non-Christian communities, permits both . . . Muslim visitors to Europe speak with astonishment, often with horror, of the immodesty and frowardness of Western women, of the incredible freedom and absurd deference accorded them." (What Went Wrong, 66)
Such observations were made in the 17th Century, already. How, then, can one credit the liberation of women in the West to the Enlightenment? (Never mind the Womens' Liberation movement of the 1970s?) One Muslim credited this remarkable respect for women in Europe to respect for Mary.
One gets the feeling, from Frances and Joseph Gies' excellent Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, that relations between the sexes during this period were overall fairly sane, and that Christianity was a big reason for that. Christianity "demurred mildly" from the general Roman and barbarian assumptions that men are superior in marriage, by insisting that marriage involve "mutual consent (41). Sixth century women inherited money and property, but not land (51). The Church exerted the principle of one wife at a time, which was mostly accepted by the 8th Century (53), ending the otherwise almost universal practice of polygamy (for rich men). Christianity challenged the normal double-standard:
"Kings, nobles, and the public in general still felt that a husband could, if he wished, divorce his wife. The Church flatly disagreed." (130)
The importance of opposing polygamy can hardly be overstated. The sexes are born in fairly equal numbers. When a few men hog most the women, surplus men are confronted with a few bad choices. They can remain celibate, share women (prostitution), become eunuchs, or kill one another off. The shortage of women grows more acute when some die in childbirth, as was also common. In war-like societies, like Mohammed's Arabia, constant battle makes polygamy work in a rough and cruel sense. All the other options besides monogamy are far worse, and carry worse implications for society.
One should not paint the picture too rosy of the situation in Europe, either. There were setbacks. After King Alfred's relatively lenient regulations, some laws decreed harsh punishment for women (but not, apparently, men) caught in adultery. During the 11th Century, in most of Europe (though not Spain), women lost the right to inherit most property. These innovations probably didn't grow from Christian influence (for reasons we will see in Part V). Christian innovations clearly did continue to help millions of European women during the Middle Ages, while no such terrible traditions as footbinding or sati were instituted.
The Gies conclude their account:
"In the course of the Middle Ages, monogamous marriage triumphed over polygamy and male divorce power, and gradually shifted its focus away from parental and kinship concerns to the advantage of the conjugal couple."
In addition, Christianity helped European women by unifying Europe and helping it defend itself against Isalmic conquest. Where Muslim armies conquered, those who were not killed, were enslaved or made into concubines. Clearly, the status of women was generally far higher in Europe than in Muslim lands. By helping unify Europe against Islamic conquest, Christianity left European women in relative freedom to the present hour. (At least until Angela Merkel let a million Muslim men into Germany, some of whom have taken to publicly abusing women by the hundreds.)
Number of women liberated by the Gospel: tens of millions in the Middle Ages, billions in modern times.
The Gospel blessed Chinese women as well in profound ways. The great early 20th Century scholar, Hu Shih, a secular fan of John Dewey, noted:
"Let women serve as oxen and horses.' This saying is not sufficient to describe the cruelty and meanness with which Chinese have treated women. We 'let women serve as oxen and horses,' put on yokes, wear saddles, and as if that were not enough, spurs and horse shoes, then chased them out to work! Our holy Scriptures were of no saving value. For a thousand years, Confucian philosophers talked about love and benevolence day after day, yet never noticed the cruel and inhumane treatment of their mothers and sisters.
"Suddenly from the West a band of missionaries arrived. Besides preaching, they also brought new customs and new ways of looking at things. They taught us many things, the greatest of which was to look at women as people."
The custom of breaking the bones of the feet of young girls caught on during the Song Dynasty. The great neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi helped popularize both skepticism, and foot-binding.
Among other things, missionaries (a) began the crusade against foot-binding. This was consumated under the Nationalist movement, which itself was led (at first) largely by Christian Chinese. (b) Educated women. One study in Fujian found that almost all women who went abroad to study by the early 20th Century, had been educated in mission schools. (c) Introduced the idea of monogamy. Despite their general flexibility, Jesuits refused to baptist Christians with more than one wife. See Wild Swans, for a vivid picture of what polygamy meant for Chinese women. (d) Fought social evils like opium addiction and forced prostitution. Reform an opium addict, and even if he is a man, as most were, you help the women who depend on or care for him. (e) Introduced science and encouraged economic development, again beginning at least with the Jesuits.
Number of women liberated by the Gospel: Probably some 1.5 billion.
E. Japan and Korea
Buddhism taught that women needed to be reincarnated as men to gain enlightenment: Japanese Buddhism banned women from sacred places:
"In this land of Japan the most sacred and exalted holy places all forbid women to enter." (History of Japanese Religion, 285)
Confucianism had marginalized women, but never to this extent. Honen noted:
"Even the temples, like mere heaps of rubbish and brambles in this world of endurance, refuse entry to women, and even the crudest buddha images made of mud and sticks reject their worship. How, then, coudl women be allowed to be reborn in the Buddha-land adn see the Buddha . . . ?" (Ibid, 287)
This utter contempt for women not universal in Japan: the Nichiren sect was kinder, for instance. But it was common.
Again, Christian missionaries introduced schools around Japan. That includes Kwassui in Nagasaki where I lived, which was founded by the missionary Elizabeth Russell, in the face of increasing governmental opposition. (The government felt women should stay home.) Similar schools were founded across Japan and Korea, as well as in other countries.
In 1900, the Salvation Army (which was doing great things for women in Europe and America, too) led a music troop, and some journalists, through the Red Light district in Tokyo. They were attacked by thugs, but this led to the liberation of girls who had been forced into prostitution, at least nominally.
Women Liberated: tens or hundreds of millions.
The doctrine developed and then was codified in the Law of Manu that women could only be saved by worshiping their husbands as their chief gods. So if the husband died, the best thing to do would be to throw themselves on his funeral pyre and burn themselves to death. This was commonly done, willingly or not.
“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.”
Whatever lout she might have been coupled to, a wife must obey:
“Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.”
If a widow gave into lust (or hunger pains) in this world she was disgraced, and placed “in the womb of a jackal” and tormented by diseases in the next. The Hindu epics then introduced a pious way out of the dilemma: when a man died, his wife might do well to throw herself on his funeral pier. The voluntary practice of sati became common by about 400 AD, though it was sometimes condemned.
To be born a woman, as to be born into a lower caste, soon became evidence of past sin. A father also sinned if he failed to marry his daughter off at eleven or twelve. Female infanticide thus carried religious justification. Even today, ultrasound results in the aborting of hundreds of thousands of baby girls among Indians who can afford it.
Women were allowed to own property, however.
Christianity introduced a starkly new concept of feminity to India, and that concept had a huge (though still far from complete) impact. John Farquhar describes that impact in a chapter of his book, Crown of Hinduism. Ruth Mangalwadi also discusses the role of the missionary William Carey in particular in The Legacy of William Carey, chapter 2: 'William Carey: A Legacy by an Indian Woman.'
To be brief, among other things, missionaries inspired by the Gospel: (a) began the struggle against sati, which ended in banning the practice; (b) introduced education for girls; (c) set up homes for women who had been forced into "sacred" prostitution; (d) trained many girls as nurses, a profession still dominated by Christians in India; (e) in general, challenged the evil mindset of the Law of Manu.
The status of women is probably higher in India now than in neighbors like Pakistan and Afghanistan, NOT because Islam is inherently more misogenistic than Hinduism. It is not: in fact, Hinduism as developed after the time of Christ became far worse. The difference is that Hinduism was more flexible, and open to new ideas. Thus some reformers who challenged the oppression of women in India were Christians, while others saw themselves as Hindus, who borrowed some good ideas from the Bible, then found justification for those ideas in their own scriptures. (A common procedure.)
Women liberated: probably at least 1 billion.
Africa is the most diverse region of those I've mentioned so far, racially and politically. I'm hesitant to say much, since unlike the other regions I've discussed, I've never been to Africa, and it would be hard to generalize accurately about Africa's hundreds of tribes, chiefdoms, and nations.
Of course the greatest tragedy of African history is the slave trade, in which Arabs, Europeans, and Africans all participated, and of which all were about equally guilty, near as I can tell. The relationship between slavery and religion is complex: I think that after centuries of putting up with horrors, motivated by greed, Christians did ultimately play a key positive role in ending it, thus helping millions of men and women. But given that complexity, that will be no part of my argument here.
As elsewhere, missionaries introduced schools for girls as well as boys that helped many African women. They also combatted such evils as polygamy and human sacrifice in some regions. "We are the people. The women are just animals," was a sentiment a Nigerian village chief expressed to a missionary, who rejected it, demanding that women and children be allowed to hear their message as well! The effort of modern Christians to end war in the Sudan and the slave-trade, encourage sexual commitments (which seems to have helped halt the growth of AIDS in Uganda and Tanzania), and in relief and development projects, must surely have helped additional millions of women in Africa.
I don't know Africa well enough to put a number on such complexity, however.
In these ways, then, that the Gospel of Jesus has significantly helped 5 billion or more women. People inspired by the example of Jesus have educated women, raised their status, given them jobs, and combatted social evils like drug addiction, widow-burning, foot-binding, human sacrifice, prostitution, and polygamy.
I have not tried to be exhaustive.
I have said little about medical practice, for instance. Literally billions of women have been treated by Christian doctors who saw their service as a service to God, in many cases when no other doctor was available. I have said a little more about education: my wife is one of billions of women who have benefitted, even as non-Christians, from being taught by Christians who also saw their work as a ministry. I have overlooked many tribes where women were treated with little respect, that have begun to change that with the coming of Christianity.
Even with what we have seen so far, though, it is clear that the picture of the Church as a dungeon that imprisons women is not just nonsense, it is the opposite of the truth. Nothing has liberated more women than the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I have seen it first-hand, on the "missions field," the cutting edge between Christian faith and the pagan world. We have seen that UN figures show that the status of women on many distinct criteria is far higher in nations that have been influenced deeply by the Gospel, than in nations where that influence has been weaker. We have traced that influence to a few Gospel verses, and to the early Christian church, before the supposed "Enlightenment" first dawned in Europe, and long before the "Women's Liberation Movement." And then we saw that the beneficial effect of the Gospel has also touched the lives of literally billions of women in China, Japan, Korea, India, and Africa.
But can we really credit all this to the influence of (ironically) one man? Or is this just inevitable "social progress" which creeps up on us like crocuses flowering in spring, and natural process of moral evolution that just happened to affix itself to Christian preachers as they spread around the world from Europe to share ideas of progress that had somehow taken hold in the West?
Let us now focus more directly on Jesus' teachings, to make the connection even clearer.