More Than Footnotes Part 3: Women in The Reformation Era


In this series of posts entitled, More than Footnotes, I will examine the role of women in different phases of Church history in order to offer a truer picture of Christianity which will benefit women and men alike. In each installment, I will briefly highlight the gender-relevant context of a section of Church history before overviewing important female figures. I will be primarily citing two works called, Her Story (HS) and Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) for reference. My hope for these posts is to simply offer readers a more complete picture of Christian history by focusing on the women who are too often footnoted and forgotten.

Part 3: Women in The Reformation Era


The status of women throughout the Protestant Reformation is often (best) understood through the teachings of Martin Luther and later by those of John Calvin. With the theology of these Protestant champions pushing back on Catholicism’s teachings on marriage, celibacy, and the priesthood, the Reformation’s impact on the domestic life of women was substantial. As we shall see, the women of the Reformation era exercise their leadership both enclosed by and breaking through the walls of patriarchy.

128756_imagnoUnlike in Medieval literature, historians do not find women cast into the polarizing categories of witch, seducer, or corrupter in the era of Reformation. Despite a significant amount of anti-chauvinistic push-back by many Reformers, Luther and Calvin’s own writings reveal the obvious masculine bias in the genesis of Protestantism. For example, Luther carried the belief that women’s subordination is an ontological issue (HS. 93). In other words, according to Luther, as women are the ones responsible for sin entering the world, they are–in their very being–the lesser gender . John Calvin, on the other hand, believed the subordination of women stemmed not from sin, but by original creation (HS. 93). In his Word and Sacrament II, Martin Luther taught that only men should be pastors as preachers required “a good voice, good eloquence, a good memory, and other natural gifts” (ed. Wentz and Lehman, 152). A product of his time, Luther assumed women, because of sin, did not possess such traits. On a more positive note, Luther’s (and later Calvin’s) stress on the Priesthood of all Believers did allow for the Protestantism to deconstruct some of the hierarchy between lay Christians and ‘professionalized’ clergy, allowing for a more socially egalitarian Church.

As monasticism was deemphasized, Catholic women increasingly served in the new orders in the Church leading through the roles of nurses, educators, and caretakers for the poor (HS. 96). Again the pattern surfaces: when women are not allowed leadership in the parish, they move outward into the mission field (e.g. women moving from house-church leaders to writers in Rome and moving from Abbesses to wandering mystics in the Middle Ages).

Protestant women were significantly involved in the act of reforming Christianity despite their inability to become ordained clergy in Lutheran and Calvinist churches. In the early days of the Reformation era, Protestant women took on the tasks of preaching (the theology of Luther and Calvin as seen in Argula von Stauffer’s story below), writing (letters advocating Protestantism), and even published and distributed books containing reformed doctrine (HS. 99). Some privileged women even traveled to evangelize non-protestants and conducted church services when clergyman could not (HS. 99). Yet, as Protestantism flourished and became more institutionalized such roles became increasingly unavailable to women (HS. 99).


katharina-schutz-zell (1)1) Upon marriage, Katherine (Schutz) Zell (German: 1497–1562) and her husband (a priest turned Protestant preacher) both left their vows of celibacy causing serious reaction from their Bishop of Strasbourg. Moved to action, Katherine penned an open letter to the bishop which unashamedly accused him of oppressing the Zells (he did), along with other married ministers, for the sake of personal financial gain (which he was after). Apparently, the bishop could tax single clergymen a much higher rate than a married priest.  Katherine’s letter also challenged the idea that marriage is a lesser path than celibacy and even offered a biblical theology of gender by insisting that Paul’s instruction for silence from women must be held in balance with his claim that there is “no male or female” (Gal. 3:28) and the approval of female prophetess (Joel 2; Acts 2:17).

Katherine’s zeal for the Church is not only recorded in her writing but also through her ministering to German refugees, prisoners, and the hospitalized. With little access to leadership within the church, Katherine remained influential in her prophetic task by writing continuously from 1524-1558. Katherine stood up against Reformers who sought to persecute the Anabaptists and Catholics alike. She even challenged ministers who spent too much time within church walls rather than among the needy.

Following her husband’s death, Zell’s leadership was so influential, she was accused of usurping the role of preacher—an accusation she refuted by citing Mary Magdalene who, “with on thought of being an apostle, came to tell the disciples that she has encountered the risen Lord” (DBE. 34). The prolific work of Zell remains today as some of the Reformation period’s exemplary writings. Many scholars consider Katherine to be the “unofficial” mother of Protestantism while others look to her for guidance on what it means to be both wife and partner in Christian ministry.


2) Argula von Stauff (1492-1554) was a bold and courageous proponent for Martin Luther in the public sector, earning her the title of “insolent daughter of Eve” from her opponents (DBE. 32).In 1523 at the diet of Nurnberg, Stauff even defended Luther’s theology in an open debate setting which led Luther to recognize her in a letter to a personal friend in which he wrote:

That most noble women, Argula von Stauff, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit, boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ…Her husband, who treats her tyrannically, has been deposed for his prefecture…She alone, among these monsters, carries on with firm faith, though, she admits, not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ. (Luther in McLaughlin, “Women, Power,” 102.)

Stauff’s arguments—dare we say, preaching?—brought herself and her family into harm’s way. She was twice imprisoned (once at 70 years old) for her teaching, for holding secret church meetings in her home as well as offering discrete funerals (DBE. 33). Likely Stauff was not surprised by her persecution as she admittedly saw herself as belonging to a long line of women—Deborah, Jael, Esther, Judith—who turned society’s roles upside down in service to God (DBE. 33).

terseaofav3) Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is celebrated as a Catholic monastic reformer and remains one of the great mystical visionaries known to history. Given the political/religious fusion of this era, the rise of Protestantism often led to the persecution of Catholics, including nuns such as Teresa of Avila.

Though Teresa underwent much criticism for her efforts, even being called a “restless gadabout, disobedient, contumacious women who promulgates pernicious doctrines under pretense of devotion.” Still, she managed to maintain and even advance Catholicism’s emphasis on personal intimacy with God (DBE. 35). Teresa also helped to keep alive the monastic life by constructing fifteen convents in less than 25 years. Oh, and she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 before she was given the title of “Doctor of the Church” by Pope John Paul VI.

In the Reformation era–primarily through the Priesthood of all Believers doctrine–women begin to challenge socio-religious hierarchy and claim for themselves equal status in the eyes of God. Still, the reformers did little to challenge the official roles of church leadership and often operated with the assumption that women are naturally inferior to men.

As Christianity spreads to America, will women become more recognized for their church leadership? Tune in next time to find out.

-Michael Wiltshire

Next post: Women Church Leaders in the American Colonies

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