BOOK  Mary and early Christian women: hidden leadership

A Kateusz – 2019 –
Open Access This book is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons …

[BOOK] The forgotten desert mothers: Sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women

L Swan – 2001 –
… These women were often leaders and shapers of the Christian movement. An informal
network among desert dwellers and monastics continually expanded over the years due to the …

[BOOK] The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

NF Denzey, ND Lewis – 2007 –
… It is indeed possible to massage the ancient sources to show women in the roles of leaders,
… those seeking powerful Christian women priests, I answer that the “lost women” in this book, …

[BOOK] Early Christian women and pagan opinion: the power of the hysterical woman

MY MacDonald – 1996 –
… early Christian women, including virgins, divorced women, and widows. In Part 3, I consider
the lives of married early Christian women, … study of women’s leadership in the early church. …

[PDF] Early Christian women married to unbelievers

MY MacDonald – Studies in Religion/sciences religieuses, 1990 –
… Christian churches is the history of an urgent search for … &dquo;’This article considers one
aspect of the position of early … were a source of frustration for church leaders who saw in their …

[BOOK] Women Religious Leaders in Japan’s Christian Century, 1549-1650

HN Ward – 2016 –
… the early modern period. Ashgate’s new series of interdisciplinary and comparative studies,
Women and Gender in the Early … the experiences of early modern women and the nature of …

[BOOK] Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women

K Cooper – 2013 –
… But such formal arrangements were a long way in the future, and Christian leadership was
far more flexible in these early communities than it would become in later centuries.3 Ancient …

[BOOK] Women of spirit: Female leadership in the Jewish and Christian traditions

RR Ruether, E McLaughlin – 1998 –
… They do no more than transmit the names of some early Christian women, providing very
little information about them. If we assume that these sources are objective reports of the crucial …

[PDF] Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History

ES Fiorenza – Word & World, 1986 –
… Phoebe’s example testifies that early Christian women leaders officially represented early
Christian communities and that their travels served the communication between them. It is …

[BOOK] Her story: Women in Christian tradition

BJ MacHaffie – 2006 –
… it possible for Christianity to accept active women members and powerful women leaders. …
What can we learn about the lives and ministries of these early Christian women? While direct …

Mothers, Sisters, and Elders: Titles for Women in Second Temple Jewish and Early Christian Communities

LH SCHIFFMAN – … as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early …, 2003 –
… Finally, the early Christian commumtIes produce evidence for the use of the epithets npmßu’…
tides for warnen in positions of leadership and authority in the early Christian community.34 …

Priestesses and Other Female Cult Leaders at Philippi in the Early Christian Era

V Abrahamsen – Marchal, Hrsg, 2015 –
… the roles of both named and unnamed women at Philippi. building on the … women leaders
at Philippi as well as evidence from voluntary associations in the first centuries of the Christian …

[BOOK] The Mary Magdalene tradition: witness and counter-witness in early Christian communities

HE Hearon – 2004 –
… reflected a debate within the early Church over status and leadership. Although historical in
… the central and critical role of women in early Christian communities, even as they continued …

[BOOK] Evangelical Christian women: War stories in the gender battles

J Ingersoll – 2003 –
… , instead of just the doctrine as it is articulated by religious leaders, we can see ways in
which those women reshape submission to create a space of empowerment. Griffith’s approach …

Was Celsus right? The role of women in the expansion of early Christianity

MY MacDonald – Early Christian families in context: An …, 2003 –
… The named women leaders … leadership roles they had as pagan and Jewish women in
other groups and associations. 29 Yet even in the earliest period, there is evidence that women …

” You are not to be called Father”: Early Christian History in a Feminist Perspective

ES Fiorenza – CrossCurrents, 1979 – JSTOR
… theology and praxis that acknowledged the leadership claim of women.42 We owe to these
… women’s leadership in various groups of the early Church. Unfortunately, early Christian …

Perceptions of Christian women leaders in church-related organizations

H Scott – Christian Education Journal, 2014 –
… type, and position (leader or non-leader) on perceptions of successful leaders and
women in general, which may yield further insights regarding Christian women leaders. …

Women at Philippi: The pagan and Christian evidence

V Abrahamsen – Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1987 – JSTOR
… , for the role women might have played in the Christian community; we … continuing high
regard for women in leadership roles. In … As in other cities,20 one of the earliest Christian church …

The changing role of women in the early Christian World

HC Kee – Theology Today, 1992 –
… Women are not only active participants in the life of the early Christian communities, they
are assigned leadership roles as well. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe, who was a deaconess in the …

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Ally Kateusz

M Beshay – Journal of Late Antiquity, 2021 –
Muslims turned the inner-directed warfare of jihad into holy war. There are also opportunities
for comparison within the ancient framework. Sparta, which convinced other Greeks that its …

BOOK] History of Women and Ordination: The Priestly Office of Women: God’s Gift to a Renewed Church

I Raming – 2002 –
During the past half century, few issues have been more prominent and disputed in religious
circles than the ordination of women. This has been most acutely felt in the Roman Catholic …

[BOOK] Women and ordination in the Christian churches: International perspectives

I Jones, K Thorpe, J Wootton – 2008 –
… women’s ordained ministry is one of the most remarkable and significant developments in
the recent history … Christian experiences of ordaining women in theological, sociological, …

[BOOK] Women who would be Rabbis: a History of Women’s Ordination 1889-1985

PS Nadell – 1999 –
” The definitive study of’the road to women’s ordination‘in Judaism.”—Jonathan D. Sarna,
author of The American Jewish Experience Pamela S. Nadell mines a wealth of untapped …

[BOOK] The hidden history of women’s ordination: female clergy in the medieval West

G Macy – 2007 –
The Roman Catholic leadership still refuses to ordain women officially or even to recognize
that women are capable of ordination. But is the widely held assumption that women have …

PDF] The ordination of women in the early Middle Ages

G Macy – Theological Studies, 2000 –
[The author analyzes a number of references to the ordination of women in the early Middle
Ages in light of the meaning given to ordination at that time and in the context of the …

[BOOK] The emergence of monasticism: from the Desert Fathers to the early Middle Ages

M Dunn – 2008 –
… There are eight priests who serve the church in which, so long as the senior priest lives, no
… cut off his own ear in order to avoid ordination and when still threatened with the prospect of …

[BOOK] A Conflict of Traditions: Women in Religion in the Early Middle Ages, 500-840

D Hochstetler – 1992 –
… The idea of writing a history of female consecration in the early Middle Ages originally came
to me when I was a graduate student at Michigan State University. The first attempt at such a …

Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages: An Historiographic Problem

G Macy – Essays in Medieval Studies, 2013 –
This paper assumes that most historians do not discuss women as ordained clergy in the
early Middle Ages. However, if women were ordained, it would represent a very important …

[BOOK] The church in the early Middle Ages

GR Evans – 2007 –
… ordination of women to ministry in the same Church. A century before that period, the Roman
Catholic Church had pronounced all Anglican ordination … Those heated by the consecration …

Middle Ages

M Ages – 2010 –
Religion was an integral part of daily life in the European Middle Ages, and as the dominant
religion, Christianity exercised enormous influence over women’s lives. The church limited …


Women in Church history




Contemporaries of Jesus




Founders of religious institutions

Monastic settlements


Military leaders



Established schools



Women have also played roles – notably as contemplatives, health care givers, educationalists and missionaries. Until recent times, women were generally excluded from episcopal and clerical positions within the certain Christian churches; however, great numbers of women have been influential in the life of the church, from contemporaries of Jesus to subsequent saints, theologians, doctors of the church, missionaries, abbesses, nuns, mystics, founders of religious institutes, military leaders, monarchs and martyrs.

Christianity emerged from within surrounding patriarchal societies that placed men in positions of authority in marriage, society and government, and, whilst the religion restricted membership of the priesthood to males only, in its early centuries it offered women an enhanced social status and quickly found a wide following among women. In most denominations, women have been the majority of church attendees since early in the Christian era and into the present.[1] Later, as religious sisters and nuns, women came to play an important role in Christianity through convents and abbeys and have continued through history to be active – particularly in the establishment of schools, hospitals, nursing homes and monastic settlements. Women constitute the great majority of members of the consecrated life within the Catholic Church, the largest of the Christian churches. In recent decades, ordination of women has become increasingly common in some Protestant churches. Laywomen have also been highly active in the wider life of churches, supporting the community work of parishes.

Within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a particular place of veneration has been reserved for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, which has kept a model of maternal virtue central to their vision of Christianity. Marian devotion is however, generally not a feature of Protestantism.


Apostolic age[edit]

Main articles: Women in the Bible and Jesus’ interactions with women

New Testament[edit]


Christ in the House of Martha and MaryDiego Velázquez, 1618. This Gospel episode suggests that Jesus broke with the conventions of his age and provided religious instruction to women.

The New Testament of the Bible refers to a number of women in Jesus’ inner circle (notably his mother Mary, for whom the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy hold a special place of honour, and St. Mary Magdalene, who discovered the empty tomb of Christ), although the Catholic Church teaches that Christ appointed only male Apostles (from the Greek apostello “to send forth”).[2]

Mary Magdalene kneeling within a Stabat Mater scene by Gabriel Wuger, 1868.

Among the most famous accounts of Jesus directly dealing with an issue of morality and women is provided by the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, from verses 7:53–8:11 in the Gospel of John. The passage describes a confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees over whether a woman, caught in an act of adultery, ought to be stoned. Jesus shames the crowd into dispersing, and averts the execution with the famous words: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her“. According to the passage, “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last”, leaving Jesus to turn to the woman and say “go, and sin no more”.

Another story contained in the Gospels concerning Jesus’ attitude to women is the story of Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary. In this story Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as he preaches, while Martha toils in the kitchen preparing a meal. When Martha complains to Mary that she should instead be helping in the kitchen, Jesus says that, on the contrary, “Mary has chosen what is better” (Luke 10:38–42New International Version).

From the very beginning of the early Christian church, women were important members of the movement, although much of the information in the New Testament on the work of women has been overlooked.[3] Since sources of information stemming from the New Testament church was written and interpreted by men, many assumed that it had been a “man’s church”. Recently, scholars have begun looking in mosaics, frescoes, and inscriptions of that period for information about women’s roles in the early church.[3]

The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that women were more influential during the period of Jesus’ brief ministry than they were in the next thousand years of Christianity. Blainey points to several Gospel accounts of Jesus imparting important teachings to women: his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, his anointing by Mary of Bethany, his public admiration for a poor widow who donated some copper coins to the Temple in Jerusalem, his stepping to the aid of the woman accused of adultery, and the presence of Mary Magdalene at his side as he was crucified. Blainey concludes that “as the standing of women was not high in Palestine, Jesus’ kindnesses towards them were not always approved by those who strictly upheld tradition.”[4]

There were women disciples present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27.55). Women were reported to be the first witnesses to the resurrection, chief among them again Mary Magdalene. She was not only “witness,” but also called a “messenger” of the risen Christ.[5]

Assemblies in the homes of believers[edit]

As time went on, groups of Christians organized within the homes of believers. Those who could offer their home for meetings were considered important within the movement and assumed leadership roles.[6] The New Testament Gospels acknowledge that women were among Jesus’ earliest followers. Jewish women disciples, including Mary MagdaleneSaint Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means.[Lk. 8:1-3] Although the details of these gospel stories may be questioned, in general they reflect the prominent historical roles women played in Jesus’ ministry as disciples.

Early spread of Christianity[edit]

See also: Early Christianity § Women

Paul Writing His Epistles, (16th-century depiction). There is much debate about St Paul‘s attitude to women in the church, however his early letter to the Galatians defied prevailing culture and offered a vision of gender equality: “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ”.

Historian Geoffrey Blainey writes that women probably comprised the majority in early Christian congregations.[7] This large female membership likely stemmed in part from the early church’s informal and flexible organization offering significant roles to women. Another factor is that there appeared to be no division between clergy and laity. Leadership was shared among male and female members according to their “gifts” and talents. “But even more important than church organization was the way in which the Gospel tradition and the Gospels themselves, along with the writing of Paul, could be interpreted as moving women beyond silence and subordination.”[8] Women may also have been driven from Judaism to Christianity through the taboos and rituals related to the menstrual cycle, and a society preference for male over female children.[9]

In his Short History of Christianity, Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the early Christians were “sympathetic to women”:

Whereas neither the Jewish, nor the Roman family would warm the hearts of a modern feminist, the early Christians were sympathetic to women. Paul himself insisted in his early writings that men and women were equal. His letter to the Galatians was emphatic in defying the prevailing culture, and his words must have been astonishing to women encountering Christian ideas for the first time: ‘there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ’. Women shared equally in what is called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, a high affirmation of equality.[10]

Blainey goes on to note that “the debate about Paul’s attitude to women will go on and on”, for in later letters ascribed to Paul, it is written “let your women keep silence in the churches”, although elsewhere Paul lays down rules for women for prayer and prophesying during religious services.

The early Christian texts refer to various women activists in the early church. One such woman was St. Priscilla, a Jewish missionary from Rome, who may have helped found the Christian community at Corinth. She traveled as a missionary with her husband and St Paul, and tutored the Jewish intellectual Apollos. Others include the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist, from Caesarea, Palestine, who were said to be prophets and to have hosted St Paul in their home. However, some people, including the author of Acts, did not see women as true missionaries or leaders in their own right even though they did perform good acts in the community.[11] Widows for example were recognized as a group in society but were not admitted into the clerical rank. While women did have roles in early Christianity, as Christianity became formalized with sacraments and hierarchization or church office, women’s earlier public roles were restricted and regulated.[11]

Debatably Equal Partnership Between Men and Women[edit]

Men and women in marriage have an equal partnership in the early church. In the bible, there are many quotes that explore this equality. One authentic Christian tradition is “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord” while “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it”.[12] Not only are women supposed to love and put forth effort in a marriage, men are too. This equality gives a supportive base to marriage. Another quote from the bible is that “we are all one in Jesus Christ”.[13] In the time of early Christianity it was a new concept that was being practiced and preached. The oneness of humankind between male and female was a defining feature of this new religion. As stated before, women were given equality by adding the title of deacon (deaconess). This tradition continued until the 15th century, and still persists in some women’s monasteries among the eastern churches and in Protestant churches. In Christian orthodoxy, the function of the two sexes is genuine (have equal roles) and seen as a mutual fellowship. Both men and women are to offer love and sacrifice, according to Jesus Christ. An orthodox text states that an Orthodox woman should not feel inferior to men simply because she cannot stand in front of the holy altar, for everything in the church is a result of cooperation.[12] The equality between the sexes in the Christian church gives women more power and does not limit their potential. While some positions were not allowed for women, they still were able to get involved with the church. The equal partnership between men and women is not only seen in the religious aspect of Christianity but also in the social and home life.

Patristic age[edit]

Main article: Women in the patristic age


Icon of the 5th-century hermit saint, Mary of Egypt, surrounded by scenes from her life (17th century, Beliy Gorod).

During the early centuries of Christianity, there is evidence of a great deal of activity by women in the life of congregations. Women served as deacons and ladies of means like Lydia of Philippi acted as financiers. Women probably constituted the majority of Christians. Blainey notes that by around AD 300, women had become so influential in the affairs of the church that the pagan philosopher Porphyry “complained that Christianity had suffered because of them”.[14] Nevertheless, by the close of the Patristic era, a male hierarchy had established itself over church affairs, with priests and bishops running the congregations.[7]

The woman with the same intelligence[edit]

For lawyer and apologist Minucius Felix, women are born with the same capacity as men, among other things:

Since my brother used such expressions as that he was “vexed” and “indignant” that illiterate, poor, and unskilled people should dispute about heavenly things, let him know that all men are born alike, with a capacity and ability of reasoning and feeling, without bias to age, gender, or dignity…[15]

Ministry restricted to men[edit]

From the early patristic age, the offices of teacher and sacramental minister were reserved for men throughout most of the church in the East and West.[16]

Church Fathers on the role of women[edit]

Origen (AD 185-254) stated that,

Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women … For [as Paul declares] “I do not permit a woman to teach,” and even less “to tell a man what to do.”[17]

Historian Philip Schaff records early church fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries as teaching, regarding 1 Cor. 14: 34,35,

Tertullian, the second-century Latin father, wrote that “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office.” (“On the Veiling of Virgins”).

Women saints[edit]


St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine

Women commemorated as saints from these early centuries include several martyrs who suffered under the Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, such as Agnes of RomeSaint CeciliaAgatha of Sicily and Blandina. In late Antiquity, Saint Helena was a Christian and consort of Emperor Constantius, and the mother of Emperor Constantine I. As such her role in history is of great significance as her son Constantine legalised Christianity across the Roman Empire, and became a convert himself – ending centuries of mistreatment of Christians. Similarly, Saint Monica was a pious Christian and mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who after a wayward youth, converted to Christianity and became one of the most influential Christian Theologians of all history.

Other women contributed to the development of early Christian monasticism, seeking redemption in the wilderness, as with the hermit Saint Mary of Egypt (c.AD 344-421) who is venerated in Western, Eastern, Oriental and African Christianity, for entering a life of penitence and prayer in the deserts beyond the Jordan River, after arriving from Egypt as a prostitute.[18]

Middle ages[edit]

Main article: Women in the Middle Ages


Our Lady of Vladimir, one of the holiest medieval representations of the Theotokos.

As Western Europe transitioned from the Classical to Medieval Age, the male hierarchy with the Pope as its summit became a central player in European politics, however many women leaders also emerged at various levels within the Church. In the East, a similar male hierarchy prevailed around the Patriarch at Constantinople. However, women rose to play an active role in religion after the Fall of Rome: mysticism flourished and monastic convents and communities of women became powerful institutions within Europe. Marian devotion blossomed, setting a model of maternal virtue at the heart of Western civilization.

In the West, the Roman Catholic Church was the major unifying cultural influence in Europe during the Middle Ages with its selection from Latin learning, preservation of the art of writing, and a centralized administration through its network of bishops. In the East, that role fell to the Orthodox Church and Byzantine Empire (the churches split in 1054). In the Roman Catholic|Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church, the priesthood and the ministries dependent upon it such as BishopPatriarch and Pope, were restricted to men. The first Council of Orange (441) forbade the ordination of women to the diaconate.[16]

With the establishment of Christian monasticism, other influential roles became available to women. From the 5th century onward, Christian convents provided an alternative for some women to the path of marriage and child-rearing and allowed them to acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role. While non-aristocratic women were in many respects excluded from political and mercantile life in the Middle Ages, leading churchwomen were an exception. Medieval abbesses and female superiors of monastic houses were powerful figures whose influence could rival that of male bishops and abbots: “They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality;. . . they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberation of the national assemblies…”.[19]

A major spokesman for the Church in the High Middle Ages (11th through 13th centuries) was Thomas Aquinas,[20] one of the 33 Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church and renowned 13th-century theologian.

Virgin Mary and female saints[edit]


Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, is one of many important cathedrals named in honour of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Geoffrey Blainey, writes that women were more prominent in the life of the Church during the Middle Ages than at any previous time in its history, with a number of church reforms initiated by women. Blainey cites the ever growing veneration of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene as evidence of a high standing for female Christians at that time. Irish hagiography records that, as Europe was entering the Medieval Age, the abbess St. Brigit of Kildare was founding monasteries across Ireland. The Celtic Church played an important role in restoring Christianity to Western Europe following the Fall of Rome, due in part to the work of nuns like Brigid.[21]


Doctor of the Church St. Catherine of Siena was an influential 14th-century theologian who worked to bring the Avignon Papacy back to Rome.

The Virgin Mary became increasingly important to Christian worship through the Middle Ages. She was conferred such titles as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day was celebrated in earnest from the 8th century on and composite portraits of her developed from Gospel references to other women Jesus met.[22]

The art historian Kenneth Clarke wrote that, if art is taken as a guide, then only from the 12th century did the cult of the Virgin come to appeal to the popular imagination in the West. The great Cathedrals of France were dedicated to her: Notre Dame de ParisAmiensLaonRouen and RheimsChartres Cathedral in particular honoured Mary with the elaborate splendour of its architecture. St Bernard of Clairvaux preached of her as an ideal of beauty and mediator between humanity and God.[23]

St. Clare of Assisi was one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. She founded the Order of Poor Ladies, a contemplative monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition, and wrote their Rule of Life—the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman. Following her death, the order she founded was named in her honor the Order of Saint Clare, commonly referred to today as the Poor Clares.[24]

St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) was a Dominican tertiary and mystic of considerable influence who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Considered by her contemporaries to have high levels of spiritual insight, she worked with the sick and poor, experienced “visions”, gathered disciples and participated in the highest levels of public life through letters to the princes of Italy, consultations with papal legates and by acting as a diplomat negotiating between the city states of Italy. She counseled for reform of the clergy and was influential in convincing Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and restore the Holy See to Rome.[25]

Monastic orders came to include key Catholic figures such as Doctor of the Church Teresa of Ávila, whose influence on practices such as Christian meditation continues to date.[26][27]


St. Joan of Arc

Arguably the most famous female Catholic Saint of the period is St. Joan of Arc. Considered a national heroine of France, she began life as a pious peasant girl. As with other saints of the period, Joan is said to have experienced supernatural dialogues which gave her spiritual insight and directed her actions – but unlike typical heroines of the period, she donned male attire and, claiming divine guidance, sought out the King Charles VII of France to offer help in a military campaign against the English. Taking up a sword, she achieved military victories, before being captured. Her English captors and their Burgundian allies then arranged for her to be tried as a “witch and heretic”, after which she was burned at the stake. A papal inquiry later declared the trial illegal. A hero to the French, sympathy grew for Joan even in England and in 1909 she was canonised a saint.[28]

Monarchs from the Middle Ages to Post-Reformation[edit]


St Olga of Kiev

A network of European monarchies established power throughout Western Europe through the Medieval period. Men were generally given precedence to reign as monarch, however aristocratic women could achieve influence. A number of such women were singled out as model Christians by Pope John Paul II in his Mulieris Dignitatem letter on the dignity and vocation of women: Olga of KievMatilda of TuscanyHedwig of SilesiaJadwiga of Poland and Elizabeth of Hungary.[29]

The first Russian ruler to convert to Christianity was Olga of Kiev around 950AD. She is an important figure in the spread of Christianity to Russia and commemorated by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Italian noblewoman Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115) is remembered for her military accomplishments and for being the principal Italian supporter of Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy. Saint Hedwig of Silesia (1174–1243) supported the poor and the church in Eastern Europe and Jadwiga of Poland reigned as monarch of Poland and, within the Catholic Church, is honoured as the patron saint of queens and of a “united Europe”. Saint Elisabeth of Hungary (1207–1231) was a symbol of Christian charity who used her wealth to establish hospitals and care for the poor.


Saint Jadwiga of Poland is the patron saint of queens n the Catholic Church.

As sponsor of Christopher Columbus‘ 1492 mission to cross the Atlantic, the Spanish Queen Isabella I of Castille (known as Isabella the Catholic), was an important figure in the growth of Catholicism as a global religion. Her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon had ensured the unity of the Spanish Kingdom and the royal couple held equal authority. The Catholic Monarchs then conquered the last Moorish bastion in Spain at Granada in January 1492 and seven months later, Columbus sailed for the Americas. The Catholic encyclopedia, credits Isabella as an extremely able ruler and one who “fostered learning not only in the universities and among the nobles, but also among women”. Of Isabella and Ferdinand, it says: “The good government of the Catholic sovereigns brought the prosperity of Spain to its apogee, and inaugurated that country’s Golden Age”.[30]


Queen Elizabeth I

The Reformation swept through Europe during the 16th Century. The excommunication of Protestants by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church ended centuries of unity among Western Christendom. The refusal of Pope Clement VI to grant an annulment in the marriage of King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon saw Henry establish himself as supreme governor of the church in England. Mary I of England, was his eldest daughter. She succeeded the throne and executed her Protestant half-sister Lady Jane Grey who has been called the Nine Day Queen. Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and thus remained loyal to Rome and sought to restore the Roman Church in England. Her re-establishment of Roman Catholicism was reversed after her death in 1558 by her successor and younger half-sister, Elizabeth I. Rivalry emerged between Elizabeth and the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, finally settled with the execution of Mary in 1587. The religion of an heir or monarch’s spouse complicated intermarriage between royal houses through coming centuries.

Consorts of the Holy Roman Emperors were given the title of Holy Roman Empress. The throne was reserved for males, though women such as Theophanu and Maria Theresa of Austria, controlled the power and served as de facto Empresses regnant. The powerful Maria Theresa acquired her right to the throne of the Habsburg Monarchy by means of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, allowing for female succession – but had to fight the War of the Austrian Succession to secure her right to reign. Following victories, her husband, Francis Stephen, was chosen as Holy Roman Emperor in 1745, confirming Maria Theresa’s status as a European leader. A liberal-minded autocrat, she was a patron of sciences and education and sought to alleviate the suffering of the serfs. On religion she pursued a policy of cujus regio, ejus religio, keeping Catholic observance at court and frowning on Judaism and Protestantism – but the ascent of her son as co-regnant Emperor saw restrictions placed on the power of the Church in the Empire. She reigned for 40 years, and had 16 children including Marie-Antoinette, the ill-fated Queen of France.[31]

Reformation and Baroque period[edit]


Katherine von Bora

Main article: Women during the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation, closed convents in Reformed areas which effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women, as well as one which had provided some women a life in academic study.[32]

However, some convents (such as Ebstorf Abbey near the town of Uelzen and Bursfelde Abbey in Bursfelde) adopted the Lutheran faith.[33] Many of these convents in eastern Europe were closed by communist authorities after the Second World War. They are sometimes called damenstift. One notable damenstift member was Catharina von Schlegel (1697-1768) who wrote the hymn that was translated into English as Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. Besides the Lüne abbeys, three exclusively female Lutheran orders for women open today are the Communität Casteller Ring, the Daughters of Mary, and the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. Although Communität Christusbruderschaft Selbitz is mixed, it is almost entirely female. However, other convents voluntarily folded during the Reformation. For example, following Catherine of Mecklenburg‘s choice to defy her Catholic husband and smuggle Lutheran books to Ursula of Munsterberg and other nuns, Ursula (in 1528) published 69 articles justifying their reasons to leave their convent. Martin Luther himself taught that “the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state….”[34] Among the many nuns who chose the domestic life over the monastic life was the wife of Martin Luther, Katherine von BoraJohn Calvin agreed that “the woman’s place is in the home.”[35]

The majority of Protestant churches upheld the traditional position,[36] and restricted ruling and preaching roles within the Church to men until the 20th century, although there were early exceptions among some groups such as the Quakers and within some Pentecostal holiness movements.[37]

In 1569 Lutheran Magdalena Heymair became the first woman ever to have her writings listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. She published a series of pedagogical writings for elementary-age teaching and also wrote poetry. Calvinist Anne Locke was a translator and poet who published the first English sonnet sequence. In 1590, Christine of Hesse published the Lutheran psalm-book Geistliche Psalmen und Lieder.

John Knox (1510–1572) also denied women the right to rule in the civic sphere, as he asserted in his famous First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690–1771) comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, stating

In Gen_3:16, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”. By this the apostle would signify, that the reason why women are not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly, or be concerned in the ministerial function, is, because this is an act of power, and authority; of rule and government, and so contrary to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men. The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be drawn into a rule or example in such cases.[38]

Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–1791) and Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762–1832) both upheld male headship, but allowed that spiritual Christian women could publicly speak in church meetings if they “are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit” (Wesley),[39] and that such were to obey that influence, and that “the apostle lays down directions in chap. 11 for regulating her personal appearance when thus employed.” (Clarke)[40] Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624–1679) concurred with Wesley, adding, “But setting aside that extraordinary case of a special afflatus, [strong Divine influence] it was, doubtless, unlawful for a woman to speak in the church.”[41]

Matthew Henry (1662–1714) in his commentary, entertains allowing “praying, and uttering hymns inspired” by women, as such “were not teaching”.[42]

In A Very Short History of the World, Geoffrey Blainey wrote that, in removing the institution of the convent, the Reformation at first indirectly reduced the power of women, for convents had been places where women could achieve power and influence, as in Zurich where the Benedictine abbesses had helped administer the town. However, the Protestant belief that all people should be able to read the Bible, wrote Blainey, led to an increase in female literacy, as a result of the opening of new schools, and the introduction of compulsory education for boys and girls in places like Lutheran Prussia beginning in 1717.[43]


A general tenet of the Protestant reformers was that Marian devotion and the ‘cult of Mary” and the “cult of saints” should be rejected. Thus, in the communities of Europe and North America that adopted Protestantism, the centuries-old rituals and theology associated with Mary and formal sainthood that had been built up by the Catholic tradition were largely expunged in the aftermath of the Reformation. Apart from convents being closed, images of Mary were in many cases torn down or decapitated.[23]

The Catholic Church meanwhile, responded to the Reformation with the Counter Reformation, which included a series of wars as well as exuberant baroque architecture and art was embraced as an affirmation of the faith and new seminaries and orders were established to lead missions to far off lands[43] The importance of Marian devotion within Catholic life was kept firmly in place. Thus a new divide had arisen in Christianity: on the one hand Catholicism and Orthodoxy maintained Mary’s place in Christian art and ritual; while on the other side, the new Protestant churches greatly reduced her significance.[23] Many women were martyred during the Counter-Reformation, including the Guernsey Martyrs, three women martyred for Protestantism in 1556. One woman was pregnant and gave birth while being burned, the child was rescued but then ordered to be burned as well. Still other women, such as those living in the Defereggen Valley, were stripped of their children so they could be raised in Catholic in an institution.

Renaissance and Baroque art produced new depictions of women in Christian art. According to Kenneth Clarke, while Mary had been in the Middle Ages “the supreme protectress of civilization” who had “taught a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion”, during the Renaissance, Mary “became also the human mother in whom everyone could recognise qualities of warmth and love and approachability”. These human qualities were presented by Catholic artists like Raphael, in his Madonna and Child portraits representing Mary with the infant Jesus, and Michelangelo in his pieta statue, depicting Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus following his crucifixion. During the Baroque period, religious depictions of women in Catholic Europe became not only exuberant, but often highly sensual, as with the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.[23]