During the struggle for the ordination of women, it was often alleged that Christian feminism was a new-fangled distortion of historic Faith and/or a mere baptising of ‘second-wave’ secular feminism. To read the stories of first-wave feminism is however to see how much of it was deeply and inextricably grounded in religious, especially Christian, thought and experience. The term ‘Christian feminism’ itself was in frequent use by the end of the 19th century and was firmly based on profound prayer, biblical reflection and encounter with the divine in personal life and social and missionary endeavour. As Elizabeth Robins, a well-known actress and novelist, therefore observed in her In Defence of the Militants in 1912:
The woman suffrage movement has tapped those deep reservoirs of spiritual devotion and consecrated selflessness from which the world has, from the beginning, drawn its moral and religious strength.
Of course, Christian feminism then and since has been a broad and evolving phenomenon. It has encompassed a great variety of different persons and perspectives, some of them even quite conflicting in character. At its heart however has been a search for justice and a transformation of the ideology and structures of patriarchy, whether its response has been expressed in any or all of the original ‘three faces’ of Christian feminism: deep evangelical piety, powerful liberal commitment to truth and equality, or radical visions of the human self and society.
It is most certainly wrong to project later ideals anachronistically back into earlier ages. There is no ‘golden thread’ of Christian feminism which can be simplistically traced through Christian history. The past is indeed also ‘a foreign country: they do things differently there’. Yet Christian feminism cannot be regarded as a mere derivative construct of modernity. As many scholars have now shown, even disregarding the immense amount of female Christian thought and experience ‘hidden’ or irrevocably lost to later generations, there are many many ‘lost coins’ (as Ann Loades put it) of alternative Christian thought and action in earlier Christian history which reflect what we have later called ‘feminist’ motifs. As Josephine Butler affirmed, back in 1869 (in Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture), first-wave Christian feminism was therefore ultimately built upon an ‘appeal to Christ’, over the heads of Churches, Councils, and even St Paul:
an appeal to the open Book… that in all important instances of His dealings with women, His dismissal of each case was accompanied by a distinct act of Liberation…(for) His teaching was for all time... in the darkest ages of the Church there have been women whose whole lives were a protest against the capricious and various teachings of the Church concerning women… I know not myself what rightly to apply the name of Church, it it be not to such a company of faithful men and women who throughout all the ages have reflected the teaching of Christ Himself in all its integrity. These all asserted the equality of men and women, and asserted it as Christ’s teaching.