Masterless Mistresses

The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834

By Emily Clark

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 illus., 15 tables, appends., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5822-6
    Published: April 2007
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-3903-4
    Published: December 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7652-2
    Published: December 2012

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

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Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Awards & distinctions

2008 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

2010 Distinguished Book Prize, History of Women Religious

2007 Kemper and Leila Williams Prize in Louisiana History, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana Historical Association

During French colonial rule in Louisiana, nuns from the French Company of Saint Ursula came to New Orleans, where they educated women and girls of European, Indian, and African descent, enslaved and free, in literacy, numeracy, and the Catholic faith. Although religious women had gained acceptance and authority in seventeenth-century France, the New World was less welcoming. Emily Clark explores the transformations required of the Ursulines as their distinctive female piety collided with slave society, Spanish colonial rule, and Protestant hostility.

The Ursulines gained prominence in New Orleans through the social services they provided--schooling, an orphanage, and refuge for abused and widowed women--which also allowed them a self-sustaining level of corporate wealth. Clark traces the conflicts the Ursulines encountered through Spanish colonial rule (1767-1803) and after the Louisiana Purchase, as Protestants poured into Louisiana and were dismayed to find a powerful community of self-supporting women and a church congregation dominated by African Americans. The unmarried nuns contravened both the patriarchal order of the slaveholding American South and the Protestant construction of femininity that supported it. By incorporating their story into the history of early America, Masterless Mistresses exposes the limits of the republican model of national unity.

About the Author

Emily Clark is assistant professor of history at Tulane University.
For more information about Emily Clark, visit the Author Page.


“Clark’s enjoyable, punchy account . . . will prove valuable not only for what it brings to the history of New Orleans and Louisiana but also what it signifies about the intertwining of Franco-Iberian-Anglo-American societies and their faiths in the Americas.”--American Historical Review

"Written with elegant precision. . . . Essential reading for those seeking to understand the intimate scale of racial and social transformations that occurred in a unique southern city."--Journal of American History

"Elegant prose and riveting narrative . . . a tour de force that will intrigue any student of early American women's history."--Journal of the Early Republic

"This meticulously researched and engaging book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intertwined histories of race, gender, and religion in American history."--The Catholic Historical Review

"With this finely crafted study, Clark contributes substantively to the burgeoning field of scholarship acknowledging the seminal roles women religious have played historically in the formation of American culture and society."--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society."

"So thorough it encompasses every aspect that touches on the order of the Sisters of Saint Ursula."--Louisiana History