It is Reformation Day and this year we are going to reflect upon a topic that is all-too-often overlooked: women in the Reformation. We shall consider the impact of women on the Reformation and the impact of the Reformation upon women from a theological perspective. I admit that covering such a broad topic within a blog post means I am very short on detail. I encourage readers to check out the sources at the end of this post in order to explore further avenues.
The Impact of the Reformation Upon Women
The Reformation brought about some changes for women both theologically and socially. Theologically, the issue of inequality between men and women socially and spiritually was more widely discussed. Although the concept had existed before, the Reformers largely held to the notion that men and women were spiritually equal. Spiritual equality led some to wonder whether women could perhaps be social equals, or–if that was to far afield–perhaps they could at least be less inequal (Spierling, 181-183, cited below). Seeds for social and spiritual change were sown during this period, but it must be admitted that there was not as much development as some may allege.
For example, Martin Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers” is sometimes taken to mean that women and men could stand alongside each other as spiritual equals in teaching, preaching, etc. However, when Luther himself was challenged on this issue by the Roman Catholics, he answered by making it very explicit that although women could teach in extraordinary circumstances, he believed the Bible mandated that men were in charge in both church and home (Spierling, 186; see Luther’s Works 36: 151-152). Spiritual equality was seen as equality in the eyes of God, not in the roles that men and women actually took on earth. However, Luther also fought against some of the double standards regarding men and women and was outspoken against brothels and other abuses of women (Lindberg, 360-361, cited below).
The Reformers remained influenced by early Christian views of men and women, which were, in turn, influenced by earlier non-Christian scholars whose pre-scientific views of biology and psychology were adopted. Diarmaid MacCulloch traced the impact of Aristotle and the ancient medical expert Galen upon figures like Augustine and Clement. He described the Reformers’ view of manhood and womanhood as viewed through this lens thus:
What Christian theologians asserted about men, women, and sexuality was nonsense, but it was ancient nonsense, and humanity has always been inclined to respect the assertion of ancient wisdom. The… package of ideas also had a lunatic coherence: it seemed to make sense, explained a baffling aspect of human experience, and contained a good deal of room for flexibility of interpretation. No doubt our own medical theories will seem equally lunatic to generations to come. (MacCulloch,611, cited below)
Carter Lindberg’s own discussion of the impact of the Reformation upon women is bracketed by the question: “Was the Reformation a help or a hindrance to women?” He answers, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “It depends.” The Reformers denied that marriage was a sacrament, which allowed, later, for the dissolution of abusive or even loveless marriage. Women also began to become more actively involved in theology, though their voices were often silenced or ignored. The encouragement to leave convents may have reduced the possibilities for single women to have careers in the church or any sort of involvement (Lindberg, 358-361).
The social expectations for men and women during the Reformation period were shaped by the cultural expectations of “gender” which were themselves handed down to today through the theological writings of the Reformers (Ibid, 360). The concept may be termed “patriarchy” and was theologically adapted to continue to make it appropriate for the culture through the 1800s and into today (MacCulloch, 611).
Women’s Impact on the Reformation
Women had little voice within the Reformation, largely due to some of the issues mentioned above. However, that is not to say that women had no voice whatsoever within the theological developments of the Reformation. There were several women who wrote theological treatises alongside their male counterparts, though their efforts were often ignored (Spierling, 187, 180-181).
Among these was Marie Dentière, who defended her own authority to teach in Galatians 3:28. Dentière was a noblewoman who defended the Reformers through the use of the Bible and who vehemently encouraged women to leave the Catholic faith. She wrote to defend Calvin during his exile. Women were called to teach and take up their Bibles to defend the Christian faith. Dentière’s defense of women’s capacity to teach was grounded in the biblical examples of godly women, among them the first herald of Jesus’ Resurrection, Mary Magdalene (Lindberg, 360; see also McKinley, 155-159, cited below).
Interestingly, Dentière’s writings spurred other women, Catholics, to speak against her in defense of convents. Jeanne de Jussie was directly called upon by Dentière to close her convent, but responded with a theological defense of convents and an attack on Calvinism (Lindberg, 359).
Other women acknowledged the subordination of women in the church and home, but nevertheless argued that the situation of the Reformation had brought about exactly the types of emergency situations Luther had granted women may teach in. Argula von Grumbach wrote defending Arsacius Seehofer, who had been arrested and prosecuted for “holding Lutheran ideas.” She felt the need to defend Seehofer because no one else had done so. Thus, her authority was granted due to the priesthood of all believers.The emergency situation was brought about by Seehofer’s continued imprisonment and the fact that no men had stood up to defend him.
Thus, Reformation theology was seen as the grounds for some women to speak; even those who acknowledged the categories of subordination found within the theology of the Reformers. Others spoke up due to the wielding of Reformation theology against Roman Catholicism. Still others felt that sola scriptura had led them to discover real, biblical grounds for women to teach.
I’m a huge fan of Reformation theology, but it must be admitted that the Reformers’ views on women were essentially a product of their societal background. They embraced, rightfully, sola scriptura, but as I have noted elsewhere (Who Interprets Scripture?), this itself raised a number of issues regarding the interpretation and meaning of a text. Moreover, sola scriptura does not entail that one is able to interpret the Bible in a socio-cultural vaccuum. It seems to me the Reformers view of women as essentially child-bearers and home-makers was more a product of their cultural background than something the text of the Bible specifically taught. Of course, that is a debate for a different time.
To end on a positive note, it is worth noting that the Reformers’ teaching sowed the seeds for greater gender equality. The notion of the “priesthood of all believers” should not be abused in order to be taken as an endorsement of women teaching; but it nevertheless did have within it a concept of spiritual equality which provided a basis, however small, for believing that men and women could be spiritual and social equals. Moreover, women began to take up the torch and teach in “emergency” situations and thus provided a basis for others to do the same. Finally, still other women turned to the Bible itself as a justification for their voice alongside that of men. Their authority to teach was, they argued, itself biblical.
Let us continue that Reformation.
Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).
Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).
Mary McKinley, “Dentiere, Marie” in Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters edited Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 155-159
Karen Spierling, “Women, Marriage, and Family” in T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology edited David Whitford (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 178-196.
The Image is of Marie Dentiere and is public domain.
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Recently, I posted a list of quotes from advocates of abortion. There was one in particular which struck me as being particularly odd. The quote was from Stella Ramsaroop, who wrote an article entitled “Why Men Should Have No Say On The Abortion Issue.” I’ve placed it, in its entirety, after my discussion below.
While it is telling that the people who call themselves “pro-choice” say things such as “men, your opinion [choice?] just doesn’t matter”, it is equally interesting to see the context such a quote was in. Ramsaroop writes that “when men start choosing to be fathers, that’s when they will have the right to pipe in on whether women can choose to be mothers.” I’m curious as to whether she’d actually follow through on such claims. The entirety of her article is based on premises such as these. She writes in her introductory paragraph, “unless he is the father of the fetus, what he says really doesn’t matter because he’s a man.”
My question for Ramsaroop, and any others who would argue in such a manner, is: Do you really mean what you say? There are certainly instances in which the man does want to be a father. He wants to have the child. Should he then have a “say” in the matter? According to Ramsaroop, he should. I sincerely doubt she is consistent in this, however.
Ramsaroop also writes, “a man can just impregnate a woman and walk away, which is exactly what many have done. If a man can have the right to choose whether he wants the responsibility of fatherhood, shouldn’t the woman have the same choice concerning motherhood?” (Let us ignore the fact that the baby has no choice in the matter either way, apparently.) Seemingly, Rasmaroop is disregarding the fact that men are required to pay child support [yes, each word is a different link]. So a simple fact check shows that the man does not have the right to choose whether he wants the responsibility of fatherhood–he faces jail time if he doesn’t support his child–even if he doesn’t want the child himself.
The problem is that I seriously doubt that Rasmaroop would say that if a man truly, really wanted a child, but the mother wanted an abortion, that the man’s choice matters. This stance of “pro-choice” is really only pro-abortion. It endorses abortion at any cost–the life of the child and the pain and broken heart of the mother and father. Rasmaroop doesn’t care what men have to say, and I doubt very much that she’d care even if the man did fulfill the conditions she set. The bottom line is abortion at any cost.
There are good reasons, both scientific and philosophical for being against abortion. I’ve outlined them in my other posts on the topic (click here and simply scroll down for many other posts arguing against abortion). Those who argue for abortion are inconsistent, illogical, and unscientific.
By Stella Ramsaroop
I had a discussion with a close male friend this week who says he is pro-choice – to
an extent. He went on for sometime sharing his views on abortion with me. While he
was talking I realized something very important – unless he is the father of the
fetus, what he says really doesn’t matter because he’s a man.
It really gets me steamed when a man sits in judgment of a woman who has had an
abortion. I just don’t see how a man can speak to this issue at all. Why should men
need to establish any type of position at all on a subject that is clearly feminine by
nature? I know many are already cowering away from this article in fear of hell’s fire.
Think about it though, there are several reason why men should not have a say in
what women do with their bodies.
Congratulations Sir, You’re Pregnant
For example, men have never had to face the decision of whether they should allow
a child to grow inside them. They have never been in the position of reconciling the
gift of life with the invasion of life. In fact, a man can just impregnate a woman and
walk away, which is exactly what many have done. If a man can have the right to
choose whether he wants the responsibility of fatherhood, shouldn’t the woman
have the same choice concerning motherhood?
Men have never been in the position of having a foreign object growing in their
bodies and being told it would be immoral to want that object removed. Men cannot
relate to the feeling personal invasion brought about by an unwanted pregnancy or
the fears of being a single mother. The woman’s body is used as a vessel for life,
but it should be each woman’s decision as to whether she wants to be a vessel at
that point in her life.
Daddy Isn’t Here, Sweetheart
Another reason men shouldn’t have a say on the abortion issue is because since the
dawn of time women have carried the majority of the burden of child rearing while
the man pursues his own interests in life. Meanwhile, the wife is tied to the home to
raise the children that both of them created. Men cannot relate to the stifling feeling
that comes from being subjected to living a life as the primary care giver. In fact,
there should be no primary care giver at all, it should be a shared responsibility.
However, when the father is not around, the woman has no other choice.
The woman knows what having a child will mean to her personal life (and yes, her
life does matter too). Sometimes the changes are welcomed, other times the future
is very scary. A man can go on with his life, his career and his own interests with
little worry about his future other than being forced to set up the baby’s crib before
the mother goes into labor – if that much. However, the mother’s sacrifices and
responsibilities are endless and she knows how important it is to raise children who
are productive members of society. She can’t fail – even if he does shrug his
Men have basically handed over parental responsibilities to the women and walked
away. Even the most well-intentioned father engages in but a small amount of the
parenting responsibilities. The women, with no other choice but to raise the children
since the father is out pursuing his career, or whatever it is that men do when they
are not at home with their families, are forced into a situation that may not even be
what that woman needs to thrive in life. She has no choice.
Does the man care that his selfishness could have a detrimental impact on the
woman? Nope. She’s doing what society expects of her and he is doing whatever he
wants. It is especially difficult for women in these days when so many men just
abandon their responsibilities as fathers altogether and leave the woman completely
alone to raise the child as a single parent. Even when a father is physically around,
oft times he is not around emotionally. But again, the woman has no choice.
It Takes Two
The reason it takes both a man and a woman to make a child is because nature
knew it would take both a man and a woman to raise that child. When the man
shrugs his paternal obligation, the woman is left with a burden that wasn’t meant to
be shouldered by one person.
So many conservatives believe women get recklessly pregnant and then use abortion
as birth control. This is just a tactic used to justify the imposition of their morals on
other people. Anyone who has ever been inside an abortion clinic knows abortion is
always a last resort for women. It’s a desperate move to solve a desperate problem –
not a routine action.
What’s even more ironic is that many times these conservatives would be the first to
rush their daughter to the abortion clinic just to save face if she ended up with an
unwanted pregnancy. Then they have the audacity to condemn the women who
choose to not have a baby because they couldn’t afford to feed it or didn’t want to
raise the child alone. In fact, the guy I mentioned at the start of this article
encouraged his girlfriend to have an abortion because he was afraid of what his
religious parents would think about an illegitimate child. He thinks what he did was
moral, but some abortions are not. Even worse, he is blind to his own hypocrisy.
Men, It’s Time To Be A Daddy
It all too ironic that while women have been home raising the children, men have
been in politics making laws concerning women and their bodies. Men have used
their power in politics and religion to control and dominate women by telling us
what they think we can morally do with our own bodies. Imagine the arrogance!
That any man believes he has any place at all tell me what is legal for me to do with
my own body! This is why there needs to be more women legislators and religious
I don’t see men rushing to change societal expectations for maternal responsibility
concerning child rearing. I don’t see them demanding the right to be more
responsible fathers or to play a more integral part in their children’s lives. In fact, if
they did then they would be entitled to more say in the abortion issue. But why
should they want things to change? They’ve got it made in the shade. If things
changed, they’d have to pull their own weight, give up some of their own career
pursuits, and go home at a decent hour to the child waiting for dinner and a caring
In short, when men start choosing to be fathers, that’s when they will have the right
to pipe in on whether women can choose to be mothers. Until then men, your
opinion just doesn’t matter.