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Courageous women – the Reformation challenges male dominance

Princess Elisabeth of Calenberg-Göttingen. Detail of an oil painting. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Nationalmuseum Stockholm)

It was a big risk. Nevertheless, 500 years ago it was not just men who advocated the reformation of the Church, but confident women too. They created a female side to the religious movement, as Luther expert Sonja Domröse reports.

Anyone following discussion of the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 could easily form the impression at first glance that events 500 years ago were only shaped by men. At best, Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife, receives public coverage. “There were however many more courageous women in the early modern period who adhered to their faith privately and publically,” says the Luther expert Sonja Domröse, pastor in Stade. 

Luther’s idea of a “priesthood of all believers” shook the late medieval understanding of gender roles. “Until then, the idea had been that the wife generally looked after the house, did not make public appearances and was largely excluded from education – as if she was a second-class being,” Domröse tells us. “The ideal was the woman who preserved herself as a nun in a convent.” But Luther’s concept included everyone who was baptised, be they a man or a woman. “Be they a man or a woman,” emphasises Domröse, who considers this idea to have played a key role in opening the door to women later becoming ordained as pastors – a path she took herself centuries later.

Not just noblewomen, but women from the bourgeoisie also played a role

In her book “Frauen der Reformationszeit” (“Women of the Reformation Period”) she portrays the female influence on the Reformation in Germany through eight biographies. She makes it clear that women played their own role in these upheavals. Along with Princess Elisabeth of Calenberg-Göttingen, the lives of other noblewomen such as Argula von Grumbach and Ursula von Münsterberg are presented. Figures from the bourgeoisie are also included. Some of them, such as Katharina Zell and Ursula Weyda, supported the new Evangelical doctrine in their writing. The erudite Italian Olympia Fulvia Morata even fled to the land of the Reformation for religious reasons. What they all had in common was that anyone who supported the Reformation took a huge personal risk.


“Male dominance was shaken wherever women discovered and accepted only God as the highest authority over themselves,” summarises Domröse. “By honouring female Biblical figures, the women championing the Reformation took up the struggle for equal rights for men and women in the Church.”

Argula von Grumbach on a lead portrait medal, around 1520, by Hans Schwarz, Nuremberg. (Photo: aka-images/bilwissediton)

Women like Argula von Grumbach knew their Bible inside out and knew how men wished to silence then – for example Paul the Apostle: “Let your women keep silent in the churches”. The Bavarian noblewoman published pamphlets opposing this stance. Between 1523 and 1524 she produced several publications with a large circulation. “She defended herself intelligently. That encouraged other women,” says Domröse.

For Domröse, the most impressive figure is the Evangelical theologian Katharina Zell. From Strasburg, she described herself as a Church mother, published her own writings, preached at funerals and protected religious refugees. She suggested there be an ecclesiastical office that could be held by women and showed great social engagement. “She set an example of how equal opportunities could exist in the service of the Church half a millennium ago.”

The idea of gender equality was dropped

During the course of the Reformation, the Evangelical movement’s initial push for gender equality was not pursued, Domröse regrets. “It was even actively repressed in some respects.” Nevertheless, the theologian stresses the engagement of reformatory women. “Every single biography is an example of how women have repeatedly shown engagement and proven themselves in challenging historical circumstances,”

In the works of the reformer Martin Luther there are three main texts dealing with the relationship between men and women. They do not paint a consistent picture. The book “Living as Man and Wife” stresses the equality of husband and wife, with equal rights and duties, such as looking after children and washing nappies. At the same time however he believes that the husband can also sleep with the maid if the wife refuses to have sex with him. The reformer was generally in favour of lusty sexuality and a fruitful marriage. Contraception did not play a role.


According to the “Traubüchlein” of 1529, men should love their wives as they love themselves. At the same time, Luther’s concept of their different roles becomes clear: the woman bears the children, the man works. Women should also be very much subordinate to men. But both – men and women – are created in God’s image. In his commentary on Genesis, written between 1535 and 1545, Luther wrote that it was “heathen” not to honour women’s virtue. But in the same text he wrote that men are above women. For Eve had a “weaker mind” than Adam. Generally, Luther takes a classical view of the division of duties: the woman takes care of the house. Hegemony and governance outside of the house are the preserve of men.


Source:epd Date:21-02-17
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