The Reformation and Women

In his commentary on Genesis (1535–1545) Luther asserted the equality of Adam and Eve as made in the image of God. This marked an important transition: according to Luther, man’s dominance over women did not result from an inherent error in the creation of woman, but was the consequence of sin and the Fall, and therefore redeemed in Christ. Calvin, in his commentary on Gen 2:18, rejected the superiority of man, but referred, somewhat ambiguously, to woman as the ‘complement’ of man. The Reformers remained influenced by the beliefs of their culture. When Protestant movements allowed women to be heard (Marie Dentière in Geneva) or to preach (Katharina Zell in Strasbourg), it was not so much to give them a public voice but rather because their words were viewed as prophetic. Similary, evangelical churches valorised the charisms of the Holy Spirit as a way of enabling some women to fill less traditional roles, especially at times of expansion when new churches were being established.

The image of women that emerged within Protestantism seemed modelled on the pastor’s wife: a hard-working, loyal, strict, and incorruptible materfamilias and helpmeet rather than a chaste mother or virgin. Lutheran and Reformed churches favoured a critical-historical reading of the Bible that was incompatible with a literal approach to the founding texts limiting women’s contribution to ‘roles’ connected with their feminine ‘nature’.

In the absence of a single centralized authority, each church defined its policies within its synod and bore witness to society according to its culture and context. Rather than obedience to ancient tradition, they emphasised the freedom afforded by the Gospel. As a result, access to the ministry for trained and appointed women became possible as of the 20th century, first in exceptional circumstances and later officially. Access to decision-making bodies came considerably later, however, despite women’s considerable involvement in parish governance.

Elisabeth Parmentier

Professor of practical theology at the University of Geneva