Three lessons on women’s leadership from inside an Ursuline convent

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas)

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas), at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Modern and mostly secular folks probably wouldn’t think that religious people might teach us something about politics and leadership.  But there are important lessons about leadership found in my study of a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious order over the course of 150 years or so.  After all, Catholic women religious have been electing their leadership democratically for centuries before secular men thought elections might be a good idea for civil society.

These women ran triennial elections for their superior, her assistant, dépositaire (treasurer), scrutaine (overseer of elections), novice mistress, and other lesser offices.  Some Ursulines in my book even engaged in early ratf^(king operations.  It’s true!

I reveal all of the details in my soon-to-be released new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but just with you, dear readers, I’ll share some of the interesting parallels I found to the challenges facing North American women politicians even today.  Mother Esther (1696-1780) served in most of the elected offices in the Ursuline convent before being elected superior three times in the 1760s, a time of political, religious, and economic crisis in the wake of the British conquest of Quebec in 1759.  Her leadership and entrepreneurial financial management of the order through the 1760s permitted the order’s school and novitiate not only to survive in this uncertain decade, but to expand and thrive before Catholics were guaranteed the right to practice their religion by the Quebec Act of 1774.

How did she do it? 

  1. Play the long game.  As in eighteenth-century convents, relative youth and inexperience is not rewarded in women seeking leadership positions today like it is in men.  As Hillary Clinton undoubtedly recognized decades ago, there’s no such thing as a woman in her 30s or 40s who emerges from state government in a flash to grab a presidential or vice-presidential nomination in the way that Barack Obama did, or as Bill Clinton did before him.  So don’t worry about winning a news cycle. Think about your long-term goals, and understand that you will face some setbacks and losses.
  2. Own your strengths:  Spin what some might see as a disadvantage (age and experience) as as strength.  Take eighteenth-century Ursulines, for example:  “[Old age] was a time in which [women] might increase in stature within their communities and wield greater influence in the world outside.  In this context, women who lived long lives and survived until an advanced age may have been thought of as possessing a kind of spiritual power that younger people did not have.  In the Catholic tradition, there were several means by which believers could express their spiritual strength, and all of these involve a kind of mastery of the demands and desires of the human body.  Celibacy is one practice associated with spiritual purity and fortitude, one required for priests and for both women and men in religious orders,” 177.  Periodic fasts and mortification practices were another means of testing the will to overcome the flesh.  Mastering the discomforts or infirmities of old age was also seen as evidence of their spiritual fortitude and perhaps of God’s favor.
  3. Accept that you can’t win over everyone. Esther faced consistent challenges from a clique of women within the convent who saw her leadership as compromised or even illegitimate because she wasn’t French by birth—she was an immigrant and a naturalized citizen who was born in Massachusetts and found her way to Québec after being held as a war captive by the Wabanaki Indians.  Her remarkable life and one that made her a flexible and creative leader–but some of her sisters remained opposed to her superiorship.  After her first election, someone wrote a letter to the bishop asking if it was against their order’s Constitution to have a “foreigner” as superior; they wrote other letters to the bishop in her third term accusing her of playing favorites and of outrageous “hauteur.”  And the criticism wasn’t just from within convent walls–after the conquest, she was suspected by some in Boston of having facilitated espionage against the English!

That’s right–there’s more intrigue and bada$$ery inside convent walls than you’d think, and this is just a little taste.  Mothers superior were seen as public figures in Quebec as well as leaders of their communities, and as such they were subject to defamatory gossip and resentment by their political rivals inside and outside the monastery.  North Americans who want to take a longer view of women in politics would do well to look at who was running convents in Canada, Mexico, and in the United States after the American Revolution too.

Next month my book will finally be released, so all secrets will soon be revealed!

10 thoughts on “Three lessons on women’s leadership from inside an Ursuline convent

  1. Fascinating and undoubtedly correct. As a non-historian, I second Contingent Cassandra: I am struck by the 21st c. USA truth of the first point. Young and inexperienced is used as proof of brilliance and promise in a man, while a woman can’t possibly be Qualified and meet Standards until she ceases to be young.

    And so in the American academy, by the time they win scarce prizes like distinguished professor, woman are older than men. We never hear the end of how women need more time to rise because of their child- (and partner-) care obligations, and I’m sure that’s sometimes true, but many distinguished women earned the necessary achievements as fast as their male competitors and simply weren’t recognized for years. Male supremacism taxes women’s income, not just their prestige. I suspect our Ursuline foremothers in their convent had to live with less material comfort and spending power than their male peers, just as we do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great instincts for a non-historian, LadyProf–you’re exactly right that women’s orders in general were poorer than men’s orders. All were dependent on wealthy benefactors and (in New France, and I’m sure Old France and other European places) occasional gifts from the King. But re: the persistence of the wage gap today, people just weren’t willing to support women’s orders to the extent and degree that they made donations to men’s orders!

      The Ursulines were more fortunate than their nursing sisters, in that they were teachers & so served a wealthy clientele who could afford to pay their steep boarding fees. This was the Ursulines’ major source of income, after the required donations from the nuns themselves. Nursing orders–the Augustinians who ran the hospice and the hospital in Quebec–generally served only indigent clients, so they couldn’t use their apostolate to make money as easily.


  2. I love this comparison and agree with you about the unplumbed histories of early modern women leaders being relevant for today.

    I can’t wait to read your book when it comes out, I have to admit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wouldn’t think anyone would have wanted to get some bishop involved as a constitutional adjudicator for the order, or even as a scrutaine–great name for an office. This letter came from inside the big house? It’s funny how in the early modern era, before secular politics were anything like democratic, the porosity of state borders was so much more inevitable, irrevocable, and in some ways irrelevant than it would become later. Greetings from Brexitania. Seeing less of the blog than I would like this week, but now and again…


  4. oh, the many ways in which I love this post! Would love to see a whole series on what historical examples of convent leadership could reveal. And I cannot wait to read your book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Liz! Let me know if you’d like me to visit a class in person or via Skype, if you decide the book might work in your teaching. I love visiting new institutions and students, and I have other friends now who teach at your institution.


  5. Fascinating and depressing. The latter because it underlines how much women are just like men. Give any human being the chance to act like an a-hole to get power, and way too many of us will take it. Wouldn’t it be nice if some class of people, any class, really was better than everybody else!?

    Less depressingly, it sounds like she was a topnotch leader. The relatively high proportion of women who were outstanding leaders historically (at least that’s the impression I have from orbit) compared to all female leaders is intriguing. And you can’t even say it’s because they had to fight so much harder to get there since in the past these were hereditary positions or women-only to begin with, like the convent.

    Liked by 1 person

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