In 1552, Jacoba Pallavicino-Parma da Scipione and several women pronounced their vows in the Society and sent Ignatius the vow formula. Ignatius declined to accept their vows. More than once, the headstrong Jacoba interfered with the Society’s apostolic plans by trying to influence Ignatius’ use of his men. Even before the canonical approval of the Society, she intended to donate 500 gold pieces to Ignatius besides her dowry. All requests met with a resounding no from Ignatius despite any offering of financial assistance.
In 1553, Jacoba sent another letter to Ignatius with plans to set up a college in Parma and in Cremona with her large donations. She submitted a detailed plan, with an initial payment, to found a convent of nuns under the Society’s rule and constitutions. This would make them female Jesuits. She signed the letter, “Jacoba of the Society of Jesus.” Rahner notes that this was “too much even for the patience of Ignatius”...who stated unequivocally that “such plans were against the rules of the Society.” (“Letters,” 319)
There were still other women who sought admittance into the Order: Leonor Mascarenhas, Teresa Rejadella, Hieronyna Oluja, María, Queen of Austria, Countess Osorio, and Juana Requesens. They implored Ignatius to grant their requests, but in vain.
Princess Juana, Regent of Spain
In 1555, by way of exception, Princess Juana, the imperious daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II, pressed her way into the Society through her acquaintance with Francis Borgia. A request denied might have jeopardized work of the Society in Spain. Thus, after considerable consultation, shrewd and reluctant, the decision was made to accept the princess, but her membership was to be kept a strict secret lest other noblewomen might decide to join. She was referred to as ‘Mateo Sanchez.’ Juana’s courtly way of life was to remain unchanged, and she engaged in worldly affairs on behalf of the Society. Her apostolic availability was limited although she did what was possible within the parameters of her double-life as a monarchial Jesuit. She was her own boss, and she freely exercised her power. To work unencumbered in Spain, Ignatius bowed to her wishes and avoided recriminations from her brother and father, who did not like the Jesuits. She took first vows as a scholastic but never became a fully professed member of the Society.
On the one hand, Juana’s power helped the Society in Spain, defending them against the attacks of some churchmen. She donated 3,000 ducats (about $750,000) toward the founding of a college at Valladolid, and she wrote a letter in favor of the foundation in Louvain.
On the other hand, the Princess caused anxiety when “murmurs began to arise in Spain and especially in court circles against the ‘Jesuit government’...and against ‘jesuitical practices” in her “palatial convent.” (“Letters,” 59) In 1573, the anomalous Lady Jesuit died, outliving Ignatius by seventeen years. The experiment was never again repeated.
Rahner notes that Ignatius favored the establishment of a company of women who, with missionary mobility, could devote themselves entirely to charitable and social work. This “lightning-flash” would not be realized until the mid-seventeenth century.
Some years ago, I asked a mentor, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., an internationally prominent Jesuit priest and philosopher, if he knew about the significant role women played in the development of the early Society. “They never told us anything about this,” he replied.