Path 4 – Men and Gender Equality

The fourth path takes a critical look at the contributions that some of the men represented in our collections have made to gender equality.

While in many countries gender equality has already been established in law, in reality, there is no country that has truly achieved it. For thousands of years, we have lived under patriarchal structures, in which men have uncritically been placed above women. It is only in recent decades that gender equality has become something that many countries have strived for. However, through the critical examination of centuries-old biographies and images of (legendary) men, it is possible to find scattered examples of actions, ideas and demands made by men who opposed misogynistic attitudes in ways that were before their time.

Joseph – A Man Stands Behind His Family

One of these men is a prominent but at the same time very passive figure in Christianity: Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. According to an apocryphal scripture (one that was not accepted into the Christian Bible), Joseph was a widower who became Mary’s guardian when she was 12. Upon returning from a long trip, he found Mary, now 16, pregnant. Understandably, he had his doubts about the story of her immaculate conception. But after being visited by an angel in a dream, he found the courage to support Mary, deciding not to cast her out, which would have been the typical response at that time. He stood by her when she was accused of premarital sex, he supported her during the birth and fled with her to Egypt to protect Jesus from the murderous troops of King Herod. In his role as the earthly father of a child who was not his own, he was entirely at odds with the contemporary image of a man and the conventions of his time. Perhaps it is precisely his divergence from societal norms that explains his limited presence in the history of art. 

Paul – A Supporter of Women?

When the first Christian congregations emerged in the 1st and 2nd century AD, the hierarchical structures that would come to shape Christianity had not yet been consolidated. In early Christianity, there were interesting currents and efforts aimed at establishing the equality of men and women. Paul’s writings continue to be one of the most important sources about the role of women in this era. After Jesus’s death, Paul the Apostle travelled through the eastern Mediterranean, where he founded Christian congregations with whom he continued to correspond over the ensuing decades. Within Paul’s writings, the position of women and the relations between men and women is depicted in controversial ways. On the one side is a society with patriarchal structures, which views the superiority of men as a natural fact and does not question this – on the contrary, it even demands it. On the other side, within Christianity, a new form of community was being created based on equality and charity, which, among other things, demanded the equality of women. On top of this is the fact that around a quarter of the Paul’s helpers mentioned in the New Testament were women, some of whom occupied leadership positions. This provides evidence of Paul possessing egalitarian beliefs toward women, which for the time were very unusual.