Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Heather L. Claussen,

Unconventional Sisterhood:
Feminist Catholic Nuns in the Philippines

Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.
ISBN 0-4772-11221-X, hard cover.

reviewed by Carolyn Brewer

In 1621, Jerónima de la Asuncion's arrived in Manila, fresh (or as fresh as one can be after travelling from Spain to Manila in a seventeenth century sailing vessel) from her Poor Clare community in Toledo. Her arrival heralded an end to the exclusivity of male Catholic religious orders in the archipelago. Indeed, the feisty 65-year-old Mother Jerónima 'opened the gates of religious life for women in the Philippines'[1] and in doing so challenged Catholic orthodoxy as it had been introduced by waves of zealous male missionary religious and clerical brothers and fathers. Jerónima demanded, against male Franciscan advice, that her order of discalced (enclosed) nuns observe the privilegium paupertatis 'first rule of poverty' to which her Spanish-based order was bound—living solely by alms and without domestic help. Further, Jerónima refused to accept that the indigenous people of the archipelago were without the mental and spiritual capacity for religious life—the received wisdom of the male church hierarchy of the seventeenth century. Instead she insisted on admitting to the Poor Clare cloister any woman who presented and was found to be sufficiently 'called' to religious life.

Mother Jerónima could easily be portrayed as an 'unconventional' sister because of her refusal to bow to the demands of the various male religious with whom she came into contact in the walled city of Intramuros. In her book, Unconventional Sisterhood: Feminist Catholic Nuns in the Philippines, Heather Claussen writes about a contemporary but similar group of 'unconventional' women—unconventional in that the 'select group of Filipina Missionary Benedictine Sisters' who form the basis of her study not only challenge male authority, but also provide an alternative role model for Filipino women, other than the excessively feminised and idealised wife and mother that is prevalent throughout the Catholic Philippines. The mental and spiritual capacity for religious life of the twentieth century Missionary Benedictine woman is a testament to the legacy of Mother Jerónima and her defiance in the face of male discrimination.

In her anthropological text, Claussen explains that her subject position, in relation to the women she is studying, is as a North American agnostic with no background in Catholic practice—a position that provides both positive and negative reactions from her subjects. Moreover Claussen is under no misapprehension that her methodology—as interviewer and participant observer—has no impact on the women who form the basis of her study. She writes of an occasion when her feminist leanings provided one of the sisters with a tool with which to challenge a member of the male dominated church. As she wrote,

    During a chance encounter with me in the priory receptions area, ... Sister Micha introduced me to a male seminarian friend of hers by explicitly identifying me as a feminist. The sister was positively gleeful at his apparent but politely restrained discomfort upon receipt of this news too. In fact, the subject having been successfully broached, she took the opportunity to proclaim herself also a feminist, leaving her companion virtually speechless (222).
Claussen's 'outsider' status to the order of Missionary Benedictines has its limitations in that she is not given access to the sisters in their cells (an area that is 'religiously' protected from outsiders).[2] Further, because of the way that the sisters are moved regularly to other Benedictine houses throughout the archipelago and indeed overseas, Claussen ends up with but a handful of women who are stationed in the Manila area while she is conducting her research. Nevertheless, Claussen's tightly structured text provides illuminating insights into the lives of the women who choose to profess their faith and lives as Missionary Benedictines. From the advertising blurb distributed to attract young women to the order, through formation to the full profession of vows, the stories that Claussen weaves highlight the multistranded tightropes that many of the Missionary Benedictines walk in relation to family, sexuality, spirituality and Catholicism.

In a chapter entitled 'Reclaiming Philippine Faith as Feminist Practice,' Claussen details the way in which some of the nuns are attempting to reclaim their Filipino spirituality and the importance of the babaylan[3] to village life by briefly exploring their pre-colonial history as well as making links with the millenarian and nationalist Siuydad Mistika [Mistica Ciudad de Dios] movement and their current leader Isabelle Suarez (commonly known as La Suprema), on Mt. Banahaw. In the last two chapters, entitled 'The Woman Question' and 'Filipina Feminism(s) Revisited' Claussen focuses closely on Sister Justine—a shadowy figure throughout the earlier chapters who introduced and encouraged many of Claussen's Missionary Benedictine informants to take feminism seriously. Sister Justine's concern for social justice and especially her commitment to elevate the Filipino woman's position within the Filipino family (213) is at the centre of her commitment to 'preach the Gospel in words and deeds.' As she puts it, 'if action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel today, any religious woman who is unconcerned with justice cannot be said to be living her commitment' (215).

Most interesting for me is the way in which the Missionary Benedictine nuns that Claussen studies, many of whom identify as feminist, womanist or mujer, negotiate their way within the male-dominated, male focussed Catholic Church. At the same time they sensitise lay girls and women to the structures in society that seek to oppress women, make them subservient to men and limit their life choices. This tension between being a professed woman in an organisation that traditionally oppresses women and working to illuminate that domination and subjugation for others is what makes this book an important and forceful text. Claussen is at her best when she takes seemingly small events that are at the interface of this contradiction and analyses them to show the extraordinarily complicated lives that are lead by the feminist-inspired Missionary Benedictine nuns.

Claussen writes in an easy to read, at times almost chatty style although she departs from normal academic conventions to include word contractions (isn't, can't, doesn't) in her text—a habit that I found distracting. I feel this text would have been enhanced with an early description of the way gender and woman are often conflated and synonymous in the Filipino context (as they are in Claussen's text) and I found the excessive number of sub-headings in her chapters disconcerting especially since they could have been deleted with no deleterious impact on flow of the text itself.

More importantly is the fact that one of Claussen's stated objectives in writing the book is to detail the 'experiences of Third World Women' and thus provide 'a crucial counterpoint to Western ethnocentrism,' which, she claims, is both an intellectual and 'necessarily political exercise' (207). However, while she has a western audience in mind for her text, Claussen surely must owe some sort of debt [loób] to the women of the Philippines and especially to the Missionary Benedictines that she included in this study. It is my hope that this important text will also be published in the Philippines, so that women there can afford to purchase and read about the Unconventional Sisterhood that exists in their midst.

These concerns notwithstanding, Unconventional Sisterhood is a must on the shelves of those interested in religion and gender in the Philippine context as well as Southeast Asianists, Philippinists, and feminist theorists and theologians more generally.


This review first appeared in Pilipinas, 2002.

[1] Pedro Ruano, Jerónima de la Asuncion, the 5th Centenary of the Evangelization of the New World 1452-1992, ca 1992, no place, no publisher, p. 3.

[2] One book, written by ex nuns that does look into the inner sanctum of nuns' lived experiences is edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1985. This text, however, focuses specifically on North American women, many of whom have left the sisterhood.

[3] Babaylan or baylan refers to religious leaders in the Philippines (mostly women or men dressed as women) who facilitated spirit propitiation for their community within the Animist tradition of the pre-colonial era. It is interesting that many babaylan still exist in the Philippines, practising their craft outside of the boundaries of the mainstream Catholic religion, but these Animist religious practitioners are more often than not now men. See Carolyn Brewer, Holy Confrontation: Religion, Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines, 1521-1685, Manila: Institute of Women's Studies, 2001, esp. pp. 153-181.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1035 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright