Mary T. Malone

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2001)

In many ways, the service of women has been part and parcel of all my research over the past several decades. I now realize, though, that I have tended to focus on the unexpected, and relatively rare, examples of the leadership of women in a variety of ecclesiastical patriarchal settings rather than on the ubiquitous examples of women’s Christian service. The request to explore the service of women throughout Christian history has redirected my focus a little and inevitably has raised new questions.

The constant and virtually unanswerable question I have has to do with women’s own sense of their call to service. There is so little evidence from women themselves – their voices have been lost, silenced, distorted, and more than likely never heard at any stage of Christian history. What little evidence we do have from women themselves comes from the writings of women mystics, both inside and outside convent structures. These remarkable women were intent on forging for themselves a path to union with the God who was the love of their lives. This path followed the time-honored and three-fold way of initial purgation from all that might impede such union; illumination, which was a kind of divinely initiated education of the mind and heart; and finally a union with the divine, which was usually expressed in profound lyrical language. What distinguishes the male and female mystics at the end-point is that, almost without exception, the male mystics are drawn further away from the world in a kind of mystical isolation, while the female mystics seem to be propelled into the world to live out the compassion that was always central to their experience of God. This mystical momentum led to the public ecclesial ministry of extraordinary women such as Catherine of Siena, Magdelena Beutler, Jane Lead, and so many others. This is not the place, however, to pursue in detail these exceptional lives of service, except to reiterate the point that the lives of all such women known to us were consumed by the desire to share with everyone the profound compassion that they had discovered at the heart of God.

What of all the other women? We know nothing from their own lips, but we have volumes from the pens of male ecclesiastical writers from all the Christian traditions. While this writing does not tell us how the women perceived their own lives, it does illuminate the constant and continually reiterated teaching of Christianity about women’s place in, and service to, the community. There is a uniformity to this teaching both before and after the Reformation period that reveals, often in the strongest language, the Christian churches’ expectation of their women members. These expectations can be summed up under two headings: (1) “undoing the works of the female,” and (2) “charismatic moments of eschatological maximalism.”

Undoing the Works of the Female

There is no need to repeat here the account of the ministry of Jesus and his offer of co-equal discipleship to all. As the early church developed in the first few decades, women and men together shared the ministries of disciple, apostle, house-church leader, prophet, preacher, mission, and diakonia, or appointed service to the community. As evidenced in 1 Cor. 14, however, there is a constant effort from the mid-fifties of the first century on to silence women in the churches, and to remove their service from the public to the private sphere. For the next two hundred years, a huge debate took place within Christianity about the ministerial role of women. This debate has only recently become known to us again through the work of feminist biblical scholars in particular, but for centuries these often vociferous discussions had been removed from the historical record. The original message – and example – of Jesus about co-discipleship was modified, so that the burden of loving service was placed primarily on the shoulders of the weakest members of the community, namely women, children, and slaves. By the end of the first Christian century, as the writings now known as the Letters to Timothy and those by Peter indicate, a kind of “love patriarchy” was expected to prevail, where wives, children and slaves were instructed to love and obey even harsh masters and husbands, and to do this as their divinely mandated Christian service. After this, the demand to love is rarely made to Christian husbands and slave-owners, and compassionate loving-service is seen to be a peculiar requirement of women. Ironically, such love was also viewed as a sign of the weakness of women, because of their descent from Eve and their sisterly kinship with her.

From now on, the word “shameful” is most frequently heard as a description of women. It is “shameful” for a woman to speak, to appear in public, or to attempt any role outside of the secluded world of the home. What is “shameful” about women is their very nature in its femaleness. Women, in their femaleness, are part of the “lower” world of nature. What is expected of their femaleness is the same as what is expected from nature, namely to act as their nature designates. Women can enter the world of the “spirit” through obedience, suffering, love of their masters, and silence. If this natural work of women is ennobled by being done “in the Lord,” then the “works of the female” will be destroyed and women can participate with men in the higher realms of Christianity.

Women, then, were accounted to be part of nature, and nature, under the guidance of God, its creator, had decreed their task. No account was to be taken of women’s natural service. This service did not become part of the story of the community. Just as historians did not write about the daily rising and setting of the sun – this was part of nature, and expected – so historians did not write about the sunrise to sunset service of women. In their daily toil women were not doing anything special. They were simply following their natures and performing their allotted tasks. In a Christian context such work was never accounted as ministry. In following their divinely allotted natures, women were engaged in the task of subduing the female, that ever-dangerous and threatening womanly attribute which had no part whatever in the divine. The female and the divine were entirely antithetical. In the middle ages it was suggested that the female was at war with the divine for the souls of men, and this fear reached such a crescendo in the early modern period that the witchcraze resulted. For one thing was sure: no matter how hard women struggled, the female would never be conquered.

The service of women, then, existed in a kind of negative zone, where sin prevailed in the very fact of being female. When femaleness was subdued and overlaid by a layer of what we have come to call “femininity,” women could experience some likeness with God in the feminine dimensions that could be attributed to “Him.” The essence of God, however, was seen to be far removed from femaleness, especially from what one might call the “ooziness” of the experience of being female.

There is no doubt whatever that women have been working from sunrise to sunset throughout Christian history. This work was seen to be part of the God-assigned task of women, was part of their nature, and excited no comment, except that the more laborious it was, the better it fulfilled God’s will. Such work only excited comment when it ceased, just as an eclipse of the sun or a change in some other natural phenomenon might arouse comment. Laborious women’s work kept the female at bay, and in fact has kept both world and church afloat for millennia.

Charismatic Moments of Eschatological Maximalism

Christian history is littered with moments when women resisted this supposedly God-given agenda and moved into a kind of “end-time” behavior, where they lived a full-blown, all-or-nothing maximalist Christian life. When it came to women’s Christian vocation to service, there was no room for half-measures. Women had to cross the great divide between femaleness and Christian ministry, and no greater chasm existed in the Christian imagination. Of course, we now know that the life of Christian discipleship is expected of all believers and that co-equal discipleship, far from being a charismatic exception, is the Christian norm. Throughout history, however, such women were seen as boundary transgressors, and as being propelled forward from private to public life by powerful spirit-filled impulses. This behavior was “unnatural” and the women needed powerful divine support in order to accomplish their spiritual goals. First and foremost, they had to be profoundly disobedient in their choice of authorities, and the phrase that is so often heard is “we must obey God rather than man.”

Here, also, Christian history is very sketchy. Such public Christian service of women was viewed as abnormal and certainly not to be imitated, so there is no continuous historical record. Each generation of Christian women had to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, and each had to recreate the environment and conditions of women’s Christian service as if it had never existed before. They were without role models or inspirational precedents. As a result, many such women appeal to the one role model known to them from ancient fables, namely Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons. When the saintly lives of such women are written, they fail to inspire because of the protocols of hagiographical writing. In this tradition the propaganda value of the saint’s life is calculated first. Then the women’s life is written to fit the required model. It is often only when we possess both official (i.e., male-authored) and unofficial (i.e., female-authoredbiographies of the same person that we can begin to see the real personality emerge.

When women felt called by God to a public ministry of any kind in the church, they first of all had to engage in acts of disobedience, defiance, deceit, and transgression of conventional cultural and churchly expectations in order to follow God’s call. There was no “normal” channel for them, except at the very beginnings of Christian history and of the various reforming movements throughout that history. Whenever Christians were reconnected with the foundational documents of the tradition, then the common call of discipleship for all was re-discovered. Almost without exception, however, such an enlarged vision survived only a very short time before being re-institutionalized into conventional mode. History does present us with a few routes that were open to women in their pursuit of their Christian vocation, and these will be briefly outlined here.

Martyrdom: This, of course, is the ultimate choice, but one made by an extraordinary number of women throughout every period of Christian history. The personal diary of the early third-century martyr, Perpetua, forever traces both the courage and horror experienced by this twenty-two-year-old mother as well as the profound religious motivation at work in her life.

Virginity: The virgin was seen to make the definitive break with femaleness, and when eventually the life of consecrated virginity gave rise to the long tradition of women’s monasticism, Christianity inherited one of the few relatively unbroken histories of women’s Christian service. This was a story of women’s prayer, women’s symbolic religious thought, women’s mystical journeys, and women’s public service of compassion. It was also – and essentially – a service of mold-breaking in the areas of religious experience, God-talk, church-life, and women’s ministry in teaching, preaching, healing, and hospitality. All in all, it offered a completely new religious re-interpretation of femaleness. The women were conscious of their innovatory task, insisted on naming their work, and resisted all efforts to make them deviate from their God-given goal.

Beguines: The Beguines lasted just a little over a century, and their lives and work were so innovative that their history was practically eliminated in its totality until recent times. The Beguines totally confused their contemporaries in male church leadership. Even today, the records ring with the phrase: “Who are these women?” They fitted none of the conventional categories, not the wife/mother, not the consecrated virgin, not the dependent single woman. These were independent single women who worked to support themselves while at the same time providing education, healing, and hospitality for their communities, and observing chastity for as long as they remained with the group. It was the element of choice that completely befuddled their contemporaries. These women chose when to join and when to leave. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the choice of the vernacular as the medium of spirituality and theology that most scared the official church. These women were intent on democratizing mysticism and theology, precisely at a time when theological thought was being firmly harnessed into its western Latin mode in the universities.

Heretics: With the introduction of the feared Inquisition, the medieval period was not a safe time to harbor unconventional religious thoughts. Nevertheless, we have inherited hundreds of stories of women who braved the wrath of the official church in pursuing their own understandings of Christianity. Almost without exception, this teaching was directed at the narrowness and corruption of the church, and the unimpressive lives of many clergy. The names of Marguerite Portete and Na Prous Boneta, both burnt at the stake, stand out, as well as the awesome tragedy of Joan of Arc, who was publicly pardoned, at her mother’s insistence, twenty-five years after her execution.

Ambassadors: Aristocratic wives, in all traditions, and in several cultures have performed without recognition the ambassadorial task for centuries. These women had to move from one culture to another and thus were among the few who could communicate across cultures and languages. Within the church, something similar prevailed in the lives of several women saints. Perhaps the most significant was Catherine of Siena, who traversed the whole of Europe several times on papal ambassadorial business, often for such ungrateful clients as the Florentines.

Mystical writers: It is only in recent times that the work of many women mystical writers is being accorded its creative significance in the history of Christian service. These women were passionate writers, recording their spiritual adventures with exquisite detail and lyrical exuberance. The convents provided them with libraries and scriptoria which they used for the education in prayer of their sisters and the wider community of women. Those outside the convent were not so lucky in their access to resources, nor did they have recourse to the same protection. Nevertheless, all the women writers used their voices to name their own reality and to record their growing self-knowledge as they invaded the divine territory. They created the path as they travelled, having to compose both the language and the metaphors for divine-human relationships as they experienced them. They did not see this writing as elitist but as an invitation to all to participate in what they discovered to be the journey toward identity with the God with whom “they were before they were.”

Preachers: If the history of Christianity reveals anything about the service of women, it is that preaching seems to be the natural arena for women. In every age, with every reform, with each return to the sources, women seem to take up preaching as their natural right and gift. But with equal frequency this gift is denied them as soon as the clerical establishment can organize resistance. Whether one looks at the medieval period or the sixteenth-century reformations, women turn to preaching with delight and fervor. When challenged about their right to preach, they usually proffer Mary Magdalen as their model and inspiration. It was she who was the first Christian preacher, sent personally by her risen Savior. Despite the power and scriptural veracity of this model, the churches universally denied preaching to women for centuries, and many still continue to do so.

The service of women, then, has to be ferreted out of the existing records, and the male-authored histories don’t easily give up their hidden treasures. There was no normally accepted and recognized service of women, except the culturally decreed inferior and hidden private service that was deemed to result from the natural inferiority of women. Christianity added the religious gloss of obedience, silence, and atonement for sin to this service, and millions of women through the ages internalized this teaching and literally made the world of daily living possible. Every now and then, however, women who could not accept this definition of themselves, their lives, and their relationship with God emerged and transgressed the prescribed boundaries. Such women engaged in charismatic moments of eschatological maximalism and pushed the Christian envelope to its outer limits. They created for the succeeding generations a completely new paradigm of womanly identity, which is as yet nameless in its innovatory potential. All of us are living into this identity, creating the path as we walk.


Mary T. Malone has been living in delightful retirement in her former home in Ireland since 1998, after thirty-four years of teaching in Canada, most recently at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario. She is now working on Volume 3 of Women and Christianity, and is daily conscious of the debt she owes former colleagues, but most especially former students. Volume 1 of Women in Christianity: The First Thousand Years, was published in 2000, and Volume 2, The Medieval Period, is forthcoming in November 2001 (Novalis Press in Canada, Orbis Press in the United States).