When Women Became Nuns to Get a Good Education

When Women Became Nuns to Get a Good Education

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A proper education was difficult to come by during the Middle Ages for men and especially women. If women wanted to receive a higher education, they had to reach for a higher calling—and join a convent.

By the time the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, fighting skills and military prowess had superseded education as more critical. While social and legislative norms during the Middle Ages were heavily rooted in Roman and Germanic origins, the institution of education was abandoned for a time. However, as the Church began increasing in power, it filled the void by developing an education system for religious purposes.

Soon, monasteries and convents became centers for learning, and it was mostly the privileged—young men from nobility and the upper middle class—who were able to receive a thorough education. During this time, women’s education was not a priority, as women were believed to be intellectually inferior.

Affluent women were required to have some literacy during the Middle Ages, but their learning was intended only to prepare them for being respectable wives and mothers. Higher learning for nuns, on the other hand, was encouraged because they were required to comprehend biblical teachings. So it was no coincidence that many of the earliest female intellectuals were nuns.

Some convent offerings included reading and writing in Latin, arithmetic, grammar, music, morals, rhetoric, geometry and astronomy, according to a 1980 article by Shirley Kersey in (Vol. 58, No. 4). Spinning, weaving and embroidery were also a large part of a nun’s education and labor, writes Kersey, particularly among nuns who came from affluent families. Nuns who came from lesser means were expected to do more arduous labor as part of their religious life.

Nuns who committed themselves to the highest scholarship were treated as equals to men of their social rank. Honored as heads of an abbey, they had more power than their female contemporaries.

Sister Juliana Morell: First Woman to Receive a University Degree

Among the earliest nun scholars was Juliana Morell, a 17th-century Spanish Dominican nun who is believed to be the first woman in the Western world to earn a university degree. Born in Barcelona on February 16, 1594, Morell was a young prodigy, and her distinguished banker father encouraged her to obtain the highest education, according to a 1941 article by S. Griswold in Hispanic Review (Vol. 9, No. 1).

A few years after Morell’s mother died, her father fled with his then seven-year-old daughter to Lyon, France, to escape murder charges. It was there that Morell continued her education, learning a variety of disciplines: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, rhetoric as well as law and music.

When she was 12, Morell publicly defended her theses on logic and morality. She continued enriching her education by studying civil law, physics and canon, and soon after in Avignon, defended her law thesis in front of distinguished guests of the papacy.

Although it’s not known which body granted Morell her degree, she received a law doctorate in 1608 at the age of 14. In the fall of that year, Morell entered a Dominican convent in Avignon and three years later, took her final vows in the summer of 1610, eventually rising to the rank of a prioress.

During her 30-year tenure as a nun, Morell published a variety of works including: a Latin-to-French translation of Frior Vincent Ferrer’s Spiritual Life (1617), a manual entitled "Spiritual Exercises for Eternity and a Small Preparatory Exercise for the Holy Profession" (1637), a historical text on her convent in San Práxedes Avignon, as well as poetry in Latin and French. Morell died on June 26, 1653.

I call Sr Silvana on the landline and she apologises for not having a mobile signal - she was in the basement. Not walking the cloister in silence but running a hostel and helping the students she works with. Much of our conversation is spent talking about school (I went to one run by the Society of Sacred Heart) and people we know before I realise I’m wasting precious interviewing time, though she kindly assures me I was simply making a nervous guest feel comfortable before telling me about her life before joining the Society.

“I’m a cradle Catholic. I went to a convent high school where some of us flirted with notions of convent life, veils and religious names. But by my mid-twenties I was an independent, politically active, professional young woman. I was working for NALGO (which later became Unison), had my own flat, a boyfriend, career, social life. I even read the Guardian every day! And yet, deep down, I began to feel restless because I was searching for God. I came to meet and know the Society of the Sacred Heart when I discovered that one of our union members was a sister. That was way back in 1993 and I’m still here!”

Warden of a hostel for postgraduates in Oxford, Sr Silvana explains how the nature of her work means that no two days are the same.

“My door’s open most of the time so that students can say hello or if they need someone to talk to they can. I have a mantra which is that ‘God will provide’ which the students like and believe it helps for solutions. I’m also responsible for the province’s website and social media presence, so I ‘waste’ a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter! I think it’s vitally important to be in these places especially if you’re working with young people.”

On Twitter I saw someone say: ‘Why should the devil have all the best tweets?’

Sr Silvana Dallanegra RSCJ loves cooking, reading and photography Photograph: Sr Silvana Dallanegra RSCJ

“We often get called nuns. It’s a kind of shorthand - an easily understood generic term largely arising from a lack of knowledge or having only watched Sister Act (nuns lead ‘enclosed’ lives and rarely leave their monasteries, whereas sisters express their vocation by being ‘active’ in communities. Though to make matters more confusing you call a nun a sister when addressing her). It’s more than 40 years since religious came out of their habits. We were one of the first congregations to have it as optional in the 70s, and yet the media still uses images of religious in habits to describe all religious life.

“I hope that sisters can be recognised by other things such as how they are as people. When I was in Spain, one of our sisters who I didn’t know very well had to explain the menu to me. Once we had ordered, a lady on the table next to us asked if we were religious sisters. We weren’t wearing any religious insignia so I asked how she knew. Do you know what she said? ‘It’s the way you were treating each other.’ Her daughter went to a Sacred Heart school and had observed how the sisters were together. ‘It was clear you didn’t really know each other but it was how you were being with one another.’ It was a blessing for me for something like that to happen so early in my religious life.”

Vocations from women to the religious life reached a 25-year high in the Catholic Church in England and Wales this year. With a vocation that came through Facebook (she took her vows last September), Sr Silvana shares her advice for women thinking about taking the same step.

“Yes there can be difficult things about the religious life, but there are hard bits to all walks of life - marriage or bringing up children is not a bed of roses. It’s easy to be paralysed in discernment. One of our sisters who entered in the 60s remembered agonising over it. Someone said to her: ‘What you want is a blackboard to drop from the sky and say that you will join the sisters and will be happy. But that’s not going to happen!’ This is a great life. If you’re called to it you will become the woman you’re meant to be. Go for it girl!”

The Status of Women in Medieval Europe

Castle Eltz, one of the most famous and beautiful medieval castles in Germany.
(Image: Julia700702/Shutterstock)

Civil Law and Marriage in Medieval Europe

Women in Medieval Europe were legally dependent on their husbands. In the scope of civil law, women were restricted from signing contracts, being witnesses in court, or borrowing money in their names. All of these had to be carried out under the legal authority of their husbands. In short, married women were considerably dependent on their spouses. Interestingly, these restrictions existed in many European countries until very recently.

Perhaps, you’ll be surprised to know that these laws did not apply to unmarried adult females, who were allowed to sign contracts, borrow money, and do the things that one would expect of a legally responsible adult. This was quite a significant advantage compared to the Roman Empire. In that era, all women, regardless of their marital status and age, needed a male guardian.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Businesswomen in medieval Europe were able to protect their assets if they were in a trade that was different from that of their husbands. As an example, if a woman was working as a tailor and her husband was a brewer, their assets were completely separate from each other. Therefore, if the husband faced bankruptcy, his wife had no legal responsibility to pay his creditors. The term femme sole (literally “woman alone”) was coined to describe these women.

Criminal Law and the Capital Punishment

As opposed to civil law, a woman’s marital status never mattered to criminal law. In other words, when a married woman committed a crime, she was subject to the same penalties as an unmarried one. The only exception was in the case of pregnancy: pregnant women were exempt from execution or any kind of torture. In addition, regardless of their marital status, all women were exempted from certain forms of torture by medieval courts. For example, women could not be broken on the wheel.

Place of execution of criminals in medieval Europe—chopping block and gallows on a wooden platform. (Image: Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock)

In some cases, the judicial system in the High Medieval Ages treated female offenders more leniently. For example, same-sex relationships, which carried the death penalty for men, were no crime at all for women because such a relationship did not affect human reproduction.

Women who were found guilty of a capital offense were not so lucky though. In fact, they had to suffer the most brutal and painful type of executions in that era: burning at the stake. Unlike men who were sentenced to different kinds of execution depending on the severity of their crimes, female execution took only one form.

Contemporaries claimed this was necessary for the preservation of female modesty, because other forms of execution were deemed unbecoming of women. Although there may be some truth to this justification, modern historians have identified misogyny, as well as a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of women on the part of males, as the root cause of this practice.

Politics and Women in Medieval Europe

Politically, women were able to rise to the highest levels of sovereignty. They could become queens and rule over kingdoms, or become regents and rule in the name of a minor child. Whether a woman was a queen or a regent, ruling either temporarily or permanently, her powers were not different from those of a male ruler.

This equality of powers was only because medieval politics were dynastic. In other words, offices passed down from fathers to sons. Therefore, in the absence of a legitimate male heir, an office could fall into the hands of a woman. This applied to both kingdoms and smaller political units. Counties passed among family members, duchies, and even castellanies – areas controlled by a single castellan, 15 or 20 miles in radius. In rare cases, these areas were ruled by women.

However, women in Medieval Europe were completely absent in public political roles. This was mainly because medieval towns followed a more republican form of government in which officials were elected and served for a set term. Therefore, a woman could not inherit a political office. The situation only changed in recent times. Ironically, democracy has been very unfriendly to female participation throughout history.

Economics and (Almost) Equal Opportunities

In Medieval Europe, women were relatively active in the marketplace. A survey of 100 guilds in Paris in 1300 showed that 86 percent were willing to admit female workers. Although some companies required permission from the woman’s husband, getting a job was not impossible.

There was also some sense of equality in terms of training. Female professionals were able to train apprentices regardless of their gender. No one seemed to think that a woman training a man was odd.

Sculpture of a nun on the facade of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. (Image: Roman Belogorodov/Shutterstock)

Religion and Nunneries in Medieval Europe

It is reasonable to expect similar trends in religious settings, where women were absent in some areas and yet actively involved in others. For example, monasticism was prevalent among women. Woman could easily choose to become nuns and live in a nunnery. They could even rise through the ranks and one day command a nunnery. Back in the Middle Ages, convents were large organizations with various affairs and housed dozens of people. So, being the head of a nunnery allowed women to exert power over others. This power was especially appealing to high-born women who could not reach a status of authority in any other way.

However, women could never enter the realms of the priesthood. In other words, they were not allowed to take the position of a ‘secular clergy’ as they were non-ordained members of a church who did not live in a religious institute and did not follow specific religious rules.

Common Questions About the Status of Women in Medieval Europe

There was a large extent of inequality between men and women in Medieval Europe . Women did not have the right to vote or to choose whether they wanted to marry, have children, or even work in some instances.

Women in the Middle Ages were able to work as a craftswoman, own a guild, and earn money in their own ways. They could also divorce their husbands under certain conditions. Many outstanding female authors, scientists, and business owners lived during that age.

Women in medieval Europe were able to work in the majority of guilds. Other than being wives or mothers, they often chose to become artisans or nuns.

Most women in the Middle Ages wore kirtles, ankle-to-floor length dresses that were made of dyed linen. Among the peasant women, wool was a more favorable and affordable option. Women’s clothing also consisted of an undertunic called smock or chemise.

The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings

America’s nuns are beginning to confront their ties to slavery, but it’s still a long road to repentance.

Credit. Illustration by Katrien De Blauwer, photographs by C.M. Bell and Joseph John Kirkbride, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Ms. Swarns is a contributing writer for The Times.

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, has long celebrated the vision and generosity of its founders: a determined band of Catholic nuns who championed free education for the poor in the early 1800s.

The sisters, who established an elite academy in Washington, D.C., also ran “a Saturday school, free to any young girl who wished to learn — including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal,” according to an official history posted for several years on the school’s website.

But when a newly hired school archivist and historian started digging in the convent’s records a few years ago, she found no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children to read or write. Instead, she found records that documented a darker side of the order’s history.

The Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children, the records show. And they sold dozens of those people to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school and the construction of a new chapel.


“Nothing else to do than to dispose of the family of Negroes,” Mother Agnes Brent, the convent’s superior, wrote in 1821 as she approved the sale of a couple and their two young children. The enslaved woman was just days away from giving birth to her third child.

Nuns disposing of black families? I have been poring over 19th-century church records for several years now and such casual cruelty from leaders of the faith still takes my breath away. I am a black journalist and a black Catholic. Yet I grew up knowing nothing about the nuns who bought and sold human beings.

For generations, enslaved people have been largely left out of the origin story traditionally told about the Catholic Church . My reporting on Georgetown University, which profited from the sale of more than 200 slaves, has helped to draw attention in recent years to universities and their ties to slavery. But slavery also helped to fuel the growth of many contemporary institutions, including some churches and religious organizations.

Historians say that nearly all of the orders of Catholic sisters established by the late 1820s owned slaves. Today, many Catholic sisters are outspoken champions of social justice and some are grappling with this painful history even as lawmakers in Congress and presidential candidates debate whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of enslaved people.

Their approaches vary in scope and some sisters have expressed misgivings, fearful that exposing the past may leave them open to criticism. But as they search their archives and reflect on the way forward, some religious women are developing frameworks that may serve as road maps for other institutions striving to acknowledge and atone for their participation in America’s system of human bondage.

The Georgetown Visitation sisters and school officials have organized a series of discussions for students, faculty, staff and alumnae, including a prayer service in April that commemorated the enslaved people “whose involuntary sacrifices supported the growth of this school.” They have published an online report about the convent’s slaveholding — an article by the school’s archivist and historian also appeared in The U.S. Catholic Historian this spring — and have digitized their records related to slavery, making them available to the public for the first time.

The Religious of the Sacred Heart, who owned about 150 enslaved people in Louisiana and Missouri, tracked down dozens of descendants of the people they once owned and invited them to a memorial ceremony in Grand Coteau, La. At the ceremony last fall, the nuns unveiled a monument to the slaves in the local parish cemetery and a plaque on an old slave quarters. They also announced the creation of a scholarship fund for African-American students at their Catholic school, which was built, in part, by enslaved laborers.

“It wasn’t just a question of looking at the past,” Sister Carolyn Osiek, the provincial archivist for the Society of the Sacred Heart United States/Canada, said. “It was: ‘What do we do with this now?’”

Sister Osiek, who led the Society of the Sacred Heart’s committee on slavery and reconciliation, said her order wanted the descendants to know that their ancestors had played a vital role in developing and sustaining the convent and school. (The Religious of the Sacred Heart are members of the Society of the Sacred Heart.)

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” she said, describing the message delivered to the descendants by the order’s provincial leader. “For so long we haven’t acknowledged you, and we’re sorry about that.”

But the soul-searching has not been universally embraced. Some descendants declined to participate in the ceremony in Louisiana, finding it too painful. And some nuns have expressed unease about the decision to unearth the past.

“A lot of communities now are very committed to dealing with issues of racism, but the fact is their own history is problematic,” said Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian at Syracuse University who has examined Catholic nuns and race in the United States.

“They’re beginning to confront their own racism, and their own complicity in the racism of the past,’’ she said, “but it’s a very long road.”

Sister Irma L. Dillard, an African-American member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, said that some white nuns felt reluctant to revisit this history because they feared “being seen as racist and bad.” She praised the steps taken by her order so far and said she hopes more will be done.

She said that only one scholarship has been given so far, a gesture that she described as “a token.”

And while she would like to see the order’s history of slaveholding incorporated into the curriculum of the schools they founded, few of those schools have publicly acknowledged their origins, she said, despite the extensive research that has been done.

“Not one of the school websites has anything about enslavement,” said Sister Dillard, who was also a member of the society’s committee on slavery, accountability and reconciliation. “We’ve whitewashed our history.”

At Georgetown Visitation, Susan Nalezyty, the school archivist and historian, discovered that the order’s ties to slavery were much deeper than had been previously publicized. None of the official histories described the extent of the sisters’ slaveholding or detailed the nuns’ profits from the sale of humans.

And for more than a decade, the school’s website hailed the Georgetown Visitation nuns for their “generosity of spirit” for teaching slaves to read, an anecdote that was passed down through oral tradition, school officials said. That language, which remains unsubstantiated, was removed from the website in 2017.

“The committee is happy, the school is happy to now have information so that we can speak on this history with authority based on what the documentary evidence tells us,” Dr. Nalezyty said.

It is history that has largely faded from our public consciousness, even among many of the three million black Catholics who account for about 3 percent of Catholics in the United States.

Growing up in New York City, I lived just blocks from a convent that ran a bookstore and a community festival that became a highlight of my childhood summers. Catholic nuns educated my mother, my aunts, three of my uncles and both of my sisters. My mother and her family, who emigrated from the Bahamas to Staten Island, even lived for a time on a farm run by Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a candidate for sainthood. The church we knew tended to Irish and Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren, and a smattering of black families. We never imagined that any of its religious orders had ties to slavery.

Darren W. Davis, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and a co-author of “Perseverance in the Parish?” about black Catholics, said that people often assume that most black Catholics are recent converts. But many belong to families that have passed down the faith from one generation to the next.

Some embraced the faith after landing in cities like Chicago and New York during the Great Migration that carried millions of African-Americans north, he said. Others have deeper roots. “Catholicism goes back centuries, especially in families from the South,” he said.

In the early decades of the American republic, the Catholic Church established its primary foothold in the South, in communities where slaveholding was considered a mark of wealth and prestige for parishioners, clergy and nuns. It was not unusual for American-born priests and nuns to grow up in slaveholding families, and many orders relied on slave labor, historians say.

The Jesuit priests, who founded and ran Georgetown, for instance, were among the largest slaveholders in Maryland. And as women began to enter the first Catholic convents in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, some brought their human property with them as part of their dowries, historians say. (I stumbled across this history during my reporting on Georgetown.)

Wealthy supporters and relatives of the nuns also donated enslaved people to the convents. Meanwhile, Catholic sisters bought, sold and bartered enslaved people. Some nuns accepted slaves as payment for tuition to their schools or handed over their human property as payment for debts, records show.

Mary Ewens, the author of “The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth Century America,’’ found that seven of the eight first orders of Catholic nuns established in the United States owned slaves by the 1820s. In a more recent study, Joseph G. Mannard revealed that an eighth order did as well, at least for a time.

“They really came to define Catholicism in the United States,” Dr. Thompson said of these early Catholic nuns. “Between 1810 and 1820, sisters came to outnumber priests in the United States. They set the foundational patterns for what sisters did in the U.S.”

Some nuns expressed distaste for slavery while others described their reluctance to sell the people they owned, and records document some efforts to keep families together.

Sisters from both Georgetown Visitation and Sacred Heart united families in which the husband was owned by the nuns and the wife was owned by someone else. In each case, the sisters purchased the wives to bring the family together. (The Georgetown Visitation nuns bought the family’s children as well.) The Carmelites of Baltimore cared for some elderly slaves when they grew infirm. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky remained so connected to their former slaves that scores returned, with children and grandchildren, to celebrate the convent’s centennial in 1912.

But Dr. Mannard, a historian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and other researchers have found that the nuns’ financial needs — and the appeal of unpaid labor — often trumped any reluctance to traffic in humans.

“In spite of my repugnance for having Negro slaves, we may be obliged to purchase some,” Rose Philippine Duchesne, who established the Society of the Sacred Heart in the United States, wrote in 1822. A year later, the Sacred Heart sisters in Grand Coteau purchased their first person, an enslaved man named Frank Hawkins, for $550.

In 1830, the Carmelite sisters cited concerns about having to undertake “the disposal of our poor servants” to help explain their reluctance to move to Baltimore from their plantation in rural Maryland. But they dropped those objections after learning that the sale would help pay off their debts and allow them to keep their rural estate. They sold at least 30 people, Dr. Mannard said.

Nearly a decade later, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Md., founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be canonized as a saint, agreed to follow the counsel of their religious superior who told them they could sell their “yellow boys” at 10 to 12 percent profit “without doing an injustice to anyone.”

As for the Georgetown Visitation nuns, the profits from slave sales would become a vital lifeline during a period of expansion. In the 1820s, the sisters embarked on a building campaign, which left them saddled with debt. To ease the financial strain, they sold at least 21 people between 1819 and 1822, the records show.

When some buyers dawdled in making payments, the sisters took them to court, Dr. Nalezyty found.

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky, who owned 30 people at Emancipation, were among the first sisters to seek to make amends. They joined with two other orders — the Dominicans of Saint Catharine and the Sisters of Loretto — to host a prayer service in 2000 where they formally apologized for their slaveholding. In 2012, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth erected a monument at a cemetery where many of the enslaved people were buried. So far, they have identified three descendants of the people they once owned.

“Their contributions had been ignored,” said Sister Theresa Knabel, who researched the order’s history and reached out to descendants. “We needed to know who they were, know their names, know their story and make them visible.”

Roslyn Chenier, an African-American software consultant in Atlanta, learned that her forbears had been owned by the Religious of the Sacred Heart when she was contacted by Sister Maureen J. Chicoine, who has researched the history of the order and has identified dozens of descendants.

“I was amazed, amazed,” said Ms. Chenier, who attended the ceremony organized by the sisters in Grand Coteau last September. “It was very emotional.”

Ms. Chenier gave up practicing many years ago. But some of her relatives remain devout. Learning that their ancestors were owned by nuns astonished them. But it hasn’t shaken their faith, she said. It hasn’t shaken her strong Catholic identity, either.

That doesn’t surprise Father Gregory C. Chisholm, a black priest who heads the St. Charles Borromeo, Resurrection and All Saints parish in Harlem. He has had a number of conversations about Catholic slaveholding. The conversations are often painful, he said, but few black people are surprised to hear about racism among the clergy.

Older people still remember the days of segregated pews and segregated churches, he said. Others have encountered racism within their own parishes and within their own religious orders, even as they cherish the blessings that Catholicism brings to their lives.

“This whole thing reveals the ways in which the religion has failed us in some way,” said Father Chisholm, who says he is encouraged by the church’s recent efforts to acknowledge its past. “It’s hard. It’s difficult. But it’s good. It’s a way for our church to be renewed and that’s what it has to be. It has to be renewed.’’

In November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed slavery in a pastoral letter that discussed racism within the church and asked for forgiveness. In 2017, Father Timothy P. Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, apologized for the 1838 sale of enslaved people that helped keep Georgetown University afloat.

The sisters say they still have work to do. At Georgetown Visitation, a committee is focusing on embedding the history more deeply into the school curriculum. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are creating a permanent exhibit on their campus that will highlight the contributions of African-Americans to their congregation. The Religious of the Sacred Heart are weighing additional steps to promote inclusion and diversity and to eradicate racism within their order and in the schools they sponsor.

Sister Dillard and other members of her committee have already visited some of the schools founded by their order, sharing the history that their sisters have unearthed and urging young people to commit themselves to combating systemic racism.

She wants to make sure that students no longer grow up, as I did, without learning about the enslaved people who helped to build the church. She wants to make sure that we all know their names.

When Women Became Nuns to Get a Good Education - HISTORY

Select the community to which you would like to donate:

Caribbean, Central America, South America

More than 60 sisters serving in eight countries. Administrative center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

More than 60 sisters serving in eight countries. Administrative center in Silver Spring, Maryland.


Nearly 700 sisters serving in twenty states and two countries. Administrative center in Merion, Pennsylvania.

Nearly 700 sisters serving in twenty states and two countries. Administrative center in Merion, Pennsylvania.

New York, Pennsylvania West

More than 250 sisters serving in two states and the Philippines. Administrative center in Buffalo, New York.

More than 250 sisters serving in two states and the Philippines. Administrative center in Buffalo, New York.


More than 500 sisters serve in New York (Albany and surrounding areas), Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

More than 500 sisters serve in New York (Albany and surrounding areas), Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

South Central

More than 400 sisters serving in 18 states and Jamaica. Administrative center in Belmont, North Carolina.

More than 400 sisters serving in 18 states and Jamaica. Administrative center in Belmont, North Carolina.

West Midwest

Roughly 500 sisters serving in 16 states and one country. Administrative center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Roughly 500 sisters serving in 16 states and one country. Administrative center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Despite evidence demonstrating how central girls’ education is to development, gender disparities in education persist.

Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.

Worldwide, 132 million girls are out of school.

Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 45 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 25 per cent in upper secondary education.

The reasons are many. Barriers to girls’ education – like poverty, child marriage and gender-based violence – vary among countries and communities. Poor families often favour boys when investing in education.

In some places, schools do not meet the safety, hygiene or sanitation needs of girls. In others, teaching practices are not gender-responsive and result in gender gaps in learning and skills development.

When Women Became Nuns to Get a Good Education - HISTORY

As caretakers of children, family and community, it was natural that women were the nurses, the caregivers, as human society evolved. Nursing may be the oldest known profession, as some nurses were paid for their services from the beginning. This was especially true of wet nurses, who nursed a baby when the mother died or could not nurse her child. A woman whose infant did not survive birth, or who was ready to wean her child, or who was capable of nursing more than one baby, would accept employment as a wet nurse, usually going to live in the home of her employer.

The home, in fact, was the center of health care, and for the first two centuries after European exploration of North America, all nursing was home nursing. Even when the nation’s first hospital began in Philadelphia in 1751, it was thought of primarily as an asylum or poorhouse another century or more would pass before the public viewed hospitals as reputable and safe.

The Civil War gave enormous impetus to the building of hospitals and to the development of nursing as a credentialed profession. Initial wartime volunteers, however, often were seen as no different from “camp followers,” the women (sometimes mistresses and sometimes wives) who followed their soldier men. It was an era of sharp class definitions, and especially in the South, “respectable” women could not be seen in a military hospital.

Some women had the courage and common sense to defy decorum, though, especially in the North, where the US Sanitary Commission became the forerunner to the Red Cross. The best known of these women, of course, is Clara Barton—but her genius was in supply distribution and in development of systems for the missing and dead, not in nursing. Barton herself acknowledged that she actually nursed for only about six months of the four-year war and that other women did much more.

Perhaps the best known nurse at the time, was Mary Ann Bickerdyke of Illinois. A middle-aged widow, her accidental career began when she delivered money raised by local charities to the giant, if temporary, hospitals that the Union built at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. After witnessing suffering soldiers who had literally no one to care for them, she went on to be the only woman that General William T. Sherman allowed with his army. At the Tennessee battle of Lookout Mountain, she was the sole nurse for some two thousand men.

In the Confederacy, the most prominent nurses were Captain Sally Tompkins and Phoebe Pember. Tompkins was commissioned as an officer in the Confederate army so that she could have the power to commandeer supplies. She converted her Richmond mansion into Robertson Hospital and established a reputation for extraordinary quality: Tompkins’ hospital had by far the lowest death rate of any facility in the North or South, even though physicians sent their worst cases to her. Her staff of six—four of whom were black women still in slavery—treated more than 1,600 patients and lost only 73, an uncommonly low number in an era before germ theory was understood.

Phoebe Levy Pember c. 1855

Phoebe Levy Pember has become somewhat better known since the Post Office recently included her on a series of Civil War stamps. A young widow from a wealthy, Jewish family based in Charleston and Atlanta, she went north to the Confederate capital of Richmond and eventually ran the world’s largest hospital. On an average day, Pember supervised the treatment of 15,000 patients, most of them cared for by nearly 300 slave women.

The war thus led to greater respect for nurses, something that Congress acknowledged in 1892, when it belatedly passed a bill providing pensions to Civil War nurses. More important, the war served as the beginning of moving the profession from the home to the hospital and clinic. The result was an explosion of nursing schools in the late nineteenth century. Usually these schools were closely associated with a hospital, and nurses—all of whom were assumed to be female—lived and worked at the hospital.

Often called “sisters” (as British nurses still are), their lives were indeed similar to those of nuns. Forbidden to marry, they were cloistered in “nurses’ homes” on hospital grounds, where every aspect of life was strictly disciplined. Student nurses were not paid at all, and because too many hospitals valued this free labor over classroom and laboratory time, many spent their days scrubbing floors, doing laundry, and other menial tasks. Curricula improved, however, in part because of the development of a tradition with caps: each nursing school had a distinctive cap that women wore after graduation, and because her educational background was literally visible every day, schools soon raised standards so that their graduates would affirm their quality.

There were more female physicians (and hospital administrators) during the 19 th century than most people realize today—and some of these female physicians recognized the need for nurses and worked to professionalize the occupation. Dr. Marie Zakrewska founded a medical school for women in Boston that was affiliated with her New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862, during the Civil War—and a decade later, in 1872, she began an associated nursing school that was the nation’s first.

Linda Richards was its first graduate and thus is known as America’s first professionally trained nurse. Richards went on to establish her own precedent-setting programs as superintendent of nursing at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and at Massachusetts General Hospital she also set up the first nursing school in Japan.

Like most educational institutions at the time, these schools did not admit African Americans, and the informally trained black women who nursed during the Civil War seldom were able to obtain credentials. The first credentialed black nurse was Mary Mahoney, who graduated in 1879 from Dr. Zakrewska’s nursing school in Boston. As segregation remained the rule far into the 20th century, Mahoney led the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, which began in 1908.

During the four decades between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, the image of nurses moved from being viewed as somewhat less than honorable to a respected profession. The next century would bring still more changes, and nurses of the 19 th century would scarcely recognize the occupation as it is in the 21 st century. They would, however, agree that a world of difference has occurred in the care of patients, and that has been an unmitigated good—achieved primarily by women.

Empress Wu Zetian

The Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) was a time of relative freedom for women. They did not bind their feet nor lead submissive lives. It was a time in which a number of exceptional women contributed in the areas of culture and politics. So it is no surprise that Wu, born into a rich and noble family, was taught to play music, write, and read the Chinese classics. By thirteen years of age she was known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty, and was recruited to the court of Emperor Tai Tsung. She soon became his favorite concubine. But she also had eyes for his son, Kao Tsung.

When the emperor died and Kao Tsung took over, Wu was now twenty seven years old. In time she became a favorite concubine of the new emperor, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. She managed to eliminate Kao Tsung's wife, Empress Wang, by accusing her of killing Wu's newborn daughter. Kao Tsung believed Wu, and replaced Empress Wang to marry the up and coming Wu Zetian.

Within five years of their marriage, Emperor Kao Tsung suffered a crippling stroke. The Empress Wu took over the administrative duties of the court, a position equal to the emperor. She created a secret police force to spy on her opposition, and cruelly jailed or killed anyone who stood in her way, including the unfortunate Empress Wang. With the death of Emperor Kao Tsung, Wu managed to outflank her eldest sons and moved her youngest, and much weaker son, into power. She in effect ruled, telling him what to do.

In order to challenge Confucian beliefs against rule by women, Wu began a campaign to elevate the position of women. She had scholars write biographies of famous women, and raised the position of her mother's clan by giving her relatives high political posts. She moved her court away from the seat of traditional male power and tried to establish a new dynasty. She said that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother does over her children.

In 690, Wu's youngest son removed himself from office, and Wu Zetian was declared emperor of China. In spite of her ruthless climb to power, her rule proved to be benign. She found the best people she could to run the government, and treated those she trusted fairly. She reduced the army's size and stopped the influence of aristocratic military men on government by replacing them with scholars. Everyone had to compete for government positions by taking exams, thus setting the practice of government run by scholars. Wu also was fair to peasants, lowering oppressive taxes, raising agricultural production, and strengthening public works.

During her reign, Empress Wu placed Buddhism over Daoism as the favored state religion. She invited the most gifted scholars to China and built Buddhist temples and cave sculptures. Chinese Buddhism achieved its highest development under the reign of Wu Zetian.

As she grew older, Empress Wu lessened the power of her secret police. But she become increasingly superstitious and fearful. Sorcerers and corrupt court favorites flattered her. Finally, in 705, she was pressured to give up the throne in favor of her third son, who was waiting all these years in the wings. Wu Zetian died peacefully at age eighty the same year.

Want information on resources on Empress Wu? Clink here.

For a discussion of women within the family: Ancient China and India. Click here.

The unit Eyes of the Empress: Women in Tang Dynasty will tell you more about Empress Wu Zetian and other women of the period, and daily life in the glorious years of the Tang Dynasty,

Statue of seated Buddha that the Empress Wu Zetian had carved into the 1000 Buddha Caves at Luoyang, China. The face is suppose to resemble the empress.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Nun Abuse: How My Mother, a Former Nun, Suffered at the Hands of 'The Good Sisters'

Catholic priests have become synonymous with “abuse” in recent years, but they’ve never been the only people of the cloth guilty of inflicting physical and emotional pain on innocent victims. Seldom talked about are the rarely maligned women of the Church: sisters who intentionally abused fellow nuns behind convent walls. Nun abuse is that other dirty little secret of the Catholic Church—and it’s a secret that affected, and crushed, the spirits of scores of young women. My mother was one of them.

My mother entered the convent in the fall of 1957 at the age of 21, determined to save the world through her faith. She left nearly a decade later, beaten down physically and mentally, emaciated and fragile. On the early morning in which she finally exited, her head was bald in patches, owing to the hatchet-job-style haircuts the convent had subjected her to for years. She had no civilian clothes to wear—having given all of her worldly possessions up upon entering the convent—and so was forced by a pair of presiding nuns to wear ill-fitting clothing that she said smelled and a pair of mismatched shoes. She shook uncontrollably. Worst of all were her eyes. Her large brown eyes, wide and excited when she’d entered the convent, went listless and flat. In the words of my uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, who was horrified at the sight of her the morning she returned to their childhood home, “She looked like a mangy dog. A beat-up, mangy dog.”

“It was those nuns,” my uncle said, growing angry. “They were supposed to protect her, but they did just the opposite.”

Nun abuse remains little talked about in the church. There are a few studies that have been conducted, including one in 1996 that reported that as many as 40 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States (or around 34,000 sisters at that time) claimed to have been sexually abused in some capacity and that “all nuns who claimed repeated sexual exploitation reported that they were pressured by religious superiors for sexual favors.”

But most cases of the variety of nun abuse my mother was subjected to—emotional pain and physical tolls intentionally inflected upon nuns by nuns in positions of power—have gone unreported. In cases like my mother’s, the tales of abuse were passed along in hushed whispers, first in psychiatrists’ offices, then, later, to family members. In many instances, sisters suffered in silence, resigned to their fate, afraid to come forward. Nuns take vows of obedience. Historically, there were few, if any, means of reporting wrongdoing without breaking strict and rather ancient rules of church hierarchy. Consequently, there’s been little to no accountability. Young sisters, in particular, have been particularly vulnerable, as they’ve always been the lowest on the totem pole and expected to be the most obedient.

In my mother’s case, the stories of abuse came out in bits and pieces over the decades, mostly in the wake of two nervous breakdowns. Her hesitation to come forward was twofold. First, she, like so many victims of abuse—within or without the Church—felt as if it was her fault and that no one would believe her. Who, she wondered, would believe that “good sisters” could be so mean? Second, she worried that speaking up meant going against the Church she continued to love and believe in, even after she left the convent.

My mother had gone to live at a convent in Indiana just three months after graduating from college. She’d graduated with honors, and with an impressive resume. As a teenager, she’d met privately with President Harry S. Truman in the White House’s Rose Garden after being recognized for her work in student government. But it was a life of prayer—not politics—that most appealed to her. And so she sought out the “good sisters” of her convent. Her goal was to use her degree to educate and feed the poor.

When men become priests, they get to keep their names, cars, even bank accounts. Not nuns. When my mother entered the convent, she gave up virtually everything. And by everything, I mean everything. When my mother became a sister, she surrendered all of her belongings as part of her vow of poverty. That meant that her poodle skirts and saddle shoes, even the stories and plays she’d written in high school, were destroyed. She also lost her name. She entered the convent as Anne Virginia Diener and was promptly renamed Sister Aurelia Mary. She had no say in its selection it was decided upon by presiding nuns.

Visits home for a young nun were forbidden. Visits from family members were closely supervised. Incoming mail was censored, often seized. Letters from my her old college boyfriend? None of them ever reached my mother. They were intercepted by the presiding Mother Superior, as were packages from doting grandparents deemed “too excessive.”

My mother was at peace with her new name and surrendering her privacy. But soon came more invasive controls. There was the hair. Even though my mother’s brown curls could easily have been covered by the enormous habit she wore (her veil was like something out of The Flying Nun and could have covered any hair length), she was forced to have it cut off by the presiding sisters. The goal of the closely-shorn head, explained my mother’s younger sister, who also became a nun in the 1950s, was “to make everyone forget that we were women.”

Then there was the food, or lack thereof. Sisters were expected to fast for hours, sometime entire days, in a bid to show their faith. Those with low blood sugar, like my mother, passed out during peak fasting times. They were considered “unfaithful.” Instead of being given food to prevent additional fainting spells, they were told to pray harder. My mother did so, but passed out again. Her punishment? Longer periods of enforced fasting.

Even worse than food deprivation, my mother would later recount, was the lack of medical care. Sisters who complained of medical maladies were told to “pray it off.”

“Sisters who said they were sick were treated like they were making things up to get attention,” my mother’s friend Marian, who was also a sister at her convent in the 1950s, told me.

Even when my mother doubled over in physical agony, owing to abdominal cramps, and was scarcely capable of moving, she was ordered to get out of bed. Her pleas for medical care fell on deaf ears. It was a priest affiliated with the religious academy in which she taught who ultimately insisted upon getting her treatment, ordering a pair of nuns to take her to the doctor. The doctor on duty was appalled at her appearance, calling her a “bag of bones” before sending her on to the hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery on her tipped uterus. She was additionally diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder, which explained her extreme fatigue.

My mother was fortunate on a pair of levels. First, someone had intervened on her behalf—someone who held the most power in her convent community: a man of the cloth. His actions enabled my mother to circumvent the system. Sisters were property of the Catholic Church, and it was the presiding group of nuns who determined when, and if, any sister ventured out to receive anything, even medical care, from the outside world. “No sister was allowed to seek medical care on her own,” Marian told me. “Always she had to have at least one escort to any doctor’s appointment. If an appointment was allowed.”

Second, my mother’s treatment came in time. Other sisters in her convent weren’t so lucky, like one of her fellow nuns who complained repeatedly of a bad headache. “She complained for weeks, months,” Marian remembered. “By the time she finally got them to take her to the hospital, it was too late. They took a biopsy from the roof of her mouth and discovered cancer. It was everywhere. A big portion of her brain and a large section of her face had to be removed. It was horrible.”

My mother’s growing friendship with the priest who had helped save her—coupled with her popularity in the classroom with her young students—did not go over well with the nuns in command. She was removed from the classroom, with no opportunity to say goodbye to her young students, then demoted and assigned to the tasks of scrubbing floors and sorting convent correspondence. Pleas to re-enter the classroom resulted in more reprimands, more periods of enforced silence. That’s when the tears started, and didn’t stop.

In an effort to silence my mother and what the convent called her “nervous habits,” the punishments grew, my mother would tell me, “more severe.” It’s hard to gauge what exactly she meant, but family members report there were unexplained bruises. And my father has suspected that sexual abuse was a factor, owing to her later behavior in their marriage, but she never explicitly told him about inappropriate sexual contact. What is clear is that a piece of my mother died behind those convent walls.

My mother ultimately left the convent at the encouragement of the priest who had worked to get her medical care. It was the 1960s, and, he told her, with the coming of Vatican II and the growing women’s movement, there were new opportunities for women like my mother to lead a meaningful life and serve the Church as a layperson.

My mother was among the first in her “class” of nuns to muster the courage to leave. But she was hardly the last. Scores more would follow. Today, the once burgeoning population of nuns at her convent—some 800—has dwindled to a few dozen. Nationally, the population has similarly plummeted. In the 1960s, when my mother last wore her habit, there were 180,000 American nuns. Today, the figure has dropped by more than 75 percent, to just over 40,000, with new convents shuttering every year, owing to a depletion of funds, and interest. A 2008 study found only eight percent of Millennials have “ever” considered becoming a nun.

Many Catholics wring their hands over “the nun shortage,” lamenting the end of an era. I remain Catholic and my husband and I are sending our children to Catholic school, and so I understand, to a degree, the feelings of nostalgia. Good nuns and good convents can and do exist. And when they do, both are special things. But I understand something more. In my family, convents are not synonymous with warm, fuzzy places in which all is good and holy. In my family, a convent is known as the place that killed the spirit of my mother and the spirit of countless other young women.

Mary Pflum Peterson is a multi-Emmy-Award-winning producer for ABC News/ Good Morning America. She chronicles her mother’s time in the convent, and the story of three generations of women in a decidedly complicated Catholic family, in her new memoir, White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughter .

Illustration by Tara Jacoby. Photos courtesy of the author.

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My one aunt is a former nun, who left the convent and became a Jew. I have another aunt who is still a nun, and she absolutely hates it. She is a free spirit, and only joined to escape a bad, abusive home situation, just like her sister did. The other nuns are terrible to her- they force her to eat in silence, they are verbally abusive, they make her feel like shit because she likes to wear the earrings, necklaces and bracelets I make her. She is an intelligent, beautiful, creative woman with so much to offer this world, but because she is nearing seventy, she cannot simply leave the convent. Why? Because she has not paid into social security, she has no retirement despite working as a professor at the same university for more than for decades and having a PHD, and our family is not a family that comes from money. So she stays, miserable and depressed. She doesn’t even believe in god anymore, is disgusted by the pedophilia scandals and the church’s response to them, and is completely beside herself.

It makes me sad when I think about all of the things my Ciocia Asia would have done had she not joined, or left the convent like my Ciocia Mania. I know she never would have married and had children, but she’s the sort of person that would have joined the Peace Corps, and lived a life of service and activism. She’s pro-choice, she is pro gay rights and considers Cindymoo to be her niece and even bought us an iron with the little money she has when we got our own place. There are some really cool nuns out there, don’t get me wrong. Little Sisters of the Poor is an amazing organization. But a lot of nuns are cruel and awful, something I know from personal experience and from the experience of my Ciocia Asia and Ciocia Mania.

The Meaning of the Terms Nun, Sister, Monk, Priest, and Brother

Is there any difference between a nun and a sister? What about a monk are they priests or brothers? I have always been confused by these terms.

These terms are indeed confusing, because they are often used interchangeably even though they have technical differences. First, let's look at the difference between nuns and sisters. A nun is a woman who belongs to a religious order and takes the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their vows are publicly accepted by superiors in the name of the Church and solemn. In general, solemn vows are professed by members of religious orders after a period of temporary, simple vows. When bound by solemn vows, a woman is a nun but is commonly called "Sister" (although some orders use another formal title, like "Dame" or "Mother") when bound by simple vows, a woman is a sister, not a nun, and thereby called "Sister." Nuns recite the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office in common, and engage in some work to help support themselves.

Another distinguishing mark of nuns is that they live a contemplative, cloistered life in a monastery. "Cloistered" refers to living within the confines of the monastery behind the "papal enclosure." Nuns are permitted to leave the cloister only under special circumstances and with the proper permission. Moreover, visitors are not be permitted to enter into the cloistered area. When visiting these monasteries, like the Poor Clares' Monastery in Alexandria, a person may enter the public area of the chapel, but a wrought-iron screen separates it from the nun's side or "cloistered" side of the chapel. Also when visiting one of the nuns, the visitor is physically separated by a grill or other barrier from the nun who is in the cloister. Besides the Poor Clares, other strictly cloistered nuns are the Carmelites and Benedictines.

In some cases, the cloister restrictions are not as strictly enforced. Some orders of nuns, while technically cloistered, conduct works of charity or education, interacting with the public. For example, the Visitation Sisters are technically cloistered nuns but teach school.

With this understanding of the term "nun," the title "Sister" denotes a woman religious under simple vows, who is a member of a particular religious congregation. (The distinction between a "solemn vow" and a "simple vow" is a determination made by the Church when the religious community is established: members of religious orders make a final profession of solemn vows, and members of religious institutes or religious congregations make a final profession of perpetual simple vows, after a period of temporary simple vows.) These women religious also take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience live in community in a convent and share in a particular apostolate. These religious congregations may serve either a particular diocese under the immediate jurisdiction of the local bishop, or serve throughout the universal Church under the immediate jurisdiction of the Pope. Examples of these communities are the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sisters of the Holy Cross, and Daughters of St. Paul.

Since the 6th century, monks and nuns following the Rule of Saint Benedict have been making the so-called Benedictine vow at their public profession of obedience (placing oneself under the direction of the abbot/abbess or prior/prioress), stability (committing oneself to a particular monastery), and "conversion of manners" (which includes forgoing private ownership and celibate chastity). A monk may be a priest or a deacon, who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders, or a religious brother, who is not ordained. Monks live in a monastery, the word from which "monk" is derived. Depending upon the circumstances of the particular order, they may have a very strict contemplative, cloistered lifestyle, like the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance (commonly known as the Trappists), or a less strictly cloistered lifestyle, like the Benedictines.

Just as an aside, these monasteries are referred to as abbeys when they are independent, self-sufficient, and have a certain number of monks or nuns. The head of the abbey is either the abbot or abbess.

Moreover, religious institutes or congregations of men include those of both priests and brothers, like the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and those of only brothers, like the Brothers of the Sacred Heart or Brothers of St. Francis Xavier. These men religious also take the simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, live in community, and share in a particular apostolate, like education, health care, or other charitable work.

While this article has dealt with the fine distinctions of terminology, we must not forget that these individuals have totally dedicated their lives to God taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience serve the Church in special way work for the salvation of the world and strive for the perfection of charity in their own lives. They are an outstanding sign of the Church, and a witness to Jesus Christ.

Saunders, Rev. William. "The Meaning of the Terms Nun, Sister, Monk, Priest, and Brother." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

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