“Doctoress” or “Faithful Helper”?– How did the male Reformers view the female Reformers?

It can be easy to read about the women of the Reformation and focus on the persecution they faced from those outside the Church and thus ignore the complexities of how they were viewed by those who shared the same faith. While we have briefly looked at this in the cases of individual women, I felt that it was important to discuss this specifically and at greater length as we still feel the effects of what began with these men today.

When it came to women being involved in ministry and Church life, the male Reformers found themselves caught between what they thought theologically and want they needed practically. For the male Reformers, like their Catholic counterparts, it was theologically unsound and even heretical to have women actively involved in the Church. Yet there remained a sense among the male Reformers that desperate times called for desperate measures and so exceptions were made for a handful of very active women. Therefore, what these men taught about women was in constant disagreement with their need for female support and their friendships with the women of the Reformation. This confusion was never adequately resolved, and so the Protestant Church established by the Reformation was left with a culture of female involvement existing simultaneously with a theology of female exclusion.

So, let’s start with Luther. While Luther was encouraging the Catholic Church to reform, one area which he did not feel needed alteration was the exclusion of women from Church ministry. In this respect, Luther’s theology on women remained largely in line with the traditional Catholic view which was heavily influenced by the writings of St Paul. These teachings are primarily taken from 1 Timothy 2:11, and Ephesians 5:22-24.

While statements from Luther that:

“Men have broad and large chests…are more understanding than women, who have but small narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children”

support the Pauline Doctrine on women, Luther nevertheless struggled with his interpretation of the teachings of St Paul and his understanding of gender roles within the Church. As Wilson summarises, “in his teaching on the position of women we can discern the same tension that we see in other areas of his theology. He was a revolutionary, trying to distance himself from social revolution”.

This tension in Luther’s theology was embodied by the example of his wife, Katharina von Bora. Kirsi Stjerna describes Katharina as living out the theology taught by Luther and the two of them together present a model of the different roles of men and women, husbands and wives, in the Church. Yet in doing so she represents the contradictions in Luther’s theology on gender roles and his personal experience.

Katharina was a model housewife, mother and ‘helpmate’ exemplifying the role of women as understood and taught by Luther in the above quote. Yet, unexpectedly, Katharina did not stay within the confines of her husband’s theology and nor did Luther force her to do so. Von Bora, as a former nun was well educated, spoke Latin and was able to keep up with the theological debate which engrossed the Black Cloister. Indeed, she is recorded not only discussing theological matters with her husband but also questioning his thinking. Topics of debate included whether God truly wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son, the Biblical justification for polygamy and whether it was more important to study or live out the teachings of the Bible. Rather than attempting to prevent his wife from thinking of such matters, considered to be in the realm of men alone, Luther appears to have not only tolerated such discussions but encouraged them. This is a brazen detachment from his teachings on gender roles highlighting the confusion of Luther’s understanding of gender and how he was to translate theology into reality.

It also stands in clear contrast to Luther’s comments on women such as: “there is no gown or garment that worse becomes a woman than when she will be wise”. This demonstrates that for Luther, his theology was better applied to women as a homogenous group, rather than women he knew personally. However, Luther also acknowledged the spiritual capabilities of women and their heightened religiosity, whilst maintaining their exclusion from theology. He is quoted stating that, “when women receive the doctrine of the gospel, they are far more fervent in faith, they hold to it more stiff and fast, than men do”.

This inconsistency of thought surrounding gender is further evidenced in Luther’s interactions with active female Reformers, especially Katharina Schütz-Zell and Argula von Grumbach. Luther does not appear to criticise Schütz-Zell for her education, as he did all women in the quotes mentioned thus far. Indeed, he praises Katharina in the same way as his wife, by adopting the same tongue-in-cheek, but not critical nickname of “Doctoress” with them both and also the wife of Justus Jonas, whom he addresses as “Doctor”. These ‘nicknames’ were originally insults used against women by their Catholic opponents. Luther’s almost playful adoption of them here suggests that he does not share the same opposition, but perhaps finds their involvement humorous. Regardless, Luther’s theology on gender again fails to translate into practice.

Luther also praised Argula von Grumbach for standing up against the men in her land. He sent her letters to Spalatin and describes her as “Christ’s disciple” and a “true daughter of God”. Yet at the same time never makes his long-standing friendship with her known for fear that it would damage his cause. Luther is moved here not by his theology, but his public image. While Luther felt that Argula could be useful, her migration into the theological debate was too dangerous and radical even for him. In a similar way to her Catholic critics, regardless of the content of her arguments, Argula was never taken seriously by her fellow Reformers because of her gender.

Overall, there is a distinction between Luther’s views of women’s destined role in society and how he interacted and treated them personally. Luther failed to marry his theology on women with how he interacted with them. Luther wanted to reform the Catholic Church but did not want to appear to be challenging all social norms including those surrounding the natural position of the two genders. Consequently, Luther was careful to teach traditional doctrine in this area and was cautious in his interactions with socially abnormal women like Argula von Grumbach. But he remained in conflict with his personal views. In his interactions with other female Reformers and his relationship with his wife, Luther was unable to resolve the tension between his theological understanding of gender roles with what was made the most practical sense.

While Luther’s views of female Reformers can be described as confused, Calvin’s attitude is one of calculation and opportunism. His theological teachings on gender were largely the same as Luther’s as both were influenced by the same traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. However, Calvin was more willing to knowingly overlook such teachings or adapt them to achieve his own ends.

Like Luther, we can understand Calvin’s theology surrounding women best by looking at the example of his wife, Idelette de Bur. Unlike Luther, in the voluminous amount of Calvin’s letters to survive, none are directed to his wife and even references to her are sparse. His only true and detailed account of her comes after her death in 1549. Calvin had not wanted to marry fearing that a wife would distract him and prevent him from devoting his life to reform. However, he was persuaded to marry by Martin Bucer (our Reformation match-maker) in order to show his approval of clerical marriage and marriage as a sacrament. Yet Calvin’s fears were for nought. In a letter to Farel, Calvin describes his wife as “solicitous for my health” suggesting that a wife could in fact aid a Reformer. After ten years of marriage and seven years of illness, Idelette passed away. In letters to friends, Calvin wrote of the loss of his “best companion” stating that “she was a faithful helper in my ministry…never did she in any respect stand in my way”. Thus the quality Calvin appreciated in his wife was her ability to care for him and aid his work. For him, that was to be her role as a woman, and she was successful in it. Calvin’s understanding of gender was that men and women were designed to be separate with women remaining in the domestic sphere, aiding the men in the public.

Yet, in Calvin’s relationship with the noble evangelical women of France, we see a completely different understanding of the role of women. Calvin was in contact with an incredible number of influential women when one considers his disapproval of their involvement in such matters. Calvin regularly corresponded with both the Queens of Navarre, Renée de Ferrara, Charlotte de Bourbon, Catherine de Bourbon, and Louise de Coligny to name but the most prominent. These letters included both pastoral support as well as encouragements to promote the reform – and reproach if they failed to do so. While Calvin was willing to defend Marguerite of Navarre against the criticism of her brother and Catholic authorities, he nonetheless rebuked her for her tolerant attitude to religious refugees in Navarre. Even though Marguerite had harboured the young Calvin while in Paris in 1533, Calvin criticised her later stating that “we cannot place on her too great an alliance” because of her pacifism. Calvin thus only allowed these women to escape the confines of their gender as long as they proved useful to him. When these women acted in ways contrary to his advice is was suddenly not wise for women to be involved at all. Therefore, Calvin could use theology surrounding gender roles as an excuse to suppress female involvement but was willing to overlook it if doing so proved beneficial.

This is further reflected in Calvin’s lack of sympathy for the social vulnerability of the women he wrote to. When literally imprisoned by her husband and renouncing her faith as a result, Calvin’s response was to rebuke Renée de Ferrara for failing to withstand the pressure from her husband. Christopher Hare suggests that Calvin “at a distance, could not fully appreciate the youthful intolerance of the new Duke Alfonso” but I think this is part of a wider pattern we see of Calvin ‘using’ but not understanding female Reformers. Indeed, Renee once complained about Calvin and other ministers who urged “simple women to kill and strangle” highlighting the unrealistic expectations put on women such as her. Reformers, like historians since, were quick to criticise these women without appreciating the trials and limitations placed on them because of the position of their gender. Certainly, Calvin sympathised with Renée when she complained of Coligny in 1563 for his insistence that women should not become involved in assemblies. Yet, simultaneously agreeing with Coligny’s complaint that “the Papists and the Anabaptists scoff to see us run by women!”. The political position of these women, to Calvin, was more important than the shortcomings of their gender only when they were advantageous.

The fact that these exceptions were made on an opportunist level alone is shown in how Calvin interacted with female Reformers closer to home, most notably Marie Dentière. Despite the two both living in Geneva, neither reference each other in their respective works. This shows that while they were familiar with each other, they showed their disagreement by snubbing each other. For Calvin, this was based on his belief that women should not enter the public sphere. As a ‘feminist Reformer’ Marie demonstrated all he stood against. Because Calvin knew of Marie from Farel who wrote to him in 1539 complaining about her and other women who attempt to discuss “these very things”, we can assume that Calvin’s attempts to ignore Marie were intentional. Farel’s attitude can be seen as reflective of Calvin’s, as Calvin would later echo his sentiment when describing his meeting with Marie in 1546. He describes her as “unruly” and ridicules her misplaced passion, before stating that “I treated the woman as I should have”. Stjerna has argued that “Calvin’s grounds for defaming her [Marie Dentière] were not necessarily theological but arose from his irritation with her forceful personality and her disobedience as a woman”. Marie’s gender was indeed the problem for Calvin, but it was her lack of social importance which meant he could not overlook this misfortune.

Calvin did not approve of female Reformers. That is clear in how he and his followers in Geneva treated Dentière v’s his relationship with his wife and his interpretation of her role in ministry. Yet it is clear that Calvin often made conscious decisions to overlook his theological views on gender roles when it benefitted him and his plan for the Reformation.

But how much did the teachings and practices of Calvin and Luther influence the thoughts of other male Reformers? To answer this question, let’s look that the ‘Strasbourgers’ – the group of Reformers in the free city of Strasbourg, who included: Matthew Zell, Wolfgang Capito, Caspar Hedio and Martin Bucer, to name a few. It is important to speak of their views of women because they demonstrate the attitudes of most male Reformers who were key players in the movement but not the figureheads like Luther or Calvin. In them, we can see the immediate effects of the confusion of Luther and the apparent contradictions of Calvin, surrounding gender roles within the Church. 

Regardless of theological concerns, many male Reformers were worried about the practical repercussions of clerical marriage and the way it invited women into ministry. They argued that wives would either be a distraction to their husbands or have too much of a dangerous influence over them. For example, Bucer once remarked on Katharina Schütz-Zell that “she is a trifle imperious” because of the authority she claimed as a pastor’s wife. Indeed, Katharina was often blamed as the source for her husband’s more radically pacifist ideas. This relationship dynamic was much to the annoyance of the other Strasbourgers, leading Bucer to once state, in frustration as well as observation, that “Matthias lagged because Katherine dragged”. This highlights that traditional stereotypes surrounding gender dynamics within marriage made the male Reformers overly cautious of female involvement.

Such criticisms were for the most part proved wrong when clerical marriage amongst Reformers became the norm. Indeed, the popularity of clerical marriage can be seen in the sarcastic comment of ‘bachelor preacher’ Kenneth Scott Latourette, who remarked that he did not know what was worse, the enforced celibacy of the Catholic clergy or the enforced matrimony of the Protestant’s. As more clerical marriages formed, the fear of the unknown surrounding them subsided, adding greater confusion to their understanding of gender roles. Overall, we can see a general feeling of respect and companionship between male and female Reformers, as well as compliance towards traditional gender roles. Indeed, when Zwingli dies, Bucer wrote to his widow “Dear wife and sister, I beg you to let us know if we can do anything for you and the orphans”. In the end, Zwingli’s successor would house the widow and children increasing his household number to fifteen, in keeping with his role as a man to protect vulnerable women around him. Male Reformers may not have welcomed women into the movement wholeheartedly, but this did not mean they were punished as a result.

Importantly, the Strasbourgers did not just know each other but had personal friendships with some of the prominent women of the Reformation in their areas. This is shown in their references to different women, like Katharina Schütz-Zell and Wilbrandis Rosenblatt, in their correspondence. This personal connection clouded the attitudes towards women amongst most male Reformers. Their close relationships meant they were more willing than most to allow them to become actively involved in the work of the Reformation, regardless of Church doctrine surrounding gender. Gender, therefore, became less of an issue. For example, Bucer and Fagis were hidden by Katharina Schütz-Zell in 1549 for four weeks before they fled to England. This shows that in desperate circumstances, even occasional critics of such Reformation women like Bucer were willing to accept their help, thus gender divisions were blurred further.

Overall, these Reformers can be seen as inheriting the confusion of Luther in trying to unite their more positive experience of Reformation women, and their apparent usefulness, with the Pauline doctrine which promoted their exclusion from such matters because of the weakness of their gender. There is a clear distinction between how the male Reformers viewed the role of women in the Reformation as a whole v’s as individuals. As a homogenous group, they taught a theology which promoted their domesticity. Yet, in the case of exceptional women, they were unable to overlook their usefulness and complete their theology with practice. Wilson has argued that between 1524-25 the Reformers, fearful of the involvement of women threatening the respectability of the movement, “made them distance themselves from women who sought to ‘usurp’ the teaching role reserved for men”. In the minds of the male Reformers, women who appeared too radical or too dangerous to the fabric of society threatened the respectability of the wider theological reforms they were implementing. Stjerna observes that because of this change the active women of the Reformation, like Katharina Schütz-Zell, Argula von Grumbach and Marie Dentière, represent ‘what could have been’ in the Protestant Church. Indeed, this tension between encouraging female involvement in some areas whilst theologically excluding them from others continues to exist in the Church today. But for the women of the Reformation, this confusion amongst male Reformers had a direct impact on their legacy. It is why so many of them are remembered as ‘just’ wives and mothers when, as we have seen, they were also: authors, activists, war strategists, politicians, negotiators, rulers, prisoners, poets, ambassadors – even alleged witches!


Further Reading: Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation; Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation; Roland Bainton, Women Of The Reformation; Christopher Hare, Men And Women Of The Italian Reformation; Martin Luther, The Tabletalk Of Martin Luther; Martin Luther and K Zimmermann, Luther’s Letters To Women; Clare Heath-Whyte, First Wives’ Club.


Image shows one of many ‘Candle of the Reformation’ paintings. The central figure is Martin Luther, surrounded by both contemporary and historical Protestant reformers. Opposite him (not shown here) is a group of Catholics trying to blow the candle out. 

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