What American nuns built: Ruth Graham on the significant—and significantly under recognized—impact nuns have had on American life. For most of American history women have been denied the opportunity to participate fully in civic life; but during a time in which women couldn’t vote, Catholic nuns were running hospitals, founding schools, and exercising a degree of influence that would have been unimaginable for women in the secular sphere. Graham explains that, until recently, historians have largely ignored the contributions nuns have made to American life. And just as this recognition is arriving, the number of nuns in this country is dwindling, from a peak of 180,000 in 1965 to 56,000 today. This decline is consistent with lower participation rates by women overall in Catholic churches, and raises significant questions for the future of the church in America.
Behind Africa’s explorers, Muslim empires on the make: Dane Kennedy on how 19th-century African Muslim leaders used European explorers to further their own imperial ambitions. We think of the famous European explorers—people like Henry Morton Stanley, and Heinrich Barth—as bold, autonomous actors taking on an uncharted continent. But Kennedy explains that three Muslim states—Zanzibar, Egypt, and Tripoli—successfully harnessed European exploration to finance and promote their own empires. As a result, Kennedy argues that it’s incorrect to see conflicts in places like Mali and Sudan as purely the aftershocks of colonialism. “For all their heroism and hubristic claims of discovery,” Kennedy writes, “the signatures [European explorers] left on the continent were not necessarily their own.”
Lincoln as careworn hero: Jack Curtis on how Abraham Lincoln became known as the weary, pensive leader depicted in “Lincoln,” the movie. Curtis explains that in the decades after his assassination, Lincoln was memorialized differently—“as the Great Emancipator, like a god on high, bearing a sheaf of paper symbolizing the Emancipation Proclamation.” But in 1883 Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “the greatest American sculptor of his day,” was commissioned to create a memorial statute of Lincoln for Chicago’s Hyde Park. Saint-Gaudens’s statue gave us “a vision of a man ready to counsel and direct the people, and invest[ed] him with an air of weary humanity. It is this image of a burdened yet determined leader that the movie ads echo.”
Besides the pope, who speaks Latin today?: Ben Zimmer on an initiative to promote Latin as a live, spoken language. It’s called Paideia, and it runs an annual summer camp in Rome. There, classicists, students, clergy, and lay enthusiasts can come together to speak a language that most of the rest of the time is reserved for papal addresses and university crests.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how legislators in gerrymandered districts don’t pander to their new constituents; how carrying an actual physical load makes you feel more spiritually guilty; how boys play to their reputation as underperformers in school; and more.
Image of "nun day" at Fenway Park in the 1960s courtesy of the Boston Red Sox Library.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.