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I am reading some books by/about Sr Helen Prejean, and in one, came across the following assertion regarding the founding of her religious community, The Sisters of St Joseph, in France, circa 1650:

The first members of the order dressed like widows because their initial mission was to take care of homeless children, and widows were the only women who could move through the streets unaccompanied.

Sister Helen The Spiritual Journey of Sister Helen Prejean CAROL LEE FLINDERS, Ph. D 2012

Were French women as socially constrained as this suggests? I can understand unmarried women requiring a chaperon/e, but would respectable matrons not be able to move about freely, to shop, visit, attend church etc?

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    Guessing that 'France' will be a bit too broad, as Le Puy-en-Velay may not be that representative for the entire country? – LаngLаngС Mar 2 at 11:39
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    While it's true that widows at the time (to the best of my knowledge) essentially had no one to constrain their movements, I'm fairly sure that for other women this would have depended on the (usually) male head of the household, and perhaps on social class and (as LangLangC suggests) region or town. One can easily imagine that fear of gossips might have meant (in some places) that being unaccompanied was socially unacceptable. – Lars Bosteen Mar 2 at 12:30
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    Not an answer because the timing is off: I just listened to an "In Our Time" episode on George Sand who two centuries after your question found she had to dress as a man both to go to the opera unaccompanied and to mix in society enough to gain material as a writer. bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000dxsr – AllInOne Mar 2 at 16:19
  • @AllInOne That's incredible! – TheHonRose Mar 2 at 16:38
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Brief meta: I think that my semi-answer/comment about George Sand may have suppressed the initiative of others to respond with proper answers. So I am going to post this as an answer, even tho I think it is not a great one to try and undo my un-intended derailment. Perhaps it will prompt someone to do better than me.

I just listened to an "In Our Time" episode on George Sand who, two centuries after your question, found she had to dress as a man both to go to the opera unaccompanied and to mix in society enough to gain material as a writer. For Sand in particular there are other factors at play tho: She grew up riding on her grandmother's estate -- in riding trousers and it would certainly seem that she enjoyed bending gender norms.

If the George Sand example can be relied upon it seems entirely possible that two centuries earlier members of the order were prompted to take such action.

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  • thank you, I don't imagine your comment derailed the thread, but guess the social mores of a particular bit of 17th C France is a fairly narrow subject! – TheHonRose Mar 3 at 18:22

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