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PhD student Froukje Pitstra: ‘Discussions about the first female minister had nothing to do with biblical commandments’

05 April 2011

She was the first female minister in the Netherlands – Anne Zernike. Her debut in the pulpit, exactly one hundred years ago this year, was the cause of much commotion at the time. However, the discussions were not about the biblical commandments, as is usually assumed, but about the female psyche. This is asserted by Froukje Pitstra, a PhD student at the University of Groningen, who is working on a biography of Zernike.

Froukje Pitstra
Froukje Pitstra

‘Many people assume that the discussion about admitting women to the profession was fuelled by religious arguments, about the commandment that women were not permitted to speak to a congregation’, says Pitstra. ‘In orthodox circles that’s certainly an important argument, because the Bible says that a woman must be silent in the congregation. However, the first discussions about the admission of women to the profession were actually among the liberal Christians (vrijzinnigen). Religious arguments were not used, it was the female psyche that was the subject of their critical eyes. According to the opponents, this made women incapable of exercising the profession of minister.’

Women are more emotional

The discussion of whether or not women should be permitted in a pulpit coincided with the rise of the field of psychology. The Groningen professor Gerard Heymans, one of the founding fathers of psychology in the Netherlands, was at the time conducting pioneering research into the differences between men and women. Pitstra: ‘According to Heymans, women were more emotional than men. In principle they had the same capacities, but their primary interests were of a different nature, he wrote. His remarks were mainly used in the recurring discussions by the opponents of female ministers.’

Women would apparently be too emotional to be able to lead a congregation, their thinking spirit too unstable and their nature not legally inclined. Other arguments included their determination to always have the last word and their inability to reason in an abstract or logical way. The discussion about admitting women to the profession had first emerged in 1898, thirteen years before Anne Zernike took her place in the pulpit in front of her own congregation at the age of 24. ‘She was exposed to the discussions as a teenager – they helped form her’, according to Pitstra.


In 1909, Zernike was permitted to register at the Doopsgezind Seminarie (Mennonite Seminary), after she had been baptized into the Mennonite Brethren. While growing up she had been a member of the much more liberal Vrije Gemeente (non-denominational) church. There, women such as her religious instructor Jacoba Mossel had regularly stood in the pulpit, although they were not officially allowed to become ministers. That was only possible once the Mennonite Brethren had opened up the profession to women.

Pitstra: ‘In order to prevent the autonomous Mennonite congregations (every congregation in the Netherlands is completely free to make its own choices) permitting women lay preachers to take the pulpit en masse, it was decided to open the Seminary to women too. That would mean that the female ministers were at least properly trained.’

Screeching voice

The discussions continued, however, even after Zernike became a minister in 1911. Pitstra: ‘You’d expect Zernike’s opponents to have bombarded her with religious motives, but even then most of the arguments were about the nature of women. The papers were of course involved to the hilt – the minister’s ‘tasteless black dresses’ were talked about and even the female voice was discussed in detail. After all, when women raise their voices, that often leads to screeching, doesn’t it? People would be much better off looking for a lovely alto.’

Emergency measures

According to Zernike, all of these arguments were emergency measures in a vain attempt to protect traditions. Pitstra: ‘Zernike usually reacted in a very scholarly way by stating that she had never met the prototypical man or the prototypical woman. She also said that just as there were many men who were not suited to the profession, there were naturally also women who were not suited either. She did not want to be judged on the fact that she was a woman.’

Incidentally, it swiftly became clear that Zernike was an outstanding minister. She had a clear, powerful voice and her sermons were ‘truly edifying’, wrote one journalist who had listened to her lost in admiration. Even so, Zernike’s applauded appearances did not convince everyone immediately. It was another six years before she acquired any female colleagues.

Curriculum Vitae

Froukje Pitstra (Drogeham, 1977) studied History (BA), Spiritual Care (MA) and Theology and Religious Studies (Research MA). She hopes to gain a PhD from the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen at the end of 2013 with her biography of Dr Anne Mankes-Zernike.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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