March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today's woman to know is Nancy Manahan.
Who she is: Coeditor of the landmark book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence and now an advocate for a humane, conscious, natural approach to the end of life.
What she’s accomplished: One of the most sensational publishing events of 1985 was the release of Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, edited by Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Keefe Curb, both lesbians and former Roman Catholic nuns. The book, published by the lesbian- and feminist-oriented Naiad Press, carried accounts by more than current and former 50 nuns, culled from 400 submissions, as well as the editors’ own stories. Its purpose was “the breaking of the historic silence about erotic love between women in religious life,” wrote Manahan in the introduction.
While the book caused a sensation, it was not at all sensationalistic. “A lot of people assume ‘lesbian’ is a sexual term, period,” Manahan said in a 1985 interview with the Spokane Chronicle. “They think our book means there’s a lot of fooling around in the convent.” But most of the nuns who shared their stories kept their vows of celibacy. One of the older contributors, for instance, had lived with a woman she loved without engaging in sexual activity.
Putting the book together was an emotional experience for the coeditors. “Each time a submission to the book would arrive, I would tear open the envelope and devour the story it contained,” Manahan wrote in an afterword to a new edition of the book, published last year. “I recognized myself in every woman’s piece and cried for her loss as well as for my own. Those tears seemed to leach poison from my body and soul. Bit by bit, the grief I had never allowed myself to feel about leaving the convent flowed out of me.”
Manahan, a Minnesota native, had entered a convent after two years in college, but left after a little over a year, having developed doubts about her vocation and fallen in love with another sister. She returned to college, eventually earning a Ph.D., and became a writer and community college professor, teaching composition, literature, and women’s studies. Curb was a longtime college English professor and administrator; she died in 2012.
Many were offended by the very idea of the book, and this led to some problems with the editors’ promotional tour. The Catholic archdiocese of Boston persuaded the producers of a local talk show to cancel a segment featuring Manahan and Curb. In Ireland, the women were kicked out of a hotel and had to check into another one under pseudonyms, and customs authorities seized copies of the book to make sure it wasn’t obscene. There were also condemnations from lesbian feminists when Naiad allowed excerpts to be published in Forum, a soft-core pornographic magazine aimed primarily at straight men. Naiad publisher Barbara Grier justified the decision on the basis that it would help the book reach a wider audience, saying that many women, some of them closeted lesbians, read their male relatives' copies of the magazine. Despite all the controversy, the book was a triumph. It became a surprise best seller and resonated with readers.
“Oblivious to the controversies that surrounded the initial publication of Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, whether they originated within the Catholic Church or the lesbian feminist movement, thousands of readers across the decades have embraced the book and found their lives changed by its message of empowerment,” wrote history professor Joanne E. Passet in a foreword to the 2013 edition, published by Spinsters Ink.
Manahan has produced other notable books. In 1997 she published another anthology, On My Honor: Lesbians Reflect on Their Scouting Experiences, which collected the stories of 33 lesbians who had been Girl Scout members, volunteers, camp counselors, and professionals. Then she and her partner, Becky Bohan, collaborated on Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey With Cancer and Beyond, published in 2007. It tells the story of Diane Manahan, the wife of Nancy’s brother Bill, and how she dealt with the breast cancer that took her life in 2001. She did all she could to live a full life during the five and a half years between her diagnosis and death. A professor of nursing, Diane shared her experiences as a patient with her students to help them become better nurses. She also explored alternative therapies and made plans for an eco-friendly funeral. “Impeccably written, it makes a huge topic accessible,” one reviewer said of the book.
Nancy Manahan and her partner, who divide their time between Minneapolis and the Caribbean, are founding members of the Minnesota Threshold Network, which advocates “a more natural, less commercial approach to death, including conscious dying, home vigils, family-directed funerals, and natural burials,” according to the group’s website. They are both now retired, Manahan from teaching, Bohan from an executive position with a training consulting company, but they continue with their activism, and they travel extensively. “We are interested in spirit, nature, travel, arts and literature, life-long learning, movies, wellness, and living simply but comfortably,” they write on their blog. “We believe in laughing every day.” They were married in San Francisco on their 14th anniversary, September 3, 2008. Bill Manahan, a holistic physician, shares their home.
Choice quote: “We have been suffocated by discretion. But inside and outside the convent, we are finally telling our stories — in this book, in newsletters and journals, at conferences and workshops, and in small groups across the country. We are finding each other and acknowledging ourselves. After centuries of invisibility, we are at last breaking silence.” — Manahan in the introduction to Lesbian Nuns
For more information: Manahan and Bohan have a website NanBec.com, and they blog at FullLifeGoodDeath.blogspot.com and NanBec.blogspot.com. You can find out more about Lesbian Nuns at Spinsters Ink and Bella Books, and at the latter, read a PDF of Curb and Bohan’s introductions to the book.