Teaser Tuesday: Gender, race, and intellectual authority in the Ursuline Convent

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

Teaser Tuesday is back, my friends.  Today’s excerpt from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, focuses on the education of girls and the racial and cultural politics in the Ursuline convent and school.  When she’s enrolled in the school, her name is first written into the boarding school records as “a little English girl named Esther.”  After having called her Mali while she lived among the Wabanaki, I resume calling her by her given name, and I hint here as to why it’s important that she was identified as “English” rather than “Wabanaki” or “Sauvagesse.”

In this excerpt, I pull back a little from the particular experiences of Esther to analyze the problem of education for girls at the turn of the eighteenth century, which was seen by elites as both potentially dangerous but necessary.  How much education was too much?  How did European and North American cultures ensure that girls’ and boys’ educations remained separate and unequal?  You’ll also see me indulge in one of my favorite tricks when I don’t have specific information about Esther.  Can you spot it?

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the education of girls was a political problem in both western Europe and in the European colonies of North America. Most elite Europeans and Euro-Americans recognized that a basic education was probably a practical and necessary good for middling and elite girls as well as boys, but at the same time they preferred a different curriculum as well as a different timeline for their daughters and sons.  From the time girls were first instructed in European convent schools in the fifteenth century, they were limited to an elementary education. Secondary education as well as the study of Latin, the language of humanistic scholarship as well as the Catholic Church, was reserved for boys and men. Because Europeans and Euro-Americans recognized that education was powerful, great care was taken to exclude girls and women from the community of learned scholars and priests. Elite European and Euro-American boys were meanwhile instructed in both reading and writing in their own language as well as in Latin as a matter of course.

Literacy for girls was grounded in reading, and may or may not have included the ability to write. Writing is a generative act, one associated with the production of new knowledge, which was considered an unfit activity for most women in the early modern period. The pen was, after all, a highly gendered tool. An “instrument of generation” (much like the penis), the pen was not fit to be deployed by girls or women who were meant to be merely consumers of ideas and information. Instruction in the eighteenth-century Ursuline convent probably included writing, as all of the teaching nuns could write, and all of the elected officers of the convent would have been expected to write in order to carry on necessary correspondence and to keep their financial and archival records. Furthermore, their boarding students were well-off daughters of the leading families of New France, and so were of a class of young women who would be expected to write. Therefore, the Ursulines’ writing skills were another thing that set them and their students apart from most women in colonial North America.

The most highly and uniformly educated group of women in Euro-American society were probably Catholic religious women. Early modern convents were divided into two classes: lay sisters (soeurs converses) performed the domestic labor of cooking, cleaning, and laundry for their order and would not necessarily need to be literate, while choir nuns (soeurs choeurs) were taught to read and write so that they could perform the official and administrative work of their orders, if not also to work in a teaching order like the Ursulines. But even these accomplished, elite, and devoutly Catholic women were kept ignorant of Latin except for what they needed to know to chant the liturgy, also known as the canonical hours or Divine Office. Both Ursuline founder Angela Merici and the pioneer leader of the Québec Ursulines, Marie de l’Incarnation, were “infused” with a divine understanding of Latin, but aside from God’s intervention, women in North America were generally not permitted to study or teach Latin. Occasionally, bright girls with extraordinarily sympathetic parents would let their daughters be tutored alongside their sons, and some of these girls learned Latin and even Greek, but European and North American educational practices remained highly segregated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Nearly seventy years after Esther was enrolled at the Ursuline convent school, in the spring of 1776, John Adams learned that his ten-year-old daughter, Abigail (Nabby) Adams Jr., was studying Latin. In a break from his responsibilities in the Second Continental Congress, he anxiously wrote to her, “I learned in a letter from your mamma, that you was learning the accidence” a popular Latin primer by the famed New England schoolteacher Ezekiel Cheever. “This will do you no hurt, my dear, though you must not tell many people of it, for it is scarcely reputable for young ladies to understand Latin and Greek—French, my dear, French is the language, next to English—this I hope your mamma will teach you.” He had instructed his wife in a previous letter that Nabby, “by Reason of her sex, requires a Different Education” from her brothers. Even revolutionary fathers and feminist mothers felt pressure to bow to convention when it came to educating their daughters.

.       .       .       .       .

Esther was probably an eager and successful student, but however expertly she learned to speak and write in French, however successful she was at overcoming her Wabanaki accent, she would be marked inside the convent for the rest of her life by her foreign origins. Significantly, the archives suggest that it’s not her Wabanaki origins that the Ursulines were eager to remember. Instead, signal events and recitations of her biography are consistently stamped with the word “Anglaise” (English), as though to erase her years with the Wabanaki and yet still mark her as a foreigner. From her first appearance in the records in 1709, she is identified as someone whose origins were different. When she first became a novice, her name was entered into the official register of novices as “Esther Anglaise” (or “Esther Angloise”), not as Esther Wheelwright. Although Esther had been living, speaking, and worshiping as a Wabanaki girl for the previous five years, the fact that she was not born a Wabanaki child was of decisive importance in her life. Her New England origins marked her as different from the Canadian-born girls and women she lived among for the rest of her life, but it was usually a distinction from which she benefited, compared with the Native girls who were her classmates.

Racial hierarchies were characteristic of all New World societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so ethnicity was just as centrally important in French colonies as it was in the English colonies to the south. The economy of New France was famously dependent on intermarriage with Native families in the Pays d’en Haut for its lucrative successes in the fur trade. French mission priests thought it better (after St. Paul) for French men to marry Native wives than to burn, but intermarriage and cultural hybridity were not celebrated in the cities of the Laurentian Valley, where racial and class lines were more strictly drawn. Montreal, Québec, and Trois-Rivères were islands of French Canadian ethnic homogeneity by comparison with the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Valley, and the women who entered religious life in these cities were not for the most part the kind of women who grew up in fur trader or métis families. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Esther’s English origins rather than her Wabanaki background were the roots that the eighteenth-century Québec Ursulines preferred to remember and emphasize. This whitening, or blanchissage, of her name and reputation is something that the Ursulines would continue not just for a year or two, but through the rest of her life.

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, 100-101; 103-104.

When I started writing this book, I had hoped to find that New France and its religious leaders were somewhat less driven by European-American identity politics than in the Anglo-American colonies.  But alas, it was not to be.  When you read the book, you’ll see how European (white) identity politics really shape Esther’s experience in the convent, and to a large degree enable her rise through the ranks to lead the convent itself.  In short, it was only because they could identify her as “English” (instead of Wabanaki) that Esther was elected to leadership posts and eventually to Mother Superior.

That said, if you read the book, you’ll also learn about a secret métisse, or mixed-race choir nun that no one knew about until I found her!  This complicates what we might see as Ursuline racialist politics, as they undoubtedly knew that this nun’s mother was Huronne, or Wendat, as both she and her own father were distinguished Christian leaders in their community, renowned for their piety and devotion.  Did the Ursulines then perpetuate or undermine French Canadian racism by ignoring her Native blood and making her a choir nun? Anyone who has ever worked in the archives of religious communities will no doubt sympathize with my frustration with the bland opacity of their written records.  Nuns are nonpareil at disguising their subversive aims, which is why they’ve persisted as long as they have.

About the trick I mentioned in the intro–did you spot it?  Although I rail against worship of the so-called “Founding Fathers” on this blog and elsewhere, I’m not above using their diaries and correspondence when it serves my needs, and when I think it can help a U.S. American audience connect to my story about a little girl and a woman growing up in Wabanakia and New France.  Nabby Adams–Abigail Adams Jr.–makes more than one appearance in my book, as does her mother.  Mama Abigail Smith, before she married John Adams, once practiced her French by translating a letter sent by Esther Wheelwright to her family back in New England!  It’s true–see page 224 for all the details.

(But alas–the letter no long exists! How I wish I knew which letter was circulating that New Englanders found so newsworthy and pedagogically useful!)

7 thoughts on “Teaser Tuesday: Gender, race, and intellectual authority in the Ursuline Convent

  1. Compare future Vice President Burr in Philadelphia in 1793, rudely admonishing an even more future vice president from the stage about the need to…. oops, I mean imperiously instructing his wife back in New Jersey about the need to educate their daughter, Theodosia, on new, Wollstonecraftian principles that he was staying up all night reading about, almost to the point of promising to text her lesson plans from the State House floor. There’s actually something kind of, or rather quite, grating about the overlordly tone that Burr uses in this particular and often approvingly-cited correspondence–much less decorous than Adams’s letters two decades earlier. But Burr seemingly meant what he said about the educational needs of at least elite girls in the late Enlightenment era. In 1811, having become a ONE TERM vice-president, and in a kind of self-imposed exile in London, he walked with Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Fanny Imlay, down Blackfriars Road into Southwark, all but passing the house in which her mother had begun writing the _Vindication of the Rights of Woman_, to visit the Lancastrian School, where some idiosyncratic version of those principles was woven into the curriculum.

    Did the Ursuline convent have an entity specifically designated as its “Library,” and were there rules or protocols about its use? Cool about the “Huronne, or Wendat” part! That’s what we brave the bland opacity of most all written records to try to do, although it comes to pass infrequently enough. Is the long term proscription on women learning to write based on a fear that bland opacity is actually a learned practice, and one that can become a double-edged tool or weapon?


    • My guess is that they didn’t have a library until the 19th C, but I don’t know. I have a few lists of supplies ordered from France in my notes, one of which requests “a dozen psalters, a dozen large ABCs” and “half a dozen small ABCs,” which I take to be basic readers, but other than this I have no evidence of the convent either purchasing or storing books, although they must have had some common store to assist the teachers.

      Great story about Burr and Fanny Imlay. I’m sure Burr was very good company to her, as he was an ardent admirer of her mother. I’ve been meaning to look up what Nancy Isenberg wrote about his enthusiasm for Mary Wollstonecraft’s work–need to clarify that anecdote for my women’s history students this week.


      • Burr hung out with and around the Godwin household for several years, called Fanny, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont “the goddesses,” and styled himself as “Gamp.” His journal of those years is in print, sometimes over-the-top.. He wrote before returning to the U.S. “that family really does love me…” Francoise Imlay is possibly the historical personage I would most like to “meet.” Her mother’s scattered comments and descriptions about her, literally from pre-birth until the eve of her own death, are amazing. Janet Todd, the editor of Wollstonecraft’s papers, has an interesting book on the girls, especially Fanny, _Death and the Maidens_.

        Liked by 1 person

    • HAW! Very few peens in this book, for obvs. reasons.

      Although you might be curious to learn about the rumors of Esther’s alleged pregnancy “by an Indian” around the time she entered the Ursuline convent school. Someone’s peen implicated/implied in that claim, of course.


  2. Pingback: Teaser Tuesday: the return of Nabby Adams, nuns’ clothing ceremonies, and a new doll! | Historiann

  3. I enjoyed coming across an 1836 letter describing the academic day at the Ursuline academy. Though some generations after the period you cover in your Esther Wheelwright book, there is still no indication of Latin or Greek instruction for the girls. However, the writer points out that the “first class” in the school pursues “the higher branches of education, such as philosophy, chemistry, botany, astronomy etc. etc.” She also mentions separate “exercise in chemistry, the globes, natural history etc.” And everybody is in writing class either 3 or 6 hours per week (which is 3 or 6 hours more than I got in my 1960s education).

    I wonder if these “higher” examples indicate these girls were more highly educated than previous generations. And/or could it be that the lessons they received lacked the substance of what contemporary boys were receiving (as a TV program on chemistry or botany would be enlightening, but not compare with high school education in those subjects today).

    The writer, who months earlier had transferred to the Quebec convent school from the Ursulines’ Mt. Benedict institution in Charlestown, Mass., said in her letter to a parent at the latter, “the pupils are not really under so much constraint here as ours were at Mt. Benedict; and in regard to education, they have far greater advantages.” It would be interesting to know what those were.

    The letter is at:


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