Is Baptism a Male Birthing Ritual? By Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Quite a number of years ago I had a conversation with one of my professors, a feminist theologian, who posed the question “Why do I need a man to purify my baby with the waters of baptism?  Is there something wrong or impure about the blood and water from a mother’s womb – my womb?”  Before you jump and shout the words Sacrament or removal of original sin, this question bears merit in exploring, especially in today’s world where women are taking a serious beating religiously, politically, and socially.  In today’s world, violations and rants are causing women to stand up and say STOP!  This is MY Body.  This outcry was provoked by chants of ethical slurs against women– Slut! Prostitute! Whore!  The cry got even louder when the issue of religion and government was raised in the fight of healthcare coverage of contraception. The cry got even louder with the enactment of the laws in Virginia and Texas (and many other states to follow suit) that forces women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds in early stage abortions.  The mandatory insertion of a wand into a woman’s vagina (mandated by the government, mind you), is a violation and has women crying RAPE!

The memory of this conversation did not re-appear by chance, it was prompted by a book I read for my History of Sexuality Class – Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context by Anne McClintock who addresses the notion of baptism through origins, property, and power.  So many things are currently being taken away from women and reading McClintock’s assertion regarding male baptism is perplexing.  She believes that male baptism or baptism by a man takes women’s role in child bearing and diminishes it.  These are the same men who historically treated and regarded women as vessels.  She further asserts that this act is a proactive removal of creative agency with respect to a woman’s ability to have the power to name.  That is, the last name of the child belongs to the husband.  A point that supports the notion that patrimony marks the denial of women.  Anyone doing genealogy encounters a perplexing struggle to identify mothers because their names are essentially erased from memory and rarely attached to a child’s name.

Returning to McClintock’s statement about baptism, she believes that the baptismal rite is actually a “surrogate birthing ritual, during which men collectively compensate themselves for their invisible role in the birth of the child and diminish women’s agency” (29).  Baptism re-enacts childbirth as a male ritual.  “The mother’s labors and creative powers (hidden in her ‘confinement’’ and denied social recognition) are diminished and women are publicly declared unfit to inaugurate the human soul into the body of Christ.  In the eyes of Christianity, women are incomplete birthers: the child must be born again and named, by men” (29).  They also act as male midwives, and by using the waters of the baptismal font, the same waters blessed by the same man that is conducting this ritual cleansing – a cleansing that removes  the mother’s tainted blood and water from that baby.

Patriarchy overruns women’s lives.  Though people will argue a scriptural basis for this act because of Jesus’ action of being baptized by John the Baptist, it should be remembered who authored the text.  Baptism, as it is referred to is derived from Jewish purification rituals that men as well as women will undergo when they are “unclean” and need purified.  It is not a one-time event.  In Judaism, original sin is not part of their teaching. It is never mentioned in the Old Testament.  This teaching and understanding emerged from Augustine at a time in the Christian Church’s history that was overrun with patriarchal dominance.  At a time, where women’s voices were being silenced either through martyrdom or through the emerging Christian church in the 5th century C.E.  Prior to that, it was considered to be more of an initiation ceremony NOT a purification ceremony to remove original sin.

Women have emerged as mere property to a state of vast independence.  However for all of the progress that we have made, we seem to be on a backslide.  Thinking about what is currently going on in the United States and examining baptism as a removal or diminishing of a woman’s agency, what else can be taken away from us?  What more of our lives can be controlled?  Will we continue to backslide, or continue to cry out STOP – this time with a louder voice!

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality.  She also has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Professor at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at  and can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

7 thoughts on “Is Baptism a Male Birthing Ritual? By Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. Michelle, great minds think togehter (he hee). In She Who Changes, I contrasted Platonic dualistic transcendence focused religions with process philosophy and feminist rewritings of religions. In the book I concluded that religions based on dualism, transcendence and patriarchy are based on the premise that: BIRTH INTO THIS WORLD THROUGH A FEMALE BODY JUST ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH!!!!! In other words our mothers labor and Gaia’s gifts SUCK EGGS.


  2. As both a woman and a christian, my understanding of baptism is that it is an initiation right, and has little to do with original sin. There are many other christians who have believe in the same way I do. While some christians may think this is some kind of purification right, not all do.


  3. I have never considered this before. As I read it, I remember the most recent baptism I saw performed, by my female minister. Never-the-less, that does not diminish the argument. Was the original birth not good enough? Considering some of the traditions in biblical times, and of course the current issues, it is a good question. You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.


  4. I believe original sin was a later invention of the catholic church, way after john the baptist (St. Augustine—???)
    Obviously all sacrements are male inventions, and so this is just another woman negating ritual.
    As a lesbian feminist watching all the craziness of how males man-i-pulate hetero women with birth control attacks, abortion attacks, and seeing women by the hundreds changing last names to male last names…. it’s just par for the course.

    Men have tried to appropriate anything that is women’s alone, including giving birth. We have to get on the same page with this women, or the wolves, patriarchs, plug uglies, and prickers will continue to bedazzle, bamboozle and erase. (Sorry wolves). Can we just end marriage, baptism, and shut the whole system down women, hey, how about boycotting churches for three months?


  5. Basic premise of feminist thinking…. we must question who invented what all the time. Who invented baptism? Who invented transubstaniation? Who wrote the bible? What male tribes dissed other male tribes? Each “sacriment” or “ritual” or “belief” must really be questioned in light of how women are affected by it. I know we all can’t help what faith we were born into, or where our parents sent us to school as kids. We are indoctrinated into all kinds of kooky beliefs that become conscious or unconscious. We get indoctrinated into differing forms of patriarchy and male supremacy… some of it benevolent some of it horrifying.

    Knowing this, we really have to question this. Because religious faith can be about adults converting to a religion with full “adult” powers of consent, and a lot of us just grew up in the tribe.
    So if we don’t question all of it, we don’t have a real shot at freedom or liberation… it is up to all of us as feminists to do this. We can’t just take any tradition on faith value, or just because our whole biological family does it. Baptism…. question it! Trinity… question it! Original sin! Anything men tell women to do in the bible….

    If I can grow up an average American kid and completely and utterly reject heteronormative dictates, believe me, my hetero sisters can at least question baptism! :-) Thanks for questioning it!!!!


  6. I know this is an older blog but I just got around to reading it. I appreciate its thoughtfulness and the passionate and thoughtful comments above. I read some of Imperial Leather with my Turkish roommate when I was helping her through her Gender and Cultural Studies degree and this blog has renewed my determination to read it in full. I am also reminded of some anthropological works I read in another class about various “creation” myths around the world the begin with men co-opting, symbolically or overtly, women’s ability to give birth. As I read that I was stunned, and then not so surprised after all, that the Christian creation myth is the most overt birthing-ability-theft ever. I had never actually thought about this in terms of baptism though . . . I have generally appreciated baptism as a symbolic celebration of being born. I loved that very earthy, womanly metaphor for spiritual experience. Not that I assumed that the tradition was born out of a respect for women or birthing. Obviously, not. As I read this discussion I am wondering whether or not this is a ritual that is in fact redeemable or not . . . humph. I will enjoy thinking about this further. :) Thanks!


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