A feminist’s Christmas with nuns

I just got back from a Christmas service run by about thirty women with guitars, oboes, awful holiday sweaters, and no-nonsense haircuts: the Benedictine nuns. I am not a religious person (in point of fact I’m an atheist, and a Jewish one at that) but I found these women both charming and inspiring. They’re an activist community, not only a religious one — my boyfriend’s mom amused me by pointing out the ones who had recently been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the war — and are clearly devoted to each other, the community, and especially other women. In a lot of ways they’re better feminists than I am; not only have they expertly and seamlessly excised male pronouns from their prayers, but the time and energy that I might spend on things like clothes and makeup, they instead spend on giving material and spiritual help to women globally and locally.

It’s easy — especially for someone like me, for whom things like toughness and taking no shit are so identity constitutive — to forget that feminism is about women, not just about feminists. We’re all in this together, even the ones of us who aren’t in this, or aren’t in it to the degree we’d prefer. Someone who isn’t ready to embrace feminism or fat activism; someone who has never heard of fat activism; someone who has no desire to embrace her body or rethink the patriarchy: even if these people aren’t allies (yet), they’re not obstacles. They’re the reason we’re here making noise in the first place.

If you’re like me, and I hope you’re not because it’s wearying sometimes, you might accidentally steamroller them, thinking they’re in the way. But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path. There are people who are learning, people who are waiting, people who are understandably skeptical, people who aren’t interested at all, people who are staunchly opposed to what we’re doing… and we’re doing it for them, no less than for all of you. If I didn’t think this would be a better world for everyone without misogyny, patriarchy, and the beauty standards and lack of body autonomy that attend them, I wouldn’t be here writing your ear off. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.

I never felt uncomfortable at the Benedictines’ service, because these women didn’t care that I was a godless liberal sinner who wasn’t taking communion. By virtue of my being a human and particularly by virtue of my being a woman, they were automatically on my side. I could stand to learn a lot from these women in their shapeless sweaters. (Plenty of fatties amongst the sisters, by the way, despite those pesky vows of simplicity and poverty — could it possibly be that many of us naturally expand as we age?) Everything they did, they were doing on my behalf, in some sense, even though I didn’t share their beliefs.

Activism for activists is gratifying but senseless. Activism for the reluctant, the uncertain, and the opposed: that’s a chore, and a mitzvah.

35 thoughts on “A feminist’s Christmas with nuns

  1. Wow… Just. Wow.

    That was a pretty mind blowing (and true) thing to log in on Christmas Eve and read.
    I will need to re-read this- a couple of times.

  2. Thank you, thank you, for every single thing you’ve said here. You’re absolutely right about all of it, especially the last bit: Activism for activists is gratifying but senseless. Activism for the reluctant, the uncertain, and the opposed: that’s a chore, and a mitzvah. This resounds in both the activist and the Fat Feminist in me, and- if you don’t mind my saying so- the Christian in me, too. Are you all in Chicago, or just Kate? I’d love to know what Benedictine sisters you’re talking about, although perhaps I have an idea.

    Sorry for the rambles! Happy Holidays!

  3. I try to bear in mind that women do the best they can surviving in the patriarchy. For some of them that involves activism, for some it involves being a SAHM, for some it involves donning all the feminine drag and trying to survive in the corporate work. And for some, it involves being a benedictine nun. They sound awesome, thank you for sharing.

  4. What an awesome thing to wake up to on Christmas morning, or any morning for that matter. Thank you FJ for your insight. I think in my heart I knew these things, but damn it to hell if it isn’t hard to put into practice sometimes. Thinking on these things will certainly help the cause in my mind.

  5. We’re all in this together, even the ones of us who aren’t in this

    That’s an amazing concept, very clearly expressed. It will be good to remember this, and your post, every time I get frustrated with another woman for hating on herself or being sexist. I’m doing it for them, too.

  6. Lovely post!

    I remember once trying to explain to a friend why I got upset when people said misogynist things about any woman, even a woman who herself was anti-feminist. “There’s no point in fighting for equality for all women if you have to believe certain things in order to be considered equal. I believe all women deserve respect, regardless of whether or not I agree with what they’re saying. I don’t see how you could be a feminist otherwise.” I think that’s such an important thing to remember, because it’s so very easy and tempting to turn on people who aren’t doing feminism/FA/whatever “right,” rather than attacking the system that creates these no-win situations for everyone.

  7. I will need to re-read this- a couple of times.

    Me too, Krista. I hope you guys will call me on it if you see me acting any differently, because even with a moment of Christmas clarity, this is a challenge for me.

    Lynne, you would have LOVED these nuns. They didn’t have banjo or gamelan, though (but they did have a handbell choir and a dulcimer!).

    Amy, I’m not typically in Chicago, and I’m actually in PA right now for Christmas. I’m not sure how widespread this particular variety of Benedictines are — I’ll ask my boyfriend’s mom and see if she knows whether they have other enclaves.

  8. Yes, this post was awesome and I second all the commenters before me. Those nuns sound so rad!

    I must say that this line really struck me…”But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path.” The imagery really rings true when I reflect on the activist work I do on my campus. I struggle with how to approach the resistance I feel like I so often encounter and this really frames the situation quite clearly, so thank you!

  9. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.

    This is the perfect Christmas sentiment. (Sorry, Jesus!) No, but seriously, this is like Jesus’s message for us atheists. You’re clearly learning a lot more from the PA Catholics than I ever did (though, to be fair, I was 7 at the time).

  10. Great post! This should be required reading for every FA activist and feminist. I’m not a Catholic, but I think radical nuns rock!

  11. Yeah, SM, but did you get to hang with the Benedictines? Last year we just listened to the Bishop tell us that Jesus was a laser beam, and I didn’t learn anything except, as Dan said, “please accept Christ into your heart but not directly into your eyes.”

  12. A wonderful post, and given some vexed discussions (chekc the links in the first paragraph) down under in New Zealand recently, I’m going to forward it to a few e-friends.

    As other commenters have siad, this snetnece is particularly wonderful: But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path.

    And this: It’s easy — especially for someone like me, for whom things like toughness and taking no shit are so identity constitutive — to forget that feminism is about women, not just about feminists.

    Ka kite ano.

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  14. Years ago on a feminist bb there was some discussion about inter-feminist conflicts and anti-feminism etc… I don’t remember the exact discussion, but one woman said this, which has stuck with me for years:

    “I don’t have to like you to want you to be free.”

    It pretty much sums up how I try to behave when it comes to how I deal with people in the context of these movements.

    This post reminded me to keep trying to live up to that.

  15. FJ, thank you. You said so perfectly what is in my heart, but I something I don’t think activists (for all sorts of causes) talk about enough. This is a post I should read often – perhaps I shall print and highlight. Thank you, again.

    As to your nuns… I am a practicing Jew and former Catholic and I heart nuns – I wanted to BE a nun for a while as a child. I particularly like the Franciscans (having gone to a Franciscan college) but the Benedictines are pretty rockin’. One of my best experiences in college was staying at a convent on the south side of Chicago.

    And on an only marginally related note, I have chosen Judaism to express my spiritual self, but if loving Nuns, John Denver and the Muppets and Emmet Otter is wrong, I don’ wanna be right! I won’t lose my Kosher Card, will I?

  16. Off-topic, but I got the Beth Ditto issue of Bust in my stocking, and I wanted to say congrats on the shout-out, you guys!

    Also, gorgeous post.

  17. Loved this post, FJ. I’m grateful that you shared it with all of us. Next time I’m saturated with the Paris Hiltons of the world, I will conjure an image of the Benedictine sisters with their “no-nonsense haircuts” and “shapeless sweaters,” quietly working to change the world.

  18. “I don’t have to like you to want you to be free.”

    attrice, I love this sentiment — perfect.

    Eden, I just bought that issue myself, and I was so excited to see the shout-out, even though I already knew it was there. I was particularly gratified that Wendy mentioned Kate’s co-bloggers — I don’t particularly expect or require recognition, since Kate is clearly the driving genius behind this place, but I sure appreciate it.

  19. But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path.

    A few years ago, I spent an entire semester listening to a Women’s Studies professor trying to get our whole class to understand just that – and the rest of what your post emphasizes. She often got steamrolled herself by my headstrong young peers who had only 20 years of life experience to go on and thought they knew everything about being a “real” feminist. (When I was still very young, my father, thank god, managed to impress upon me that, even though I might someday think I knew it all, I would indeed NOT know everything about life by the time I was 20 and thus, should not act like I did.)

    I’m going to forward this to my former professor now. Might to her some good to print it and pass out, if her classes prove to be anything like mine was.

  20. Thank you for this post. Now, if some of the trolls over at FatFu’s blog could get the message….

    Hope you had a wonderful holiday!

  21. FJ, this post is the perfect cut ‘n paste rebuttal to all those types who believe that any woman not part of the solution should consider themselves part of the problem. Where’s the sisterhood in that??

  22. great post. i find that humility and not taking ourselves so seriously wipes out the competition that tends to ruin us. when the competition’s gone, empowerment replaces the insecurity that creates the whole mess in the first place.

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  24. I am in awe of you ladies and I am feeling humble right now — he feels awesome ;)

    Thank you. I feel a bit vindicated: people wonder why I’m not more militant about my atheism. I respond that I appreciate the good that religion brings to people.

    Thank you once again.

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