... and ain't i a woman?: The 'something' could be guilt

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... and ain't i a woman?: The 'something' could be guilt

ABC television's broadcast of There's Something About A Convent Girl documented what for many women is an experience which shapes their lives. At the very least, it leaves permanent memories — pleasant or bitter, but rarely indifferent.

Every one of us who went through the experience has her story and over the past week quite a few of us have got together to conduct our own oral history sessions — swapping stories and comparing notes.

It wasn't a uniform experience. There were quite marked differences between Catholic boarding schools and day schools; between country and city schools; between wealthy schools and those surviving on modest funds; between very high educational standards and a fairly rudimentary grounding in the basics.

The thing we could relate to without exception, however, was the all-pervasive presence of the nuns. Stories ranged from the familiar tale of the nun whose mere sight inspired terror to the nun who was the archetype of the kind-hearted soul, unswerving in devotion and loyalty to her students.

The emotion most commonly evoked by these memories was guilt.

Not only did we know we would be punished for our sins. Even if our sins weren't all that terrible, we knew we could never reach the lofty heights of sainthood attained by those who had given their lives to God. The sense that you never managed to make the ultimate sacrifice, were never granted the illusive "vocation", lingers on.

Unfortunately, this guilt is not consigned to the waste paper basket when we finally walk out the school gate. It lurks menacingly beneath the surface, rearing its ugly head in completely unrelated areas of our lives, at the most inopportune moments and completely against our will.

Everyone is familiar, whether from a Catholic background or not, with the traditional image of the nun — black and white penguin figure whose arrival is heralded by the sweep of flowing garb along the corridor.

Fortunately, this is a far less common sight today, yet the "modern" nun still evokes a sense of guilt and apprehension. It is impossible to dissociate the individual from the institution.

Convent schools have long provided the main recruiting ground for replenishment of the ranks, but with less success in recent years. Nuns are fast becoming a non-renewable resource.

Obviously, there are many reasons why this is so, but the number of women from convent school backgrounds who become active in progressive politics certainly bears thinking about.

The proliferation of secular social movements in recent decades has thoroughly undermined the argument that committing oneself to a life within the church is the one true means of being socially the social movements, you can do it without the guilt.

By Anne O'Callaghan