I did personally feel that this book felt a bit academic at times, as opposed to giving us this fascinating information mainly through longer personal stories and remembrances, but writing style aside, it really gets the subject across. The fact that Mr. Briggs put 8 years into this book really shows, not only in the compelling material and telling personal stories, but also in his knowledge of Catholic history and theology in spite of not being Catholic himself. This book was interesting to me as a feminist, as one interested in Catholic history and nuns, and someone who, several times, thought semi-seriously about becoming a nun when younger (the religion I ended up choosing was not Catholicism, so the sisterhood was obviously ruled out for me).
The history of nuns in America is a very long and fascinating one, and the numbers of American sisters steadily grew over time, till their ranks were swelling in the decades just before Vatican II. Even though some sisters might not have considered themselves such (for various reasons that Mr. Briggs explains throughout the book), nuns really were the original feminists. They were liberated women ages before the ordinary secular American women were. They might not have been liberated from things like hierarchical control and institutionalised sexism in the Church, but they were liberated insofar as they were out there working, going to college, getting advanced degrees, being administrators of hospitals, schools, and social welfare agencies, having their own identities instead of being identified through a husband, and being childfree, in an age where pregnancy could be a death sentence for women, particularly before birth control was legal and widely available; nuns could always work and control their own lives because they had no husbands and children. Historically, unmarried women, nuns or not, have always had more power and freedom than married women; only in the past few decades has that begun to change.
Topics covered in the book include the habit, unforeseen consequences of Vatican II's call for renewal and re-examination of religious life and the histories of these orders, the horrible poverty many aging nuns have found themselves in, the mass exodus of nuns in the years after Vatican II, nuns and feminism, the backlash against progressive nuns (and feminism in general), groups working for female ordination, and nuns getting advanced degrees. Since no two orders and no two nuns are alike, there are a plethora of viewpoints on these issues. For example, some orders never really had a habit, and there were some orders in the 19th century whose founders got away with never wearing a habit. Many different nuns offer differing viewpoints on the future of the sisterhood in the face of their dwindling ranks and the continued interference from bishops. As Mr. Briggs shows, there's no one clear and simple answer to the question of why there are relatively few nuns under the age of 50 today, and what might be done to attract more young women to the sisterhood. Yes, there are certain areas and orders that do have many fresh-faced younger sisters instead of geriatric retired women, but when looking at the numbers, there's no denying that the vast majority of American sisters are over the age of 50. The amount of young women entering has slowed to a trickle in comparison to the huge amounts of women in their late teens and early twenties who entered in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties. A big part of this certainly is because today women are allowed secular opportunities for freedom and liberation, and don't have to be nuns to improve their chances of getting advanced degrees, being administrators, and entering the workforce. Another big part is how at every turn, the Church hierarchy "double-crossed" these women who had given so much for so many years, being unpaid servants and the backbone of the Church, really taken for granted because they weren't ordained and because they were women. Many bishops, archbishops, and cardinals were afraid of these newly-assertive nuns championing progressive causes, questioning the order of things, rethinking their position in the Church hierarchy, pushing for more rights and representation, and openly embracing feminism. A lot of their critics blanketly tossed around the term "radical feminism" when in actual fact most of these nuns were not affiliated with that particular branch of feminism. I guess it really is true that to many people, basic feminist principles and the notion that women are people really are radical. Many women who might have considered the sisterhood were thus dissuaded by seeing how all of these efforts for reform and basic rights were viewed by the higher-ups, attempting to block them and paint them as unreasoning radicals at every turn. Amazingly enough, many of these bishops, archbishops, and cardinals also blamed these women for things like their dwindling numbers and the fact that they were living in poverty in old age and having to beg for salaries. If only they hadn't rebelled against Mother Church, hadn't dropped their habits, hadn't pushed for more rights, everything would still be swell for them.
This is a very important work on a chapter in American history (and Catholic history) that deserves to be better-known, although it's just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully it will inspire the reader to go and seek out more books on the subject of contemporary nuns and the social and political forces shaping the sisterhood in the past few decades. My only problem with the book, apart from the at-times somewhat academic style (as opposed to a more personal and casual tone to convey the same information) was that there weren't any pictures. It would have been nice to have matched these names to faces.