More Than Footnotes Part 3: Women in The Reformation Era

Michael Wiltshire


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Footnotes 3

Part 3 in a series examining the role of women in different phases of Church history. See also Part 1 -Women in Early Christianity, Part 2 – Women in Medieval Christianity, Part 4 -Women in the American Colonies.


The status of women throughout the Protestant Reformation is best understood through the teachings of Martin Luther and later by those of John Calvin. With these Protestant champions pushing back on Catholicism’s teachings on marriage, celibacy, and the priesthood, the Reformation’s impact on the domestic life of women was substantial. Women of the Reformation era exercised their leadership both enclosed by, and breaking through, the walls of patriarchy.

Despite a significant amount of anti-chauvinistic push-back by many Reformers, Luther and Calvin’s writings reveal an obvious masculine bias in the genesis of Protestantism. For example, Luther held the belief that women’s subordination is an ontological issue (HS 93). In other words, according to Luther, women are the ones responsible for sin entering the world, they are–in their very being–the lesser gender. Calvin, on the other hand, believed the subordination of women stemmed not from sin, but by original creation (HS 93).

In his Word and Sacrament II, Luther taught that only men should be pastors, as preachers required “a good voice, good eloquence, a good memory, and other natural gifts” (ed. Wentz and Lehman, 152). A product of his time, Luther assumed women, because of sin, did not possess such traits. On a more positive note, Luther’s (and later Calvin’s) stress on the Priesthood of all Believers did allow for the deconstruction of some of the hierarchy between lay Christians and ‘professionalized’ clergy, allowing for a more socially egalitarian Church.

As monasticism was deemphasized, Catholic women increasingly served in the new orders in the Church, leading through the roles of nurses, educators, and caretakers for the poor (HS 96). Again the pattern surfaces: when women are not allowed leadership in the parish, they move outward into the mission field (e.g. women moving from house church leaders to writers in Rome and moving from Abbesses to wandering mystics in the Middle Ages).

Protestant women were significantly involved in the act of reforming Christianity despite their inability to become ordained clergy. In the early days of the Reformation, Protestant women took on the tasks of preaching (as seen in Argula von Stauffer’s story below) and writing (letters advocating Protestantism); even publishing and distributing books containing reformed doctrine (HS 99). Some privileged women even traveled to evangelize non-Protestants and conducted church services when clergyman could not (HS 99). Yet, as Protestantism flourished and became more institutionalized such roles became increasingly unavailable to women (HS 99).


Katherine Schutz Zell

Upon marriage, Katherine (Schutz) Zell (German: 1497–1562) and her husband (a priest turned Protestant preacher) both left their vows of celibacy causing serious reaction from their Bishop of Strasbourg. Moved to action, Katherine penned an open letter to the bishop which unashamedly accused him of oppressing the Zells along with other married ministers, for the sake of personal financial gain. Apparently, the bishop could tax single clergymen at a much higher rate than a married priest. (Hard to imagine single people getting taxed more than the married, right?) Katherine’s letter also challenged the idea that marriage is a lesser path than celibacy and even offered a biblical theology of gender by insisting that Paul’s instruction for silence from women must be held in balance with his claim that there is “no male or female” (Gal. 3:28) and the approval of female prophets (Joel 2; Acts 2:17).

Katherine’s zeal for the Church is not only recorded in her writing but also through her ministering to German refugees, prisoners, and the hospitalized. With little access to leadership within the church, Katherine remained influential in her prophetic task by writing continuously from 1524-1558. She stood up against Reformers who sought to persecute the Anabaptists and Catholics alike. She even challenged ministers who spent too much time within church walls rather than among the needy.

Following her husband’s death Zell’s leadership was so influential that she was accused of usurping the role of preacher. She refuted this accusation by citing Mary Magdalene who, “with no thought of being an apostle, came to tell the disciples that she has encountered the risen Lord” (DBE, 34). The prolific work of Zell remains as some of the Reformation period’s exemplary writings. Many scholars consider Katherine to be the “unofficial” mother of Protestantism, while others look to her for guidance on what it means to be both wife and partner in Christian ministry.

Argula von Stauff

Argula von Stauff (1492-1554) was a bold and courageous proponent for Martin Luther in the public sector, earning her the title of “insolent daughter of Eve” from her opponents (DBE 32). In 1523 at the Diet of Nurnberg, Stauff defended Luther’s theology in an open debate setting, which led Luther to recognize her in a letter to a personal friend:

That most noble women, Argula von Stauff, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit, boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ…Her husband, who treats her tyrannically, has been deposed for his prefecture…She alone, among these monsters, carries on with firm faith, though, she admits, not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ.” (Luther in McLaughlin, “Women, Power,” 102.)

Stauff’s arguments—dare we say, preaching?—brought herself and her family into harm’s way. She was twice imprisoned (once at 70 years old) for her teaching and for holding secret church meetings in her home as well as offering discrete funerals (DBE 33). Likely Stauff was not surprised by her persecution as she admittedly saw herself as belonging to a long line of women—Deborah, Jael, Esther, Judith—who turned society’s roles upside down in service to God (DBE 33).

Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is celebrated as a Catholic monastic reformer and remains one of the great mystical visionaries known to history. Given the political/religious fusion of this era, the rise of Protestantism often led to the persecution of Catholics, including nuns such as Teresa of Avila.

Though Teresa underwent much criticism for her efforts, even being called a “restless gadabout, disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrines under pretense of devotion” (in a pre-refrigeration age, it wasn’t even possible to get some ice for that burn). Still, she managed to maintain and even advance Catholicism’s emphasis on personal intimacy with God (DBE. 35).

Teresa also helped to keep the monastic life alive by constructing fifteen convents in less than 25 years. Oh, and she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 before she was given the title of “Doctor of the Church” by Pope John Paul VI.

In the Reformation era–primarily through the Priesthood of all Believers doctrine–women begin to challenge socio-religious hierarchy and claim for themselves equal status in the eyes of God. Still, the reformers did little to challenge the official roles of church leadership and often operated with the assumption that women are naturally inferior to men.


MacHaffie, Barbara J. (2006). Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (2nd Edition). Fortress Press
Pierce, Ronald W., Groothuis, R. M., Fee, G. D. (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. IVP Academic.
See also Unheralded and Unknown: Women’s Vital Role in Church History.

This series originally appeared on Restoring Pangea, where Michael blogs along with Josiah Daniels and Nathan Smith.

Michael Wiltshire

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  • Thank you, Michael for your example in going against the traditions of men we are commanded to reject (Matt 15:3, 6; Mark 7:6-9; Col 2:8; and 1 Pet 1:18).

    All who are in Christ are equal in calling and responsibility as ministers of His Word.

    It is a lie that power and privilege define hierarchical service to Christ —with those excluded or demoted based on gender, race, ethnicity, social status, or age.

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