Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Mary Ward (1585–1645)

Mary Ward (1585-1645)




Mary Ward (1585-1645) was born to a Catholic family in Yorkshire, England during the reign of Elizabeth I, a time of extreme persecution for Catholics. Her family was kin to the Gascoigne’s, the Vavasors and the Constables families famous for their stoic Catholic loyalty. At age fifteen Mary left England to join the Poor Clares, in the Spanish Netherlands, but after only a year she left as she felt her duty remained outside the convent, this act resulted in some mockery, she was labelled the ‘runaway nun, the visionary and the false prophetess’.

Mary Ward is the foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her initial views of the role of a nun challenged the English Church’s reformed view of the role of women and as such some modern scholars refer to her as the first English feminist (Thorne, 2021).



Mary Ward's work begins with the founding of a community of sisters in 1609 at St Omer in modern day Belgium. The purpose of this community was to educate young women, assist Catholics who had been persecuted and to spread Catholic gospel in places Priests could not reach. This community was the first free school for English Catholic girls, and through their education the hopeful fulfilment of a religious life or upon returning to England adequately religiously educated to defend Catholicism. At the time of Mary’s Institutes creation, Canon law (Constitution, Periculoso) meant that charity work and the education of young girls by nuns was severely hindered. Ward taught the young women public speaking and performance skills in order to establish pious and articulate Catholic women. Mary Wards Institute was not without its critics, and this type of education was thought to be training young women in the art of heretical deception (Lux-Sterrit, 2006).

Ward's written works were composed in defence of her communities and educative beliefs. In her Memorial, Mary argues her justification, reasoning the advantageous influence her and her companions were having. She makes a strong validation that for the previous twelve years her Institute followed scripture and religious decree even when “continual persecutions heaped upon us both by bad and good men ever since our beginnings” (Ward, Memorial). Memorial, was Ward’s response to and adaptation of the 1550 Formula Institute, this is significant because this act of appropriation is a clear and open contest of the male religious discourse that controlled all aspects of religious life. Two aspects of this discourse that Mary Ward strongly rejects is the Enclosure of nuns and their subjection to the authority of a bishop. This enclosure was opposed by Mary as its intention was for women to kneel in faithful silence while a male spokesperson represented them, meaning that it is only through their writing, like Ward’s, that their voices are heard.

Mary Ward's written works, Schola Beatae Mariae composed in 1612, Ratio Instituti in 1616, and Third Plan in 1621 demonstrate her lifelong attentiveness to the inherent possibilities that writing provides. Her Catholic name Mary as a significant indicator of her Catholic identity is her first declaration, and even on her deathbed she refused to sign works provided by the Inquisition until she had transcribed it to her own penchant. Mary Wards awareness for the power of the written word is evident in all of her works. Her writings all include the argument that the lack of education for women may be allowing them to be more receptive and capable of Gods will than men because they have not been exposed to human values and influence through social virtues of education. The significance of Wards writings in a time of women’s expected silence was her alteration of this expectation into the permission for her to tell her story, under the claim that it was demanded of her, “I was commanded three or four years… to set down in writing all I could remember to call to mind of my life past…Jesus give me grace to set it down truly as it passed”(Ward, Third Plan), Ward was able to circumnavigate the Pauline scriptures visions of the silent woman.

Ward's most candid retort to these expectations comes in Three Instructions, written in 1617, in retaliation to constant criticism and judgement from Catholic men. Her language is assertive and impassioned and demonstrated her willingness to deconstruct the traditional male discourse of Catholic scripture. Ward reminds her followers that they have been, and will continue to be, the focus of negative male judgement, she does this not to sway them from their work but uses it as the fuel to foster and grow her Institutes identity, “Men you know, look diversely upon you, all look upon you as new beginners of a course never thought of before, marvelling at what you intend and at what will be the end of you. Some thinking we are women and aiming at greater matters than was ever thought women capable of… expect perhaps to see us fail” (Ward, Three Instructions).



Mary Ward's reputation was felt throughout the Catholic community, her efforts to expand the role of nuns and Catholic women were condemned and Church officials called her a heretic. Whilst travelling on foot through Europe, seeking support for her cause, in Munich, January 1631 she was imprisoned for heresy. Ward established free schools for Catholic girls, nursed the sick and provided assistance to persecuted Catholics, even her protestant neighbours testified for her love and persistence in helping the poor and needy. At the time of her Institute, Mary was seen to be attempting to spread Jesuit influence through the English Church, and her embracement of the Society of Jesus as the scaffold for her organisation meant that it was received with suspicion and scepticism.

Mary Ward did not secretively challenge the Catholic male discourse, and her offer to establish an Institutional community in Rome, under the view of the Pope and church officials, was significantly oppositional as it was a practical and visible demonstration that the allowance of female freedom within Catholicism would not manipulate the religious expression. In fact, Ward argued that women were more receptive to the teachings of God, and therefore benefited more from dedicated institutions, because they had not been influenced by traditional theological education only afforded to men at the time [7].

The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary grew significantly throughout Mary’s life and after, but it did not receive the approval of the Church until 1877, and Mary was not recognised as the foundress until 1909. Ward was direct in her opposition that English ladies would weaken in their resolve to spread the Catholic faith, because it was not a case of gender, but human imperfection as “there is no such difference between men and women” (Ward, Three Instructions). In 2009, Mary was declared venerable and a woman of heroic virtue.



[1] Bicks, Caroline. “Staging the Jesuitess in ‘A Game at Chess.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 49, no. 2, 2009, pp. 463–484. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/stable/40467498?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[2] Browne, P. W. “Mary Ward: A Pioneer in the Religious Life.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 3, 1927, pp. 497–503. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/stable/25012454?pq-origsite=summon#metadata_info_tab_contents

[3] Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Institute Leadership. 2021. https://www.ibvm.org/

[4] Macek, Ellen A. “‘Ghostly Fathers’ and Their ‘Virtuous Daughters’: The Role of Spiritual Direction in the Lives of Three Early Modern English Women.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 90, no. 2, 2004, pp. 213–235. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/stable/25026570?pq-origsite=summon#metadata_info_tab_contents

[5] McClain, Lisa. “On a Mission: Priests, Jesuits, ‘Jesuitresses," and Catholic Missionary Efforts in Tudor-Stuart England.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 101, no. 3, 2015, pp. 437–462. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/article/590349

[6] McEntee, Georgiana. The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 46, no. 3, 1960, pp. 349–350.

[7] Moss, Christina. “'Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men': Self-Identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and Her Followers.” Critical Survey, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 98–110. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/stable/41556880?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[8] O'Brien, Susan. “Terra Incognita: The Nun in Nineteenth-Century England.” Past & Present, no. 121, 1988, pp. 110–140. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/stable/650913?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[9] Ward, Mary. Schola Beatae Mariae. 1612

[10] Ward, Mary. Ratio Instituti. 1616

[11] Ward, Mary. Third Plan. 1621

Further Reading


Emmanuel, Mary. Till God will : Mary Ward through her writings. Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985.

Wright, Mary. Mary Ward's institute : the struggle for identity. Crossing Press, 1997.