I was very intrigued to learn, some years ago, that during medieval times, the convent was almost certainly the best available option for women who were intellectually gifted or ambitious. Women in religious life were often educated beyond the ordinary education for women. Vowed religious women didn’t only pray; they studied, they wrote, they taught, they composed, and they led, all within a women’s sphere that was other than domestic. While their formal authority was limited to (and even within) that sphere, their informal authority and influence often reached wider, sometimes even into the highest reaches of church or civil government, as with Catherine of Siena’s interventions with the pope, and Teresa of Avila’s correspondence with King Philip II.
So when I read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America, this sentence leapt out at me:
It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s…
Because you know what else was happening in the late 1940s through the early 1960s? First, women were getting fired from jobs across the board: for no reason other than that the war was over, and there were men who “needed” those jobs. Then, the romanticization of what we now think of as the 1950s ideal family, which turned out to be so alienating, isolating, and toxic for many women, as they discovered while sharing their feelings in the early 60s consciousness-raising groups.
So it makes me wonder: did American women enter religious life after WWII for the same reason that medieval women did? Catholic sisters in the US worked — they taught, they nursed, they ran hospitals and schools — and they were educated to do that work.
If you were a Catholic woman who wanted to do something with your life other than be a wife and mother — who felt that God had gifted you with talents that were best used beyond the domestic sphere, but the secular world had no respect for you — then why wouldn’t you choose the bounded-but-abundant opportunities of religious life?