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2 “All the Advantages of a Religious Life”: RELIGION, GENDER, AND NEW PUBLIC ROLES Consider with me and see where have been gathered together more providentially to be benefited with all the advantages of a religious life a larger number of poor, unqualified, ordinary, and working class girls as all of us are.1 Mother St. Pierre Cinquin, CCVI December 18, 1889 These words that Mother St. Pierre wrote to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, most of whom had entered religious life without material resources, reveal that a religious vocation could bring certain advantages to women. Prevailing social trends limited some women’s prospects, but by joining a religious congregation, Catholic women could create a space for themselves to nurse, teach, administer hospitals, and manage finances. In the convent, sisters obtained opportunities for job training and preparation for the marketplace, underscoring economic goals for them. Furthermore, although the clerical hierarchy of the Catholic Church excluded women, sisters developed alternative spiritualities that allowed them to stand apart from both the church hierarchy and other women.2 This held considerable attraction for women who had few alternatives in the outside world. 35 Wall_CH2_3rd.qxd 4/11/2005 2:50 PM Page 35 In the context of church and societal ideas about gender and religion, Catholic sisters took on new aspects of entrepreneurship. However, they took vows that committed them to anonymity. While aspects of convent life arguably helped them, nuns did not oppose the Catholic Church’s sex hierarchy, nor did they question their position in that structure. Furthermore , although sisters had identities that were distinct from other women, the Catholic Church did not formally invest them with power as it did priests. Sacramental laws gave priests certain functions that distinguished them from others, but the degree to which nuns acquired sacramental power was through identity formation.The construction and maintenance of personal and collective religious identities provided the basis for them to shape their lives and work. It was central in understanding women’s willingness to invest their time and energy in their work and, hence, was important for a religious order’s growth.3 The religious congregation was the institution that gave meaning to a collective identity for women. For sisters, the justification for religious life was to achieve spiritual perfection for themselves and others. These women followed a personal calling and believed they were doing God’s will. Upon entrance into the novitiate, a Sister of the Holy Cross had to answer a questionnaire. Reasons for entering typically were “to save my soul” and “I loved its end [sanctification].”4 Rather than focusing on a life of prayer and contemplation , however, the sisters gave priority to their work. In Europe and the United States, beliefs about gender limited women’s choices and influenced their work, marriage patterns, and opportunities. Barbara Welter has provided a comprehensive description of how ministers and other moralists constructed an “ideology of true womanhood” for white middle-class women in the nineteenth century. Women were to be submissive and pious and to practice domesticity to perfection.5 While this cult was normative in many contexts, it was not observed in terms of actual behavior. Indeed, many women deviated markedly from this ideology , having neither the need nor the opportunity to stay at home.6 Roman Catholic writers promulgated a domestic ideology similar to that of middle-class white women. In his 1879 classic book on Catholic domesticity, The Mirror of True Womanhood, Bernard O’Reilly proclaimed the “true Catholic woman” to be pious, self-abnegating, and domestic. He particularly associated women with nursing.7 While liberal Catholic writers argued for wider options, others upheld traditional Christian beliefs that God’s appointed domain for women was the home.8 Underpinning this tradition was the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, embodied in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Both the ideology of “true womanhood ” and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception idealized women 36 Chapter 2 Wall_CH2_3rd.qxd 4/11/2005 2:50 PM Page 36 as social guardians and purifiers and stressed their roles as caretakers.9 In sermons and publications, ecclesiastical leaders and Catholic periodicals such as the Ave Maria and the Catholic World circulated this teaching.10 Furthermore, by the late nineteenth century, fallacious scientific theories about feminine psychology and intelligence had developed to explain differences between men and women, yet their most significant social impact was to “justify” the role of women as subordinate caretakers.11 For Catholic...


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