Feminist Nuns Rebel in the 60’s and Come to Sundance in 2021 #RebelHeartsFilm

Still from Rebel Hearts, Courtesy of Merman & Anchor Entertainment

I am always on the lookout for religious feminist role models, so I was thrilled by the opportunity to attend a screening of the new documentary film Rebel Hearts at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by a panel featuring filmmakers Pedro Kos and Shawnee Isaac-Smith and some of the bold women featured in the film: Lenore Navarro Dowling, Ruth Anne Murray and Rosa Manriquez.

During Q&A, I asked the activists on the panel, “What advice do you have for women who want change in their patriarchal religions?”

There was an awkward silence. Then Murray laughed. “What advice to give? For women who want to change the patriarchal system?”

Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit by Corita Kent & Jan Steward

“Religion, specifically,” said the moderator.

She sighed. She started to reply but quit mid-sentence. “That’s really a tough question,” she said at last.

I fretted. Maybe, after all they had been through, they didn’t believe change was possible.  Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that. Maybe I should have stuck to  questions about filmmaking. Did I break Sundance?

But after a few beats, the advice I craved started coming.

“I think there will be change but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon and I hope that women who want those changes don’t give up,” said Murray. She told me to work outside the hierarchy and “bring the gospel to today.”

Manriquez encouraged soul-searching. She compared taking on religious patriarchy to inviting an elephant trainer into the house; first, make sure you have room for the elephant! Sticking it to the man is not a great motivation, but the need to stop people from being hurt is. “If you’re doing it for recognition you may never get it and if you’re doing it to make change it’ll happen, you just might not see it.”

Dowling emphasized the need to organize. Catholic social justice activists have groups such as Call to Action. “There’s power in numbers. …Find people who share your values who will march with you.”

You can see my awkward question and their complete answers here.

Rebel Hearts chronicles the journey of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In the 1960’s, their convent ran a liberal arts college and was home to forward-thinking nuns such as Mother General and civil rights activist Anita Caspary and pop art sensation Corita Kent. Using 60’s era footage and animated imagery inspired by Kent’s art, the film follows frequent clashes between these progressive women and the male priests who tried to reign them in. These conflicts escalated until the nuns had to make a heart-rending choice to submit to patriarchal demands or renounce their vows.

Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California by Anita M. Caspary

Like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Roman Catholic church is a hierarchical organization with male priesthood leaders and female worker bees. While details differ, as a Mormon feminist, I saw many parallels between their struggle and our own in examples such as these:

  • The male leaders who set up Catholic schools and assigned female nuns to staff them seemed oblivious to problems that were apparent to the women doing the actual work, such as high student-to-teacher ratios and the fact that many of these nuns had no college education and no desire to be teachers.
  • Male leaders policed nuns’ clothing.
  • The male cardinal, who had no art training, micromanaged and censored Kent’s art.
  • When Caspary, in her role as Mother General, authorized Sister Patrice Underwood to represent them at the 1965 Civil Rights March in Selma, Alabama, the cardinal was upset that the decision hadn’t gone through male leadership.
  • The cardinal justified his oppressive oversight of the nuns by citing anonymous “complaints.”
  • When the women appealed to men further up the chain of command, male leaders backed the cardinal, reinforcing his right to make up his own local rules rather than supporting female autonomy.

Preview of the film Rebel Hearts

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Mary Young says:

    I was a Catholic school student in the mid ’60s. I got a fantastic education, unqualified support for my dreams and aspirations, and imbibed liberalism from the very air every day. My nuns were Dominicans; they gave me the life I now lead and the strength to stand up against oppression wherever and whenever I see it. I am forever grateful to those good sisters.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience as a Catholic school student! The film featured some amazing young Catholic school students, who at one point staged a peaceful protest to defend their teachers and school.

  2. Abby Hansen says:

    Ahhh! It’s so similar. I want to see this documentary now, so bad. 🙂 It’s funny how you feel like you’re alone in your struggle and then you discover people across the planet and throughout history have been struggling with the exact same things for ages.

    Perhaps I’ll have to go buy myself a Sundance pass this weekend and check this film out.

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