The word “nun” can conjure images from traditional to irreverent in terms of gender. The gender of those who call themselves nuns can range from feminine to masculine, from a woman who looks like a woman dressed as a woman, a contemporary sister or “nun,” who does not wear the traditional black habit, but contemporary female clothing and perhaps a short veil or “wimple” and a cross around her neck; to a man dressed as nun in extremely sexual female garb, a “drag queen” nun; to the traditionally dressed nun, whose habit is a full-length black gown, and full veil covering everything but her face and hands, who means to conceal gender and become something else – a “nun.”
The physical space of “nun” then has opened the realm of gender for women, and recently men, since the creation of the category “nun” was established with the first order of female religious. Cloistered orders of women began in the fifth century, with the more liberated orders of “sisters” forming in the sixteenth century. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists approximately twelve Roman Catholic religious orders of sisters, or as they are commonly called, “nuns.” However, this terminology should be amended to allow for the difference between “sisters”- non-cloistered orders, and “nuns”- cloistered orders. Most traditionally the word nun officially refers to Roman Catholic nuns – those who take solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and live cloistered lives of silence, and prayerful meditation. Choir nuns, such as that of the famous convent headed by Hildegard de Bingen, (1098-1179), German nun, mystic and composer, chant the Liturgy of the Hours daily – consisting of a set order of readings and prayers, including Morning, Evening, Daytime and Night Prayers.
Orders of Roman Catholic sisters on the other hand, take the simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but live in society, ministering to the needs of the people in their community, and do not live by the strict rules of the cloister. Those who call themselves “nuns” however exist outside the Roman Catholic religion, most notably in Buddhism, but also in Eastern Christians, Anglicans, Jains, Lutherans, Taoism, and the aforementioned “drag queen” nuns or Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Nuns are, however, almost overwhelmingly female-sexed and live lives of service to God. The male equivalent of a “nun” is a monk, as opposed to a priest. Roman Catholic nuns do not perform the Catholic Sacraments of Mass and Confession for example, but live lives of charitable service. Mother Teresa, Teresa of Calcutta, is perhaps the most notable example of this type of sister, founding the Missionaries of Charity in 1949 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
The traditional black nun’s habit covering all but the hands and face, effectively removes all evidences of female “gender” thus making the “woman” disappear and the “nun”- a gender-free space- emerge. This did allow women throughout history the space of “trans” gendering the traditional role of “woman.” It allowed for women to pursue charitable work in a way usually seen unfit for women- a life lived with other women and ministering in the streets of the world, rather than service in the traditional personal home. Nuns, or sisters, have been sent to every corner of the globe ministering to the poor, sick and dying and have founded and dedicated themselves to systems of education, nursing, and social work throughout the world.
The cloister, on the other hand, because of the emphasis on an intense personal life devoted to God and removal of the possibility and perhaps responsibility of heterosexual marriage, gave many women historically the space and therefore freedom to create. This freedom allowed certain women an intellectual access unheard of way before the second wave of feminism. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this type of intellectual access would be the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the 16th century Mexican nun who is immortalized on the 20 peso and is second in popularity in Mexico only to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She challenged male authority throughout her life. As a mixed race person from a relatively poor background, her history is an example of the possible trajectory for a woman who entered the nunnery hoping to serve God, but also who was given access to a different life than her feminine gender would normally allow.
Sor Juana left court life for the nunnery where she published works read throughout her country and in Spain. Her life also points out another function of the habit, that of a possibility of a kind of “cross-dressing.” The reality of “lesbian nuns” was exposed in a popular book, Lesbian Nuns, published in 1986, but which references Sor Juana in the introduction as a possible example. Did Sor Juana enter the convent to have relationships with women, most notably perhaps the Countess of Spain who published all her work? Did she enter to have intellectual access disallowed women of her time? Did she enter to escape the heterosexual demands of court life, or traditional married life, her only other options? Or did she enter simply to marry God, above all other male figures, and to live a life of service devoted to Him? These gendered questions have been asked, not only of Sor Juana, but of female religious throughout the history of the orders. In a world that often restricts access to intellectual ability based on gender presentation, it is difficult to answer. While the primary reason most women enter the religious life is certainly to serve God in whatever way the order they enter chooses to serves God, it can not be denied that they do this in a non-traditionally gendered way – that of life lived exclusively among women- in a cloistered order, and that of a life lived among people, but primarily with women, in a religious order.
What is certain is that the physical space inhabited by those called “nun” has, while reinforcing certain gender roles, also challenged them.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University; and a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.