Finding Feminist Activists Where You'd Least Expect Them

We talk to Jo Piazza about her inspiring new book If Nuns Ruled The World.

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Jo Piazza grew up as a "holiday Catholic," attending Mass intermittently with her family until enrolling in a Catholic high school. Her fascination with the nuns she met in the hallways led to her third book, a collection of profiles of activist sisters. If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission, out this week by Open Road Media, shatters the classic, habit-clad schoolmarm stereotype. Piazza's nuns are modern, strong, sophisticated, adept at social media, and ready to fight the good fight.

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Marie Claire: What inspired you to write this book?

Jo Piazza: My Catholic high school was really my first exposure to nuns. They were very, very old and, to be honest, a lot of the time they ended up being kind of a punch linefor the typical kind of nun jokes. They wore their habits. They were still very conservative. But they were very kind.

MC: Then you studied nuns' use of social media in grad school, while working a hectic full-time job as a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News.

JP: I was burning out writing about Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and needed a break. Even though I've never been that faithful, I've always been fascinated by people who do have faith.

The nuns were tweeting about social justice and political issues, or about movies and baseball or what they were doing for the day. The most fascinating nun would tweet the full rosary every single day. So they were using social media for communicating, connecting, and for actual virtual prayer. I probably interviewed about 70 nuns for that project, and each nun told me a story about another nun who was doing something really interesting, and that's how I first heard about the political activist Sister Simone Campbell, who was organizing the Nuns On The Bus [a traveling group of nuns raising awareness around poverty]. I started thinking, Wow, no one ever hears these stories. The only stories we hear about the Catholic Church aren't terribly positive. We hear about pedophile priests and scandals in the Vatican. But why haven't I heard about these women? So I started doing some investigating and found there were so many of these women whose stories hadn't been told.

I realized that I wanted to tell their human narratives as well. Why does someone become a nun? How do they live their daily lives? Because the nuns were the most authentic, happiest women I've ever come across, and they've completely pledged their life to service. So I really tried to delve into what their day-to-day routines are like and what that means for them—what it means to not get married and not have children and to give up what we see as "the ideal life" that people are supposed to have.

MC: It's amazing to read the profiles in your books of these individual nuns fighting for gay rights or abortion rights, and to realize there's a group of undercover feminist activists that the mainstream doesn't know anything about.

JP: Feminist activists, yeah! I had no idea that nuns could even be feminists. The fact is they were some of the most strident and ardent feminists in the '70s and today.

MC: You were writing this book while you had a full time job. How did you balance that?

JP: I'm really diligent. I write 1000 words every single day, typically in the morning, even if they're crap. Sometimes I'll write on the subway on my iPhone and then go back and edit all of it later.

MC: How did the nuns change you?

JP: They made me reconsider my life as a 33-year-old woman. None of these women were willing to settle for anything less than something they found miraculous and amazing. They chose this life of service because it made them happy. For me it made me realize I don't need to settle for something that's just half as good or something that people expect me to do, and to hold out for that life that feels authentic.

A lot of the women in the book, I'd probably say 50%, have been sanctioned or slapped on the wrist by the Vatican at some point and the amazing thing is, they don't shy away from it. They are willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe is right. They're not afraid to stand up to authority. That's why they're such role models. They put themselves out there every single day. Sister Megan risked her life to break into a nuclear weapons facility. Sister Donna Quinn risked her life escorting women into an abortion clinic. They have no fear. I think that they show us how important it is to lead a fearless life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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