It has been commonly held that the Christian tradition historically ignored women, demeaned them, and treated them as something less than fully human. The Christian Church was blamed for misogynism, since it was so influential in shaping Western culture and social structures. Patricia Ranft, a Professor of History at Central Michigan University, questions that premise and sets out to chronologically and systematically move readers into a more complex understanding of the role of women in Christian history.
Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition documents enduring voices and attitudes of women from Early Christian communities to the Renaissance and Reformation periods. The representative snapshots of how women viewed themselves and were viewed by others provide a wealth of images to expand contemporary notions of feminine spirituality. Her work allows the reader to hear the voices of women who had been forgotten or silenced, and her focus illumines a way for historical interpretation of Christianity through a fresh lens. One may begin reading with a wariness of her basic premise, but be swayed by the sheer procession of documented examples showing how women were understood and treated as spiritual equals. Ranft focuses on each age's understanding of women's spiritual equality, not on the prevailing political reality.
Early Christian women who appear in Scriptures or who were martyred provide abundant evidence of women's participation in Jesus' ministry and in the earliest Christian communities. The Church Fathers (even Tertullian!) expanded on the Pauline image of the Body of Christ consisting of all believers, regardless of age, status, or gender (pp. 19-20). Whether in prayer, good deeds, generosity, fasting, hospitality, or bearing witness, women as well as men were to follow Christ's call.
Ranft makes a case for women's virginity not being an institutional imperative imposed by male theologians. Through her synthesis of the writings of Carolyn Walker Bynum and Peter Brown, she offers interpretive lenses which move us beyond anachronistic readings of male and female roles and mindsets. As early Christianity developed, the spiritual nature was seen as capable of gaining control of the physical nature by means of asceticism in general, and celibacy in particular. Choosing the aesthetic life was one area where women could exercise control over their own bodies. Sex was understood then as a social act: virgins exercised a freedom of will to do as they pleased with their own bodies. The resulting communities of women have had far-reaching and enduring consequences on Western society to this day.
Ranft documents women in roles of spiritual leadership through the fourth century, late antiquity, various periods of the middle ages, and through to the late renaissance. Examples abound of the honor given to female saints and holy women in early church history. Women's spiritual diversity is evidenced in vitaes and hagiographies from the early medieval period: Mary and itinerant Euphemia (friends of John of Ephesus); Mary the Anchorite; martyrs Mahya and Ruhm of Najran; and abbess Austreberta of Pavilly. Wherever possible, Ranft goes to primary literary (as well as artistic) sources, such as the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila. She also includes related resources which highlight the influence that female spiritual leaders had on specific individuals, their communities, and the church structures of their day. Many times, even though men were the authors, literature was produced to satisfy women's thirst for devotional materials.
Ranft's epilogue provides a dual call to recognize the enduring Christian tradition of women's spiritual equality while acknowledging that it has failed to bring the whole of society into similar traditions of equality. Christianity's contribution to human history is easily overlooked in a post-Christian era. Ranft's realistic assessment of the shortcomings of Christianity's position gives credibility to her work: "Spiritual equality of Christian women should have led to their social equality in a Christian society, and it did not" (p. 231). Her nineteen page of bibliography is an extraordinary resource on its own. This book lifts up the need for the Christian Church of this millennium to hear the voices of women who use their gifts to lead, teach, serve, and "say what may help others" (Catherine Vigri of Bologna, p. 209).