Eve, Original Sin, Sexuality

Your Grandmother Eve

Men invented the concept of Grandmother Eve to oppress women. The phrase itself, deceptively genial and benevolent, is a type of patriarchal code that implicitly blames women for the Fall in Eden, thereby justifying their oppression under the guise of protecting the Weaker Vessel (see 1 Peter 3: 7), and the fine book by Antonia Fraser. The seventeenth-century bishop Thomas Ken delivered these words as part of a sermon to a room full of women: “women are made of a temper more soft and frail, are more endangered by snares and temptatons, less able to control their passions, and more inclinable to extremes of good or bad than men, and generally speaking, goodness is a tenderer thing, more hazardous and brittle in the former than in the latter, and consequently a firm and steady virtue is more to be valued in the weaker sex than in the stronger.” Although this might be categorized as the official view, not everyone subscribed to it. Very few women did, as the subtle painting by Anna Lee Merritt, sometimes titled Eve Shows Remorse (c. 1885), implies. What is the nature of her sorrow?The writer of Genesis does not pass judgment or assign motivation to Eve. The biblical locus that blames her for the Fall appears to be 1 Timothy 2:11-14: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”Shakespeare uses the phrase in his early comedy, Loves Labours Lost: “a child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for thy more sweet understanding, a woman” (1.1.251-2), although the character who writes those words in a letter is a knave and a fool.

Gender Politics

 In her introduction to her edited collection of early modern women’s writing, English Women's Voices (1992), Charlotte F. Otten writes about Genesis 2.21, invoked to support the inferiority of women:


"The prevailing view of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that woman was metaphysically an inferior creature, created only to alleviate the loneliness of man and to be his helpmeet. In addition, woman was considered morally inferior to man. When Eve succumbed to the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), she doomed the rest of womankind to moral deficiency and moral inferiority. It was woman who caused Adam to fall; it was woman who was responsible for subsequent evil in the world and for the human predicament. Moral theology asserted that the treachery of Eve was passed down to all her female descendants, and hence woman could only be viewed as deceptive, unreliable, seductive. The fall of their Grandmother Eve in Paradise (Eve was commonly referred to in this way, even in the horticultural manuals) placed all women in a morally inferior, subservient position.On the basis of Eve’s decision, woman would always be subject to the morally superior male. Chastity, obedience, and silence were not externally imposed commands but enjoinders that sprang from what was regarded as the essential nature of woman: chastity, because of Eve’s seductive act in tempting Adam to sin and the sexual consequences of that act; obedience, because of her failure to obey the divine command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; silence, because Eve’s words to Adam were untrustworthy and perfidious.Silence was the most oppressive demand. It required negation of the identity of a woman. Considered an inherently dependent being whose independence might again lead mankind astray, woman could not be encouraged to use the written word. For a woman to have the self-possession necessary to write required that she reassess her place in the reigning theological order established by male interpretation of the scriptures. A quiet state that suppressed acknowledgement of the existence of the self had to be replaced by a new state that placed woman in the redemptive order of the New Testament" (1-2).

Women's Voices

 Just as men invoke Eve to justify the oppression of women, early modern women writers frequently use her in turn to criticize such oppression, such as Jane Anger (1589): “The creation of man and woman at the first, he being formed In principio of dross and filthy clay, did so remain until God saw that in him his workmanship was good, and therefore by the transformation of the dust which was loathsome unto flesh, it became purtified. Then lacking a help for him, GOD making woman of man's flesh, that she might be purer then he, does evidently show, how far we women are more excellent then men. Our bodies are fruitful, whereby the world increases, and our care wonderful, by which man is preserved. From woman sprang man's salvation. A woman was the first that believed, & a woman like wife the first that reverd of him.” Aemelia Lanyer, in the section of her poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) subtitled “Eves Apologie” (745-840), uses the ingenious argument that if men are not liable for their murder of Christ, women should certainly not be oppressed throughout history for the Fall, since Eve surely had no defense against the Serpent’s guile and only sought Adam’s love:


Then let us have our Libertie againe,  

And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie;  

You came not in the world without our paine,  

Make that a barre against your crueltie;  

Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine  

Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?      

If one weake woman simply did offend,    

This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.  (825-32)


Other writers from the revolutionary period of the 1640s make the same point, such as Rachel Speight, who holds that Eve “being the weaker vessell was with more facility to be seduc’d”(A Mouzell for Melastomus, 4); as well as Esther Sowerman: men should not charge women with faults “which come from the contagion of Masculine Serpents.” (Esther hath hang’d Haman, 48). Elizabeth Warren (fl. 1646-49), perhaps with sarcasm, writes: “conscious to my mentall and Sex-deficiency . . . wee of the weaker sex, have heriditary evill from our Grandmother Eve” (The Old and Good Way Vindicated, A3 ). Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, has one of her characters drolly invoke the same image to explain women's verbal facility:


Mad. Mere. Why should a womans tongue have the effects of a Serpents sting. 

Capris. The reason is evident, for the great Serpent that tempted, and so perverted our Grandmother Eve in Paradise, had a monstrous sting, and our Grandmother whetted her tongue with his sting, and ever since, all her effeminate rase hath tongues that stings. (Playes, 85)  

The Bible and St. Augustine

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.  And they were both naked, and were not ashamed.  (Genesis 2.22-25)


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.  (Genesis 3.7)


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 3.16)


It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.  (1 Cornithians 7.1-4)


Far be it, then, from us to suppose that our first parents in Paradise felt that lust which caused them afterwards to blush and hide their nakedness, or that by its means they should have fulfilled the benediction of God, “Increase and multiply and replenish the earth” [Genesis 1.28]; for it was after sin that lust began. It was after sin that our nature, having lost the power it had over the whole body, but not having lost all shame, perceived, noticed, blushed at, and covered it.  But that blessing upon marriage, which encouraged them to increase and multiply and replenish the earth, though it continued even after they had sinned, in order that the procreation of children might be recognized as part of the glory of marriage, and not of the punishment of sin. (St. Augustine, City of God, 14.21)


It is quite clear that they were created male and female, with bodies of different sexes, for the very purpose of begetting offspring, and so increasing, multiplying, and replenishing the earth; and it is great folly to oppose this fact. (City of God, 14.22)


He who says there should have been neither copulation nor generation but for sin, virtually says that man’s sin was necessary to complete the number of the saints. . . . Marriage, worthy of the happiness of Paradise, should have had desirable fruit without the shame of lust, had there been no sin.  (City of God, 14.23)


The man [i.e., Adam] would have sown the seed, and the woman [Eve] received it, as need required, the generative organs being moved by the will, not excited by lust.  (City of God, 14.24) 

Milton's Contemporaries

Other poets in Milton’s time wrote about these matters, some rather drolly, as they conflated the classical Golden Age with the idea of Eden, especially concerning the relations between men and women.


Each touch was naturally chaste,
And their mere sense a miracle.  

(Richard Lovelace, “Love Made in the First Age: To Chloris”)


Like and enjoy, to will and act is one:
We only sin when Love’s rites are not done.  

(Thomas Carew, “A Rapture”)


Naked beneath cool shades they lay,
  Enjoyment waited on desire;
Each member did their wills obey:
  Nor could a wish set pleasure higher. 

(John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, “The Fall”) 


The Nymphs were free, no nice, no coy disdain,
Deny’d their Joyes, or gave the Lover pain;
The yielding Maid but kind Resistance makes;
Trembling and blushing are not marks of shame
But the Effect of kindling Flame:
Which from the sighing burning Swain she takes,
While she with tears all soft, and down-cast eyes,
Permits the Charming Conqueror to win the Prize. 

(Aphra Behn, “The Golden Age”)


According to this libertine, masculinist point of view, everything, it seems, was much better before the Fall.


Since the material in Wikipedia is not peer-reviewed according to scholarly method, its information is not always reliable, and I cannot therefore allow it in papers for my courses. However, the entry on Original Sin is excellent, and should be consulted.