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At a time when women in the United States were excluded from participation in the civic electoral system, nineteenth-century Catholic sisters voted in elections, held offices, and enacted a complex political culture. In both governmental structure and internal social interaction, these communities of women constructed a system that simultaneously mandated deference, participation, hierarchy, and equality, balancing these elements despite tensions and apparent contradictions. The tensions surrounding the two-tier system that assigned lay sisters an inferior status boiled over in the climate of late-nineteenth-century America and, in response to lay sisters' protests, communities modified their rules, creating a new equilibrium. The dynamic systems of self-governance created by women religious exemplify the potential for empowerment, authority, and social mobility offered to nineteenth-century women by religious life, as well as the ways these possibilities and their potentially radical societal implications were constrained by a language and culture that mandated submission and obedience.