Women have traditionally been pushed to the background in historical study. Prior to the late 20th century in America, women were not major policy makers, and were relegated to the private sphere. Religion as well, pushed women to the sidelines. It was not until Vatican II that women were able to have even a small part in Roman Catholic mass. While analyzing religious life and trends, women simply were not part of active official practice. Politics and religion are two major areas of historical study, but they dismiss half of the population because of women’s limited involvements. Women that devoted their lives to God, however, entered a semi-public sphere available for study today.
Religious sisters and nuns were women who found agency and an avenue to representation through religion and devotion to God. There were many Religious orders, groups of women who follow a “Rule” and live in community for God (Wolfe 31). The Dominicans especially offered these opportunities to women of diverse backgrounds throughout the United States.
St. Dominic de Guzman founded the Dominicans in 1215 after Pope Honorius III approved it (Wolfe 35). They are founded on the four pillars of prayer, study, community and preaching. Initially a European organization, the Dominicans crossed the Atlantic with waves of immigrants in the 19th century (Kohler 53). The Dominicans allowed women to devote their lives to God while studying. Other options available to women of the time were extremely limited. Neither “officially” worshipping God nor studying beyond childhood would have been available to women outside the confines of a convent. The sisters also taught young children, engraining themselves in the everyday lives of their neighbors. Their influence on these children may have ensured the longevity of their orders, as well as provided a community for those searching for one. The 19th century found many immigrants searching for a path to posterity in the United States. Religious Sisters, including the Dominicans, provided an avenue to a better life for young women.
The lives of nuns and sisters, while examined individually in the past, have yet to be examined as a whole. The motives these women had for joining religious orders, the Dominicans especially, can illuminate societal conditions of the time.
Why did women want to join the Dominican sisters? Was it part of a larger societal expectation, or a true illustration of personal agency? And why did the Dominicans cross the Atlantic when they did? Was it in response to the immigrants leaving at that same time or was there another impetus?
I will examine these questions and their implications by utilizing documents left behind by sisters. Their letters and diaries will provide insights into the daily lives of sisters and their thoughts. Biographies published of Dominican Sisters will also be helpful when it comes to specific, more than likely, exceptional sisters. Scholarly research of the time on...