The Best Option for Intellectual Women

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?

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14 Responses to The Best Option for Intellectual Women

  1. Steven says:

    Excellent observations regarding women in religious life. More generally, theology and the religious life were the best options for nurturing the intellect in medieval times, for both women and men. Not to slight contemporary theology, but one observes the ebb of theology with the ascendancy of philosophy in the Enlightenment, and of science in the 19th century.

    • Well, the late medieval period saw universities displace monasteries as the primary place where theology was done. Originally, theology was seen as the queen of the sciences, with philosophy and science as her handmaids. The development of those two fields as valuable in their own right contributed to human flourishing and opened new opportunities for men (mostly) and women, and would naturally divert some human talent away from theology.

  2. Tanco says:

    One lay-brother at my high school shared with the class that he entered the order precisely because he could not afford a college education otherwise. He is a gifted English teacher. Indeed, it would have been a loss if he had not taken vows in exchange for higher education and the vocation of secondary education.

    The Marianists (the order of my high school), though an order of male lay-brothers and priests, also experienced a boomlet in the 1940s through the 1960s. I’d say that the motives which attracted women to the religious life, such as the chance for higher education, also applied to male religious, seminarians, and priests. Indeed, some members of the order (including the founder of the school) left the order to marry. Still, the vast majority of the religious and priest lived in orders until their death, even after many of the clergy were laicized and religious loosened from their vows in the 1960s and 1970s. Many, like my senior English teacher, were grateful for the opportunities the order granted him, and thus perhaps did not contemplate leaving.

    Older Catholics such as my mother attended parish primary school in the 1950s. She remembers with intermittent fondness the nuns who taught at her parish school. At the eve of the Council these nuns still dressed as 17th century bourgeois women. By the early 1970s, the women religious administrators of my mother’s college wore lay clothes. The “council shock” which shot through religious orders affected even the modification of the habit or its rejection. Though my high school’s order maintained its habit, women’s orders in particular were often eager to simplify the habit or discard it altogether. Your comment Gaudete that women’s religious orders in the 1950s afforded educational and social mobility reversed after the Council. Now women in greater society were achieving greater social and educational mobility. Therefore the value of women’s religious vows diminished, and so did the outward sign of the habit.

    Many elderly Catholics have romanticized the Tridentine-era women’s religious habit, but are not cognizant or unwilling to recognize why the habit was often abandoned. The social shock and social costs of the immediate postconciliar period are lost to them.

    • Do you know whether the number of men religious generally (not just Marianists) also peaked during the same period?

      The church indeed offered the opportunity for education to both women and men who were of limited economic means. But for women, it also offered the opportunity for meaningful work: something that men could find in the secular world.

      I lived through the period of change in habits for vowed religious women: my elementary school teachers wore full robes, my junior high teachers wore simplified habits, and my college chaplain wore ordinary women’s clothing, and we talked about it. The change in dress had nothing to do with the diminishing value of women’s religious vows. It was a faithful and creative response to the Council’s embrace of the modern world, engaging with it (or “encountering” it, as Pope Francis would say), reading the signs of the times; and, to the specific directive to religious orders to study the charisms of their founders and renew them for contemporary life. The traditional habits were medieval robes because the orders had been founded in medieval times, and their founders had worn what was ordinary women’s clothing for the time, sometimes with a distinctive element added.

      Wearing ordinary women’s clothing, or simplified habits that were based on ordinary women’s clothing, was also a means of evangelization.

      Dressing in street clothes rather than medieval robes meant removing a barrier to authentic encounter. Too many people couldn’t see beyond the robes to the person inside. My college chaplain was very intentional about presenting herself as an ordinary Catholic woman who was also a vowed religious. She would joke about people had this notion that being a nun was nothing but “none of this, and none of that.” For sisters who worked in universities, hospitals, or other places together with laypeople, dropping or simplifying the habit made it easier to be accepted as an individual and a colleague.

      • Tanco says:

        Gaudete: Do you know whether the number of men religious also peaked during the same period?

        I cannot speak for all orders, but this was true for the brothers and priests who taught me. There has been a decline in vows in this province after the Council. However, the standards for admittance are higher. Young men are no longer accepted to the novitiate at 18; an alumnus-candidate must wait until he is in his early to mid twenties before applying.

        Gaudete: Wearing ordinary women’s clothing, or simplified habits that were based on ordinary women’s clothing, was also a means of evangelization.

        I am a traditionalist Catholic, but I also agree that the late medieval and early modern habits are anachronistic especially for women religious who are not nuns (i.e. enclosed in a monastery). I have met women religious from across the habit spectrum, and all are faith-filled. Absolute respect must be given to the choices of individual religious over whether or not to wear a simplified habit, a veil, or professional clothing. However, I will admit that it is difficult for many Catholics, including myself, to see women religious as religious without an identifying sartorial marker like a veil. Perhaps a religious’ choice to not wear any habit evangelizes non-Catholics, but this choice can still be a stumbling block especially for cradle Catholics.

        A few Missionaries of Charity work with my church and often attend parish Masses. All the laity know that they are set apart from the lay world in a special way as evidenced by their sari habits. Perhaps some religious would not want the automatic “Good Morning, Sisters” said by the laity in passing. If that is the case, then I would respect their wishes.

        • Yes, I was wondering as I wrote this comment whether the responses to the signs of the times in the 70s and 80s might be ripe for re-discernment for the present times. Without a distinctive that can be seen and recognized from a distance, Catholic sisters are almost invisible to people who don’t actually interact with them and get to know them. Of course, there are pros and cons to that in terms of evangelization.

          I appreciate your calling out the importance of respecting women’s choices with regard to dress.

  3. It’s also worth remembering that, for centuries, women did not necessarily enter the convent of their own free will. Galileo had two daughters who became nuns because they were illegitimate and were not seen as suitable brides; to marry would have cost too much money. (An illegitimate daughter would have needed a substantial dowry in order to attract a husband.)

    Indeed, it was the economic realities of the dowry that resulted in many parents sending daughters to convents. Wealthy parents with many daughters would need large amounts of money for dowries; as a result, many parents would send ugly daughters to convents. They rarely asked which of their daughters would like to go to convents; they simply chose some of them for convents and arranged strategic marriages for the rest of them. (In Antonia Frasier’s book about Louis XIX and the women in his life, she tells about a eulogy a priest delivered about a member of the court. The priest praised the father for allowing his daughters to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to marry or become nuns, which shows how unusual a decision this would have been.)

    Of course, women who were permitted to marry were scarcely better off. Louis XIV married one of his relatives (his neice, I believe) to the King of France. She was in love with someone else and did not want to marry the King of Spain, which would have meant not only being married to a man she did not love, but also prevented her from ever going back to France ever again. ( Royal brides never went back to their country of origin unless they were sent home in disgrace, almost certainly a fate worse than death.) The young girl cried at Louis’ feet, begging him not to arrange this marriage. He was unmoved. She married the sterile king of Spain, who punished her for her lack of pregnancy by tormenting her dog. She died miserable and far from home.

    • Tanco says:

      Emma: It’s also worth remembering that, for centuries, women did not necessarily enter the convent of their own free will. Galileo had two daughters who became nuns because they were illegitimate and were not seen as suitable brides; to marry would have cost too much money.

      IIlegitimate young men also faced problems. Until relatively recently, illegitimacy was a relative impediment to orders (i.e. dispensation from bishop, abbot, or superior needed for ordination.) Also, at least among the early modern Poles, illegitimate infants were baptised with the priest in a requiem vestment set and with unbleached candles (reminiscent of a funeral). Its quite clear that illegitimacy in many Catholic societies bore a stigma which was reinforced through canon law and liturgy. Still, illegitimacy was accommodated in varied ways, as you note with the example of Galileo’s daughters.

      Slightly OT: I wonder if one of the reasons Luther abolished monasteries and convents in the principalities which adopted his creed was to end the forced banishment of young women to convents. Perhaps Katarina von Bora was a woman who was forced to enter a convent against her will, perhaps because of dowry issues. Certainly this is not known. Even so, it would be very interesting to investigate if the dissolution of the monastic system under the rise of Protestantism concerned not only the seizure of monastic wealth but also a fundamental shift in the relationships between families and interfamily wealth.

      • If I had to guess, I’d think that Luther’s own fairly miserable experience with monastic life, the practices of which did not bring him any spiritual growth or comfort, would rank high among the reasons.
        I never finished Diarmid MacCulloch’s truly excellent history of The Reformation; perhaps he treats the subject there.

      • I was not aware that illegitimate Polish babies were baptized by priests in requiem vestments and with unbleached candles. I was aware that illegitimacy was seen as an impediment for Orders. When was that eliminated?

    • Thanks for this reminder of the realities that severely limited women’s choices. Though, I believe that during the medieval period, many convents also expected that women from wealthy families, at least, would come with a dowry, and this was significant to how convents supported themselves.

      For some Catholics of my parents’ generation, it was almost a commonplace that at least one of the (usually many) children in a family would be “given to God”, that is, to the priesthood or religious life. I wonder how much pressure there was on the children of these families.

      • You are right that convents did require a dowry, however if memory serves me right, the dowry for nuns was substantially lower than the dowry for a bride.

        As for families, there probably was a tremendous amount of pressure on children in large families, for economic and political reasons, as well as spiritual reasons. A few months ago, I heard a Jesuit priest talking about how he and his brothers and sister were joking at a family dinner about who their mother’s favorite child was. The Jesuit jokingly replied, “Mom, I’m the priest. I’m your ticket to heaven!” He was kidding, but I think that jokes often reveal hidden truths that we don’t want to express.

    • I am responding to my own comment because Tanco and Guadete bring up a good point about family wealth and pressure on children (both boys and girls) to become religious (or priests.)

      You both hit on an important point, that the politics and economics of joining the priesthood or religious life were not limited to women. Many times wealthy families would pressure second (or third, fourth, and fifth) sons to join the priesthood because they would require less income than lay sons. This way the family would not need to provide incomes or livelihoods for these sons, and more of their income (and land) could be inherited by the eldest sons. It enabled a stronger consolidation of wealth and power.

      In addition, in the middle ages, there was a phenomenon called “oblates.” Oblates were children who were offered to monasteries and convents and raised there as monks and nuns. Sometimes it was for the reasons that I mentioned, but at times it was because the family could not care for the child. (In their defense, it’s a huge step up from exposing infants.) This was true for both boys and girls.

      Unfortunately, many Catholics, who do not know history, look back at the plethora of priests and religious and assume that this was simply because of their faith. There is another equally important explanation for this phenomenon. “Follow the money.”

  4. I’ve been a bit sloppy in my language in these comments because I was blanking on some of the terminology, so I want to remedy that here. Vowed religious women are laywomen.

    The fundamental (ontological and ecclesiastical) distinction is between clergy and laity. After that distinction, a further distinction derives from the situation in life: both clergy and laity can be religious, that is, living according to a religious rule and (traditionally, tho not always now) in a religious community, whether cloistered or not; and both clergy and laity can be secular, that is, living like everybody else.

    This is not to minimize that vowed religious are indeed set apart in a special way, and that their service to the church is both highly distinctive and highly valuable. But they are laity who are so set apart.

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