Please correct me if I’m wrong but I get the impression that the general story of Christianity and women in the popular mind goes something like this: “Under the sway of Christianity women were treated like so much cattle but then the Enlightenment, reason, etc. came along and women started to get rights and get the vote and be treated like fellow humans.” Some, the sort who found the Da Vinci Code to be very exciting, go even further back and add, “Prior to the rise of those nasty institutional Christians, pagans and even some early (gnostic) Christians understood the spiritual value of women, and even worshipped goddesses… My, those were the days!”
The truth, as usual, is quite different and more interesting. Rodney stark writes:
Women greatly outnumbered men among early [Christian] converts. However, in the empire as a whole, men vastly outnumbered women. There were an estimated 131 men for every 100 women in Rome. The disparity was even greater elsewhere and greater still among the elite.
Widespread female infanticide had reduced the number of women in society. “If you are delivered of a child,” wrote a man named Hilarion to his pregnant wife, “if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl discard it.” Frequent abortions “entailing great risk” (in the words of Celsus) killed many women and left even more barren.
The Christian community, however, practiced neither abortion nor infanticide and thus drew to itself women.
More importantly, within the Christian community women enjoyed higher status and security than they did among their pagan neighbors. Pagan women typically were married at a young age (often before puberty) to much older men. But Christian women were older when they married and had more choice in whom, and even if, they would marry.
Mike Aquilana adds:
8:32 am on June 16, 2006 Email Stephen W. Carson
Infanticide was common, especially for female offspring. In one city of the empire, the census enrolled 600 families — of which only 6 had raised more than one daughter. Though most of those were large families, they had routinely killed their baby girls. In another city, a recent archeological dig turned up an ancient sewer clogged with the bones of hundreds of newborns.