BBC – Capital – How nuns changed the workforce
“The prioress of my needlework school called me and said, ‘listen, I must return to Rome … but if you’re thinking about taking vows… ‘. I had never breathed a word about wanting to take vows, but hearing those words, it was as though something exploded inside of me. Since I became a nun no one has held me back.”
So runs the story of one of the Italian nuns I interviewed earlier this year, as part of a wider investigation into the unsung contributions of women workers, and why they have been historically undervalued. My research took me to Rome, the “panting heart of Catholicism”, to the headquarters of three convents, to talk to nuns about their work from 1939 to today, and to assess how they understand themselves as professionals.
Becoming a nun is not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. Working for the Vatican, one sister I spoke to was responsible for carrying secret messages between embassies: “As a diplomatic courier, I have been to all of the countries in the world, except one.”
She was fluent in five languages, had been director of an international school in Pakistan, and – she proudly told me – was a champion high jumper in her youth.
But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice. Nonetheless, many nuns in this time showed themselves to be incredibly capable and industrious.