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Who was she?

As the Doctor regenerates as a female Time Lord for the first time in TV’s Doctor Who, author and director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, Diana Lynn Severance, picks out some Christian women who, through time, have made a significant difference in the world

I’M not certain why, but the role of women in history is often overlooked. However, it’s interesting that wherever Christianity has gone, the condition and position of women have improved in society, beginning with the Early Church in the Roman Empire. Later, missionaries to India, China and Africa were the first to establish schools for girls and hospitals for women and children in those regions.

I hope that seeing how ordinary women in the past have accomplished amazing things will challenge women today to make a similar difference in their communities.

FABIOLA  (4th century)

Fabiola belonged to one of Rome’s most ancient patrician families. After her second husband died, she sold all her property and began to use her wealth to care for the poor, also giving large sums of money to churches and monasteries.

Fabiola built a hospital in Rome, the first hospital in Europe, and often cared for the patients herself, treating the most loathsome sores and diseases. She also established a hospice for travellers at the Roman port of Ostia, where those in distress could find a place of refuge.

Fabiola died in 399. Thousands of people honoured her, appreciating all she had done for them.

PANDITA RAMABAI (1858-1922)

Ramabai was born in India in 1858. She was named after the Indian goddess Rama, but when her family fell into poverty and her parents died, her faith in her family’s religion was shaken. In a youth meeting in Calcutta she heard for the first time about Jesus.

Ramabai married a lawyer, but within a year and a half he died of cholera, leaving Ramabai with a baby daughter. She began speaking out about the plight of Indian women, many of whom, after being child brides, were widowed early in life and left in poverty. She travelled to England and America to raise awareness of the condition of women in India. A group of Christians in Boston supported her in founding a school to educate child widows. During her work in building the school, she became a Christian.

Ramabai expanded her school to provide a home for destitute women and children and called it the Mukti (meaning ‘salvation’) Mission, which still exists today. In the last years of her life she taught herself Greek and Hebrew and translated the Bible into Marathi, completing the work ten days before her death.

ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY  (1207-1231)

When she was only four years old, the Hungarian Princess Elizabeth was betrothed to Ludwig, son of the Landgrave of Thuringia. They were married when Elizabeth was 14 and Ludwig 21.

The couple shared a desire to help people in need. When Thuringia suffered a famine in 1226, Elizabeth fed the people from her own resources, selling some of her jewels and her silver cradle to provide food for those who were suffering.

Elizabeth had four children but Ludwig died of a fever in 1227, making Elizabeth a widow when she was only 20.

With her dowry money, Elizabeth established a hospital. She also built a leprosarium and established an orphanage, the first in eastern Europe.

Disliking idleness, Elizabeth occupied much of her time in spinning wool, when she would also pray. Elizabeth died when she was 24. Many poor, sick and disabled people attended her funeral to show their thankfulness for her life.

FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE (1820-1910)

Florence, the daughter of wealthy English landowners, was named after the city of her birth in Italy. When she was about 16 years old, Florence read The Cornerstone by American Congregational minister Jacob Abbott. Florence was moved by Abbott’s descriptive reflections on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Florence also read Abbott’s The Way to Do Good, which included examples of working among poor people and ministering to the sick. They deeply affected Florence.

She cared for the sick in her own family or on her family’s estate and felt that her calling was to nursing. Her parents were not pleased. They believed nursing was for working-class women.

In time, Florence’s father accepted his daughter’s call and she became superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London in 1853. That same year, the Crimean War began and Florence volunteered to be a war nurse.

She organised 38 nurses and went to Crimea, finding the conditions at the soldiers’ hospital horrific. Four thousand soldiers died the first winter she was there, many because of poor living conditions.

Florence worked to improve sanitation, and the death rates declined. She kept careful statistics of the diseases and health conditions, providing evidence to the government on improving army hospitals.

When she returned to England, Florence began a campaign to improve nursing in military hospitals, and in 1860 she founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital, London.

ELIZABETH FRY (1780-1845)

Elizabeth had heard that conditions inside London’s Newgate Prison were grim, but she was totally unprepared for the horrible conditions she found when she visited it in 1813. The women were in rags, and the babies were unclothed and filthy. There was no order, and bullies ran the place. Eating and sleeping took place in the same crowded rooms. Women in prison for petty crimes were placed in the same room as women who had been convicted of murder.

Elizabeth immediately set to work to reform the prison with her own funds and donations. She gathered clothes and supplies for the women and started classes in sewing and knitting to encourage them to be productive. By selling their work, the prisoners could buy soap and more food.

Elizabeth organised classes so that the more educated prisoners could teach the less educated. She read the Bible to the women every day.

However, Elizabeth’s work went beyond Newgate. She worked with parliament on prison reform legislation, ministered to those about to be deported to Australia, and established a training school for nurses in London.

CORRIE TEN BOOM (1892-1983)

Corrie’s family lived in Haarlem in the Netherlands, in the rooms above a watch shop that was run by her father, Casper. Her passion was helping others. She organised clubs for teenage girls in the neighbourhood, she began a church for people with learning difficulties and she raised foster children in the Ten Boom home.

When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in the spring of 1940, Corrie, with her father and sister Betsie, began helping Jews by building a secret room behind Corrie’s bedroom where they could hide. Corrie became part of the Haarlem underground, and it is estimated she and her friends saved 800 lives during the Nazi occupation.

The Gestapo raided the house in February 1944 and the Ten Booms were arrested and taken to Scheveningen Prison. Casper, 84 years old and in failing health, died within ten days. Corrie and Betsie were taken to three different prisons. At the last of them, Ravensbruck concentration camp, Betsie and Corrie held a Bible study and prayer time for the women.

Betsie died at Ravensbruck but Corrie was released on Christmas Day 1944, probably because of a clerical error. All the women in the camp her age were killed the following week.

After the war, Corrie returned to the Netherlands and established rehabilitation centres for war prisoners. She also travelled the world, telling the story of God’s love.

  • Diana’s book, Her-Story, a collection of readings about Christian women for each day of the year, is published by Christian Focus

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