Women of the Reformation
The Reformation swept through Europe in the first half of the 16th century. What began as an attempt by theologians to reform the existing Catholic Church, soon spiralled into a movement of huge theological debate, resulting in great cultural change, political division and war. The end result was a divided Christian Church that we now understand to be the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.
When people think about the Reformation, they tend to think about the ‘big names’ of Reformation theology like Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Farel, Martin Bucer and Huldrych Zwingli. And what do all of these figures have in common? They’re all men. Historians and Christians alike view the Reformation almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the male Reformers. This is shown most clearly in the Reformation Wall monument in Geneva. Created in the early 20th century, the wall spans over 100 meters depicting the names and figures of the Reformation. Not one woman is represented.
In 2018 I wanted to address this by writing my final year History dissertation on the women of the Reformation. I was assigned a Professor who specialised in this time period as my supervisor. During our first meeting he informed me that, in his informed opinion, this topic could only be a paragraph, not even a chapter of my dissertation because what would I write about? The women of the Reformation were “just wives and mothers”. I left that meeting, applied for a new supervisor and wrote my original dissertation as planned. But as I researched my dissertation it became clear that this Professor was not alone in his belief.
In 2015 the Church and Historians alike commemorated the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Nine Theses which is often held as a starting point for the Reformation, even if that was not Luther’s intention at the time. To mark the occasion, 2015 saw the publication and promotion of countless biographies of Reformation leaders and Playmobil even created a figure of Martin Luther. Yet little to nothing was said about Reformation women beyond noting that the above men were each married to one.
One of the books promoted to celebrate the 500th anniversary was the Oxford A Very Short Introduction: The Reformation. Here the contribution made by women to the Reformation is confined to one page. The author correctly states that:
“Too often, scholarship focuses upon the Reformation’s impact upon women, rather than women’s impact on the Reformation. Women were not supposed to participate actively in the religious changes of the era, but many did.”
– Peter Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.87.
Despite identifying the problem in how we often think about the women of the Reformation, Marshall fails to mention what women did in the Reformation or even name any female Reformers.
This is a rather common occurrence in books about the Reformation. The women of the Reformation remain hidden from the reader feeding the misunderstanding that the contribution made by female Reformers is not as significant as that of their male counterparts.
That is not to say that no work has been done on what has been termed here as the active women of the Reformation. One of the first and most notable contributions is from Roland Bainton. After finishing his acclaimed biography of Luther, Here I Stand, in the last years of his life turned his attention to the women of the Reformation; completing three books of small biographies, in which the women are divided by geographical location. Merry Wiesner states that these books “in many ways…mark the beginning of scholarship on women and the Reformation, and they also reflect the state of women’s history during the early 1970s, the initial period of its recent expansion”. Indeed, Bainton’s work opened the door for further study of the women referenced and beyond. Nevertheless, Wiesner criticises the focus of these books on the “women worthies”, as termed by Natalie Zemon Davis, and the role of women only in relation to the men in their lives.
Since Bainton, the study of women in the Reformation continues to develop by attempting to move away from biographies of exemplary women alone to show the roles of all women in all walks of life. Derek Wilson’s work Mrs Luther and Her Sisters is perhaps the best example of these developments. Wilson’s book is divided according to the different roles played by women in the Reformation. Within each of these categories Wilson compares women of all social statuses and levels of involvement. This approach allows for a more complete picture of the role of women in the Reformation.
In modern Protestant publications the role of women has been given greater acknowledgement than previously. Books like Claire Heath-White’s First Wives’ Club pays tribute to the sacrifices and strength of these women while promoting them to the next generation of young women.
Despite this, to date, scholarship surrounding the women of the Reformation has not given due credit to the role played by gender. In failing to do so these women have continuously and unfairly been compared to the men of the Reformation and found wanting. The women of the Reformation are still known first as being ‘wives and mothers’ before being understood and appreciated as Reformers in their own right.
It is important that this imbalance is addressed. The female experience of the Reformation was very different to that of men. Nunneries were disbanded, changing the social status of thousands of women; Bible’s were printed in the vernacular, allowing hundreds of literate women the chance to read and interpret the text for themselves; Protestant preachers married, creating a new type of ministry for women – the pastor's wife – providing a named role for women in the Church; even the way in which women involved themselves in the movement was dictated by their gender.
Firstly, as Marshall correctly stated, these women were not meant to involve themselves in religion on this level, especially when it came into contact with international politics. What is often not remembered today is that this was a position held by both Catholics and the Reformers. Therefore, unlike their male counterparts, female Reformers were met with obstacles from both the ‘opposition’ and those on their side. These obstacles ranged from vague disapproval to violent and abusive messages. Some, like Katharina Zell, were pushed out of the movement they helped pioneer when men began to view them as no longer essential, whilst others, like Marie Dentière, when silenced and labelled heretical by Catholic governments, found no support from their fellow Reformers.
Secondly, what is not often appreciated by readers today is how vulnerable these women were. Many of the women we shall learn about were converts to ‘Protestantism’ living with and reliant upon their Catholic families. Regardless of nobility and ran, women remained dependent on the men in their lives thus many were punished for their beliefs in ways we cannot fully appreciate. Some were forced into Catholic marriages, separated from their children for decades and even removed from society, held almost captive in faraway estates. This physical and emotional domestic abuse needs to be recognised and appreciated by the Church today.
Lastly, the women in the Reformation had responsibilities outside of the Reform movement. These women remained wives, mothers, daughters, etc. and were aware that their actions would have consequences for their families. Moreover, in the case of many of the wives, their contribution to the Reformation was keeping their Reformer husbands fed, financially stable and with a roof over their heads. Many have fallen into the mistake underappreciating the effect these domestic activities had on allowing the wider Reformation to gain momentum.
When learning about the Reformation it is not good enough to simply look at the ‘big names’ of theology and reduce the contribution and effect the Reformation had on women into a few sentences. It is important that we instead highlight stories of female involvement in the Reformation and the role their gender played in what they did, the reaction they faced, and how they have been remembered by history. I am very grateful that Remedial Herstory has provided me and opportunity to do that here.
 Obviously, I cannot name this Professor, but he does have over three decades worth of experience in this field and should have known better.
 Peter Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.87. [Italics own].
 See: Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life Of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950); Women Of The Reformation, From Spain To Scandinavia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Women Of The Reformation: In France And England (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).
 Merry E Wiesner, Convents Confront The Reformation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998), p.11.
 Merry E Wiesner, Convents Confront The Reformation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998), p.11.
 Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation, 1st edn (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2016).
 Clare Heath-Whyte, First Wives' Club (Croydon: 10 Publishing, 2014).
 Marie Dentière – The Outspoken Woman – Not Just Wives and Mothers: The Women of Church History (wordpress.com)
Where does this belong in the curriculum?
World History perhaps looking at Religious, Cultural and Social History.
Peter Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life Of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950); Women Of The Reformation, From Spain To Scandinavia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Women Of The Reformation: In France And England (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).
Merry E Wiesner, Convents Confront The Reformation (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998).
Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation, 1st edn (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2016).
Clare Heath-Whyte, First Wives' Club (Croydon: 10 Publishing, 2014).
Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).
Women Writers Of The Renaissance And Reformation (London: The University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Christopher Hare, Men And Women Of The Italian Reformation (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1914).
Caroline Taylor is a History graduate researching women in the history of the Christian Church. She specialises in the Medieval Church but also explored the Early Church and the Reformation too. She lives in South Wales, UK and writes over at Not Just Wives and Mothers.
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The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.