The male-oriented structure of the Church did not preclude females from exercising leadership, and many early monastic communities were ruled over by an abbess, an office defined as the female superior of a community of twelve or more…

Those whom the abbess supervised elected her for a life term. She exercised supreme domestic authority over her monastery and all of its dependents, and she received a solemn benediction at her investiture. Unlike an abbot, her male counterpart, she had no spiritual dominion. However, she could hear a nonsacramental confession and administer punishments, appoint her own administrators, approve confessors for the laity, and confer the veil on virgins.

The office of abbess was the highest leadership position a woman could hold in society. These religious “monarchs” were addressed as “Sovereign” and “Majesty” and enjoyed great power. In England, kings looked to both abbesses and abbots for assistant in the defense of the country…At gatherings of Parliament, abbesses participated alongside abbots and bishops, sometimes adding their signatures to charters and documents formulated at these assemblies. They were present at all important national and religious celebrations and moved in all of the same social and political circles as the highest-ranking officials in the land.

Elizabeth Kuhns, The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns


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