Women's Religious Orders
external image Nun_ruler.jpg

This page will be constructed from a women's point of view. I plan on investigating what role women played when dealing with Religious Orders.
By: L. Scott
List of Scholarly Articles:
1. Catholic Women teachers and Scottish education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Author: Jane McDermid (Pulled from EBSCO Host)
2. Actives and Contemplatives: The female religious of the low countries before and after Trent.
Author: Craig Harline (Pulled from EBSCO Host)
3. Nineteenth-century Women's Auxiliaries and Fraternal Orders.
Author: Mary Ann Clawson (Pulled from JSTOR)
4. Outside the Mainstream: Women's Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America .
Author: Mary Ferrell Bednarowski (Pulled from JSTOR)


Jordan, E. (2008). Female Founders: Exercising authority in Thirteenth-century Flanders and Hainaut. Church History & Religious Culture , 535-561.

Most abbeys were created by women either in the secular world or the spiritual world. A majority of the women who were founders of these facilities created these facilities in member of their late husbands or they created them out of want for spiritual stability. During the thirteenth-century women were viewed as property they had no leadership or authority when it deals with society. The author in this article is arguing that women did posses authority but it depended on whether they received it from their husbands or their parents. The authority came from starting abbeys, purchasing land, and leading followers to a higher power.

Authority/Power received from Parents
Authority/Power received from Husbands
Introduction (Exercising Authority in Thirteenth-century)
In establishing abbeys that they did not enter these women reveal a desire to promote a secular as a spiritual agenda.(538)
Noblewomen in the thirteenth century continued to access power, through marriage but also autonomously through inheritance, and few restrictions were placed upon their ability to exercise it. (538)
Others Foundations by Widows
Her lack of siblings also mad e her a wealthy heiress. (542)
…to use her position on behalf of the nuns to obtain the consent of neighboring ecclesiastical officials, who initially resisted the intrusion of another religious community into the area and the competition for local revenue that it represented. (545)
It is possible that having married twice, Marguerite was able to use resources from her dowry to endow a new abbey, resources denied to her unmarried sisters.(546)
Beatrice the younger was fleeing her father Arnold, preferring the religious life to the marriage he had arrange for her. (549)
… the monastery founded by Beatrice thrived during the first half of the ….from the generosity of her family, but from heat of a variety of nobles in the region
As a result of her generosity, the abbot of the nearby men’s abbey of Ter Duinen was able to secure the women’s incorporation into the Order. (540)
Ada began laying plans for the foundation of a ….their marriage to provide an acceptable endowment for the new community. (541)
…Aleyede or Mathilda, took vows, as both married and remained in the secular world. (545)
Beatrice made the donation for the safety and remedy of her soul, and the soul for her husband of good memory Arnold, count of Guines, of her father Walter, castellan of Bourborurg, and her mother Mathilda of Be’thune, in pure and perpetual alms. (548)
The abbey’s endowment was comprised of Elisabeth’s dowry lands, which she was free to alienate after the death of her husband Baudouin. (550)
Sisters by Birth
Jeanne and Agnes used the land at Rodenborch, their inheritance from their father, to provide endowment or the abbey of Groeninghe. (552)
Notre-Dame de Pres became one of the wealthiest Cistercian nunneries the region, attracting donations from among some of the county’s most prominent nobles.
Secular Women and Property
Just as families were reluctant to distribute land equally among all offspring, widows supposedly found their dower rights increasingly restricted. (557)
Founders of the abbeys of Epinlieu, Fontenelles, Notre-Dame des Pres and Groeninghe were all unmarried women who used their dowries specifically to establish a nunnery which they then entered(558)
These women established new traditions of patronage that were passed down from generation to generation, and included the males of the family. ( 558)
To certain degree, the ability of these women to determine their own futures was the result of a concatenation of circumstances that form female inheritance in the thirteenth century. (559)
…at least seven of them exercised authority in their won right as heiresses. (559)
…where from the level of castellan to that of count, fiefs regularly devolved to women in the absence of male heirs. (559)
…controlling land and dispensing resources independently of men. (559)
Not surprisingly, eight of the abbeys were founded by widows, further illustrating the connection between control of property and marital status. ( 556)
These women were well aware of their rights as wives and widows, and understood that the death of their husbands provided them with a unique opportunity to exercise authority and wield power previously denied them in marriage. ( 557)
While a number of them secured property and the power that stemmed from it through marriage….(559)
While their husbands may have exercised power on their behalf, authority ultimately stemmed from their persons. (559)
…it is probable that they enjoyed an elevated status in their marital families, and certainly had access to sizeable dowers upon their husbands’ deaths. (559)
Their ability to control property, whether through marriage or inheritance, allowed them to engage in actions clearly understood as political by their contemporaries. (560)

In conclusion women in the thirteenth-century were exercising certain authorities dealing with political and financial activities. Women received these opportunities through inheritance or through their late fathers. Women took on the job of making sure that other women were afforded the chance to praise and celebrate any religion they wanted too. It did not depend on how these women were given these chances they took hold of them and used them to provide a great new life for other women who would otherwise not get the chance to be blessed.


Bednarowski, M. F. (1980). Outside the Mainstream: Women's Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America. Journal of the American Academy of Religion , 207-231.

Women could be viewed as Religious leaders depending on the Religion they chose to follow. A lot of women left Christianity because of its traditional view on the place and value that women played in society. This piece of writing did not present an argument however the author did discuss the differences between spiritual female leadership roles and secular non leadership roles. These roles were being compared within different types of Religions. The four Religions that the author compared were: “the Shakers, the Spiritualists, the Christian Scientist and the Theosophists” (Bednarowski, 1980, p.209) These four Religions were very supportive of women leaders in this analysis I will display the religious movements based on spiritual female leadership roles and religious movements based on secular non leadership roles.

Religious movements spiritual female leadership roles
Religious movements secular female non leadership roles
Introduction (Whose role is it any way?)
Individual women who have achieved prominence in American religious history have usually been those associated with marginal religious movements whose sources of doctrine and inspiration have been outside the Bible or in addition to it…(208)
…women achieved leadership positions and equal status with men in religious movements which embodied assumptions about the divine, about human nature, about the function of the clergy,…in the mainstream traditions. (209)
Cotton Mather spoke of women as the “hidden ones”…(208)
…the women go to church and the men exercise the authority as members of the clergy and as professional theologians. (208)
…agreement among scholars that certain aspects of institutionalized religion, especially Christianity, have been responsible for excluding women from positions of leadership in American religion.(208)
…the insistence that the divine “plan” for women was revealed in St. Paul’s admonition that women keep silent in church…(208)
…women’s subordination to man was divinely ordained…(208)
There are numerous examples of women’s exclusion from acknowledged positions of religious authority from the seventeenth century to the present. (208)
…illustrate the firmly rooted assumption that women were by nature unsuited to be members of the clergy. (208)
…the virtual exclusion of women form the ordained clergy on the basis of essential unsuitability…(209)
The Shakers
…a religious movement whose beliefs and their practical working out gave women leadership status equal to that of men. (210)
…women would assume roles of spiritual leadership…(210)
…prevented the denigration of women that often occurs in religions which stress the sinful nature of sexual relationships. (210)
…represent the “female line” of divinity. (210)
…claim divine approval of her own religious leadership as a woman. (210)
…she could not reconcile her leadership “with the Apostle’s doctrine…used an analogy with nature…(210)
…contributed to the unfolding of the divine plan. (211)
…practice of celibacy and the granting of leadership roles to women. (212)
…female spiritual leadership which would function equally with that of the males. (212)
…practice gave women the opportunity to participate in the communal ownership of property, to have roles in their society other than that of wife and mother, and to participate equally with men in the spiritual leadership of their communities. (212-213)
…the man first, and the woman the second in the government for the family.(210)
…must subject to her husband, who is the first; but when the man is gone, the right of government belongs to the woman: So is the family of Christ. (210-211)
…leadership implies authority by default. (211)
…”equally inconsistent would it be, to argue the uselessness of the mother in the natural birth, and rearing of the natural family, as it would be to argue the uselessness of the spiritual mother in the family of Christ: for the necessity of both are equally evident.”( 211)
…male as cognitive and the female as affectional. (211)
…claims that a rejection of society of those roles assigned to women in mainstream society…(212)
…which women functioned in religion in ways that were hidden from public view…(212)
…the body was sinful and that its concupiscent tendencies must be curbed-a belief that is often detrimental to women aspiring to religious leadership.
The Spiritualists
…women found opportunities for leadership. (213)
From the beginning the role of medium was open to women, and, in fact, women were thought to be particularly suited to it. (213)
…the accessibility of mediumship to women resulted in the large number of women who achieved prominence in the movement…(213)
…by the end of the nineteenth century there were….churches served by pastors, many of them women…(214)
…concept of the divine seems to have benefited women by its insignificance. (214)
The advantage for woman in this kind of by the way, impersonal God lay in the fact that she was not likely to be found wanting in qualification for roles of leadership because she did not sufficiently reflect the divine image. (214)
…many of the mediums were women. (215)
…the prevailing view was one which afforded women more freedom and approval to seek careers other than marriage, or else to function as a medium in addition to being married…(216)
…women’s roles, female Spiritualist mediums nonetheless conformed in a surprising way to nineteenth-century…(216)
…the medium emphasized her femininity by insisting that she was not responsible for her actions, that she was controlled by higher powers. (217)
…the women…the option to function as a medium was there if she wanted it and if she thought it was worth the price. (217)
The highly optimistic and essentially nonjudgmental doctrines of Spiritualism concerning both the deity and human nature provided no theological barriers to keep women from functioning as mediums.(213)
…who sought to step beyond the ordinarily prescribed roles of wife and mother. (214)
…the role of medium was not a breaking away in every sense from the cultural stereotype of what a woman ought to be, as will become evident. (214)
…redemption by a male incarnation of the deity. (214)
…deity did not actively promote the need for female leadership…(214)
…the husband rather than the wife had most of the legal advantages. (215)
…the impossibility of escape, particularly for women, from a contract that was in no way a marriage of souls. (216)
…she functioned as a religious professional in a society which rejected that as a suitable role for a woman, she was subject to accusations of immorality and stepping beyond her station. (217)
…she enjoyed a certain measure of independence freedom from traditional female responsibilities, an income, even if small, and the adulation of audiences and followers. (217)
The Christian Scientists
… “ubiquity” of women in… “Not only was its most famous exponent a woman; scores of its lesser exponents were women, as founders, writers, preachers, teachers, healers. (217)
… “Was there something wrong with the position of women?” (218)
… women lay primarily in its stress on self-help rather than helplessness, and on the possibility of healing without dependence on the dictates of doctor or clergy. (218)
…incorporates the feminine as well as the masculine. (218)
…affirms the feminine aspect of the divine. (219)
Woman could see themselves, then, not as weak and helpless, but as reflecting the image of the divine feminine. (219)
…the fact that in the early years women practitioners outnumbered men five to one. (219)
In addition, the offices of reader and teacher were open to women. (219)
…religious movements granting equal status to women…(219)
…giving expression to a “higher concept of divine womanhood,” as well as providing an example of a female religious leader. (220)
…evolved into a highly authoritarian structure, one which nonetheless gave a woman a place not usually afforded them by traditional Christianity. (220)
Mary Baker Eddy discovered Christian Science at a time when women were virtually excluded from positions of political, economic, or religious power. (218)
Their influence in these areas was to be exerted obliquely through motherhood and family life. (218)
…and a woman was expected to find fulfillment by a system of vicarious living through husband and children. (218)
A woman’s life was one of physical and emotional dependence on others. (218)
They did not need to interpret their relatively weak position in the world as a sign of God’s particular disfavor. (219)
Nor was there any reason that women should be kept from full participation…because they did not sufficiently mirror the divine nature. (219)
… “The pride of priesthood is the prince of this world…(219)
… “Human nature has bestowed on a wife the right to become a mother; but if the wife esteems not this privilege by mutual consent…(220)
…teaching and the teaching of her students, that a woman cannot be an effective healer, if she really loves a man and be a true wife…(220)
The Theosophists
…see the divine as other than masculine…( 221)
…deemphasized the importance of gender… (222)
…the opportunity of exercising spiritual leadership equal to that of men. (222)
…women …expecting to participate “on terms of entire equality with men in its ideal of the family of Humanity, in its terms of membership, in all its offices, and every facet of its teachings”…(223)
…religious movements sympathetic to full participation by women… (223)
…the number of female leaders…provides good evidence that in the various facets of the movement women did indeed achieve prominence as spiritual leaders and interpreters. (224)
Well aware that women’s body had kept her from positions of spiritual leadership in Western Christianity, women could turn to …. “ A temporary function for the body [child-bearing] is made an excuse for closing off many avenues of world-service to women…(222)
…women could define their roles in a way that was broader than those imposed upon them by traditional Christianity. ( 222)
…traditional churches’ attitudes toward women as well as of their refusal to ordain women. (223)
… “The Churches and their priesthoods have ever been the enemies of the freedom of women” (223)
… “Some occultists…maintain the line of magic for a man is quite different from that of a woman, and infer that the magic of the Mass could not take place through the female organism” (223)
… the nineteenth century for the degradation and legal helplessness of women…(223)
…saying that in marriage a woman “loses her legal existence” and “loses control over her own body; it belongs to her owner, not herself”(223)
…blaming the churches for the sufferings women endured in unhappy marriages and as a result of having numerous children, saying that “both the New Testament and the Church have insisted on the inferiority of the female sex”(223)
…general rule…masculine mind…a woman will give you lots of silly little troubles all the time and I can’t be bothered” (224)
…assuming positions of leadership which were denied them in the mainstream religions. (224)
…similarities of doctrine and attitudes…(224)
…emphasis on total separation of women from the churches that is characteristic of a theologian like Mary Daly. (225)
God pictured in wholly masculine images is not conducive to an understanding of the feminine as participating in the divine; that a doctrine of human nature as depraved through the Fall seems to be even more detrimental to women than to men; that an ordained male clergy is not likely to open its ranks willingly to women…(225)

Females were afforded the ability to be spiritual leaders if they chose to follow certain religions other than Christianity. The four religions are: “Shakerism, Spiritualism, Christian Science, and Theosophy” (207) in these religions females were given divine order to be leaders and mediums for preaching and teaching the word. A majority of these religions believed that gender was not important when teaching and preaching the word. However, what was important was that people know and followed the word so it would be pleasing to a high calling. Most women in traditional churches were not given the opportunity to participate in Mass or give prayers. Therefore women had to join one of these four religions in order to have religious freedom and have equal opportunities.

Women’s Religious Orders

Life for women in the early decades was very rife and strenuous. Women were viewed as property they were not allowed to start or run businesses neither were they allowed to participate in major religion events. They were married off by parents and forced to enjoy the life styles of their new husbands. Women were not given the option of having their own identity. Either they wore their father or husbands identities, never revealing who they really were or what they really liked to do. Having a career for a woman was only limited to domestic duties. This was especially true when it came to religious orders. Women could not be a part of clergy teams. But as time progressed the community had no choice but to give women some type of freedom, due to the fact that war left some women widows and left some daughters fatherless. When this occurred some women took this event and turned it into a great opportunity. A lot of them became leaders in their community and in their religious organizations by participating in some fashion with Cistercian abbeys. These abbeys were created to house women who wanted to be nuns. The women in these abbeys were either founders or were a part of the abbey because they did not want to live a traditional woman’s life. The founders of these Cistercian abbeys were considered leaders because of their financial power given by certain people and religious authority. Therefore this paper will argue that being a female leader in Medieval Christianity depended on financial stability given by husbands and religious activities. Being a leader during this time period ensured women with power that they would not otherwise receive.
Even though these women were given power and authority they were still restricted. Yes “noblewomen in the thirteenth century continued to access power, through marriage but also autonomously through inheritance, and few restrictions were placed upon their ability to exercise it.” (Jordan, 2008, p. 538)These women who possessed the limited restrictions were able to purchase land and help nuns continue to serve in their religion. Because these women were financially stable they were able to do things that other women were restricted to do. They were able to travel to other countries and collect relics that would otherwise be unobtainable. Having land and being able to give money away to religious causes allowed these women to be identified as leaders. These leaders were also known as founders. They were called founders because they took the money that they received from their dead husbands and created religious facilities for women who wanted to become nuns. These facilities were known as abbeys and they were identified as havens for women who didn’t want to marry or for women who lost their husbands and no longer wanted to live a traditional woman’s life. Most of the women that were widows that retreated to the abbeys were great influencers and leaders of these abbeys. They received the money from their husbands to make a big influence on these abbeys. Take for instance Christina who was married to William Brohon when he died she took the wealth and gave it to the “nuns in Ravensburg, including the land that comprised its initial endowment”. (Jordan, 2008, p. 541) A woman could not be a strong, productive leader or a founder of an abbey if they were not awarded any money by their husbands. Here is another example of a woman who was a leader/founder of an abbey “Ada Harnes”. (Jordan, 2008, p. 541) Ada was a woman that took the wealth that was left to her by her husband and “the abbey of Brayelle”. (Jordan, 2008, p. 541) Only because she was awarded this money from her husband was she able to start up this abbey. Women who started up abbeys were supported and accepted into the society.
Money is a very important aspect of religious orders simply because without it a lot of religious affairs would not take place. Having financial stability for women is a way out of traditional living after their husbands have died. If a female had no money then she would forfeit the chance of being a leader. Think about a business affair, money rules everything the person that has the most money is the person that makes the major decisions in the business. Not only that, but financial stability made it possible for some abbeys to remain open and safe from angry male counterparts that felt that women should be property. There were a couple cases in history that discussed how abbeys had to be relocated because they were being threaten against being shut down and destroyed. (Bornstein, 2010) Also these abbeys had to have permission to exist in a community; these women with financial stability had the power to get abbeys accepted into the community. Look at Mathilda during the 1200’s “she was also able to use her position on behalf of the nuns to obtain the consent of neighboring ecclesiastical officials, who initially resisted the intrusion of another religious community into the area and the competition for local revenue that it represented.” (Jordan, 2008, p. 545) Without out the money, Mathilda would have been viewed to her male counterparts as another woman in the community that was being used by the devil. But because of her wealth she was viewed as an important person in the community. Not to mention that she is trying to initiate a religious facility, however if she was trying to start up something secular she would have a problem getting that facility opened in the community. The men in the community looked at these powerful women as important entities only because they had money and they were supporting religious activities.
Religious activities in the community could never be lead by a woman unless it had something to do with the abbeys. These abbeys were important because they keep women in a house and keep them away from men. These men are the same men who say that these women were only distractions. During this time period women were viewed as distractions so having abbeys for single women were a great place to put these women/distractions to keep them away from the clergy men. Clergy men were acknowledged as law makers and rulers of the community so they gave a yes or a no to certain things that were acceptable in the community. Religious orders were very important in different communities all over the world and that’s why women and men alike agreed that everybody needed to participate in the religious atmosphere even when separating the males and the females. Yes women who went to the abbeys were not always widowed some of them were single and had never be been married. They also received money from their parents this left them wealthy which caused them to be viewed as leaders however, the women who were married were viewed as leaders more because they participated in the community as respectful wives and mothers. For a women to be acknowledge in the community she would need to have a well known name in the community and money. Women who possess well known names played an important part in the community. The important part is the financial part; it is so much you can accomplish with money. Without money there is little or nothing you can complete without it.
Another thing to contemplate is the fact that, yes people had money but if they did not use it for religious purposes then they were not viewed as important people in the community. Especially women, because they were not viewed as human beings or important entities anyway, so secular things that were obtained by women were viewed as women that were there to distract men of the clergy. The only thing in the community that was important was the important religious actions that took place. Nonetheless some women became leaders because of their parents and they had little or no influence in the community because their life style was not viewed as productive. These abbeys that were started by single women were not as financial stable as the ones that were started and funded by widows. The woman, who received their money through heirs during medieval times, took that money and used it for secular purposes majority of the time. Yes these women who started abbeys from their father’s money were leaders however they were only leaders as long as they were alive, because once they died they were of no help financially to the abbeys they started. Unlike the widows who had children, the children played an important part because when the mother died the children were still able to continue to take care of the abbey for their late mother. Here is an example look at Alice’s situation. “After Alice’s death in 1239/40 her son Philip of Boelare became an active patron and protector of the abbey, appearing in five charters between 1241 and 1249.” (Jordan, 2008, p. 543) The abbeys continue to exist because they had protection and financial stable from the late women’s children. Especially if the children were males, the males had a lot of influence in the community and because of that a lot of abbeys had great stability.
In conclusion yes women were leaders, and founders of abbeys during medieval times but being a leader depended on financial stability and religious activities. The women who received their fortune from their husbands were viewed as better leaders than the women who received theirs from their parents. This is the case, simply because women who were once married played a sufficient role in the community and because of that they have more say so in the community through their abbeys especially if they birthed a male child that participated in politics or clergy teams. These male children made it possible for these abbeys to continue to function after their mother’s had passed. Without male support or vital women support abbeys were destroyed or left without support to continue to take in women who needed to be taken in to avoid ridicule. Not only that but it also made a great impression in the community when the money was most definitely used for religious purposes instead of secular reasons. Since women were viewed as distractions and devils it was most important for these great leaders to make sure that their fortunes went into an organization that could help other women while it also helped them as widows.


Bornstein, D. E. (2010). Medieval Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Jordan, E. (2008). Female Founders: Exercising authority in Thirteenth-century Flanders and Hainaut. Church History & Religious Culture , 535-561.

Bednarowski, M. F. (1980). Outside the Mainstream: Women's Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America. Journal of the American Academy of Religion , 207-231.


Wow! I really enjoyed reading your wiki. Your organization and format is presented in an attractive way that is easy to comprehend. The picture you have is placed in a good location for a hook. Your evidence supports your argument well and includes appropriate citations. The bibliography is also correct except it appears to be missing a reference to the Bornstein book which you have cited in the paper. My understanding of the article analyses is that they were a little lengthy and could have been condensed to few main points from each category. Overall, I felt this was a great wiki with a lot of good information that complimented the other wikis.
It was really interesting to read as it was from a different perspective than the wiki on the Beguines. I really like the connection between money and the thirteenth century and money and today. Money really does make things happen and gives people power to do things that they would not ordinarily do both then and now. I am also amazed, as I have been this entire class, at how dedicated these people were to their religion. Religion played such an important role during this time. I think it still plays an important role even today, but I do not feel that we are as centered on religion as they were or even as we should be.
This really opened my eyes to what the Beguines actually accomplished. They must have really been amazing to have been able to even receive some male support. Someone commented that the Beguines were like Girls Gone Wild of that time and after reading your wiki, I have to agree. I do find it ironic and a little sad that these same women who were once considered “property” were so easily accepted when they inherited money. I also found it sad that when the women who established abbeys died, they were no longer recognized Once again, that proves what money can do for you. Great job on your wiki!