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Woman’s work through time

25 June 2021

The Reformation brought a new emphasis on the domestic sphere, writes Beth Allison Barr


Illustration from 1901 by Howard Pyle, of Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) preaching in her house in Boston, Massachusetts

Illustration from 1901 by Howard Pyle, of Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) preaching in her house in Boston, Massachusetts

WHEN I teach the second half of my European women’s history course, covering roughly 1215 to 1918, I use my own interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s phrase “a room of one’s own” to explain historical differences within the continuity of women’s lives.

Women, throughout history, live within the confines of patriarchy. Bennett describes this as the patriarchal equilibrium. Regardless of how much freedom women have, they always have less than men. Yet the patriarchal equilibrium is a continuum. The boundaries of patriarchy wax and wane; the size of a woman’s room — the space where she is able to make her own choices — changes.

Historical circumstances, such as the aftermath of the Black Death in Europe, temporarily expanded women’s rooms by increasing their independence as wage-earners, while other historical circumstances, such as Athenian democracy, made women’s rooms smaller.

When political and social structures are less centralised and less clearly defined, women often experience greater agency. It is no accident that the stories of the most authoritative women in Christian history stem from the fourth century to the tenth century, when the authority structures of Christianity — not to mention the political structures to which Christianity became attached — were more fluid. It is also no accident that, after the ecclesiastical hierarchy became more centralised and more powerful during the central Middle Ages, women’s ability to exercise formal authority diminished; women’s rooms became smaller.

There are always exceptions, of course, but these general patterns are clear. Consider, for example, the modern mission field. Margaret Bendroth notes that “when the China Inland Mission called for two hundred volunteers in 1929, 70 percent of those who left for China the following year were women, and all but four were single.” But the offices that sent them were run predominantly by men, and when the women came home, they were reminded quickly of their place — beneath male authority.


THE Reformation ushered in a theology about ecclesiastical leadership which, ironically, made Evangelical women’s rooms smaller. Taken at face value, Reformation theology should have expanded women’s rooms. Priests were no longer necessary, as all believers had direct access to God.

While the female body was still the “weaker sex”, it was no longer considered impure. Men and women were both understood to be created in the image of God, and the union of man and woman in marriage was considered the ideal state intended by God — even for clergy.

Medieval women had to transcend their sex to gain authority in the medieval Church. But Protestant women didn’t have to do this — their bodies were not a spiritual problem. Indeed, Protestant women were celebrated for their roles as wives and mothers. So, couldn’t women now preach and teach just like men? Didn’t the priesthood of all believers apply to women just as it applied to men?

The problem was what Roper calls the “holy household”. Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it replaced him with the husband. The 1563 Tudor Homilies, a series of sermons authorised by the Anglican Church, clearly show this: “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the Church. . . God has commanded, that you should acknowledge the authority of the husband, and refer to him the honour of obedience.”

In an eerie echo of the ancient Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the State and the Church, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was balanced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband.

The medieval world argued for women’s exclusion from ecclesiastical leadership, based on the inferiority of the female body and the subordinate role of wives. But since not all women were wives, and since some women could transcend their bodies, special allowances existed for women to preach and teach and lead.

The historian Nicole Bériou describes how the 13th-century Franciscan priest Eustache of Arras explained women preaching. According to Eustache, the Holy Spirit did indeed inspire women like Mary Magdalene and Thecla to preach, and gave them spiritual authority, just like men. But these women were exceptions.

They were not married, and so, Eustache explains, “Saint Paul’s interdiction did not concern them, but it was directed against married women only.” Women in general did not have the right to preach, but “a certain right to speak authoritatively might be recognised for women who had the special gift of prophecy” and were not married. This changed after the Reformation.

The early modern world argued for women’s exclusion on the basis of an emerging gender theology that emphasised differences between women and men rather than their spiritual sameness and on the basis of an expanded understanding of Pauline prescriptions and household codes.

Paul’s words now applied to all women, not just wives, and the importance of women being wives was underscored.


MEDIEVAL preachers did preach Paul. In fact, the most frequently cited scripture passages in late medieval English sermons, after Matthew 25.31-41 (which is cited in more than 50 sermon manuscripts), are Pauline texts. Yet these sermons are almost completely silent about the Pauline prescriptions and household codes for women.

On the few occasions when these Pauline texts are used in medieval sermons, their focus is mostly not on female roles. Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2.15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing.”

In one of the only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon casts the woman as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself). In other words, the sermon interprets Paul’s claim that women “will be saved through childbearing” not as a way to enforce strict gender roles, or to emphasise women’s domestic responsibilities, or even to highlight women as mothers.

The primary focus was to teach parishioners how to find redemption through involvement in the sacraments and practices of the medieval Catholic Church. Paul was used to reinforce these medieval lessons, and women as exemplars of faith became much more important to the medieval religious agenda than women as exemplars of submission and domesticity.

Early modern sermons emphasise godly behaviour as reflective of spiritual status. Adherence to the Pauline prescriptions became a barometer for the spiritual health of families, and women as models of submission and domesticity became critical exemplars for Protestant theology. This was a departure from sermons of the medieval world.

Lancelot Andrewes, in a sermon published posthumously in 1657, interprets 1 Timothy 2.15 thus: “The domesticall duty of preserving the household pertaineth to her, as it is in Proverbs 31.21. She should be of the property of the Snail, still at home . . . The house in holy Scripture is taken for the children, whom she must bear and bring up in the fear of God; The Wife through bearing of Children shall be saved, saith Paul in 1 Tim.2.15.”

The medieval sermon author uses Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2.15 to encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they might be reborn into the joy of salvation. Andrewes, in stark contrast, uses Paul’s words as evidence for the divinely ordained subjection of women and their divinely ordained calling as homemakers.


IN THE aftermath of the Reformation, Paul came to define Christian womanhood. The question is, Why the shift in how Pauline texts were used in regard to women?

First, the preaching programme put forward in the 13th century, and reinforced in the 15th century, dictated teaching focused on the basics of the faith. It actively discouraged preaching to ordinary people on more complex and potentially controversial topics.

Second, the theological emphasis on redemption through penitence as rooted in the sacramental community of the medieval Church profoundly shaped how preachers preached Paul in medieval sermons, emphasising women’s faith as more important than their sex.

Finally, the medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them — strangely enough — on more spiritually equal footing with women.

The spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter so much in a patriarchal world where both husbands and wives had to go as individuals through a priest for the necessary sacraments. But it did matter in a world in which patriarchy was already the norm, and women potentially had as much spiritual power as men did.

As Roper explains, “The values of evangelical moralism were harnessed to an older conservative tradition which defined women as wives in submission to their husbands. . . Far from endorsing independent spiritual lives for women, the institutionalised Reformation was most successful when it most insisted on a vision of women’s incorporation within the household under the leadership of their husbands.”

The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern Reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy. Rather than Protestant Reformers’ reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping scripture on to a preceding secular structure. Instead of scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.

This is an edited extract from
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the subjugation of women became gospel truth (Brazos Press, £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-58743-470-9) by Beth Allison Barr, associate professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, in the United States.

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