The Reformation and Danish Society: Gender and Gender Roles

In the Lutheran worldview, men and women were in principle equal before God. Both were sinful, as Adam and Eve had been. Both were to confess their sins and start to believe. The church therefore appealed to both men and women. They were to participate in church services, receive the sacraments, and understand the word of God in the Bible. Both genders were to learn to read.

During the Middle Ages, both men and women had the opportunity to choose life in a convent or monastery, although most lived in a household. When convents and monasteries were abolished, the household was the only option and became key to Lutheran society. This resulted in women losing a number of choices in life. Worship of the Virgin Mary and the many female saints disappeared – taking their positive role models with them. Recently it has emerged that a number of women were active beyond the home, also after the Reformation. Some started to be interested in theology and scholarship, and started to write and publish homilies.

In the home the master of the house was the figure of authority, also for his wife. Widowers were the only women allowed to head a household. In practice, women were almost always subservient to a man, and even though the Reformation made divorce possible, it was still rare. Engagement and marriage were regulated and protected with the support of the church. Men and women alike were punished for adultery, and no one could be forced into a marriage. The goal was a relationship of mutual respect in which the master of the house and housewife managed the household together, but with a clear division of labour. In terms of production and income men and women were dependent on each other, and if a spouse died the widow or widower usually remarried relatively quickly. As in the story of Adam and Eve, women were generally held to be more susceptible to temptation by the Devil – one of the reasons women were accused of witchcraft more often than men. 

In Reformation society everyone was dependent on others, and most were dependent on their household. Lutheranism’s focus on the individual came to the fore in the religious revivals of the 1700s and 1800s, in which both men and women were active, although women spoke less often in public. During the 1800s, religion gave many women the power and legitimacy to assume a more public role in society through philanthropy and later the women’s movement, which was often led by women with a religious background. In religion they found a concept of equality very different to the biologically based inequality between men and women focused on by many contemporary scientists.

In 1947 women were granted the right to be pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark. During the 1900s, the condition of women changed in many ways. Women were better educated, and an increasing number entered the workforce and stayed there. Contraception and the right to abortion presented new opportunities for women to control their bodies and sexuality. In more conservative circles, there was concern about the challenge this posed to traditional gender roles and family structures. The right to abortion, for example, met direct opposition and was one of the main reasons behind the founding of the Danish Christian People’s Party in 1970 (the Christian Democrats since 2003). Church weddings for same-sex couples has also been heavily debated in Denmark, but was introduced by law in 2012.