Believe in women's rights

Women in the Reformation

Departure into a new time

Today's Germany, beginning of the 16th century: women are subject to their husbands. Fathers, brothers, husbands and sons represent their rights, regulate their claims and watch over them. Because philosophy and church have been in agreement for centuries: woman is a second-class being, a waste product from the crown of creation, man. Through them, says the Catholic Church, sin came into the world.

The ideal woman should live chaste in the monastery and renounce all worldly joys: no sex, no vanity, no fun. Even marriage is only a godly woman's second choice to prevent fornication and fornication. Because woman is considered weak-willed and instinct-driven.

But with Martin Luther a new image of God and man emerges:

  • Every baptized person can carry out the priestly task of preaching and preaching. So theoretically women too.
  • All truth is in the Bible. That is why all Christians must be able to read and understand them for themselves. So: education for everyone, theoretically also for women.
  • Gracious God can forgive every believer his sins, say the Reformers. So women are no longer a priori more sinful and unworthy than men.

On this basis, many things seem possible for women that were previously unthinkable. And many women take this chance for a different life.

Theologians: women as proclaimers of the faith

But as progressive as it sounds: "The awakening of women during the Reformation was not a forerunner of emancipation," says theologian Dr. Kristina Dronsch. The search for freedom related only to the religious realm.

Women as theologians had a hard time. They were not allowed to study and were therefore never scientifically equal to their male colleagues. Yet women interfered in theological issues.

They took a stand, even if by doing so they went against the opinion of their families - a new role for which there were no role models.

Women like Ursula Weyda or Argula von Grumbach published their own texts and leaflets against celibacy and for a new position in the church. Their print runs could well compete with those of Luther.

This required special courage for women: because they had to assert themselves not only against their opponents, but also against their fellow believers. The Reformers viewed female enthusiasm with mixed feelings:

They welcomed the support, sometimes admired the achievement, but where women demanded specific rights for themselves, they quickly called them to order and quieted them down. And the window of possibilities was closed again step by step.

A new appreciation for the wife

Nun, whore and wife - the three traditional roles of women also dominated the Reformation. Luther wanted to abolish the role of nuns, the role of whores was not his topic, but the role of mother and wife should be upgraded. "The woman has the regiment in the house," decreed Luther.

That was certainly the case in many households before the Reformation, but now the role of housewife has gained new importance. The Swiss reformer Johann Calvin went even further than his German colleague and ascribed women a crucial role in bringing up children.

Until then, children, like women, had been seen more as property of the father of the family. But even with the reformers they were not equal in today's sense. Luther saw the woman as an assistant, not as the man's companion.

For him, the "second sex" had a special calling. "As long as she is on earth, she rushes to the aid of her husband," wrote the French reformer Théodore de Bèze and thus exactly met the Reformation's idea of ​​the role of wives.

The model of the Reformed role of women was the evangelical pastor's wife as manager of the family and the community. Pastors like Katharina Zell, Katharina Luther, Walburga Bugenhagen or Anna Zwingli - all of them theologically educated themselves - remained in the shadow of their husbands. But they pushed the social area of ​​Protestantism, the diaconal idea, and thus shaped the face of the Evangelical Church beyond its time.

Midwives: A New Vocation for Women

For Luther, marital motherhood was the greatest female achievement and, like sexuality in marriage, was in no way sinful, as the Catholic Church saw it. It was considered the task of the evangelical Christian to help women with the hard labor of childbirth.

In the Catholic imagination that has prevailed up to now, the pain and dangers of childbirth, on the other hand, were willed by God and something like a punishment for the daughters of the disobedient Eve.

During the Reformation, the role of the midwife became more important: knowledge about childbirth was collected and conveyed in midwifery books. The first female medical care emerged.

But the growing interest in women's health also had its shadows: The knowledge developed by women for centuries was now increasingly under the control of men, doctors who knew little about biological processes.

Nun's Life: Freedom or Loss of Existence?

A monastic life in seclusion and sexual abstinence is not God's will, said Martin Luther. For the Catholic Church, life as a nun was the only way for women to be close to God. In addition, monasteries had always been supply institutions for widows and unmarried girls.

Many a family deported a daughter to a monastery and bought her a living there through a donation, comparable to a dowry - not always with the consent of the girls.

With the beginning of the Reformation, nuns repeatedly fled their monasteries to the Protestant centers. They paid a heavy price: they were cast off by their families as lost apostates. Her possessions, her dowry, remained in the monastery. They could not learn a profession, nor could they find a new calling like the renegade monks as preachers or Protestant pastors.

Their only possibility of survival was a marriage, in which they mediated the Protestant congregations. But marriage did not restore their honor either: for many of their neighbors they were priest whores and vow breakers.

The closure of the monasteries

The reformers saw the dissolution of the monasteries as a liberation. For many women, however, it was also a limitation: in the 16th century, monasteries were the only place where women could educate themselves, where they could learn to read and write. And they offered a living space for those who did not want to choose the other female path, marriage.

When the monasteries in the Protestant regions were gradually dissolved, large gaps emerged - not only in women's education but also in the charitable area: The nursing and feeding of the poor by the nuns was no longer available.

The Protestant congregations tried to make up for the failures by offering diaconal help. Because education was one of the great goals of the Reformation: Everyone should be able to read the Bible for themselves. It was the beginning of an elementary school movement that was rather modest for girls.

That is why noble, financially well-off women such as Elisabeth von Rochlitz or Elisabeth von Calenberg began to specifically promote girls' education: in Protestant foundations where women without traditional costumes and without lifelong vows could lead a religious life.

The woman in the Protestant church today

Today the equality of women is considered a core brand of Protestantism. One is proud of the Protestant pastors and bishops.

But this equality is not so natural. There are still countries like South Africa in which the participation of women in the Protestant church hierarchy is not provided for or in which it has been abolished again, as in Latvia.

And in Germany, too, the ordination of women for pastoral service is not that old. During World War II, women were allowed to take on pastoral positions because there were no male candidates. After the war there was no longer any reason to do so. It was not until the 1960s that women's ordination became an issue again.

In 1992, Maria Jepsen was introduced to the office of bishop as the first woman. Only a year earlier, women had been admitted to pastoral service in all parts of Germany. And there is still resistance from the church against women in leadership positions, as in Margot Käßmann's ordination as bishop.

The Reformation is a permanent state of affairs that is far from over, not even in terms of equality between men and women.