Most would assume that Sister Aloysius, who is the principal, would have the most power. However, due to gender roles within the church, it’s obvious that Father Flynn possesses more power just because he’s a priest. After finding out what he’s being accused of, Father Flynn seems to be relatively respectful on the surface. However, after more examination, it’s blatantly obvious that he’s manipulative and has zero respect for Sister Aloysius and Sister James. Throughout the entire play, Flynn believes that he is infallible and has the upper hand over the two sisters. He thinks that since he is a member of the old boys club (No offense Father), literally and figuratively, he can get away with whatever he wants and will be safe because no one would take a nun’s word over his.
In the case of Sister James, she is still naïve and almost has a sense of hero worship of Flynn. When Flynn provides a mediocre explanation for Donald having alcohol on his breath, Sister James jumps at the opportunity to absolve (pun not intended) Flynn of all blame. She continues to search for any excuse that she can find to convince herself that Flynn didn’t do this, including saying that the accusations were a mistake and Sister Aloysius was too old-fashioned, so she is automatically distrustful of people. Flynn’s continued manipulation of Sister James illustrates the stereotypical power dynamic between priests and nuns, where priests have more power of the sisters and the sisters are submissive to whatever the priests say.
In contrast, Sister Aloysius challenges every aspect of that stereotypical power dynamic. She challenges that power dynamic by not backing down from Flynn and challenging his perceived authority. At the end of Scene VIII, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn have a very confrontational discussion, with Father Flynn absolutely losing his mind. Sister Aloysius keeps an even head and possesses all the power in the situation. She’s calm and, at least in my reading of the play, never raises her voice. The power dynamic is completely flipped, something that is unique for a priest to experience, especially during that time period.
During that time, nuns were seen as teachers and nurses, or seemingly typical female jobs. They weren’t doctors, lawyers or advocates as they are now. This is why the power dynamic between Aloysius and Flynn is so revolutionary. Looking at today’s world, nuns are facing a lot of scrutiny for challenging the patriarchal structure of the church. Whether that is women becoming priests or nuns having an expanded role, I believe there are some men within the church that feel threatened by sisters. They believe that their power could be taken away from them or diminished significantly, just as Flynn did with Sister Aloysius. Check out this 60 Minutes piece on nuns today. It’s pretty fascinating to look at the problems that they face.
For some of them, they face the same problems that Sister Aloysius faced. And they probably would have done the exact same thing that she did.