The Women of the Reformation

I wanted to kick off this blog by looking at the women who first sparked my interest in the gender imbalance present in Church history – The Women of the Reformation. The Reformation is filled with ‘big names’ – such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli to name a few – who continue to hold influence in theological discourse. One side effect of this has been that people rarely explore the Reformation beyond learning about the lives of these noteworthy men. As a result, the women of the Reformation disappear from our image of this significant period in the history of the Church.

In 2015 the Church and Historians alike commemorated the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Nine Theses which is often held as the 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 women in the Reformation 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 in the Reformation is confined to one page, with the author correctly stating 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.”


Yet, 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, unfortunately, a common occurrence in books about the Reformation. The women of the Reformation remain hidden from readers, feeding into the misunderstanding that the contribution made by female Reformers was not as significant as that of their male counterparts. I hope this series on female Reformers does something to address this mistake.

When talking about female Reformers it is important to highlight and try to understand the unique position these women found themselves in. Firstly, as Marshall correctly states, these women were not meant to involve themselves in religion, especially when religion came into contact with international politics. Their ‘intrusion’ into religion made them the targets of violent abuse from the authorities, their communities and even their own families.

Yet, what is often forgotten by Christians today and omitted in Christian literature about the Reformation, is that most of the male Reformers also disapproved to varying degrees about the involvement of women in religion. This ranged from concerns that an obvious female influence would discredit the Reform movement, to the public condemnation of female Reformers. Some, like Katherina Zell, were tolerated during times of emergency only to be forced out of the movement during times of peace. Others, like Marie Dentière, when silenced and labelled heretical by the Catholic authorities, found their fellow Reformers agreeing with this condemnation. Therefore, unlike male Reformers, female Reformers were met with obstacles from both the opposition and those on their team.

Secondly, what is not often understood 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 rank, women remained dependant on the men in their lives and 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, effectively held captive in far away estates. This physical and emotional domestic abuse faced by female Reformers 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 all too 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 other their heads. Too many have fallen into the mistake of underappreciating the effect these domestic activities had on allowing the wider Reformation to gain momentum.

Most of the women we shall learn about were wives and mothers, but they were never just wives and mothers. I hope when you read the stories of these women you grow in appreciation of their bravery and perseverance.

For this series, I will be focussing on the Reformation which took place in continental Europe following the events of Wittenberg in 1517. I will explore the English Reformation separately as its context is much different. Not only did it take place significantly later, it was also state-enforced, creating a drastically different environment to that of the ‘heretical’ movement on continental Europe. I will also be including all denominations under the umbrella of the ‘Reformation’ including Lutherans, Calvinists, Huguenots, and those who never aligned themselves to a theology beyond ‘Reformer’.

I hope you enjoy this series and come to know and appreciate these women as I have – Happy Reading!

Image from left to write shows: Elisabeth of Brandenburg, Martin Luther, Anna Zwingli, Charlotte de Bourbon and Huldrych Zwingli.

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