This is part three in my series on the Reformation and it’s impact on women. You can read part one here and part two here.
Leadership Outside The Church
With the Reformation came the complete restructuring of society, as the role of the church and the household were both altered. The Catholic church had been responsible for most forms of charity as well as schools, hospitals, guest houses and other ‘public services.’ Protestant women took charge to set up Protestant schools, hospitals and other charities. The entire nature of charity had changed. A lot of gaps were left, the the women of the Reformation stepped up to fill those gaps.
The question of charity as being a private or public action, as a centralized or decentralized function was just starting to be asked in the late medieval period. Social welfare was the responsibility of the church, because giving was seen as a spiritual matter. The main merit of charity was not to help the person receiving the care, but to earn credit with God.
Alms giving and charity had been seen as a method of cultivating faith and as salvation work; the Reformation changed all that. When salvation and justification come from grace alone, the act of charity becomes not about you but about those receiving it. Luther viewed social welfare as a work that flowed from right worship of God. Women were those who carried out this vision, and took compassion on those were needed their help – because these people were now seen as brothers and sisters in Christ, equal and valued by God just as they were.
The women who married preachers often became the head of a small business, coordinating schedules, finances, homes, boarders and other guests, as well as caring for her husband and their family. In a very real way, these wives often freed their husbands to focus on their work, writing and preaching. These roles gave women a place to be leaders and to hold positions of authority they previously might have only accessed if they entered a convent.
Perhaps the new leagues of reformed women were inspired by the women all over Europe who were starting lead nations. This was a rare period of history were circumstances and chance lead to many women becoming the head of their country, as Queen, Queen Mother or Regents. For example – Mary and Elizabeth of England, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici as regent for her three sons in France, Marguerite of Navarre followed by her daughter Jean of Navarre, Louisa of Savoy in France when her son Francis I was captured for ransom, Margaret of Austria, Mary of Hungary, Isabella of Spain and others. We looked briefly at some of these high profile women in part two of this series.
To see women in these positions of power was a new occurrence and female rulers were not generally accepted throughout sixteenth century Europe, and even into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries after the Reformation. John Knox wrote in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women that female rulers like Elizabeth I in England, and Mary Queen of Scots went against the law of God. These views were shared by many, who saw women as unstable and vulnerable.
Leadership In The Church
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers provided the foundation for arguing that women should have a significant role in ministry. Some argue that in the new structure of the Protestant church lay women were given a far greater role than they had ever exercised even as members of religious orders in the medieval church. But what were these roles? After all, there were no longer any official positions in the church open to women. The Reformation brought forward the radical idea of a priesthood of all believers, and access to the Scriptures and learning for all. But the implications for women to occupy a ministering role in the church were not followed through. Despite this, many women were starting to preach. Even those that believed Scripture prohibited a woman from speaking openly in church could often speak in their own homes, in the streets and through their writing.
Early on, Marie Dentiere, sent a ‘Defense of Women’ to Marguerite of Navarre, which argued; ‘if God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak and declare it to one another because of the defamers of the truth? Ah, it would be too bold to try and stop them, and it would be too foolish for us to hide the talent that God has given us. God will give us the grace to persevere to the end.’ (Take from Feminine Threads, p153).
Countless women took up this call and began using their voices to proclaim the Gospel of God, and to work for good in this world. For example, Argula Von Grumbach spoke out against the arrest of a Protestant teacher at the University of Ingelstadt by writing to the rector and the University, and by speaking to all she could about the matter. From 1550 onwards, women could be seen holding prayer meetings, christening children and preaching.
But from 1560 onwards, things changed and their participation was no longer encouraged or even allowed. At the provincial and national synods, decisions were taken forbidding women from “meddling with Bible readings, prayers and christenings.” But again the familiar pattern emerged that when women were not allowed leadership in the church, they move out into the world to use their gifts and their voices.
Anabaptists did not did not limit preaching as an activity of the ordained, and as a result gave women many opportunities to preach and to teach the Word, but the the Protestant Churches gave preference to men when choosing positions of authority, and the pulpit became a solely male domain. Women were left to find ways to serve, teach and lead outside of the institution structure of the church. These women quickly learnt that a woman who sought to follow a calling and to make an impact in the world had to be an exceptional person.
The Reformation changed society drastically, and in these changes, some women found new callings and niches for them to live their lives following Jesus with their whole life and all their gifts. However, there were still constraints and restrictions placed on women, and many who determinedly set out into the world to lead faced opposition from those who should have been supporting them. The benefits of the Reformation were mainly accessible to women of a higher social standing or from the nobility. The opportunities to enter the church that were previously available to poorer women were no longer an option. Progress had been made, but there was still a long way to go.
Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/
Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance
Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze
The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg
The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green
The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/
The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by
More Than Footnotes: Part 3: http://juniaproject.com/more-than-footnotes-part-3-women-reformation-era/