An Outsider Studies the Insider World of Women Religious

By Thompson, Margaret Susan | National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

An Outsider Studies the Insider World of Women Religious


Thompson, Margaret Susan, National Catholic Reporter


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 an 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. 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 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. …

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