One of Kirsi Stjerna’s conclusions in Women and the Reformation is that “more than any other factor, gender determined a woman’s ability and avenues to respond to the Reformation.” However, their responses were not uniform and she stresses that it would be a mistake to see women as responding en masse in a certain way. The different circumstances that women found themselves in determined their opportunities as well.
What strata of society a woman came from brought different possibilities and limitations. Noble women, for example, were often political pawns. They could end up married to a distant lord, cut off from Protestant discussion or they could simply be subsumed into the demands of court life. Some, like Jeanne d’Albret, the only child and therefore the heir to her family’s throne of Navarre, had their own power to exert but most ended up as either collateral or a liability for their husband. Alternatively, they were sometimes sent to become nuns. For some like Katie von Bora, the dissolution of the monasteries meant the freedom to marry a Protestant man and become a queen in her own household; others like like Jeanne de Jussie viewed this as a deliberate attempt to further suppress their thought. Women in the artisan class had more freedom than their noble sisters. While they were generally expected to marry, they had some choice over to whom and and could flirt with the idea of an independent life as a trader, as Katharina Schütz Zell initially did.
Related to class is the question of marriage but it’s significant enough to warrant its own category. Who a woman was married to made an enormous difference. Elisabeth von Brandenburg, for example, was married to a staunch Catholic. Her public refusal to conform to Catholicism embarrassed her husband and their personal problems became the microcosm for the kingdom: if he accepted her Lutheranism, it would look like he allowed that in his kingdom! Though she was an inspiration to many, her life was not a happy one: she ended up in exile, impoverished and mentally ill. On the other extreme is Katharina Schütz Zell (KSZ) who chose to marry Protestant leader Matthias Zell. She was an immensely accomplished woman, a reformer and writer in her own right and her husband celebrated that, encouraged her in it and defended her to her detractors. Imagine how different these women’s lives might have been if they’d been married to different men! It’s worth mentioning here, though, that for some, marriage was not a life sentence. Especially noble women were often married to men much older than them and sometimes they were widowed after 10 years, leaving them free to re-marry (though again, not always to someone of their choosing.)
One of the reasons that KSZ was able to have the ministry she did was because she did not have children: both died in infancy. Unlike Katie von Bora who was managing a house full of children (hers and others!) KSZ could devote her time to reading, writing studying and meeting with other reformers. Others managed to do this after their children had grown up but if their views were controversial, they risked banishment or exile like Elisabeth von Brandenburg or estrangement from their children like Elisabeth von Braunschweig or Jeanne D’Albret. Not only were children time consuming (and a wonderful calling, according to the Protestants), they could also be hostages and bargaining tools to bring their mothers into line.
One thing that nuns, noble women and artisans had in common was some education. Many of them didn’t read Latin but with the translation of the Bible and biblical scholarship into German and French, they didn’t have to. Many didn’t write scholarly treatises but they could read them and they wrote letters (often made public) to each other about what they thought or defending the reformers or their own actions. Of course, these women are not the ‘every woman’ peasants. Though the Reformation(s) brought modest improvements for the education of women, it was generally geared toward preparing girls for the domestic sphere. However, translation did bring some democratization of scholarship.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.