If Bad-Ass Nuns Ruled the World

What inspired you to write If Nuns Ruled the World?

Around 2009 I started spending a lot of time around nuns. I was finishing a thesis for my masters over at NYU and the topic was how Catholic nuns used social media. I started traveling around the country to meet with nuns who blogged and tweeted.

Despite having gone to an all-girls Catholic high school I had just as many stereotypes of Catholic sisters as anyone does. But the nuns I met on the road began to shatter those stereotypes. They weren’t these stuffy, ruler-wielding automatons. They were independent bad-asses. And each of these bad-ass nuns led to another bad-ass nun. I would come back home from some of these trips and share their stories at dinner parties and people were just so surprised. They’d never heard of nuns doing so many amazing things. In fact, they hadn’t heard that much about nuns at all. That’s when I knew there were stories here that needed to be told.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Nuns are the true embodiment of the way that Christians believe Jesus Christ wanted us to live. They are right there fighting on the frontlines of social justice for the people who live at the margins of our society. They rarely get banner headlines or magazine covers or even recognition from their male peers, but they do it anyway.

In my book I talk about Sister Jeannine Gramick’s fighting for the rights of gay Catholics for the past four decades, Sister Joan Dawber running a safe house for victims of human trafficking, Sister Donna Quinn fighting for a woman’s right to have an abortion and Sister Simone Campbell leading the Nuns on the Bus to lobby for political justice for the poorest of the poor in America. These are women whose praises we should be singing from the rooftops.

For a good portion of my career I covered the entertainment industry and celebrities. One of my goals here was to elevate the incredible work of the nuns so that we will consume their stories as hungrily as we consume content about celebrities.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

This might be the cleanest copy I have ever turned into my publisher. I wanted the sisters to feel comfortable with the re-telling of their stories and so I let many of them read sections of the book before it went to press. What I forgot is that so many Catholic nuns spent decades of their lives as grammar teachers. I have never seen so much red ink in my life.

If I learned anything writing this book it is that nuns love a good pun.

But the truth is that apart from removing unnecessary commas they let me be incredibly honest in talking about their lives and their fights for justice, even when we had to talk about the Vatican handing down warnings and threats in the case of Sister Jeannine Gramick or about the rape and torture that Sister Dianna Mae endured at the hands of her captors in Guatemala. They didn’t have to share so many things with me and I feel honored that they trusted me enough as a journalist to do so.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Where do I start? One of the questions I get asked all of the time when people find out that I have written a book about nuns is Why? They don’t want to know why I wrote the book, they want to know why someone would become a nun in the first place. It rocks their world to think of someone who gives up that prescribed American dream of meeting someone, falling in love getting married and having kids—someone who takes a vow of celibacy. That shakes people to their very cores.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about nuns is that they have given something up. They don’t see it that way. The women I have met are so happy and at peace with themselves. They are comfortable with their place in the world and the knowledge that every day they are living a very authentic life. They don’t feel like they missed out on marriage or children. They are comfortable in their own skin in a way that I have rarely encountered.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I don’t think you have to be any one thing to enjoy this book. For non-Catholics I think it pulls back the veil (forgive the pun. If I learned anything writing this book it is that nuns love a good pun.). I hope to tap into the audience of Catholic women to make them feel proud of these incredibly strong women who represent their faith. But I think that men could benefit from reading their stories as well.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

This is a touchy subject. I am bound to piss some people off here. I don’t shy away from the fact that I think the Catholic Church’s current stance on women is absolutely terrible. It is antiquated and frankly misogynistic that women can’t be priests in this day and age and I am very upfront about calling out Pope Francis on that fact in the introduction.

That said, I don’t want that controversy to take anything away from the women’s stories here.

At the end of the day this is really about them and their work and celebrating the incredible things they have done and making sure that people know their stories. With those stories I want to both inform and entertain.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I had a title in mind before I even wrote the book; in fact, the original title was the entire reason that I began writing in the first place. I was initially going to call the book “Bad Habit: The Secret Lives of Nuns,” and for about two years I told people that was the title of the book. We only talked about changing it a few months before I submitted the final manuscript. “Bad Habit” apparently didn’t work well for search, which matters these days when people figure out what to read by googling rather than browsing in a book store.

The next option was to call it “Bad Ass Nuns,” which we volleyed around for a couple of weeks. But even though many of the nuns in my book are very progressive and hip they don’t love foul or harsh language and the last thing I wanted to do was to insult any of them. We finally landed on the current title, If Nuns Ruled the World. I think it spells out exactly what I took away from the book as an author: that if nuns did rule the world, it would undoubtedly be a better place.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love it. This is the fifth cover we went through and just like the title it was really hard to get right.

I’m not an academic. I wrote this book for a lay audience and I wanted it to appeal to one. But on the other hand, I didn’t want it to come off as flip or patronizing. We tried a couple of graphic covers. We had a nun actually standing on top of the world at one point in a very literally representation.

It was only at the last minute that one of our designers found this incredible picture of a young nun in Mexico up on the top of this mountain that we literally all sighed together and said: “That’s the one!”

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I am a huge fan of Nick Kristof’s Half the Sky and I thought about the book a lot while I was writing. In the same way that he took women’s stories from around the world and used them to narrate a specific issue, I tried to find ways to do that in each of my chapters.

What’s your next book?

When Nuns Rule the World.

I’m kidding. As a journalist I have been spending a lot of time with young progressive Muslim women who are shattering stereotypes and right now I am exploring telling more of their stories. If that works itself into a book that would be incredible. We have so many means of telling a story at our disposal these days that I don’t necessarily think everything needs to be a book. Some ideas may turn out to be an incredible Tumblr or an amazing long form essay, but if that topic decided that it wanted to become a book, I think it would be worth exploring.



  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I don’t think you would want nuns to rule the world. That would be a disaster. In fact, the purpose of having nuns is as a kind of check so they can make sure the church hierarchy doesn’t rule the world.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    It’s dangerous to generalize. The nuns that taught me ran the gamut from the saintly and beatific to the bitter and mean-spirited. There were quite a few that didn’t fit the description found in this article, and I would really hate for some of them to rule the world.

  • jmcg02908@verizon.net' CitizenWhy says:

    Today’s nuns, on the whole, make it a point to serve the poor. They are smaller in number, and the bitter cranks are largely gone. In many palces they are the tue Catholic pastors. They don’t need to rule the world, they just need to continue doing what they’re doing, just as priests if that’s what some of them want. I hope someday that the Oath of Obedience for Catholic clergy and religious is replaced by an Oath of Fidelity to the Gospels, even for Bishops, and that once a year a bishop would have to report to his/her priests and people how he/she has striven to live up to that oath.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    I seriously doubt that Jesus Christ would have ever fought for a woman’s RIGHT to have an abortion.

    Now me…I believe that every woman that supports abortion RIGHTS should have one with EVERY pregnancy she has. Natural selection is a wonderful thing.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    I still do not get why it is that women that do not approve of the way churches, started by men, run their churches. Why don’t women start their OWN churches instead of trying to take over the churches started by men? Why not be original? Write your own set of scriptures if you want to. Do what the Catholics did and pick and choose the ones you want and throw the rest out. Write new ones like the Mormons did. Make the men in your church were coverings over their faces instead of like the Muslims do. How about one women can marry lots of men or even better yet lots of women if they want to. Or is it that women want all the infrastructure that is owned by these male dominated churches?

    I started a Fellowship because I did not approve of 501c3 churches because I believe that you cannot serve two masters. Either God[s] were in charge or the government set the rules but not both. It is easy, in America, to start your own church. There are not even any GOVERNMENT Rules you have to follow. You don’t even need a license. You just build it from top to bottom just like you want to to be. Like a receipt for your own vegetarian sandwich. I have ZERO problems with the authority in our Fellowship. None at all. No complaints. And my lovely wife is one of the leaders!

    So ladies…Get your own Popess or Priestess or Prophetess or Queen Bee. Have your very own gynarchy. Have it as a female oligarchy or the High Amazonian Priestess or bow down to a stone female idol. The choice is 100% yours without one man to complain about. Make your church however you want it to be. You don’t need to even let men hold any positions of authority in your church if you don’t want to. You see it is YOUR church if you start it. Or is it as I suspect, you will not be happy if you can’t complain about the way men are running things?

    Just think if it. No more men screwing up the way things really should be. PLEASE do this because I am sick to death of you whining women that don’t like the way the men in the Churches you CHOOSE to be a part of run things. There are millions of women that like the way men/women run the churches they belong to. They don’t like your complaining either. So come on Girls. Start your own church. Or don’t you know how?

  • jmcg02908@verizon.net' CitizenWhy says:

    Why a nun? There are almost no religious in our family, but one I met (when I was a kid) was an an heiress (few of us are wealthy) of a considerable fortune made by her father. She gave away all her money to work among the poorest of the poor in Mexico. She had been educated among aristocrats in Paris, and spoke French and Spanish as well as her native English and was quite musically talented.. I always wondered if she saw the lives of those rich girls and decided there was a better way to live. For us our ancestral Catholicism has always been primarily a religion of behavior, with doctrine more for inspiration, meditation, contemplation and even personal adaptation rather than something to argue over. So when another cousin converted to Jusiasm for her marriage the entire family was very supportive.

  • fredg299@hotmail.com' fredx2 says:

    So, you found the Democratic Party nuns. Keep looking, you will find that there is more to nuns than finding some who agree with your politics. You found the renegade nuns, who have crippled their orders and so very few new nuns are asking to join their orders, since political activism is hardly something one needs to become a nun to do.

    Keep looking. Look at the Little Sisters of the Poor, etc.

    Religious orders that are going back to the habit, etc, and are more conservative, are the only ones attracting new people.

  • fredg299@hotmail.com' fredx2 says:

    Since this small crop of activist nuns is unable to attract new people to their orders, they are basically sacrificing the continued life of their orders for their favorite political causes. And then they claim that Jesus tells them to be liberal activists. So no, that is not the purpose of nuns.

  • fredg299@hotmail.com' fredx2 says:

    It is beyond sad that a nun runs around trying to help people get abortions. Obviously she missed something somewhere.

  • fredg299@hotmail.com' fredx2 says:

    Obviously it suits the authors purpose to put down all of those wonderful nuns who worked for years teaching children. She prefers that they be known as old crones with rulers. Sad when a writer simply coasts on a stereotype that puts others down. But, it suits her politics to do so. She is pushing the radical nuns, so be it.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    Why do people that belong to a religion so often openly oppose the declared doctrine of that faith? Why don’t they join a religion they agree with or start their own? I just don’t get it. My wife, when she was 8, went on a hunger strike because her parents were forcing her to attend a Catholic school and she could not get a straight answer about the trinity she agreed with. Her parents pulled her out.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I understand there is some disagreement.

  • david.lloydjones@gmail.com' David Lloyd-Jones says:

    Sorta reminds me of a couple of other bad-asses: LBJ’s and Jimmy Carter’s mothers.


  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    I am sick to death of you whining non-Catholic cult leaders complaining that articles about Catholics that you CHOOSE to read are bothering you. Stop telling Catholic nuns what to do. You’re not saying anything they haven’t heard millions of times.

    The Catholic Church has needed reform in the past, and no honest Catholic will disagree with that fact. Nuns believe in the Church. Some nuns believe it needs reform. I’m sorry this is above your head, but it is really not complicated.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    I will tell them any dang thing I want to. They do it. The author did it. This is an open forum. You didn’t need to read what I wrote. It is not above my head. If the Catholic Church is led by God then it doesn’t need to be reformed by followers. And if it is not led by God then reform away.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    “If the Catholic Church is led by God then it doesn’t need to be reformed by followers.”

    That is not a logical statement within Catholic doctrine. The followers are the Church, and Church leaders are human people with free will and human failings. They’re not sock puppets.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    It is indeed there People’s church and not Christ’s Church. We can agree on that 100%. Reform away.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    I suppose you’re the one person on earth that Christ actually talks to. I don’t find you more convincing than the millions of other people who make the same claim.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    Christ visited my daughter once to comfort her. He sat her on His lap. Me…well He sent an angel to save my life in a triple roll-over but never gave me any doctrinal information.

    Doesn’t Christ answer your prayers and talk to you through the Holy Spirit. It is common in my family. I thought Christians had the right to ask God and have Him answer. HIm…not Her.

    And I don’t care if you find me convincing. I was not trying to convince you of anything. Only the Holy Spirit can truly convince anyone of the truth. I am certainly NOT the Holy Spirit. Did you think I was?

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Your religion sounds like quite the People’s church as well. I’m glad we’re so much alike afterall.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    Straight line top to bottom only men hold the priesthood. Women are leaders in other ways. Never the priesthood. The Priesthood is the second place trophy for men since they originally didn’t choose the higher law in the Garden and eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil so they could begin the human race. Eve made the right choice and Adam had to follow. So God had man be in charge after that as a penalty. Women now fight to have that penalty. Why?

    What man in his right mind would want to rule over a woman?

    But then I am also an Odinist and great women can become gods in both my Christian faith and my Odinist beliefs. One of my granddaughters is even named Valkyrie, Hail Odin. Hail Thor. Hail Valhalla, where the brave may live forever.

    Odinists… you know, the people whose leaders were slaughtered by the Catholics under a flag of truce.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Whatever. None of that is my religion.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    i like it when Jesus lets me sit on his lap

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    How sad that you would mock a very spiritual experience of a 6 year old.

  • shrmatt@gmail.com' Matt Swaim says:

    I think it’s safe to assume that most nuns dressed like the one on the book cover would be at odds with the contents contained within it.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    How much sadder that you would take the imagination of a child as objective reality and then judge others based upon it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It’s one of the disguises of Mormonism.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    It was not her imagination. She described it with great detail. But Haters are gonna hate. and non-believers are gonna mock. How sad for you. I have had repeated miracles in my life including the miraculous healing of my son’s broken neck that was confirmed by medical testing. Six tests showed the break and then we asked for God’s help in healing and instead of what we thought would occur with rapid healing without complications over several weeks he was healed in an instant. The Doctors even told us it was a miracle they could not explain after the 7th test showed the break completely healed.

    I judge no one except myself. I don’t care what religion you belong to and my faith allows for people to go the heaven if they are anything from atheist murderers to the sweetest innocent child that dies too young.

  • bramptonbryan@yahoo.com' DavidHarley says:

    Why is it that Americans universally call sisters in religious orders “nuns,” as if they were members of enclosed orders?

  • mcreynolds78@sbcglobal.net' marymcreynolds says:

    Well one way to sell a book is as good as any. Freedom of the press and all.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    Not necessarily. I worked at a Catholic hospital in my younger days, and some of the nuns (in the old-fashioned habits) were surprisingly kick-ass and liberal. Some were not. The hierarchy sure wasn’t. The MS was a hateful old crank from Germany in her 80s.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    “Nuns” conjures up visions of old ladies in the Catholic version of burkas. But there are nuns in many religions. There is probably a place for those who want the more extreme life of a cloister, but many more for those who simply want to dedicate their lives to doing good works.

  • shrmatt@gmail.com' Matt Swaim says:

    I’m referring more to the present day.

  • sister@anunslife.org' The Nuns says:

    We often use the term “nuns” interchangeably with “sisters”. The terms typically refer to 2 broad categories: active apostolic women religious (sisters) and cloistered contemplative women (nuns). However, the terms really don’t have to do with a difference in the kind of lifestyle or ministry/mission. You can have nuns who minister outside the cloister and sisters who have a strong contemplative dimension of their life. The difference, rather, is juridical in terms of the *type* of vows that are made — simple or solemn. More at https://anunslife.org/resources/sister-or-nun

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    I know a handful of young ultra-conservative Catholic sisters who don’t wear habits. Because they work all day, with the poor and elderly. Would you shame them for how they dress, or only nuns you disagree with?

  • shrmatt@gmail.com' Matt Swaim says:

    Wouldn’t shame them. Just odd to use a habited sister on the cover of a book about sisters who are open about habits being archaic.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Are they? I haven’t read the book. In any case, not wearing a habit is not the same thing as opposing them. It seems that Sister Jeannine Gramick does wear one sometimes.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    Using logic and not being gullible is NOT being a “hater.” If I told you a giant, pink bunny rabbit was telling me right now what to type here in this response, I cannot get my knickers all in a knot if someone tells me that such a concept doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  • christopher@ubernet.net' Christopher says:

    No major religion has every had a giant pink bunny as a God. But today that is as good as having faith onion the opiate of the people aka Social Security. You have the right to reject eye witness testimony. You have the right to believe you owe income tax and that Federal Reserve Notes are dollars and that Social Security is not a religion and that voluntary means mandatory and even that your vote matters. And since you do believe those things I also have the right to read the law, and reason out that your beliefs are indeed as real as a Giant Pink Bunny God.

  • IZEL99@yahoo.com' tROLLSTtROLLSTEIN says:

    I liked Mother Theresa a lot but I am not sure I would want her running the world though I admired her. I learned a long time ago that one is allowed to speak with nuns but only in a public place and only for a half minute. So I would start conversations with nuns regularly. I must have spoken to 35 in my life and never about religion. Most are very nice. The one on TV however always scared me.
    Her: “People who think we came from monkeys–they are the monkeys!!”
    I especially would prefer her not to run the world.

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