It is difficult to estimate the exact result of the influence of the establishment of monasticism upon the character and position of women. In the earlier monasteries on England the two sexes lived together in the same building, though they were bound to strict continence and chastity. Corruption however, soon introduced itself. With the latter part of the eighth century, the nuns became proverbially dissolute in their character, and royal wives and mistresses were very frequently sought in the convents. But, on the other hand, it was in the nunneries that the education of girls of all classes was carried on. Convent schools were the only schools for rich or poor, and the “sisters” the only women able to qualify themselves to become instructors. The nuns, again, were the chief dispensers of charity. Their duties were by no means confined to the cloister; but they went about among the people, teaching, advising, consoling, and discoursing on subjects with which convent sisters are supposed to have little acquaintance.
It is frequently asserted, and with much force, that when the clergy labored to emancipate the female sex, it was not without self-interest. They had seen how the gentleness and pious spirit of the sex had assisted more than anything else in the early progress of Christianity. They sought, therefore, to substitute their own influence over woman for that of the family. The women were drawn away from earthly marriages to be, as they expressed it, married to Christ; that is, to enter the monasteries, and become nuns. The religious houses were thus filled with women who had either separated from their husbands, or refused to accept the husbands designed for them by their fathers, usually under the protection, if not under the encouragement, of the ecclesiastics.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.