The Other Sister 2023 Conference

By Meghan Lescault

Scintillating conversation from morning until night, high levels of intellectual synergy, and an aura of enthusiastic camaraderie. While this may sound like a scholarly daydream rather than an ordinary academic conference, this was in fact the reality of The Other Sister’s 2023 first international conference, which took place on the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto from May 18 to 20. The conference entitled “The Other Sister: New Research on Non-Cloistered Religious Women (1100–1800)” was organized by Prof. Isabelle Cochelin (University of Toronto), Prof. Alison More (University of St. Michael’s College and University of Toronto), Prof. Mary Harvey Doyno (California State University, Sacramento), Dr. Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerpen), and graduate students Joseph Akl, Emma Gabe, Meghan Lescault, and Laura Moncion (University of Toronto). It showcased important research about the many groups of women and individual women who have traditionally received far too little scholarly attention despite their prominence in the medieval and early modern worlds. The need for greater emphasis on this topic was made evident by the numbers of eager participants. Between attendance in person and on Zoom, there were somewhere from 50 to 100+ people present at all times, with the number usually falling on the higher end of the spectrum.

Over the course of the three days, 25 scholars from 9 different countries and all levels of academia, from MA students to professors emeriti, presented papers concerning non-cloistered religious women. The speakers offered precise insights into specific aspects of these women’s lives, while the papers taken together provided a broad thematic perspective that transcended geographic and temporal boundaries. Through the papers, both individually and together, participants were invited into a deeper understanding of non-cloistered religious women and their many important religious and social roles. In the final session of the conference, Prof. John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame) tied together the major themes of the papers and challenged participants to continue to ponder the broad questions that had arisen.

Most of the speakers and some in-person attendees of The Other Sister 2023 conference

Each session was followed by a robust discussion in which connections were made, collaborations were forged, and even friendly debate was held. While the participants specialize in different non-cloistered women and can often find themselves working on their separate topics in isolation, this conference provided the opportunity to exchange ideas, resources, and methodologies related to a shared interest. At least two speakers described their sessions as a unique chance to speak to their bibliographies. This palpable synergy powered the conference and did not stop even when the clock did. Outside of the formal sessions, participants eagerly conversed during meals and coffee breaks. Even when there was no official dinner organized, the attendees formed plans to go out together and extend the conversations for hours. 

Between the fascinating academic presentations and the lively spirit of collaboration, it is no wonder why at least five speakers have reported this to be the best conference of their careers. As the many “networks” of the other sisters were a recurring theme of the conference, it is only fitting that there exists an academic network devoted entirely to them. This network’s conference was a great success and hopefully only the first of many more to come.

Participants eagerly discussing research on non-cloistered religious women