Jo Piazza’s Subversive ‘If Nuns Ruled the World’ Shatters the ‘Sister Act’ Stereotype

One of the best parts of Orange Is the New Black Season 2 was the backstory the show gave to Sister Jane Ingalls — her struggles with her faith and her activism as embodied in her life outside the prison, from her ghostwritten book, Nun Shall Pass, to the protest that got her arrested in the first place, in which she chained herself to a flagpole at a nuclear testing facility. After spending most of Season 1 as a saintly nun, she got layers, and we saw what brought her to the faith. It was a moving story about an imperfect woman trying to do good in the world, with all the self-interest and pure action that entails.

Most of all: it was a rarity. Too often, nuns are reduced to some weird stereotype in pop culture. Maybe they’re the scary Mother Superiors, wielding rulers and running on fear. Maybe they’re the nuns from The Sound of Music. Maybe they’re all cute, cartoon-y Sister Act nuns. Or they’re Mother Teresa, literal saints on earth. The problem with this portrayal of nuns — when nuns happen to rate enough to be portrayed in media and beyond — is that the inevitable one-dimensional results drown out the stories of amazing, human nuns in real life.

Jo Piazza’s new book, If Nuns Ruled the World, aims to correct that imbalance. Piazza, a journalist in New York and the author of Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money and the novel Love Rehab, profiles ten very different nuns who are united by their interests in something bigger than themselves. There’s Sister Simone Campbell (above), who organized the “Nuns on the Bus” protest against Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan that got media coverage from The Colbert Report to Rush Limbaugh (he called them feminazis); Sister Jeannine Gramick, who fights for gay and lesbian rights; and Sister Joan Dawber, who runs a safe house in New York City where human trafficking victims can rebuild their lives.

nunsPiazza writes vividly about hardworking women who devote their time and energy to making other people’s lives better. The result is a readable, informative look at how nuns, as flawed and human and real as they may be, also have a calling and a faith, and they use that to create change in the world. She starts with a story about Sister Megan Rice, an 80-something nun on trial for breaking into a nuclear weapons complex (she was sentenced to 32 months in jail). Piazza does a clean job of showing how Rice was always haunted by nuclear weapons (the bombing of Hiroshima was a seminal event in her life), and how, even through the hassle of court and the law, she’s serene in the fact that she’s doing the right thing.

A series of smart, thorough, magazine-style profiles, If Nuns Ruled the World is a smooth read, but suffers from its dipping into and out of the lives of these fascinating women. I wanted more — almost every nun could serve as the basis of her own book (and some have). The section about Sister Dianna Mae Ortiz, a woman who survived horrifying, unspeakable torture in 1980s Guatemala, is notably weaker for its brevity, as there’s a lack of context regarding the politics of 1980s Guatemala.

Above all, though, the book is subversive as hell (forgive me, Father?) in its exploration of the strength and power that women have found through an institution that, at times, doesn’t even support their work. There’s a lot of grit and fortitude in these nuns’ stories, and they’re absolutely inspirational regarding how faith can be a tool to do some good in the world. If Nuns Ruled the World is a little bit of a crowd pleaser and a little bit subversive, and it opened up my eyes to the everyday heroism of some amazing women.