The image of women in the so-called Western society has been significantly influenced by religion. Specifically, two models that derive from the Jewish-Christian tradition have significantly imprinted the way women have been perceived.
The first is model is that of Eve and comes from the Old Testament. According to the Book of Genesis, Eve, the first woman, was created by God only after he had created Adam, the first man. God created Eve by using one of Adam’s ribs: “The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:20-24). As we can see, the Bible assigns a derivative creation to women, who came to life incarnating from men’s body. There are little doubts that this idea of the woman as a later and derivative creation to avoid solitude (“It is not good that the man should be alone; I [God] will make him an help meet for him”, Genesis 2:18) has notably influenced the belief that women are naturally subdued to men and are hierarchically inferior. Moreover, the episode of Eve’s falling into the Devil’s temptation and convincing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, introduced the idea that women were responsible for the humans’ fall from God’s grace and, accordingly, that they are deceivers, infidels, sinful and disobedient. This is the pass from Genesis that displays Eve’s way of being tempted by the Devil and the new role the God attributes to the two disobedient humans (particularly, the woman will now have to obey to his husband, who is entitled to rule over her):
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, we may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:1-16).
Whether we wish to believe or not to this Biblical episode, what is undoubtedly true is that it has significantly influenced the perception of women both among the Jews and in the nations that embraced Christendom.
However, whereas in the Old Testament the woman is perceived as the responsible for human sins and the cooperative figure of Satan, in the New Testament the situation changes completely due to the image of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, can be considered as the counterpart of Eve. Whereas Eve accepted to fall into diabolical temptation, Mary had always been during her lifetime an extraordinary and immaculate character. Since the apparition of the Archangel Gabriel that announced her the divine pregnancy, she accepted this difficult task with great courage although in the society of that time it was clearly complex for a woman to become mother without being married. Truly touching is Mary’s love and compassion for her son Jesus Christ dying on the cross. Furthermore, what really fascinates is that in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse (or Revelation), the Virgin Mary is the figure that ultimately defeats Satan destroying the fellowship that Eve had begun with him: like a woman was the first ally of the Devil, at the same time another woman will be the one that will defeat this great enemy of humankind (Apocalypse 12:1-17).
Finally, it is interesting to quote some of Saint Paul’s considerations on women as revealed in his famous epistles in order to understand how women have been considered in Christian countries for many centuries:
Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1 Timothy 2: 9-15).
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— or we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:22-30).
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (1 Corinthians 11:3–9).
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them (Colossians 3:18-19).