By Matt Dabbs
Silena Holman and the Question of Women’s Rights
by C. Leonard Allen
“Shall the sisters pray and speak in public?”
Throughout 1888 and for several years following, that question was one of the most pressing among Churches of Christ. It aroused controversy and debate across the pages of the Gospel Advocate and other periodicals.
In March of 1888 a man wrote to David Lipscomb, editor of the Advocate, suggesting that the command, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), prohibited women even from teaching children in the Sunday school. Lipscomb responded that they could teach children and even their husbands but only in a “modest deferential manner,” not in “an assuming, authoritative way.” And certainly, he added, women must never stand “before promiscuous [or mixed] assemblies” but should only teach in private.
Silena Moore Holman (1850-1915), an elder’s wife from Fayetteville, Tennessee and mother of eight children, responded to Lipscomb and the question of woman’s place. She boldly challenged some of the traditional assumptions, provoking sharp and lively exchanges with Lipscomb continuing on and off for many years.
In several lengthy articles she examined women in the Bible, underscoring the active and public ministries of women like Deborah the judge of Israel (Judges 4-6), Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:37-38), Priscilla who taught Apollos (Acts 18:26), the women assembled with the apostles on Pentecost (Acts 2), and Philip’s four daughters who prophesied (Acts 2:8-9). All of these provided biblical examples, she thought, of a public role for women that did not “usurp authority” over men.
Holman made clear her agreement with Lipscomb on one thing: “the man is the head of the woman, and should take the lead, most especially in the family relation.” But she strongly disagreed that women were thereby completely removed from public leadership roles and confined entirely to the private and domestic sphere. Women who possessed the God-given abilities should be allowed “to go out in the world and tell of the unsearchable riches of the gospel” and to combat the social evils that threatened the home.
Holman in fact rejected the distinction between private and public spheres that Lipscomb and many others sought to maintain. A woman could teach a man privately, they insisted, but not publicly, in her parlor but not in the assembly. Such a distinction, she argued, was much more cultural than scriptural. “Suppose a dozen men and women were in my parlor and I talked to them of the gospel and exhorted them to obey it. Exactly how many would have to be added to the number,” she asked, “to make my talk and exhortation a public instead of a private one?”
She made her own answer to that question very clear. “I believe that a learned Christian woman may expound the scriptures and urge obedience to them,” she stated, “to one hundred men and women at one time, as well as to one hundred, one at a time, and do much good, and no more violate a scriptural command in one instance than the other.”
Lipscomb’s basic response was that God assigned woman to the domestic sphere, and when she oversteps that realm she rebels against God and threatens the stability of society. By nature and temperament, Lipscomb believed, woman was suited to the domestic realm and no other. God had made her more emotional and less rational than man. As a result, she was wonderfully suited for nurturing children but not for public teaching or leadership.
In his exchange with Holman, Lipscomb revealed clearly his deep allegiance to what historians of the period have called the “cult of true womanhood” or the “cult of domesticity.” This vision of the ideal woman emerged in America between 1820 and 1860 and remained dominant until the end of the century.
The ideal permeated the women’s magazines, popular books, and religious literature of the period. Four attributes stood out: purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. With their superior moral purity and spiritual sensibilities, women were to restrain the natural lust and aggressiveness of husbands and sons. They were to make their homes havens of stability and nurture.
At the same time, the ideal woman was passive, dependent, deferential, and childlike. As one Christian woman put it in 1870, “God has so made the sexes that women, like children, cling to men; lean upon them as though they were superior in mind and body.” Women could exert an enormous leavening, uplifting, and nurturing influence, but only by remaining properly submissive. Indeed, by remaining strictly within their ordained sphere, women served as the backbone of society.
David Lipscomb and many other leaders of the Restoration Movement in the 1880s held this ideal of “true womanhood” without question. It deeply shaped their interpretation of biblical teaching about the role of women.
On this basis, for example, Lipscomb, his co-editor E.G. Sewell, and most other leaders condemned the “strong-minded women” who sought the right to vote. Women voting, Sewell wrote, was based on “a principle which, if allowed to spread, threatens to destroy the most sacred of all institutions, and make America a homeless nation.” Women who sought the vote, he warned, would “break the ‘bond of subjection’ divinely laid upon them and assert their independence; vote, hold office, electioneer, and, if necessary, fight their way to the ballot box.”
By stepping beyond their divinely ordained sphere, women threatened the whole moral order of things. When women entered the public sphere, Lipscomb proclaimed, chaos resulted – “loose marriage, easy divorce, indisposition to bear children, and … attendant social impurity.”
Silena Holman also assumed the ideal of “true womanhood” in certain ways but begged to differ with Lipscomb at major points. Against Lipscomb, she denied that women were unfit for leadership due to their emotional nature. “The Bible nowhere intimates,” she retorted, “that the mind of woman is inferior to that of man (and it is the mind that makes the leader).” Indeed, in the fields of science, the arts, education, literature, journalism, business, and the professions, “woman has come to the front and proven her ability to cope with man, in anything she may undertake.”
Further, when Lipscomb charged that much of the moral disarray of American society was to be laid at the feet of women who neglected their domestic duties and sought public roles, Holman took sharp exception. “My dear sister,” Lipscomb had written, “man is what his mother makes him. The great and good men are always conceded to be the work of their mothers. The bad men [too] are just as much the work of their hands.”
Preposterous, replied Holman; women do not possess all the goodness in the world, and neither should they “shoulder the responsibility for all the bad.”
With such critique, Silena Holman stood among those who in the 1890s promoted the ideal of what they called the “new woman.” Proponents of the “new woman” accepted neigher the passivity of the “true woman” nor the militancy of the emerging “women’s rights” movement. They supported women’s suffrage, women’s reform societies (like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), higher education for women, and a more public role for women in the churches. They stressed loyalty to home and family and did not reject male headship. They did not promote a feminist rejection of the domestic sphere, but rather the belief that more opportunities for women would make better wives and mothers.
In 1895 the Gospel Advocate printed an attack on the “new woman.” six months later Holman published a spirited reply: “The days of the ‘clinging vine woman’ are gone forever,” she proclaimed. In her place a “husband will find walking by his side the bright, wide-awake companion, … a helpmate in the best possible sense of the term.”
The “new woman” is well educated, and her education has not “impaired her feminine grace or lovable qualities in the slightest degree.” She will probably marry, but will not have to “marry for a living.” She knows the world around her and takes an active part in it. And she will vote when that right is granted her (only three states gave full suffrage to women at the time). “When the ‘new woman’ … comes into her kingdom, wide-awake, alert, thoughtful, and up to date,” Holman wrote, “she will not depreciate, but … magnify and glorify the profession of motherhood.”
David Lipscomb remained a staunch foe of this “new woman.” She was a “usurper” of male prerogatives and dangerous to society, he said in 1897. As for Silena Holman, he wrote: “It gives a body the blues to read Sister Holman’s article[s].”
Holman herself modeled the “new woman” in many ways. Besides raising eight children, she worked faithfully in her church, wrote many articles for publication, and served for 15 years as president of the Tennessee Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Under her dynamic leadership the organization grew from fewer than 200 members to over 4,000.
In 1913, two years before her death, she was still addressing “the woman question” in the Advocate, still arguing for a woman’s right to teach publicly before “mixed audiences.” “Men may change with the changing conditions of modern life,” she wrote, “but when women find themselves trying to keep step with their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the new order of things, the brethren stand in front of them with a drawn sword and demand a halt, because, they say, the Bible forbids, when it does nothing of the kind.”
When Holman died in 1915, well-known evangelist T.B. Larimore preached her funeral. She had requested Larimore, she said, because “I want no man to apologize for my work, and I know he will never do that.” Larimore didn’t apologize. He praised her “honorable and industrious life,” mentioning both her devotion to her family and her “wonderful intelligence” as a public leader.
“In her last conversation with me,” Larimore concluded, “she spoke of men who had been bitter foes of her work, speaking not unkindly, but in the spirit of charity, and I want to commend that spirit to all who are here.”
Two years later a portrait of Silena Holman was hung in the Tennessee State Capitol. She was only the second woman granted such an honor.
For further reading see the following articles by Silena Holman:
“Let Your Women Keep Silent,” Gospel Advocate 30 (August 1, 1888), 8.
“The Scriptural Status of Women.” Gospel Advocate 30 (October 10, 1888), 2-3.
“The ‘New Woman,’ ” Gospel Advocate 28 (July 9, 1896), 438.
“The ‘New Woman,’ No. 2” Gospel Advocate 28 (July 16, 1896), 452-53.
“Woman’s Scriptural Status Again.” Gospel Advocate 30 (November 21, 1888), 8.
Leonard Allen teaches in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University. This article is adapted from his book, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church, soon to be released by ACU Press.
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