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’ congregations. This brief historiography of women religious is, of necessity, summarised in a broad manner. Much of the work in the chapters that follow will compare and contrast women religious of England and Wales with Irish, French, North American and Australian women religious to provide an understanding of the similarities and differences in religious life. Some of these differences in religious life, as discussed in the next chapter, stem from the unique history of Catholicism in England and from the social, political and religious environment that Catholicism

in Contested identities

, women’s congregations expanded from their origins on the continent and in England and Ireland, to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Visits like that of Mother Philomena Higgins which recounted the ‘hardships & work’ and the transformation of this ‘spirit of . . . joyful sacrifice’ conjured an image of the women religious that populated these far-flung convents. Women religious imagined the ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ with each member of the congregation; this reinforced their corporate identity.75 They considered themselves part

in Contested identities
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gospel’. 17 In the United States, historian Mary Henold has identified a rich and robust history of Catholic women and women religious embracing the feminist movement. 18 American historian Elizabeth Kolmer noted ‘the feminist movement, in varying degrees, has been a common experience for the Catholic sisters’. 19 North American women explicitly identified themselves as feminists; some, like Sisters Mary Joel Read and Mary Austen Doherty, sat on the board of the National Organisation for Women. 20 In Britain, Catholic women participated in wider social movements

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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in continental Europe and North America would mirror the larger geographical platforms with which advocates of a ‘sexual revolution’ thesis, such as Brown and Marwick, have engaged. 20 Nevertheless, it must be reiterated that the changes outlined here can claim to be to representative only of an English Catholic experience. Furthermore, it was a particular Catholic experience. Lodge’s allusion to an

in The Pope and the pill
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published interviews of North American and Australian former and current women religious. The stories they tell are often polarised into ‘strong women’ who worked through repressive pre-conciliar regimes to do great things and ‘angry women’ who left, enraged and unable to countenance what they saw as the hypocrisy of religious life and the Catholic Church. 7 Stories about women religious by those they educated are equally divergent. The feminist press Virago published There’s Something about a Convent Girl in 1991. Its founder, Carmen Callil, a convent girl in 1940s

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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Post-war modernity and religious vocations

prayers will be of little avail as many of our small number are already old, therefore we need recruits. 79 Active congregations had similar concerns about declining entrants. Susan O’Brien suggests it is time for a rethinking of a pre-conciliar ‘golden age’ of religious life. She questions the commonly voiced assumption that decline in vocations in Europe and North America occurred after the Second Vatican Council. 80 Her demographic analysis of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, one of England’s largest female religious institutes, reveals that a 1920s

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age

northwestern Europe and North America) which were cultural revolutions (à la Marwick) to the neglect of the political and social revolutions that were more dominant in countries such as Italy and France. 12 In addition, the ‘1968’ generation did not speak with one voice. Anna von der Goltz writes of ‘generation building’ that has written out of German historiography members of the ‘1968’ generation belonging to the moderate right. 13 The English ‘68’ appears very moderate besides some other national 1968s; British students remained trusting in the parliamentary system and

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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transformation of religious life and have been given a prominent place in the histories of North American female religious. Feminism was explicit in the nature of their renewal, and the sometimes difficult nature of the relationships with bishops makes the circumstances in the United States and Canada appear markedly different from those in Britain. It is difficult to compare the influence of national bodies given the paucity of research on their activities in England, Wales and Scotland. However, as Chapter 7 suggested, feminism was not an explicit factor in the British

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age
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instructions of medical doctors, nor were they merely ‘carers’ who performed non-skilled tasks. Nursing sisters utilised the diet of the sick poor as a therapeutic tool, ran the institution’s pharmacy, operated charitable dispensaries and performed minor surgical procedures such as blood letting, dressing wounds and lancing boils.8 The nursing historian Sioban Nelson has suggested that nineteenth-century women religious in Australia and North America operated state-of-the-art hospitals that were furnished with the latest medical technology.9 Rosemary Radford Ruether has

in Contested identities

the discipline and rigour of their pre-conciliar convent experience as impersonal and harsh. The North American literature, particularly memoirs, can be particularly uncompromising in the damning of the pre-conciliar impersonality of relationships. Without negating the legitimacy of these experiences, these narratives also reflect the concerns of the present, of validating the course of action taken after the Second Vatican Council for what has been touted as a more liberated, progressive version of religious life. 24 This recounting suggests a cultural script

in Catholic nuns and sisters in a secular age