As I progress through the little volume titled, "Deaconesses in Europe and Their Lessons for America" (by Jane Marie Bancroft), I am fascinated to discover that even though the office of deaconess may not have been continuously present in either the Eastern or Western Churches, there were many ways (outside of convents) in which women were banding together to give service to God and their fellowman.
One case in point is the various communities of "Beguines," who are known to have lived from the 12th century onward, in the Netherlands, in Belgium, along the Rhine River, in Switzerland, and in eastern France. During the first half of the 13th Century, there were thousands of Beguines. For some reason they began to be persecuted, nuns disliked them, and the Pope withdrew his "protection" of them. At the time of the Reformation, many of these women became Protestant, but continued to resemble sisterhoods of Catholicism.
As for the life and work of the Beguines, Bancroft explains:
"As a rule they lived alone, in separate small houses build closely together and surrounded by a wall. Each house bore on its door the sign of the cross, and with every Beguine court there were invariably two large buildings - a church and a hospital; the one for the worship of the sisters, the other the field of their self-denying ministrations. At first they were in no wise distinguished in their dress from other women, but in time they wore a habit which varied in color with each establishment, but was generally blue, gray, or brown. The veil was invariably white. The sisters had to earn, or partly earn, their own livelihood. In the time remaining they rendered essential service in performing acts of charity. They received orphans to bring up and educate, taught little children, nursed the sick, performed the last offices for the dead, and bound themselves by good deeds closely with the lives of the people. They were in no sense isolated from the world, but lived busy, useful lives in the midst of the world. They could leave the community at any time, and after severing their connection with it were free to marry. They also retained control of their own property."
This strikes me as a pretty modern arrangement for women in the 13th-19th centuries! And except for the living together in groups of houses, pretty close to how some deaconess communities serve today.