Mary Ward and the Power of Words

Mary Ward and the Power of Words. 
A Discursive Opposition to Patriarchy


Mary Ward (1585-1645)

This semester, I asked students to write a reflexive piece on some of the readings ascribed in the curriculum of my Masters course on women and early modern British and Irish Catholicism. Paul De Riggi, Kristen DiGuglielmo, Ahmed Limaeim, and Justine Segui, Masters students at my university of Aix-Marseille, France, worked on an analysis of Christina Moss’ article ‘Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men’: Self-identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and her Followers, 1999. Here is their contribution, which foregrounds the inclusion of Mary Ward’s work in this blog, alongside her enclosed and exiled compatriots. More will be added about Mary Ward’s vocation and Institute, including a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, in the next few weeks. 


Mary Ward, born in Yorkshire, was a prominent figure in the survival of Catholicism in England during the great persecutions of the early modern period, as she advanced an English Catholic spirit across the Channel. Mary Ward’s early years predisposed her to a life of contemplative prayer. Yet, the purpose of her life would be presented to her through a series of epiphanies starting in 1607, revealing to her that she was not destined for a life of silence and enclosure but rather one of active service committed to ‘TAKE THE SAME OF THE SOCIETY’[1] in 1611. This established a female mission modelled on that of the  Society of Jesus, providing women with the same education as the Jesuits did for men.

In her 1999 article, published in Critical Survey, Christina Moss sheds light on the ways in which Mary Ward and her English followers shook the foundations of patriarchal discourse through different modes of writing. It was through these writings that Ward sought to bypass the Church’s restrictive rules (reinforced by the Council of Trent in 1563) on women’s ‘potential capabilities’. [2] Ward’s writings include her Autobiography in which she details her revelations, her successive plans sent to the Pope for the creation of her Institute (Schola Beatae Mariae (1612), Ratio Instituti (1616), Third Plan or Institutum (1621)), and numerous letters and requests addressed to the papacy and her community.

According to Moss, Ward’s main assertion is that ‘women may be perfect as well as men’.[3] Being perfect meant gaining spiritual union with God through the practice of charity and a life of service, leading a person to their eventual sanctification. Given the opportunity to carry out God’s will, women gained the freedom to obey God in whatever way He would call them.

Ward believed that since women were traditionally excluded from education, they were not preoccupied by the constraints of the ‘human intellect’[4] and therefore were made more likely to perceive and receive God’s will and words, rendering them ‘more open than men to the virtues of sincerity and justice’.[5] Moss emphasises that Ward did not attempt to overthrow social differences between men and women but insisted on women’s equal ‘potential capabilities’[6] as mentioned earlier. Furthermore, she asserted that difference did not equal inferiority. Ward believed that failure could not be attributed to gender: if failure there was, it was from human imperfection and not simply because of one’s sex.[7] Although she pledged obedience to the Pope, she questioned the authority of the Church and asserted that her vision held more importance than the establishment’s rules.[8]

It was in 1609 that God revealed to her that her place was not within the Order of St Clare, where she would have fulfilled a vocation of contemplative prayer. At a crossroads in her religious vocation, Ward joined a community of sisters based in St-Omer. Her second vision in 1611 provided a clear directive about her religious mission. This led her to transition the community into her ‘Institute of English Ladies,’[9] what later became the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She later sought recognition for the Institute from the papacy as a counterpart to the Society of Jesus. Indeed, modelled on the Formula Instituti, the Jesuits’ constitution, Ward produced three plans – Schola Beatae Mariae, Ratio Instituti and Institutum.

Having been either refused or ignored by the papacy, each plan was a revision of the previous. Her plans were strategic outlines demonstrating the need for an institutionalized education for women. Moss argues that Ward’s programme was ‘appropriation rather than authorship’[10] since she strove not to reinvent the wheel but only to duplicate the male versions of the pre-established Society. Ward created many female religious houses were created across the Continent, for example in Liège (1616), in Rome (1622), Munich and Vienna (1627) and Prague (1928).

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

In settlement to her third plan proposed to the Pope, Mary Ward included a memorandum called Memorial, in which she reassured the Holy See that she and her followers posed no threat to Rome. Unlike her female predecessors, Ward was the only one who managed to address the Pope directly. Normally requiring a male intermediary to speak for the woman, Ward included her Memorial to specify her intentions. She applied as much pressure as she dared upon the Pope, claiming that a directive from God must not be so easily dismissed.[11] Ward was later accused of heresy and schism and punished by ecclesiastical penalties in 1631, with the passing of the Bull of Suppression by Pope Urban VIII which completely derailed Ward’s Institute. Ward was imprisoned thereafter in Munich.

First page of A Briefe Relation, from

In her article, Moss elaborates on the clever ways in which Mary Ward and her followers found means to communicate at all costs when they were geographically separate. This network of letters was characterized by the development of a codified language resulting in a ‘shared self-identity’.[12] Whether it was using lemon juice as ink in letters that could only be read when heated or the use of male pseudonyms, these women found means to work a system of constraints.

After her death in 1645, her Ladies ensured Ward’s legacy in continuing to write despite papal strictures. As a matter of fact, Winifred Wigmore and Mary Poyntz wrote her biography A Briefe Relation of the Holy Life and Happy Death of Our Dearest Mother in 1650, which enabled them to keep up the fight as they made sure Ward’s name was not forgotten.

Her autobiography played a significant role in illustrating her missionary intentions. Although Church regulations held that women were not allowed to express themselves on religious matters, Ward broke her ‘vow of silence’ driven by God’s revelation to her. It is important to note that it was Father Roger Lee who encouraged Ward to take up the pen and recount her spiritual reflections. However, instead of her autobiography being strictly spiritual in nature, Ward’s writings served as the foundation to her activist mission. This led Louise Schleiner to conclude that Ward was a ‘Catholic activist for women’s education’[13] and through her subversive use of her autobiography, writing became the ‘sphere where [Catholic women] … had come to be granted a voice’.[14] Ward controlled the content of her writings and thus commanded her mission through them.[15] In this way, she was not a puppet pulled by strings and manipulated by the male hierarchy, neither by Father Roger Lee nor by the Pope; she was an agent to God’s will alone.

So, was Mary Ward a feminist then, as Retha Warnicke[16] claimed?

From The Painted Life of Mary Ward; Mary Ward and her English Ladies

Although Mary Ward was only following God’s will and directives, it is worth noting that she did not approve of the patriarchal oppression of the Church. Moss explains Ward’s argument that if, as a woman, she could hear God’s will, any woman could.[17] In her 1621 Institutum, she appropriated military imagery which is usually attributed to men alone, and which is reminiscent of Ignatius Loyola’s: ‘serve beneath the banner of the cross as  a soldier of God’.[18]

In response to gendered critiques which accused her and her followers of being ‘galloping girls’ and ‘but women’, Mary Ward explained, ‘if we were in all things inferior to some other creation, which I suppose to be men [w]hich I dare be bold to say, is a lie then, with respect to the good Father, I may say: it is an error’.[19] She further claimed that ‘if [men] would not make us believe we can do nothing and that we are ‘but women’, we might do great matters’.[20]

However, it is hard to argue that Ward was a feminist as she consistently remained within the boundaries of the traditional female attitudes of the 17th century in humility and respect. The fact that the Schola Beatae Mariae was ordered by ad drafted with her confessor Father Roger Lee proves that she respected male guidance. Henriette Peters argues that ‘If Mary Ward herself had outlined these plans or commissioned them, her visions – and especially that of 1611 – would have lost credibility’.[21] Yet, as Father Lee’s Schola promoted a traditional female religious order, she revised her plans which became more and more radical and missionary like.

Overall, rather than being a proto-feminist, Mary Ward was a missionary whose only vocation was to accomplish God’s will: establishing equal opportunity and education for the Jesuits and English ladies and by extension all women. Although she dedicated her life to the cause, it was not until 1909 that Pope Pius X recognized Mary Ward’s activism as the foundation of the Institute. Ultimately, her Institute had to wait until 2003 to finally be recognised as the Congregation of Jesus.

From the Painted Life of Mary Ward. In opposition to other ecclesiastical members trying to get physically closer to God, Ward is the only one to receive a golden light representing her mystic communion.


[1] M. Emmanuel Orchard IBVM, Till God Will: Mary Ward through her writings (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), 61. Referred in this blog post as TGW.

[2] Christina Moss, ‘‘Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men’: Self-identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and her Followers,’ Critical Survey (1999): 99.

[3] Orchard, TGW, 61.

[4] Moss, ‘Women May Be Perfect…’, 99.

[5] Ibid, 99

[6] Ibid, 99

[7] Ibid, 104.

[8] Ibid, 101.

[9] Laurence Lux-Sterritt, ‘Mary Ward’s English Institute and Prescribed Female Roles in the Early Modern Church,’ Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality (2010): 165.

[10] Moss, ‘Women May Be Perfect…’, 101.

[11] Ibid, 101.

[12] Ibid, 106.

[13] Louise Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 196.

[14] Ibid, 25.

[15] Moss, ‘Women May Be Perfect…’, 101.

[16] Retha Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983), 179.

[17] Moss, ‘Women May Be Perfect…’, 99.

[18] Orchard, TGW, 64.

[19] Orchard, TGW, 58.

[20] Ibid, 58.

[21] Henriette Peters, Mary Ward: A World in Contemplation, trans. Helen Butterworth (Leominster: Gracewing   Publishing, 1994), 121.


Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, April 5). Mary Ward and the Power of Words. Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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