In private and in public, women of all social ranks helped to advance Protestantism against all odds. Within the largely Catholic kingdom of France, they worked in concert with Reformers and local male leaders to institute religious and moral reform in the communities where they lived. Noblewomen were key patrons to the evangelical movement, pledging their political capital and private fortunes to promote the establishment of Reformed worship as well as the more militant goals of the Huguenot party. The Protestant repudiation of clerical celibacy placed increased emphasis on women’s work as wives and mothers as central to the creation the creation of holy households and the collective survival of the Reformed community. Prescriptive texts and sermons valorized marriage and motherhood as pathways to godliness and enjoined women to submit to their husband’s authority as heads of the household. Protestant preachers urged women to exert their wifely charms to bring recalcitrant husbands into the fold, but social convention and physical intimidation pressured many women to abandon their spiritual convictions and follow their husband’s faith. Even prominent noblewomen faced threats of banishment, separation from their children and physical violence as they endeavored to hold fast to their new faith.
Although Protestantism promised both men and women unmediated access to the divine, Reformed theologians invoked Pauline injunctions against female preachers. Nonetheless, women continued to make meaningful contributions to the Protestant community. They engaged in charitable activities, facilitated poor relief efforts, assisted at baptismal ceremonies, and sometimes even marched in funeral processions. Women also used the new disciplinary system of the Reformed Church, known as the consistory, to bring abusive husbands and predatory employers, and faithless suitors to justice. The penalties for premarital sex and pregnancy still fell inordinately upon women whose bodies bore evidence of their transgressions which threatened the godly identity of the broader community. In matters of morality, women also proved to be willing participants in the “culture of scrutiny” that characterized Huguenot communities and often functioned as witnesses and informers before consistorial authorities. Mindful of the minority status of Protestants in France, consistories sometimes moderated their judgments to avoid driving wayward members of the Reformed community into the bosom of the Catholic Church.
With the outbreak of religious war in the 1560s, Protestant noblewomen assumed important leadership positions within the Huguenot party. They secured money, men, and materiel for Huguenot armies, facilitated peace negotiations, and rallied Protestant grandees behind Henry IV after his conversion to Catholicism in 1594. Women also mobilized the new realm of print, writing poems, plays, memoirs, political tracts, and devotional texts that championed Reformed theology and the heroic deeds and victories of Protestant leaders. The Protestant emphasis on the primacy of scripture contributed to rising literacy rates for both sexes, although women’s ability to read and write continued to lag behind that of their male counterparts. Many women, nonetheless, could claim a measure of biblical literacy, whether they had learned to memorize passages of scripture from family devotions, catechism training, or sermons or from their own Bible reading. Armed with scriptural knowledge, Protestant women engaged Catholic and Reformed authorities alike in debates over doctrine and religious practice. In word and deed, women found ways to express female agency and thus shape the patriarchal institutions of Renaissance society and the Reformed Church. As wives, mothers, teachers, and authors, Protestant women in France insinuated themselves into the ritual life of their communities and engaged in the broader effort to reform the church and society.