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In Praise of the F Word

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I was measured for the habit. That's how close I came to becoming a nun. It was the spring of my senior year in high school, and I was the perfect candidate: I was smart, studious and I didn't have a boyfriend.

The plan was for me to enter the School Sisters of Notre Dame as a postulant in the fall. These nuns had taught me in my all-girls convent school, a majestic red brick structure on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. They were women with vigorous expectations. They had advanced math and sciences and four years of Latin. They were women of warmth, wit and the willingness to overlook the times when a few of us, to show how sophisticated we were, would slip down to the riverbank and share a cigarette. I loved the idea of becoming one of them.

After graduation, though, I changed my mind. The women's movement was gathering steam, and as a nun, how could I possibly be a feminist? A nun's life was so subdued, so controlled. For the first two years of being a nun in nearly all religious orders, you could not go home for a visit, or make or receive a phone call. (When one of my classmates told her parents she wanted to join the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet, her mother locked herself in the bathroom and cried for four hours). A community's rules dictated a rigid schedule -- a nun who taught at a parish school, or worked as a nurse had to come directly back to the convent, no delays or detours. As a Sister of Charity of New York recalls wryly: Home by five, dead or alive.

So I went to a co-ed university. Catholic, but without a nun in sight. When I got my degree, I moved to New York, where the writing life and the women's movement were centered. I was delighted with the growing acceptance of the new form of address for women that didn't subordinate their identity to that of a man's. I wrote for Ms magazine.

I applauded the beginning of the National Organization for Women in 1966, and was surprised to the point of astonishment that one of its founders was Sister Mary Joel Read, a Franciscan nun. At first I thought it was an isolated incident involving just one adventurous woman. Then some Sisters of Loretto joined a public fast at the Illinois legislature in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. When Pope John Paul II made his first visit to this country, Sister Theresa Kane, then the head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, was chosen to address him at a large public assembly in Washington, DC. Her greeting to the Pope made headlines around the world: ordain women. The American Jewish Committee sponsored a three-day conference, bringing together women from Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds to discuss biases against women, and how their feminist insights influence their religious beliefs. The gathering, reported in major publications, seemed to validate the authenticity of feminism within a religious framework.

Still, a daughter of charity warned me, "The word can turn people off." Too many folks view feminists as a bunch of strident, humorless women alienated from anything spiritual. But Gloria Steinem has written, "Women's spirituality has been, and continues to be, one of the wellsprings of feminism." Humorless? When the Pope issued a stern declaration that women could never be ordained priests because a priest had to bear a physical resemblance to the male Jesus, feminists promptly labeled it "the penis decree."

The alliance of feminism and faith may seem like a concept of our modern age. In fact, more than two centuries ago, Elizabeth Seton, an ardent Episcopalian in New York, joined Isabella Graham, a devout Scottish Presbyterian, in establishing the first charitable organization in this country to be managed by women, "The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children." That was 1797, when feminism, as an acknowledged movement was far from being an aspect of social culture. But the women's work was clearly a feminist initiative in crossing gender boundaries, as they moved into the male realm which meant calling meetings, incorporating their group so they could legally own property and going around the city without a male escort. When Elizabeth petitioned the state legislature for authority to run a $15,000 lottery, aiming to secure a permanent fund for the needy, she and her colleagues were publicly denounced by an Episcopalian bishop for laying aside an 18th century female's "delicacy and decorum."

Then Elizabeth became a Catholic, founded the first American order of active nuns, the Sisters of Charity, and continued to speak her mind. When the male Superior of her little community ordered her to "obey in silence," she accused him of "acting like a tyrant." But tyranny, or at least heavy-handed authority over women, went on to became characteristic in the Catholic Church, where females were barred from being altar servers almost to the turn of the 21st century. Until then, even grown women -- wives and mothers and accomplished professionals were not considered as worthy to approach the altar as a ten-year-old boy. And just lately, in 2012, Rome announced a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most American nuns, accusing them of promoting "radical feminist themes."

But the Sisters know, as women and men of good faith know, that God created them equally, and feminism is God's way of emphasizing that. This is not merely a simplistic notion; it's a grace.

Anyone still unconvinced about the authentic connection between feminism and faith should know what a man of unquestioned holiness answered, when he was asked in a newspaper interview his views on women's rights. "I call myself a feminist," the Dalai Lama said.