Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Margaret Mowczko

Anne Askew, poet, preacher, and martyr.
She is one of the women mentioned in The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

In this post, as in the previous one, I quote from Beth Allison Barr’s best-selling new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. (Dr Barr is professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University. See here.)

In chapter four, entitled “The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women,” Beth states that she is a Protestant and agrees with Protestant theology. She writes, “I think Luther was right—about faith, Jesus, the priesthood of all believers, and the Bible. At the same time, the Reformation wasn’t perfect.” (p. 107)

Chapter four is a great read. For me, it is the highlight of the book. It gives an overview of people and politics in the Reformation era in Europe and shows how the Reformation contributed to the making of “biblical womanhood.” Beth notes, “Reformation theology should have set women free, but it didn’t.” (p. 113)

The following excerpts from chapter four are used with permission from the author.

Women have always been wives and mothers, but it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that being a wife and a mother became the “ideological touchstone of holiness” for women. Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them.[1] Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some, like Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen, found their voices rang with the authority of men. Indeed, the further removed medieval women were from the married state, the closer they were to God. After the Reformation, the opposite became true for Protestant women. The more closely they identified with being wives and mothers, the godlier they became. (pp. 102-103).

Beth then writes about two sides to the reformation story, and she refers to Lyndal Roper’s book The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg.

From childhood, conservative Protestant Christians like me are taught that the Reformation is a story of success, of freedom, of faith revived and reinvigorated…. Roper’s scholarship tells a different story. Instead of focusing on the dramatic moments, such as Martin Luther declaring “Here I stand,” she focuses on the aftermath of the Reformation in the German town of Augsburg. Instead of focusing on the Reformation heroes, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, she focuses on how the Reformation affected the lives of ordinary women. Her very different perspective produces a very different story—a story of loss rather than a story of gain, of increased subordination rather than of liberation.

According to Roper, the male political and economic leaders of Augsburg found Reformation theology supportive as they worked to strengthen control over the city and make it more financially stable. These economic and religious changes hardened a “theology of gender” for women that, far from improving their lives, placed women more securely under the household authority of their husbands. Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival, and curtailed their economic and social opportunities outside the household structure. Women were encouraged to be chaste, modest, obedient, and passive, while men were encouraged to be aggressive, domineering, controlling, and active. “The heritage of Protestantism for women was deeply ambiguous,” writes Roper. While it could have affirmed women’s spiritual equality with men, the Reformation instead ushered in a “renewed patriarchalism” that placed married women firmly under the headship of their husbands. (pp. 103-105)

… the changing political and socioeconomic landscape of Europe found a supportive partner in Reformation theology. The language of God, argues Roper, married the gender hierarchy of early modern Europe, and subordinate wifedom became synonymous with being a godly woman. Biblical womanhood is rooted in human patriarchal structures that keep seeping back into the church, but the emphasis in biblical womanhood on being a wife was strengthened and reinforced during the social changes wrought by the sixteenth century. (p. 106)

Beth mentions several women in chapter four, including Anne Askew a poet, preacher, and martyr who, to my shame, I had never heard of before. And she shows how the new emphasis on the domestic role of women affected Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife.[2] The examples of these women show how the Reformation, despite the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, put religious limits on women and disadvantaged them.

Sadly, the Reformation didn’t free women. Beth points out that “Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it was replaced with the husband.” (p. 117)

The Making Biblical Womanhood is available from Amazon and other booksellers.


[1] I, Marg, have little knowledge of women in the Reformation, but I know about women in the early church who remained virgins, or refused sex in marriage, or remained widows so that they could be free of domestic and childcare responsibilities and instead serve God and the church. Some of these women even cut their hair and wore men’s clothes. For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 150), the heroine Thecla wants to cut her hair short. It’s not clear if she does cut her hair, but she does wear men’s clothing. In a later work, the Acts of Philip, a young unmarried woman named Charitine wears men’s clothing and follows Philip the apostle. These stories reflected, and inspired, similar actions from real-life Christian women. Sexual renunciation is behind Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1ff and 1 Timothy 4:3. (More on 1 Cor. 7 here.) I suspect it is also behind 1 Timothy 2:15 and the hair comments in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

[2] Beth shared a letter written by Katharina von Bora on Twitter here. The letter reveals Katharina’s plight when she became a widow.

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Beth Allison Barr on Paul and Biblical Womanhood
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Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15 

5 thoughts on “Beth Allison Barr on the Reformation’s Role in Limiting Women

  1. Wow. What a fascinating post. I, too, had never heard of Anne Askew and read the link you provided. Truly amazing. Ironically (or Providentially) my daughter called while I was reading the Wikipedia article about Anne Askew. She said, “It’s further ‘proof’ of the truth of the Gospel. People wouldn’t allow themselves to be tortured and killed knowing that their belief was based on a lie (about Jesus’ resurrection).”

    1. Thanks, Jack. I always appreciate your comments. One day I really must look deeper in Celtic Christianity and her women.

      Sadly, there are zealots who have been tortured and killed for odd causes.

  2. Thanks for the link to her letter. So sad to think that Luther contributed to a system that ultimately harmed his own family.

  3. I have to respectfully disagree with this. While yes, the Reformation wasn’t perfect, and not every Christian man respected women, the Reformation, in a way, did free women. Before, the only way a women was guaranteed to be holy was becoming a nun and completely devoting her life to the Church. Mothers were looked down on, and the Church was the only place the poor and orphans could be taken care of.
    The Reformation changed this. Women could stay home taking care of their families, and not feel less than. And communities could take care of the poor and orphans without shipping them off to the Church.
    You need to research more women of the Reformation. Quite a few would never be described as ‘subordinate’:
    -Jeanne d’Albret was a Queen, and the only able to rally the Huguenot troops after the death of the Prince of Conde. She also absolutely loved ticking off the Catholic church.
    -Olympia Morata, who at fourteen, lectured publicly in Latin, wrote a defense of Cicero, and was known for her abilities in Greek, and her understanding of Homer. Not to mention writing love letters to her husband in Latin.
    -Marguerite de Navarre (Jeanne’s mother), frequently wrote to Calvin and had no problem from telling him when she thought he was wrong. She helped bring the reformation to France and received the same education as her brother, the crown Prince, who’s release from Spanish capture she negotiated. She was also Protestantism’s first published female poet.
    There are sooo many more I could talk about. this is just a few. And the wives of male Reformers were so important. Especially in keeping their husbands alive (cough,* William of Orange, cough*).
    And they did so much work for their communities, taking care of the poor, widows and refugees, at time when the stress must have been unimaginable.
    Also no domestic work was or is ‘low status’.

    1. Kaitlyn, It’s difficult to tell who you are speaking to. Are you speaking to me or to Beth whose words I’ve quoted?

      My area of interest is the pre-Nicene church. My knowledge of women in the medieval and post-Reformation church is slight, and so I make few claims about these women.

      On the other hand, Beth’s specialisation is medieval history. See here: https://www.baylor.edu/history/index.php?id=7743
      Are you telling Beth, “You need to research more women of the Reformation”?

      There are plenty of notable Christian women before and after the reformation. This isn’t in dispute.

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