Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching
them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you
always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
The normal, "extroverted" role of women in missionary work has existed on a grand scale ever since the Apostolic age. Various religious congregations and orders of both men and women have been established throughout the centuries with the specific purpose of obeying Jesus’ Great Commission. Some of these female congregations, such as those founded by SS. Augustine and Benedict (Augustinians/Benedictines) date back to the 4th and 5th centuries.
Never the less, in order to address the question specifically, I'll briefly focus on the participation and pro-activity of women missionaries on a world-wide scale during and after the Reformation period.
During the Age of Discovery, immediately following the advent of the Reformation, Catholic missionaries – both men and women – set out to evangelize the newly discovered Americas. The Ursuline Sisters were the first Catholic nuns to land in the new world. In 1639, Mother Marie of the Incarnation, two other Ursuline nuns, and a Jesuit priest left France for a mission to Canada. When they arrived in the summer of 1639, they studied the language of the native peoples and then began to educate the native children.(1) They taught reading and writing as well as needlework, embroidery, drawing and other domestic arts.(2) The Ursuline Convent established by Marie has been in continuous use by the Ursuline Sisters since its construction.
By the end of 1640, there were many Ursulines in Canada who taught the catechism to indigenous children. There is also an Ursuline convent in Quebec City that is the oldest educational institution for women in North America.(3) Their work helped to preserve a religious spirit among the French population and to Christianize native peoples and Métis.
In 1727, 12 Ursulines from France landed in what is now New Orleans. These Ursulines were the first Roman Catholic nuns in what is now the United States. They instituted a convent and school, both of which continue today.(4) Ursuline Academy (New Orleans) is the oldest continually operating Catholic school in the United States and the oldest girl’s school in the United States.
The Ursuline tradition holds many U. S. firsts in its dedication to the growth of individuals, including the first female pharmacist, first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, first convent, first free school and first retreat center for ladies, and the first free education for female slaves (which continued until abolition). The Ursulines also established the first social welfare center in the Mississippi Valley.
Other notable religious orders that were/are specifically commissioned by Rome to do missionary work during the post-Reformation period:
The Sisters of Mercy was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland in 1831, and her nuns went on to establish hospitals and schools across the world.(5)
The Little Sisters of the Poor was founded in the mid-19th century by Saint Jeanne Jugan near Rennes, France, to care for the many impoverished elderly who lined the streets of French towns and cities.(6)
In Britain's Australian colonies, Australia's first canonized Saint, Mary MacKillop, co-founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart as educative religious institute for the poor in 1866, and by the time of her death her religious institute had established 117 schools and had opened orphanages and refuges for the needy.
The list goes on and on, including contemporaries such as the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
For much of the early twentieth century, Catholic women continued to join religious institutes in large numbers, where their influence and control was particularly strong in the running of primary education for children, high schooling for girls, and in nursing, hospitals, orphanages and aged care facilities.
Within Protestantism, the participation of women in post-Reformation missionary work sharply contrasts that of Catholicism, in that it was practically non-existent up until the turn of the 20th century. This was mainly because the majority of Protestant churches upheld the traditional position which restricted ruling and preaching roles within the Church exclusively to men until the 20th century.
The Protestant Reformation, by shutting down female convents within the movement, effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women.(7) Martin Luther himself taught that "the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state…."(8) John Calvin agreed that "the woman's place is in the home."(9)
In his A Very Short History of the World, the historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that, in removing the institution of the convent, the Reformation at first indirectly reduced the power of women, for convents had been places where women could achieve power and influence, as in Zurich where the Benedictine abbesses had helped administer the town.
John Knox (1510–1572) also denied women the right to publicly evangelize, as he asserted in his famous First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690–1771) comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, stating:
In Gen 3:16, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule
over thee". By this the apostle would signify, that the reason why
women are not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly,
or be concerned in the ministerial function, is, because this is an
act of power, and authority; of rule and government, and so contrary
to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men.
The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be
drawn into a rule or example in such cases.(10)
Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–1791) and Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762–1832) both upheld male headship, but allowed that spiritual Christian women could publicly speak in church meetings if they "are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit"(11)
Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624–1679) concurred with Wesley, adding:
But setting aside that extraordinary case of a special afflatus,
[strong Divine influence] it was, doubtless, unlawful for a woman to
speak in the church.
It wasn't until the founding of the Women’s Missionary Union in 1888 that Protestant women began to effectively facilitate missionary work abroad.
According to historian Patricia Hill, the interdenominational women's foreign mission movement was the largest of the great women's movements of the nineteenth century, eclipsing the more famous temperance movement and women's rights movement.
Local [women's mission] auxiliaries, like temperance groups and
women's clubs, offered conservative women a forum for developing
skills in public speaking, fund- raising and organizational management
that could be easily transferred from these semiprivate spheres to the
public arena. And when the women of small-town America embarked upon
the systematic study of foreign mission fields, their cultural
horizons were considerably broadened. Women who served overseas as
missionaries or who headed denominational societies at the national
level carved out careers for themselves in mission service. Thus,
paradoxically, this eminently respectable, religiously conservative
movement fostered a wider sphere of responsibility for ordinary
churchwomen and opened up new professional opportunities for several
thousand American women.
Foreign missions gripped the imaginations and enlisted the support of
hundreds of thousands of middle-class churchwomen in the late
nineteenth century. By 1915 there were more than three million women
on the membership rolls of some forty denominational female missionary
societies. The interdenominational women's foreign mission movement .
. . was substantially larger than any of the other mass woman's
movements of the nineteenth century.(13)
Women have played an indispensable role throughout salvation history. From the Virgin Birth of Christ, down to the present day, women have played a tremendously integral part in the mission of Christ’s Church. Missionary work is alive and well in today's Church, as both men and women are working together to preach the Gospel to all nations.
- Luther’s Lectures on Genesis 3:11
- John Wesley's notes on the Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35