For Martin Luther, women ranked below men – most of the time

Luther based his gender system on the body and allowed for exceptions. This was also apparent in his personal life. Marriage and fatherhood made Luther’s opinions on gender more practical.

In her doctoral dissertation, Sini Mikkola studied how Martin Luther (1483–1546) discussed the proper ways of being female and male in his texts.

 “The way he thought about the gendered body and the power relations between the genders was largely in line with both the preceding tradition and his contemporary thought,” says Mikkola.

For Luther, the woman was “the other” to the male norm, subservient to men, who represented normativity, power and strength.

 “According to Luther, a certain type of human body would generate the emotional experiences, behaviour and action typical of the stated gender. This usually led Luther to emphasise the hierarchy between the genders,” Mikkola explains.

These concepts remained fairly stable in Luther’s thinking throughout the 1520s.

Marriage and fatherhood made Luther’s opinions on gender more practical

The analysis of everyday situations, particularly through Luther’s correspondence, has showed Mikkola that in many situations, Luther could be quite flexible in terms of what was allowed or appropriate for each gender.

He was particularly amenable to exceptions when it came to the people closest to him, strategically important persons – and especially himself.

According to Mikkola, Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora, were an excellent example of this. Gendered power relations and male dominance were in many ways absent from their relationship.

 “Luther allowed his wife considerable freedom beyond the traditional female role. In my understanding, this is at least partly due to the fact that it was beneficial to Luther himself, but also because von Bora would not have acquiesced to the role of the meek and subservient wife.”

Luther’s stance on proper and improper masculinity and femininity was clear

Mikkola’s dissertation focuses on the 1520s, a period which is characterised by intense contemporary debate on what kind of Christian life was most favoured by God. Was life in a convent or in matrimony more favourable to God?

It was obvious to Luther that the female body, and consequently all of female existence, was given meaning through the duties of a wife and mother.

According to Mikkola, Luther wrote that a woman could surpass her gender by becoming a nun.

Luther also cited Genesis (2:4–3:24) as justification for the woman being created for the purposes of reproduction and companionship for men, writing: “Her bodily members, ordained by God for this, also demonstrate this.”

Men were subject to similar rules. Joining a woman and becoming a father were missions arising from the male body, even though fatherhood was not the sole duty of men.

 “First of all, how great are the gifts of the body! Form, strength, health, and the alertness of the senses, which in the male reach [their peak as he is] the more noble sex. This enables him to carry out many things, both in public and private life, and many distinguished and proper deeds to which woman is a stranger.”

Characteristics which Luther considered improper for men included weakness and a propensity for emotion, which went against the nature of the male body. However, his judgement of such characteristics depended largely on the situation.

 “It seems that Luther accepted softer, more feminine sides in himself, but not in many other men. For example, he criticised his co-worker Stephan Roth for being too soft and told him to act like a real man.”

According to Mikkola, it seems that many ideas relating to masculinity and femininity are relatively persistent.

 “My research does not contrast Luther’s opinions on the proper ways of being a woman or man, gender roles, bodiliness and power relationships with the ways we think about these things today. On the other hand, many things have remained the same: for example, the idea of the man as the rational and the woman as the emotional gender is a persistent stereotype for Luther, his contemporaries and predecessors, but also for some in 2010s Finland.”


Master of Theology Sini Mikkola defended her doctoral dissertation entitled “In Our Body the Scripture Becomes Fulfilled” – Gendered Bodiliness and the Making of the Gender System in Martin Luther’s Anthropology (1520–1530) at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology on 16 December 2017.

The opponent was Associate Professor Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen, Aarhus University, and the custos was Professor Kaarlo Arffman from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki.

The dissertation is available in an electronic format through the E-thesis service.