An outsider studies the insider world of women religious

by Margaret Susan Thompson


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As I began to visit religious archives many years ago — a journey that, at this point, has taken me to over five dozen motherhouses — I was bewildered at how often I was asked the same two questions by the women I encountered: Why are you researching our history? Are you a sister, or were you?

When I answered that I was not a nun or a "former," the reaction was usually one of surprise. Why would an outsider find sisters' lives and histories worth researching?

I explained that I came to the subject not from a place of faith, but as a secular, and feminist, historian. Meanwhile, the more I've learned, the more I am persuaded that omitting sisters' experiences leaves enormous holes in our understanding of social history generally and women's history in particular. But it's ironic that nuns themselves need to be persuaded of this. Perhaps it comes from a tradition of humility or from what might just seem self-evident to insiders. Still, they should know better than anyone how and why their history matters.

As we continued to talk, another message would emerge: Would or could an outsider really understand religious life sufficiently to write accurately and insightfully about it? Or was this a subject that required an insider perspective to grasp or grapple with it effectively?

As St. Joseph Sr. Sally Witt put it in a recent interview with Global Sisters Report: "It's so easy [for outsiders] to misunderstand even little things. Sisters use a lot of internal words, and they don't always mean the same to us as they mean to other people."

Most who write about the history of women religious today are not themselves vowed and are not insiders. Still, I would argue that the study of sisters is neither inaccessible nor incomprehensible to those on the outside. History, after all, is a discipline premised upon the belief that one can fully understand that which one does not experience directly. After all, most of the events historians study are in the past, and most of the people we write about are dead. My own first book was on Congress and lobbying in the 1870s, an era I could not have lived through and a setting in which a woman like me would have been both unfamiliar and uninvolved.

There's a bit of anthropology to the process, as well. Getting to know a distinct culture is possible for outsiders, providing they are willing to do the work. So I entered into my work on sisters with the same expectation: that I was perfectly capable of coming to understand this world, although, like any milieu, it would take time to learn enough about it to write capably and confidently.

There's a large literature on the "insider/outsider problem" in the study of religion and of history generally. It suggests while people like me are not among those who can write about conventual experience in the first-person plural, that may in fact be a good thing.

Outsiders may be less likely to be celebratory or hagiographic in their writing, although, as with any rule, there are exceptions on both sides of the equation. Insiders who write about their own congregations may be as narrowly focused as outsiders who focus on individual congregations. Like a lot of case study writers, regardless of subject, they may presume that their stories are special or unique or, alternatively, that generalizations can be based upon singular or isolated examples. Insiders also may be more likely to propose statements of faith as statements of fact, though the trained scholar who is also an insider is not so likely to do so today as in the past.

Witt is a trained historian and an insider, but there are other insiders who have written important histories of women religious, including pioneers like St. Joseph Sr. Evangeline Thomas and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Rosalita Kelly as well as scholars besides Witt who are active today, like Sr. Ann Harrington of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mercy Sr. Mary Sullivan, and Ireland's remarkable Sacred Heart Sr. Phil Kilroy. And some excellent histories are written not only by insiders, but by amateurs, those who are not trained scholars. I admire especially Pauline Grady's history of the Illinois Adorers of the Blood of Christ and Josephine Peplinski's history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis.

So what, if anything, does an outsider have to offer? Or, speaking for myself, what do I think someone like me can do from outside religious life and inside the secular academy? If sister-historians may have greater standing or acceptability with certain insider audiences, someone like me might speak more credibly to academic or secular readers. Those who come to the subject of sisters' history with some skepticism that it has anything to say to those who are not part of religious life might be more open to an outside scholar's agenda or perspective. While insiders may, as Witt says, "use a lot of internal words" or jargon that is alien to most seculars, folks like me may "talk the talk" more fluently of historiography, social science and gender studies.

As years go by, I see my role increasingly as a bridge-builder. As a scholar, consultant and, since 2005, an associate of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, I believe I've spent enough time within sisters' domain to understand it, to speak its language, and to interpret and present it all to others. In this, I may have an advantage that insiders do not in presenting that world to a wider audience that really ought to know about it. Moreover, as one who has researched many dozens of congregations, I can build bridges, too, among religious who may know their own stories very well, but not those of others in the larger circle of sisterhood.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in this; more and more outsiders are bringing their perspectives and expertise to "sistory" than would have been the case even a decade ago. Our work is not a place for competition, but rather for cooperation, collaboration and mutuality. We are all part of the larger spectrum of scholarship. Together, we have the power to tell stories that need to be told and present an understanding of the past that is rich and complex because it reflects both the contributions of women religious and the voices and lenses of a spectrum of those who can write knowledgeably and effectively about a sisterhood that continues to shape our world.

[Margaret Susan Thompson is a professor of history, religion, and women's studies at Syracuse University. She has written extensively on the history of religious life and has an 18-lecture series on the subject available through]