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1958 Article


In the early Anabaptist movement women played an important role. The Anabaptist emphasis upon voluntary membership, adult baptism, and personal commitment inevitably opened up new perspectives for women. The court records in the Swiss-South German areas as well as in Holland showed that they could and did give vigorous and intelligent independent testimonies of their own to their faith, and shared martyrdom unflinchingly with the men, although the number of male martyrs reported generally outnumbered the women two to one; the women were often given milder penalties than the men. "Brothers and Sisters" were often mentioned together in the Hutterite Chronicle. The Anabaptist basic position elevated marriage to a more spiritual relationship (see Marriage) than in the Catholic and Protestant culture of the time. At times the Hutterite men spoke of their wives as "married sister." But no women were known to have been chosen as preachers or deacons. Later, after the creative period of Anabaptism was past, the settled communities and congregations reverted more to the typical patriarchal attitude of European culture.

A few noblewomen were prominent in South German and Tyrolean-Austrian Anabaptism, such as Helene von Freyberg of Münichau, Tyrol, Walpurga Marschalkin von Pappenheim of Kalden, Bavaria, and Agnes von Waldenhofen of Trautmannsdorf, Tyrol. -- HSB


Women played an important role in early Dutch Anabaptism and Mennonitism. Although among the martyrs women were outnumbered by men (in Amsterdam, for example, 106 male and 33 female Anabaptists were executed), there were many women who suffered martyrdom for their faith. Some women were said to have taught in Anabaptist meetings, for example, Aeffgen Lystyncx; the martyr Elisabeth Dirks was even called a "leeraresse" (preacher). Only a few women among the early Dutch Anabaptists composed hymns; Soetken Gerrits of Rotterdam, and Vrou Gerrets of Medemblik published hymnals. Soon after persecution was ended, ca. 1570, women were named as deaconesses, and from the early 17th century also as trustees of orphanages and old people's homes.

In the 17th-19th centuries women had no voting power and were not eligible as members of the church boards. In some congregations women have voted in the choosing of a pastor since ca. 1865. Soon after this a number of congregations granted suffrage to women members also in other cases (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1879, 117 f.). In, 1900, in 113 congregations the women had full suffrage, in 30 only in the case of calling a pastor, and in 12 no suffrage at all (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1900). In the 1950s in nearly all the congregations women had complete right of voting and in nearly all they were eligible as members of the church boards. Such women trustees were first found in 1905 at Middelburg, and about the same time at Dordrecht and Leiden. In the 1950s all but a few congregations had women trustees. The office of deaconess developed among the Dutch Anabaptists.

Women have been pastors of Dutch Mennonite congregations since 1911. In 1959, of a total of 109 pastors 25 were women. Ladies' circles, usual in all Dutch congregations, and organized in the central Federatie van Zusterkringen since 1949, dated from about 1910. -- vDZ.

Prussian-Russian Background

The status of women among the Mennonites of this background did not differ greatly from that of other Mennonite groups under similar conditions nor from that of other Protestant groups, depending to a large extent on the sociological and cultural development of the particular group and ancient traditions and particularly the interpretation of Biblical references to women.

However, once the Mennonites settled in isolated areas of Prussia and Russia they seemed to fall back into the patterns of tradition and environment. The wife was busy rearing the large family and fulfilling her obligations on the farm. In business transactions and in church and community the responsibility rested entirely on the husband. The congregational meetings were typically referred to as "Bruderschaft," implying that the brethren alone attended such meetings and voted. In general, development proceeded along the following steps: At first, church matters were primarily disposed of by the elder, ministers, and deacons; later responsibility was extended to include all male members; then (under the influence of the 19th-century emancipation movement) further extended to include the women. This stage had not developed among the Mennonites of Prussia and Russia, and came later in America. Pietism, which reached most Mennonite settlements during the 19th century, also had its effect. The emphasis on spontaneous conversion and antipathy toward tradition broke barriers and promoted equality in general, and also between the sexes. Paul's admonition, "Let the women be silent in the churches" (1 Corinthians 14:34), was interpreted to mean only that women should not preach. With the introduction of Bible study, prayer meeting, Sunday school, and mission societies, a wide field opened for Mennonite women. Now they could express their views in Bible studies, they participated audibly in prayer meetings, they taught Sunday-school classes, discussed missionary affairs in sewing circles and many other organizations, and as mission workers engaged in direct evangelism and teaching.

With the teaching of Sunday-school classes and active participation in the affairs of the church the "Bruderschaft" meetings were gradually "invaded" by the women. If the women were teaching Sunday-school classes, they could perhaps also participate in the election of Sunday-school teachers. If they were actively engaged in mission work, could they not also vote in matters pertaining to missions? If they were active in most of the phases of church work, should they not also express their views publicly and by voting? Gradually this change took place in the early 20th century, particularly in the Mennonite churches of the prairie states and provinces under prevalent democratic influences. Most of the mid-20th century constitutions of the General Conference, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, and other groups made provision for this change. In many of the churches women filled church offices. There still was some hesitation about installing women as deacons, although this was an ancient tradition in the Mennonite churches of the Netherlands.

In Canada this development was not as rapid as in the United States, even among the more progressive General Conference and Mennonite Brethren churches. Among the more conservative groups, such as the Sommerfeld and Old Colony Mennonites, the old pattern was preserved; officially and outwardly women have no vote in the affairs of the church and community life.

The great change that has taken place among most Mennonites was due partly to the change in their socio-economic structure. With a move from the farm to the city many Mennonite women found work outside their homes. Among the first vocations chosen by Mennonite women were teaching, nursing, and office work. The quite general acceptance of secondary and college education also promoted equalization. Mennonites, however, in the 1950s did not elect women as ministers, as has been the practice of the Dutch Mennonites for half a century.

Women's stepping out of their homes into public life has brought many changes. The former nonconformity patterns adhered to by conservative groups had been given up to a large extent by the 1950s. While the men adjusted themselves to their environment in styles, they often expected the women to maintain the older traditions. This total development again has had an influence on the Mennonite family and the number of children in the family.

The traditional seating arrangement in the church, with the women on one side and the men on the other, was simply the old Protestant pattern preserved most consistently in conservative rural settings, and disappeared as greater equality and participation by the women in the affairs of the church and community takes place.

The number of Mennonite women's organizations grew steadily. Most common were the mission circles, societies, or associations. Well known were the Mennonite deaconesses, who did a great work in connection with hospitals in Russia and America. However, this vocation no longer attracted the young women of the 1950s and was probably on the way out. One of the new General Conference organizations in the 1950s was Women in Church Vocations. -- CK

Swiss-South German Background

The status of women in the Swiss-South German Mennonite churches in Europe and America after the Anabaptist era remained relatively stable and conservative throughout until modern times. In general the patriarchal type of family life prevailed, with women in a respected, responsible position in the home, but "silent" in church life in participation both in public address and in ecclesiastical government and church work. However, where Mennonite families occupied larger farm estates, whether as renters or owners, the wives occupied an important place as chatelaines or managers of the extensive households with numerous servants, a position as different from that of an ordinary peasant farmer's wife as the position of the Mennonite estate manager differed from the ordinary peasant or small farmer. In the first half of the 20th century and earlier the daughters in such families usually received wide experience in household management both in apprenticeships and in formal schooling before marriage. In Europe women did not enjoy (and have not enjoyed in the 1950s) the privilege of voting in church congregational meetings except in the election of ministers, nor did they hold any sort of office, certainly not as ministers. The deaconess work was introduced in South Germany (Badischer Verband, in 1904).

In North America, churches of Swiss-South German background followed two courses in the mid 20th century. The very conservative groups maintained the patriarchal type of family life with a corresponding place for women. In the progressive bodies (Mennonite Church, Evangelical Mennonites (US), General Conference Mennonite Swiss) after 1900 women gradually moved into full participation in all aspects of church life and service, except in the ministry and in office-holding in general congregational life. However, voting for candidates for the ministry and for regular offices in the congregation was always open to women in these groups, even though they did not always exercise their privileges. Women's work in the form of sewing circles and missionary organizations (see Women's Missionary and Service Commission) arose in the Mennonite Church congregations ca. 1910, and was in a flourishing state in the 1950s. The service of women as missionaries and Sunday-school teachers, in which they were often asked to speak at regular or special congregational or general meetings, broke down the prohibition of women speaking from the pulpit (laymen had also been denied this right), although in many of the more conservative areas, especially in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, neither women nor laymen were permitted to speak from behind the pulpit in the 1950s.

The custom of seating the women separately from the men in the meetinghouse, whether in the center (with the men seated around the outside) or on one side, is deeply ingrained and remained unchanged in the conservative congregations in the 1950s. In other areas it was being displaced by family seating. -- HSB

1989 Update

Anabaptist Women

In the midst of the 16th-century patriarchal society Anabaptist women held worship services, taught the Scriptures, distributed the sacraments, were elders and prophets, went on evangelistic tours, debated with theologians -- and died for their faith. About one-third of the 930 martyrs listed in Martyrs' Mirror are women.

The trial records of both the ecclesiastical and civil courts, and the letters exchanged between husbands and wives, give us the accounts of the activities of Anabaptist women. Some noteworthy women martyrs should be remembered. Elisabeth Dirks learned Latin in a convent, studied the Latin Bible and became a respected teacher before her martyrdom by drowning on 27 May 1549. Lijsken Dirks exchanged letters of mutual encouragement with her husband, Jeronimus Segersz., from separate prisons in Antwerp in 1551. Both were later tortured and killed. Jeronimus wrote to Lijsken, "And though they tell you to attend to your sewing, this does not hinder us, for Christ has called us all, and commanded us to search the Scriptures, since they testify of him and Christ also said that Magdalene had chosen the better part, because she searched the Scriptures." Margarette Pruess, the daughter of a Strasbourg printer, survived her three printer husbands and became known for publishing Anabaptist works. Veronika Gross, baptized in 1525, and Anna Salminger were well-known for their evangelistic work and their contribution to the establishment of the congregation in Augsburg. Others include Ruth Kunstel, a minister; Ruth Hagen, an elder; Argula von Grumbach, who wrote on ecclesiastical affairs; and Goetken Gerrits, a composer of hymns.

Protestant Reformers and Anabaptist leaders dealt with the scandal of clerical concubinage by eliminating mandatory clerical celibacy and accenting the married life of the pastor. (Some Anabaptists made marriage mandatory for the office of elder or bishop, excluding unmarried men from this office on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:2.) As Christian preachers had done for centuries, Menno Simons urged laymen to make the sexual relationship contractual. Just as Christian men were to fulfill their moral obligations and marry, so Christian women were responsible to be good wives. The majority of Anabaptists held to a traditional marriage structure, but the emphasis on voluntary church membership, adult baptism, and personal commitment to Christ demanded each individual's response. At times it was impossible for Anabaptist women to follow the wishes of their non-believing husbands. Claus-Peter Clasen suggests that the Hutterite belief in the unique true church as grounds for divorce threatened to cause "wild havoc" in 16th-century Europe. The Hutterites refused to appear in marriage courts; rather, they encouraged their converts to leave their unbelieving spouses.

In the political and theological milieu of the 16th century, Anabaptist fathers were often fugitives ministering to churches in far-flung groups and the husbands of Anabaptist women were often apostates and hence excommunicated from the church community. Consequently much of the responsibility for survival and childrearing fell on the shoulders of the mothers. MGP

Mennonite Women: The Netherlands. 

After the initial trauma of the 16th century, Mennonite family life reverted to a more traditional structure, and by the 17th-19th century women did not vote and were not eligible to be members of church boards. Since ca. 1865 women have slowly gained the privilege of voting in various congregations and by the 1980s, women in all Dutch Mennonite congregations had full voting rights and were eligible to be members of the church boards.

In 1911, when the first Mennonite sister, Annie Zernike, completed training at the Mennonite Seminary at the University in Amsterdam, it seemed a logical conclusion that her qualifications for interpreting God's Word in the fellowship of believers be honored. Three congregations offered her a position. She chose Bovenknijpe, a small rural congregation near Heerenveen, and this Dutch Mennonite congregation ordained her as their minister. Since then sisters have been recognized as having the same opportunities of service in Dutch Mennonite congregations as brothers.

Depending on their qualifications and experience, women have responsibility at all levels in the congregations and in the denomination at large. In 1987, of a total of 93 ordained pastors, 33 were women. One woman has chaired the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit (General Mennonite Conference), and a larger number have been in executive positions. Not all Dutch women serving in churches are theologians; some are theologically trained, but there are a large number of lay sisters doing part-time or full-time work, some as pastoral assistants, because of their leadership gifts.

The Dutch Mennonites were the first denomination in The Netherlands to ordain women ministers. When the larger feminist movement reached the other Dutch denominations, the Dutch Mennonite sisters were called upon to present their roles and leadership experiences to Christian women who had traditionally had less freedom in representative positions.

Dutch Mennonite women who attend local congregational women's organizations have been nationally organized in a central federation called Landelijke Federatie van Doopsgezinde Zusters since 1952. The local organizations called "Zusterkringen" (sisters' circles) date from the last part of the 19th century. A smaller group of women calling themselves "Vrouwen in de Broederschap" (Women in the Brotherhood) were active in the years 1978-85, trying to stimulate a deeper awareness of women's issues. However, because of female integration in the conference on equal basis with men, this group ceased functioning as a separate feminist group. MGP/AW/MMMat

Mennonite Women: North America

Traditionally, homemaking has been the major interest of Mennonite women in North America, but by the middle of the 19th century the education of women was seen as a means of fighting poverty, and women began to attend denominational Bible schools and colleges. By 1883 articles dealing with women praying, testifying, or preaching in public meetings are found in Mennonite publications in America, and by the late 19th century, interest in women's rights appears.

During the latter half of the 20th century commissions were formed to study women's issues and relate them to the faith, and an effort was made to give women recognition for their ministry, especially in the foreign mission field, where they contributed greatly to the spread of the gospel. The Task Force on Women of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section began the Mennonite Central Committee on Women's Concerns report, a publication covering current women's issues.

The three largest groups, comprising 85 percent of North American Mennonites, are the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren Church. These three groups have vastly different understandings and practices regarding women. During the first half of the 20th century, the Mennonite Church was considerably more interested in the dress of women, especially the head-covering or prayer cap which was distinctive to that denomination. A study of their denominational publications also reveals an interest in missions, motherhood, the work of the sewing circle, and woman's role in church and society. The General Conference Mennonites put their energies into the development of the deaconess movement, which became an avenue for ministry by women. Interest was also shown in missions and in the role of women in church and society, women in ministry, and women pastors. Mennonite Brethren showed an interest in the home and marriage as well as a concentrated interest in the Scripture passages regarding biblical women and the exegesis of passages about women. From 1960 forward, there has been an intensified interest by the Mennonite Brethren in the role of women in church and society, women's ministry, women in seminary, and women as pastors. Here too, we find a continued interest in missions.

Mennonite women of all branches consistently hold to a conservative theological position, but because of their very divergent backgrounds (some coming to North America directly from Germany and Switzerland and others front Holland via Prussia and Russia), Mennonite women have developed distinct personalities as well as distinct ways of living out their theology. This is particularly so in the development of the role of women within the church. Women hold conference board positions in all three denominations. Both the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church have ordained women as pastors since 1973 and 1975, respectively, and employ women as professors in their colleges and seminaries. The Mennonite Brethren do not ordain women as pastors, but a growing number of women have completed seminary training and are serving in various capacities, including pastoral staff positions. Mennonite Brethren women also hold faculty positions at denominational colleges and at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.

At the local church level, a women's organization, variously titled Women's Missionary and Service Commission, Women in Mission, Women's Ministries, etc., is significant in all Mennonite denominations, and until recently, perhaps the majority of Mennonite women participated. This organization was originally dedicated to the task of providing for the needs of missionary families. Today it typically takes on the financial support of various mission projects, including social work programs (orphanages, schools, retirement homes). Mission sales were a chief means of producing revenue for mission work, and in the process, the Mennonite women have become famous for the art of quilting.

The 20th century has been a time of rapid change for Mennonite women in North America. In addition to their traditional interest in the home and the Mennonite community, there is a growing emphasis on education and activities outside the home. At the close of the 1980s the most distinguishing feature of American Mennonite women is no longer their rural communities or their plain dress, but rather their strong faith in Jesus Christ. MGP


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Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Cornelius Krahn
Marilyn G. Peters
Anneke Welcker
M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman. "Women." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 12 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women&oldid=143793.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman. (1989). Women. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women&oldid=143793.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 972-974; v. 5, pp. 933-934. All rights reserved.

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