The Economist has a review of Nuns: A History of Convent Life By Silvia Evangelisti (Oxford University Press; 301 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Oxford University Press in May)
It would appear that far from being sidelined by society, Renaissance nuns enjoyed a life of considerable enjoyment, social standing and power
"Silvia Evangelisti, who specialises unpromisingly in “gender history” at the University of East Anglia in England, presents picture of nuns, observed mostly in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, as independent, jolly, productive and determined. They never needed men anyway, and rejoiced in the only life that could give them a proper social standing outside marriage. (“A husband or a wall” were the alternatives.)
They wrote, painted, put on theatrical shows, sang like angels and ran their own communities as competently as any male—so competently that if any bishop tried to saddle them with rules they did not like, they had a good go at defying him....
In Florence, between 1500 and 1800, almost half of the female elite lived in convents; in Milan, three-quarters of the daughters of the aristocracy could be found with rosaries and wimples, piously enclosed."