Rebecca VanDoodewaard. Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
As the title indicates, this book is about sixteenth century
Protestant women who contributed to the Protestant Reformation. It
includes chapters on Anna Reinhard, Anna Adlischweiler, Katharina
Schutz, Margarethe Blauer, Maguerite de Navarre, Jeanne d’ Albret,
Charlotte Arbaleste, Charlotte de Bourbon, Louise de Coligny, Katherine
Willoughby, Renee of Ferrara, and Olympia Morata.
The women profiled in this book were from different countries,
including France, England, and the Netherlands. They had different
backgrounds. Some were from royalty and used their status and influence
to protect persecuted Protestants. One led armies into battle. Some
were ex-nuns. Some were in Protestants in Catholic families,
experiencing pressure to conform. Some were wives of Protestant
Reformers and provided support for their husbands, while helping others
in need. Some were writers, either in a public capacity, or in a
private capacity, writing letters of encouragement.
The book has a distinct ideology. It is sympathetic towards the
Protestants, particularly the Huguenots (though the first chapter is
about Zwingli’s wife). Consequently, the Catholics in this book are
usually the villains, either as persecutors or as hypocritical
philanderers. The fact that there were Protestants who persecuted
people is rarely mentioned, though there is an occasional
acknowledgement that some Protestants were more righteous than others.
The book also has a complementarian stance. One of its goals is to
reclaim these women from feminists, such that the Reformation women can
be examples of biblical womanhood for Christian women. This is not
entirely bad. As the author says about feminist treatments of these
women, “Marriages in which husbands respected their wives’ intellectual
abilities and churches that appreciated female gifts are presented as
exceptions to the Reformed rule, when they are simply sample expressions
of a widespread biblical complementarianism during the Reformation, as
many of the marriages in this book show” (page x). Treating the males
of the past solely as male-chauvinist boors is a limited perspective,
and the author does well to assert that there is more nuance than that.
That said, there are aspects of this book that many feminists may
like, and there are aspects that they may not like. The women in this
book are strong women, who influence people and use their intelligence
and talents. Many of them were not defined by their roles as wives and
mothers, for they had a sense of purpose and mission outside of the
home, and they continued using their gifts after they ceased being wives
and mothers. They stood up to men when men were behaving in a manner
that they considered unjust. On the other hand, the author upholds
women who stayed with their philandering husbands as examples for
Christian women. She also tells a story about a woman who stopped
speaking at ecclesiastical meetings after John Calvin rebuked her;
whether the author approves of that is not entirely clear.
The book provided a balance between large-scale historical narrative
(i.e., wars, politics, persecutions, etc.) and anecdotes that humanized
the women Reformers. It painted a compelling picture of their
struggles, their piety, and their deeds of charity and love towards
others. It was a little thin in describing the differences between
Protestant and Catholic doctrine and what drew the women to Protestant
doctrine, as well as political motivations behind the Protestant
Reformation. There were interesting side-discussions: the one about the
woman who appealed to Calvin’s commentaries to justify curling her
hair, against those who opposed such a practice on the basis of I Peter
3:3-4, comes to mind. On one occasion, I wished that the author would
have elaborated: John Calvin encouraged Renee of Ferrara when she was
concerned that her Catholic son-in-law was in hell, but we are not told
what he told her. (How much information is available about that
discussion, I do not know.)
The conclusion of the book was especially strong, as it eloquently
discussed lessons that we can learn from the women’s lives. The most
powerful lessons included the importance of deriving one’s identity and
mission from one’s faith rather than one’s role, how people have
different gifts and should diligently use them where they are, and how
people should have a cause beyond themselves.
Searching on the Internet, I found an article by Ruth Tucker on Renee of Ferrara, entitled “John Calvin and the Princess.” It appeared in
the September 2009 Christianity Today, and it presents a rather
different picture than what Rebecca VanDoodewaard does. The Renee in
this article had a more contentious relationship with Calvin, criticized
Protestant persecution of Catholics, and could have had more influence,
if not for the societal limitations on women at the time.
VanDoodewaard’s book is more homiletical, and sometimes hagiographical,
and yet it provides a different perspective, which should be considered;
it is not the only perspective, though. Perhaps her book can inspire
people to learn more about the Reformation women.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. My review is honest!