Yesterday, churches around the globe paused and remembered the courage of a man named Martin . . . and rightfully so. Martin Luther’s challenge of the Catholic Church on October 31, 1517 reshaped the sixteenth-century Christian landscape, and it continues to influence Christian life in the twenty-first century. Soon other voices joined Luther’s call for reform. We are familiar with many of those names: John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox.
Yet there are names we don’t know. Women’s names. Women were active in this new movement. They spoke out, some even dared to preached. Others wrote letters, poetry, and books, and still others were financial underwriters of movement. Yet the names of these women did not make it into history books. Their stories have not been widely told. Their voices were often silenced during their life time, and their voices have been silenced by history.
Among these women was Marie Dentière (c. 1495-1561). Born to a French noble family, as a young teenager Marie entered an Augustinian convent. She eventually rose to the rank of abbess. In the 1520s, Marie embraced Reformation teachings and was forced to leave her convent. She fled to Strasbourg, married a former Catholic priest, joined with him in working for reform, and eventually moved to Geneva.
Among Marie’s strongest convictions was her belief that every person should have opportunity to read God’s word. She believed that women and men were equally qualified and entitled to interpret scripture and practice their faith. In the 1530s, Marie began writing, first publishing an anonymous pamphlet about God’s intentions for reform in Geneva and later writing a book on the history of reform work in her city. Marie also began speaking out, talking with people on the street corners and in public taverns and “preaching” to the crowds that gathered.
In 1539, Marie wrote a letter to fellow Reformation sympathizer, Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, in which she pushed beyond the teachings of Luther and Calvin, calling for equality for women. Marie wrote: “If God then gives graces to some good women, revealing to them by his Holy Scriptures something holy and good, will they not dare to write, speak, or declare it one to another? . . . . Ah! It would be too audacious to wish to stop them from doing it. As for us, it would be too foolish to hide the talent which God has given us.”
Marie’s letter also included these words: “Although it is not permitted to us [women] to preach in public assemblies and churches, it is nonetheless not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all love. Not only for you, my Lady, have I wished to write this letter, but also to give courage to other women held in captivity, in order that they may not all fear being exiled from their country, relatives, and friends, like myself, for the word of God . . .. that they may from now on not be tormented and afflicted in themselves but rather rejoicing, consoled, and excited to follow the truth, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . This is the principle cause, my Lady, which moved me to write you, hoping in God that in the future women will not be so much despised as in the past.”
The letter was published in Geneva and caused quite a scandal. The printer of the letter was arrested, and Marie’s books and writings were confiscated. She was accused of “meddling with preaching and perverting people of devotion,” and as a result, Marie’s voice was silenced. Her name is known today only by a few.
Marie was one of the many women, mostly privileged women born to families of wealth and nobility, who dared to proclaim publicly their commitment to reform teachings. Many of these women were reprimanded by male reformers. Some were persecuted, and some were burned at the stake. Their names certainly deserve to be remembered. They should not be a footnote in history.
I can’t help but wonder . . . if their voices make a difference? Did the influence of these women result in freedom, equality, opportunity? Did women gain any ground as a result of the Reformation?
Most scholars agree that the Reformation did not instigate any drastic changes in gender roles and expectations. Protestant women did not gain freedom in their homes, society, and certainly not in the church. Women continued to be excluded from the priesthood. They were not given official leadership positions in the church. And yet the Reformation brought freedom or at least the possibility of freedom to women. Many women embraced Luther’s principles of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers and believed wholeheartedly that these teachings meant that they too were included in the mission of the church. They believed that spiritual equality was possible, and they used the avenues available to them to share their convictions, to spread the liberating message of the gospel.
Their names are not remembered. Their voices have been silenced. But In this anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, let us not also be guilty of forgetting these women.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.
*Jane Dempsey Douglass, Women, Freedom, & Calvin (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1985).