Last week I watched an interview with Mary Robinson, the former president of the Ireland and later a UN commissioner for human rights. She has just published her autobiography Everybody Matters. Listening to her describe her life choices was like listening to a description of myself at the age of 18.
Robinson was born to a Catholic family in Ireland in 1944. She said she had decided to join the convent because it was the only way she could see that she could use her full abilities to help build a better world. Only nuns, as far as she could see, were not enclosed in a world in which they could not really be anything but secondary citizens, always following someone else’s directions, never being truly creative leaders in their own right. (There are my words, by the way, not Robinsons’s, but I think I am not distorting her meaning.)
In Mary Robinson’s case, she went to Paris before entering the convent, where she discovered that she did not have to be a nun to make the contribution to the world which she wanted to try to make. So she never did become a nun, but became a lawyer instead.
The interview made me ask just how many women entered the convent in the past with hopes and views like this. How many young women went into the convent not to run away, not because they were afraid, not because they wanted somebody else to tell them what to do. But because it was the most liberated path open to them.
And for many it was. In America, nuns were among the first female doctors, the first female heads of hospitals and schools, the first female university professors, effectively the first female CEO’s. Even today, this spirit is evident in the “nuns in the bus.”
But today, not nearly as many young women are entering the convent as they used to.
But perhaps it is not because so many women can’t imagine a life without sex, or because there are not as many young women who want to help build a better world.
It might just be that there are more ways to do it without entering a convent.