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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!