Sarah Coakley notes some surprising advantages of monastic life.
What is often forgotten in contemporary culture, however, is that as soon as the early monastic or ascetic forms of life arose within Christianity – which was quite early, especially in the Syriac-speaking churches – women had the opportunity to pursue a celibate monastic role that allowed them to escape from the subordinations which were assumed to be normative within the marriage role for them in the culture.
And it’s really in this area that an enormous amount of research of a creative sort has been going on in recent decades showing that, when women lived an ascetic life, they not only could operate quite autonomously in certain circumstances, but also their very understandings of themselves in gender terms were freed up from the presumptions that femininity involved subordination. In fact, it gave to them an extraordinary fluid understanding of what they were capable of achieving, thinking, and what leadership roles they might take.
For instance, Macrina, the famous older sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, was someone that was admired by her brothers above and beyond how they admired themselves in their intellectual and episcopal roles. And she herself was perceived as, in a strange sense, beyond gender in worldly terms.