The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Some Significant Women in the History of the Christian Church

presentation at Adult Forum by
Dr. Sujin Pak
Assistant Research Professor of the History of Christianity, Duke Diviniy School
February 6, 2011

Some Significant Women in the History of the Christian Church

From Medieval to Modern Times

Traditional Views of Women

  • Inherited view of women from Scripture:
    • Eve as the source of evil and/or sin in the world
    • Ideal woman = mother of many children, faithful in domestic tasks, obedient and deferential to her father, then husband
  • Inherited view from early Church Fathers:
    • Female subordination as part of God’s ordained order; men as the true version of the imago dei
    • Negative associations of women with sexuality and exaltation of celibacy
  • Inherited view of women from Philosophy:
    • Aristotle & Plato: viewed women as ‘imperfect men’
  • Inherited view from later Church Fathers:
    • Thomas Aquinas; other scholastic views are more friendly to women but continue to view women as inferior to men
    • However, the 12th century also showed a profound growth in the emphasis upon the role of Mary

Women & Ordination in the Early Church

  • Abbesses of the first couple of centuries of the Christian church were ordained, but later only blessed by a bishop.
  • In 352, the Council of Laodicea officially forbid women from the priesthood.
  • In 451, the Council of Chalcedon limited women’s ordination to the position of deacon: "No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny."

Women in the Early Church

Perpetua and Felicity

Women Martyrs:

Famous women martyrs in the first two hundred years of the church include

  • Blandina and
  • Perpetua & Felicity [pictured]

Women in the Early Church


Famous Wives & Mothers:

  • Examples include:
    • Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena (d. 330)
    • St. Augustine’s mother Monica(d. 387)
    • Clotilda (wife of Clovis, King of the Franks, 6th cent),
    • Theodora (wife of Emperor Justinian, 6th cent), and
    • Bertha (wife of Ethelbert, King of Kent, late 6th, early 7th cent)

Women’s Monastic Orders:

Saint Anthony
Saint Benedict

Sisters of the founders of men’s monastic orders founded corresponding women’s monastic orders

  • the sister of St. Anthony (250-356)
  • Mary, the sister of Pachomius (290- 346)
Saint Scholastica
St. Scholastica, [pictured left] the twin sister of St. Benedict (480-542) [pictured right]

Women Mendicant Orders

“The Poor Clares” [Franciscan]

Saint Francis and ?
  • Clare became a follower of St. Francis at age 16
  • Clare gets her own monastic rule approved by the Pope in 1253, thus making the “Poor Clares” an official monastic order
Saint Clare
Saint Clare

Significant Women Mystics

Mysticism (1100-1400 CE)

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen
Margery of Kempe
Margery of Kempe
Catherine of Genoa
Catherine of Genoa

Significant Women Mystics

Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich
Catherine of Siena
Catherine of Siena
Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila

Julian of Norwich


Julian of Norwich
Famous works: The Showings of Divine Love and The Revelations of Divine Love
  • First known woman of letters in English literature
  • Well known and respected in her lifetime, as seen by the fact that she is cited in a number of late 14th and early 15th century wills.
  • At age 30 (in 1373), she experienced a series of 16 visions, which she later put into writing in her book Revelations of Divine Love.

Theological Themes in Julian’s

Revelations of Divine Love

all shall be well
  • The whole Trinity is involved in the Passion of Christ
  • Christ’s role in mediating love & compassion for fallen humanity
  • Motherhood of God and Christ
  • Overall message of comfort and exhortation to embrace God’s infinite love

Catherine of Siena


Catherine of Siena
  • One of two women to be granted the title of doctor in the Catholic Church on Oct 4, 1970 (alongside Teresa of Avila)
  • Her famous theological work is entitled The Dialogue, where she argues that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable.

Catherine of Siena


Catherine of Siena
  • 23rd child of a wool-dyeing family
  • resisted her parents’ wishes for her to marry and joined a Dominican tertiary (Mantellates) around age 18
  • lived a hermit-like life until a vision of Christ called her to love and service of neighbor

Catherine of Siena

Public Ministry

Catherine of Siena
  • Catherine had power and influence on the political and religious leaders and events of her day
  • She often acted as intermediary and diplomat, reconciling warring factions
  • Influenced Pope Gregory XI to move the papacy back to Rome
  • Care for the sick and the poor; accounts of her doing miracles of healing and multiplying of food

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila
  • Teresa of Avila reorganized and reformed the Carmelite Order, of which she was a member. She was an important Catholic respondent to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation.
  • Famous disciple of Teresa of Avila’s was St. John of the Cross, author of “Dark Night of the Soul.”

Interior Castle
Teresa reformed her convent with a renewed focus on the rule of strict poverty

The Interior Castle describes the progression from a soul trapped by sin to becoming a true bride of Christ.

Her book Interior Castle is very much a spiritual auto-biography.

Interior Castle detail

Renaissance Debate about Women

Two significant Defenses of Women appear:

  1. Giovanni Boccaccio: 1380 list of famous and praiseworthy women (but praises them for being like men)
  2. Christine de Pizan: writes the 1405 treatise City of Ladies in which she explores the history of misogynist ideas and identifies the social causes of women’s so-called ‘inferiority’ (i.e., lack of education, lack of economic independence, and the history of subordination).

Protestant Reformation & Women

Thus, the Protestant Reformation comes at a time of crucial debate about the nature and roles of women:

  • On the one hand, there had been a steady and perhaps increasing role of women in the church (in mysticism and lay and monastic orders) and in the workplace (guilds) in late medieval times.
  • On the other hand, early views of women remain very much in place.
  • On the one hand, a new debate about views of women arose in the Renaissance.
  • On the other hand, traditional voices still dominate the conversation, and some scholars view this debate more as a literary game (to show off rhetorical skills) than any aim for substantial change.

Women in the Protestant Reformation: Changes for the Status of Women

  • Scholars of women during the Protestant Reformation find a re-domestication that happens to women during this time.
  • The closing down of convents and the shunning of the option of monastic life closed a significant door of freedom and religious expression for women. On the other hand, many women were forced against their will to enter convents.
  • And the majority of women already followed the traditional path of marriage and family. For these women, the Reformation did much to improve the concept of marriage and the understanding of the relationship between husband and wife. Furthermore, the long-term results of the Protestant Reformation meant greater opportunities of education for women, which eventually led to greater freedom and equality.

Protestant Women Reformers

Katharina von Bora
Katharina von Bora (1499-1552)
←pictured left
Katharina Schütz Zell (1497-1562)
pictured right→

Katharina von Bora

  • Katharina von Bora came from an aristocratic family that hit hard times. She entered a convent at the age of 9.
  • She and 11 other nuns escaped their convent and fled to Wittenberg during the Reformation.
  • Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora married on June 13, 1525.
  • Katharina ran a huge household and played hostess to many important guests, raised her own livestock and crops, worked a brewery, acted as nurse for Luther and many of her houseguests, took care of all the home finances, supervised several building additions to their home, and acquired several pieces of land.
  • She and Luther had 6 children (3 sons, 3 daughters) and adopted 10 or 11 other children.
Katharina von Bora

Martin Luther's wife

The Embodiment of the "Domestic Saint"


Katharina Schütz Zell

  • Katharina Schütz Zell was the most published lay Protestant woman of her time.
  • She called herself a “church mother” and explicitly presented herself as her pastor husband’s equal partner in ministry.
  • She was married to the most popular preacher in Strasbourg, Matthew Zell, who from all appearances fully supported his wife and her partnership in his ministry (even despite criticisms from other Protestant leaders).

Katharina Schütz Zell



Women within Anabaptism

  • One of the most gender-equalizing forces was the martyrdom of both Anabaptist men and women.
  • There is a high proportion of Anabaptist women that appear in court records and martyrological collections (E.g. 30% of the martyrs in the Martyrs’ Mirror of 1685 are women).
  • There is evidence of some Anabaptist women teaching (e.g., Agnes Linck and Elisabeth Dircks) and preaching (e.g., Anna Gasser) and several as prophetesses (e.g., Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock).
  • Many women served the movement by hosting secret meetings in their homes, hosting refugees in their homes, and distributing alms.

Maria and Ursula van Beckum
Maria van Monjou
Anabaptist women martyrs, Maria and Ursula van Beckum (top left) and Maria van Monjou (bottom left). A woman martyr pictured below from the Martyr’s Mirror by the artist Jan Luiken.
Luiken's Martyr's Mirror

Protestant Women in Mission

1800-1900: Missionary Wife & Missionary Societies

  • The Second Great Awakening encouraged women for the first time in history to unite in various female benevolent (charity) societies.
  • At this time, for a woman to heed a call to missions she needed to be married to a male missionary.
  • Not until the 20th century would the wives of missionaries be appointed by the American Board as missionaries in their own right.
  • In the 1800s many women’s missionary societies were founded.
  • By 1900, over 40 denominational women’s missionary societies existed, with 3 million active women.

Protestant Women in Mission

1860 to WWII: Methodist Episcopal Church

Lucy Rider Meyer

Lucy Rider Meyer [pictured], a leading Methodist Sunday School teacher, outlined her vision for a Bible School to give training to Sunday School workers and missionaries. This became the Chicago Training School which opened its doors to 4 women on October 20, 1885.

The Chicago Training School was a major force in the education of Methodist missionary women on into the 1920s.


Protestant Women in Mission

Methodist Episcopal Church

By 1869, Methodism was the largest Protestant denomination in the US.

Phoebe Palmer
One of the most important characteristics of the Methodist movement was its empowerment of women; John Wesley had a number of women preachers and prayer leaders who worked with him.
Barbara Heck

In the US, women like Barbara Heck (right) sponsored some of the first Methodist meetings. By the mid-1800s, Phoebe Palmer (pictured left), Sarah Lankford and other Methodist women were leading proponents of the holiness movement.

Phoebe Palmer

  • One of the most important 19th-century Methodists
  • A key preacher of the doctrine of sanctification
  • An editor of the newspaper Guide to Holiness and author of the books Way of Holiness and Promise of the Father
Phoebe Palmer

Women and Abolitionism

Anti-slavery societies were one of the first places that women had the opportunity to acquire and grow political & organizational skills.

Relation between abolitionism and women’s rights (some societies split over this issue).

E.g., The American Anti-Slavery Society split in 1840 over the issue of whether women could speak publicly to co-ed audiences.

It was during this time that the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (top) and Lucretia Mott.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Lucretia Mott

Women and Ordination

  • On Sept 15, 1853, Antoinette Brown was ordained by the Congregationalist Church and became the first ordained woman minister in the USA.
  • In 1863, Olympia Brown was the first woman ordained in the Universalist denomination (USA).
  • In 1865, the Salvation Army was founded and ordained both men and women.
Antoinette Brown
Antoinette Brown

Women and Ordination

  • In 1880, the Methodist Church ordained women preachers (i.e., traveling preachers but not a pastor of a congregation); by 1920 the Methodist Church ordained women deacons; in 1956 the United Methodist Church was the first mainline denomination to ordain women with full rights as pastors/elders.
  • Other denominations followed with full ordination of women: e.g., Presbyterian (1956), Anglican (1970), Congregational Church (1972), Episcopal (1977).

Women and Ordination

In 1869, Margaret Newton Van Cott (1830-1914) was the first woman to be licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church [pictured right].

Margaret Newton Van Cott
Anna Howard Shaw
In 1880, Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919) was the first woman ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church [pictured left].

Women and Ordination

In 1956, Maud K. Jensen (1904-1998) [pictured right] was the first woman to receive full clergy rights in the USA; she was ordained by the United Methodist Church.

Maud K. Jensen
Marjorie Matthews

In 1980, Marjorie Matthews (1916-1986) [pictured left] became the first woman bishop. She was elected bishop by the United Methodist Church. She served the Wisconsin area for four years and retired in 1984.


Women and Ordination

The first black woman to be elected a bishop was Leontine T. G. Kelly. She was elected in 1984 by the United Methodist Church.

Leontine Kelly
Rosemarie Wenner

The first woman to be elected bishop outside of the US is Rosemarie Wenner of Germany. She was elected bishop of the United Methodist Church in Germany in 2005.