Project Director

Guilfoyle, James

Department Examiner

White, Michelle; Irvin, Lindsay; Taylor, Carol


Dept. of History


University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Place of Publication

Chattanooga (Tenn.)


The history of the Catholic Church is replete with examples of virtuous men and women leading holy lives as an inspiration to others. While male saints certainly outnumber women it is impossible to read through the list of canonized individuals without noticing the large number of women who have been acclaimed as saints. What led the male dominated church to raise these women to stand as equals with popes and apostles? The answer lies in virtue and the means by which these women acquired it. Some were mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, others were martyrs like St. Perpetua but all broke out of their traditional female roles that had been ordained since birth. Through the strange upward mobility that the Church paradoxically offered they were able to become the equals, and in some respects the superiors, of the reigning elite. This proposed DHON thesis shall focus on several examples of female sainthood starting with Saint Mary Magdalene and her position within the early church. From there my examination will move to the age of martyrdom with Saint Perpetua (d. 203 AD) and her singular firsthand account leading up until her death. Finally, the paper shall investigate the age of Christian rule of Europe with such varied saints as Saint Catherine of Siena (d. 1380 AD) , Saint Joan of Arc (d. 1431 AD), and Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179). Each of these women shared a common thread of virtues that united them while at the same time separated them from the majority of women in Europe. As a result of this distinction these exceptional women often clashed with the patriarchy of the church as well as with the preexisting ideas about the proper roles of women in society. These concepts were based heavily upon the example of the Virgin Mary as the archetype of feminine perfection and also upon the writings of church fathers such as St. Paul or St. Jerome who made reference to the expulsion from Eden and Eve’s part in it as proof of the fallibility and duplicity of women. These two notions are at the core of what it meant to be a female saint. On the one hand the legacy of Eve was a heavy burden on each woman and on the other hand Christ was, at least in the Catholic tradition, born of the Virgin Mary who herself was without sin. From the examples of a young woman plagued by visions, a nun in a convent, or even a scholar, mystic, and advisor to kings, all holy women had to fight a quiet war to earn the same respect that the men of the Church were granted freely. If their path was more difficult it only served to highlight the virtues that would lead to their canonizations: modesty, chastity, and a deep spiritual connection to God that gave them the strength of will and the determination to carve out for themselves a respected place in the hierarchy of the Church. This thesis will be based heavily upon the words of these women, in particular the writings of Saints Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, and Hildegard of Bingen. While primary sources will be the main focus, secondary materials relating to the saints and their activities to fill out the narrative of their lives will also be referenced. All of these sources will reinforce the argument that female mystics and saints attained their position chiefly through virtue, spiritual insight, and raising themselves beyond traditional ideas of womanhood.


B. A.; An honors thesis submitted to the faculty of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Bachelor of Arts.




Christian women saints


Catherine, of Siena, Saint, 1347-1380; Hildegard, Saint, active 10th century


Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Sainthood


History | History of Gender | History of Religion

Document Type



85 leaves







Date Available