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Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling

It’s time we find the hidden heroines of church history.

Published on:
March 7, 2017
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7 min.
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Myra Sadker, researcher of educational gender bias and author of Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, once said, “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”

Though Sadker was not speaking to the church, her words still struck a chord with me. I first found them to be true in a church history class.

My high school Bible teacher gave our class a research assignment in which we had to choose one of the following historical figures to be the subject of a biographical paper: Augustine, Polycarp, Origen, John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Eusebius, or Ignatius.

Though I’m flawed in my sinful nature as a human being, I’m not exponentially flawed in my nature as a woman, even when many in the church and our society may relegate me to second-class status.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a valid assignment. And it was good for me to learn about Augustine’s groundbreaking theological contributions to the early church and God’s miraculous grace in his life. But I’d have loved to learn about a woman who’d contributed and experienced miraculous grace. That wasn’t even an option.

Then in my college classes, I studied church history and its heroes again. And again when I started seminary.

More deserving names were added to the list of historical heroes: John Huss, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli. That’s when I noticed something was missing: heroines.

More often than not, women just didn’t make the cut.

Battling Inferiority with Inspiration

Society recognizes that inspiration motivates people to action. A standard interview question is “Who is your greatest inspiration?” As a female seminary student, I need female inspiration from within the church. Having women to look up to whose theological and missional aspirations made substantial contributions to the church gives me confidence that one day I may do the same.

But women don’t often feel inspired; they feel sidelined. I know I do. I relate with Jen Wilkin’s article: often the assumption is that I am the intellectual child, the dangerous seductress, or the feared usurper—all due to my gender. 

If I don’t have positive role models to look back to, I may start to wonder if they’re right. I start to believe that my gender is inferior by design.

Church history is not as silent regarding heroic women as some might think.

But that’s not true. Though I’m flawed in my sinful nature as a human being, I’m not exponentially flawed in my nature as a woman, even when many in the church and our society may relegate me to second-class status. The example of the heroines of church history help me see that.

These examples aren’t so hard to find. If we look close enough, church history is not as silent regarding heroic women as some might think.

Meet the Hidden Heroines

1. Blandina (c. 162–177)

Blandina half-roasted on a grill, then thrown to wild bulls
Jan Luyken

If you study the martyrs of the early church, don’t skip over Blandina. In Eusebius’s account of her execution experience, he wrote, “as her entire body was mangled and broken,” she yet “renewed her strength in her confession.”

As she was brought into the amphitheater to her impending death, she and her fellow believers, “went out rejoicing, glory and grace being blended in their faces, so that even their bonds seemed like beautiful ornaments, as those of a bride . . . and they were perfumed with the sweet savor of Christ, so that some supposed they had been anointed with earthly ointment.”

At the moment of her death, Eusebius wrote that she appeared as if she was being called to a marriage supper rather than being cast to wild beasts: “The heathens themselves confessed that never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.” Even so, she savored Christ ever so sweetly.

2. Vibia Perpetua (181–203)

Though her own father begged her to deny her faith in Christ, arguing that her martyrdom was equivalent to child abandonment, Vibia refused.

Her historical biography says about her execution day among her peers that “[on] the day of their victory . . . they went forth from the prison into the amphitheater as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear.”

It is said that the twenty-two-year-old sang joyously throughout her execution.

Icon of Macrina

3. Macrina (330–379)

You might’ve heard of Basil, but probably not his sister Macrina, who was also known as a skilled intellectual. Her other brother Gregory actually said about her, “It was a woman who was the subject of our discourse, if indeed you can say ‘a woman’ for I do not know if it is appropriate to call her by a name taken from nature when she surpassed that nature.” Her own brother even found her intellectual spirituality inconsistent with his view of the nature of womanhood.

Nevertheless, she was commended for her pious ascetic lifestyle and intense study of the scriptures. She even once rebuked Basil when he became puffed up in his knowledge and encouraged him likewise toward a life of humility.

4. Proba (c. 306/315–c. 353/366)

Proba is an early representative of a Christian woman involved in cultural engagement. Her Cento, a popular poetic art form of her day, tells the gospel story through compiling verses of the secular, popular poet Virgil to relay the messages of the books of Genesis and Matthew.

Though Jerome criticized her interpretation, calling her a “chatty old woman,” she nevertheless made a mark on her society by becoming a widely circulated Christian poetess.

5. Marcella of Rome (325–410)

Marcella was not only a firm believer but also a skilled expositor and apologist. Jerome said that “her delight in the divine scriptures was incredible.” He was so impressed with her disputation, in fact, that he entrusted her with the explanation of important doctrinal issues in his absence. She was well-known for condemning heretical error.

In addition, Marcella studied Hebrew linguistic issues, led other women in expositing scripture, and even participated in the great theological controversy of her time regarding Origen’s theology.
Though she was born into the upper class, Marcella likely became the first woman in Rome to willingly choose a monastic life.

Paula
José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

6. Paula (347–404)

Paula, converted and inspired by Marcella, likewise traded her nobility for a life of humility. Like Marcella, she devotedly cared for the poor and needy. With Jerome’s direction and the help of her daughter, Paula built a monastery, three convents, a chapel, and a guest house for orphans and the elderly.

When Jerome translated the Greek versions of the scriptures into Latin to create the Vulgate, the endeavor was financed by Paula herself. Not only that, but she actually participated in the work of translation as a skilled linguist.

7. Monica (322–387)

If you’ve read the story of Augustine of Hippo, you might remember his mother, Monica, who led an essential life of fervent prayer for her beloved son to be saved. Augustine himself said that his mother “placed great hope in [God],” and was “in greater labor to ensure [his] salvation than she had been at [his] birth.”

After he came to faith, when they moved together to Cassiciacum, many believe that Monica was active there with her son in the numerous philosophical discourses he wrote about. Augustine referred to his mother as a pious woman throughout her life, even unto death.

8. Olympias the Younger (361–408)

Before Warren Buffett was breaking American records with his financial benevolence, Olympias the Younger was making waves as the great female philanthropist of the Roman Empire, so much so that her dear friend John Chrysostom even urged her to exercise more caution in her giving.

After she was widowed, Olympias dedicated her life solely to serving the church, even refusing an offer of remarriage. When the emperor consequentially seized her possessions, Olympias thanked him for relieving her of such a burden. Once they were returned, she gave abundantly to the sick, the poor, and the church, overseeing and financing the construction of a hospital and an orphanage, and supporting exiled monks.

Katharina Zell
Reformation Garden” mural at the Artist House in Wittenberg

9. Katharina Zell (1497/8–1562)

Of course you’ve heard of John Calvin and Martin Luther as the primary voices of the Protestant Reformation, but have you ever heard of the writer Katharina Zell? Her pamphlets and theological reflections on love and comfort were widely published during the reformation period. Zell emphasized gospel proclamation through love of neighbor and campaigned for clerical marriage. She also spent much of her time caring for the sick and supporting refugees. She wrote biblical meditations, devotions, and even a hymn book. Her words were received and read by men and women alike.

10. Katharina Von Bora (1499–1525)

Katharina Von Bora
Lucas Cranach the Elder

Something in me has always resonated with Katharina Von Bora. I mean, the woman ran a brewery, a farm, and a household while simultaneously raising eight of her own children and caring for four orphans.

Though her husband Martin Luther was certainly the figurehead of the Reformation, Katharina is inspirational in her own right. When she defected in the night to leave her convent, she quickly became a strong force among the reformers. Katie served not only as the mother of her children, but she cared for the many students that boarded in her household, all while fulfilling her role as the financial manager of the Luther estate.

On one occasion, when Martin said in jest that men would soon marry multiple women, she responded that she would rather return to the convent than put up with that nonsense. That girl had moxie.

A Full History

A womanless history is only a womanless history if we make it one. Let’s resolve to shatter that stained glass ceiling and liberate its female heroes for the dignity of tomorrow’s Christian daughters.

Instead of providing a womanless history, let’s invite our sons and daughters into the historical legacy of a broader Christ-exalting people, heroines included.

Juli Cooper
Juli Cooper is an English teacher and writer living in East Asia. As a Massachusetts native, she loves all things New England, including Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, Patriots football, and apple cider donuts. Juli is currently pursuing her master’s degree in intercultural studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and previously earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Cedarville University. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or on her personal blog.

Cover image by Mike Taylor.

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