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Sister Ann Gormly is almost ninety, but she still skips the elevator and climbs the steep wooden staircase in the main hall of Trinity College, her alma mater and former employer of many years. I met her there one cold afternoon in early December, on the college’s small hillside campus in northeast Washington, D.C. She guided me up one flight of steps, down a long, quiet hallway, and into a spare white meeting room, where she and three of her fellow nuns told me about one of the more remarkable and unacknowledged institutions in twentieth-century American higher education.

Trinity was founded by Sister Gormly’s religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 1897. But neither the college nor the order of nuns is what it used to be. Of the four sisters in the meeting room, none was younger than sixty, and two of them—Sister Gormly and Sister Margaret Claydon— were old enough to reminisce about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, during their freshman year as Trinity students. Sister Claydon, who served as president of the college from 1959 to 1975, sat down next to me wearing a black jacket and a heavy gold cross on a chain around her neck, and she leaned a wooden cane against the table as she took her chair. She described Trinity’s years of decline, when nuns started leaving the order in droves and young women stopped coming to replace them. “It was painful,” she said. “It still is.”

But like any educator, Sister Claydon finds some joy in keeping track of her former students. Trinity, which nearly foundered in the 1980s, was always a small school, graduating 200 women in a good year. So Sister Claydon has been able to keep in touch with a good portion of alumnae. Just two weeks before our meeting, she had sent off a note of encouragement to one who was abandoning a lucrative perch in business for a job in public service. “I’m so thrilled you’re doing this,” Sister Claydon wrote.

The student was Cathie Black, who graduated from Trinity in 1966 and then went into the cutthroat, male-dominated publishing industry, becoming one of the nation’s most powerful media executives. After heading USA Today and then helping launch Oprah Winfrey’s hugely successful O magazine, Black rose to the chair of Hearst Magazines. Unexpectedly, she had chosen to step into the lion’s den of New York City politics by accepting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appointment as the first female chancellor of the city schools. Black’s tenure was ultimately a short one, but at that moment Sister Claydon saw a former student applying her considerable talents to the public good.

Black wasn’t the only one on Sister Claydon’s radar. Other Trinity alumnae who have received notes in recent years include Kathleen Sebelius (Class of ’70), the two-term governor of Kansas and current secretary of health and human services, and Nancy Pelosi (Class of ’62), the first woman to serve as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the most powerful female politician in American history. In fact, when Forbes magazine recently published its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, only Princeton undergraduate alumnae outnumbered those of tiny, little-known Trinity College.

The Washington, D.C., area is replete with landmarks— Ford’s Theater, the Watergate Hotel, the homes of Frederick Douglass and Red Cross founder Clara Barton—where, at a particular moment in time, history was made. There is no official placard marking Trinity College as such a site, but there probably should be. For roughly twenty years in the 1960s and ’70s, the small, austere, and relatively obscure women’s college graduated prominent female scientists, scholars, doctors, educators, judges, and public servants in numbers far out of proportion to its size. The true import of this achievement is only now being realized, as the school’s graduates hit the pinnacle of their careers. The historic advances of last year’s health care reform effort, for example, bear the fingerprints of an uncanny number of Trinity alumnae.

The tale of Trinity’s golden years is, in many ways, a “right college, right time” kind of story. In the days when most of American higher education was single sex and Catholics rarely mixed with mainstream institutions for reasons of mutual suspicion, Trinity—a Catholic women’s college distinct in its dedication to academic rigor—had the pick of the brightest graduates from girls’ parochial schools.

But it was more than an accident of demography that made Trinity the source of so many remarkable women. It was also the highly progressive culture of the place, imprinted on the institution by the nuns who started it and still very much evident on the campus today. In Catholicism, different religious orders describe themselves as each having a distinct “charism.” The term refers partly to the basic mission of an order, but also to a more intangible set of attitudes—a spiritual temperament that traces back to the group’s founding. The charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur involves running schools for women and girls. More than that, though, it entails a spirit of ambitious enterprise and fierce autonomy—a refusal to take no for an answer in the face of institutional authority. The origins of this religious order stretch back 200 years and 4,000 miles across the Atlantic. They help explain the accomplishments of an impressive number of women shaping America today.

The Sisters of Notre Dame came into existence at a time when France was emerging from a state of utter disarray. It was the winter of 1804. Napoleon had been in power for five years, and the nation was still reeling from the decade-long upheavals of the French Revolution, which had left over a hundred thousand dead. Infant mortality stood at 30 percent, and tens of thousands of children had been orphaned or abandoned. It was in this context that two women—a village shop owner’s daughter named Julie Billiart and a noblewoman, the Viscountess Francoise Blin de Bourdon—founded the new order and dedicated it to the education of poor young girls.

Billiart and Bourdon did not make life easy for themselves. Before founding the order, they were loyalists to the Catholic Church with ties to the aristocracy and, as such, had been persecuted during the revolution as agents of the ancien regime. Billiart, a small-town spiritual savant who spent most of her adult life paralyzed from the waist down, refused to denounce the church and was hunted by anticlerical forces. One night, friends smuggled her from a chateau to safety in the bottom of a hay cart as a drunken mob stood outside demanding that she be brought out and burned alive. She spent years in hiding and eventually took refuge with the noblewoman Bourdon, whose scheduled date with the guillotine had been luckily preempted by the fall of Robespierre.

Despite their fidelity to the church, the two nuns ran afoul of its authorities too when they tried to put their ideas about girls’ education into action. Billiart had novel, egalitarian ideas about the sisterhood, and refused to adopt the standard two-tier system of mothers ruling over a lesser class of sisters. She was also an ardent expansionist, founding fifteen convents and scores of schools for young girls whose access to education had been wiped out in the tumult following the revolution. This raised the ire of the local bishop, who wanted to maintain control of the order. In 1809, Julie was exiled from her home city of Amiens, in northern France. So she and her fellow sisters went to Namur, Belgium, which remains the motherhouse of the order today.

By mid-century, the fast-growing order had already crossed the Atlantic, with its network of schools expanding first in Ohio, then Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and nationwide. But a bigger leap was still to come. On March 7, 1897, while visiting Washington for the inauguration of President William McKinley, Sister Susan McGroarty, the leader of the order’s educational work in America, climbed into a carriage with Sister Mary Euphrasia, head of the order’s convent at North Capitol and K Streets, and drove north to the suburban towns of Brookland and Eckington. This was the site of the recently founded Catholic University of America. The nuns were ostensibly scouting locations for a new girls’ school. But Sister McGroarty had also become convinced that there should be an institution where the brightest graduates of her high schools could further their studies. While many Americans still held that college would have a “hardening and deforming” effect on young women, the weight of public opinion was shifting toward opening the doors of higher education to both genders.

At Catholic University, as fate would have it, the two nuns met James Garrigan, the school’s vice rector and a like-minded soul. He, too, was grappling with the admission of women into higher education. Twenty young Catholic women had recently applied for admission to Catholic, which had opened its doors ten years earlier. They were denied—it was an all-male institution. All twenty had then proceeded to enroll in “Protestant or infidel” colleges, putting their faith and souls at risk. And so the two nuns and the vice rector banded together to form a Catholic college for women: Trinity College.

Within months, they were engulfed in protest and controversy. Men in the local church hierarchy were aghast at the prospect of a women’s college being erected within walking distance of the male students at Catholic. Like Billiart and Bourdon a century before, Sisters McGroarty and Euphrasia’s modern ideas about educating women pushed the bounds of what was acceptable within the church. Soon the fledgling project was surrounded by rumor and innuendo. Joseph Schroeder, a professor of dogmatic theology at Catholic, relayed his objections to allies in the Vatican and began publishing broadsides in conservative newspapers. “We cannot discern any advantage gained by this newfangled rise of the New Woman,” he wrote. Fending off the anti-Trinity campaign fell to Euphrasia, a tireless networker, promoter, and fund-raiser who might have been a star in the university development world had she lived in a different time.

The face-off was dubbed by some the “War of 1897.” Catholic newspapers up and down the East Coast ran stories about the controversy. “The project of a University for the weaker sex,” said one pointed inquiry from Rome, “has made a disagreeable impression here.” Finally Sister Euphrasia determined to speak with the archbishop himself, who had fled the stifling summer heat for Atlantic City. On August 26, she and a colleague donned their heavy hooded traveling cloaks despite the soaring temperatures and set out by train for New Jersey. The archbishop was impressed by their case and their determination, and his support helped tip the battle in Trinity’s favor. (It didn’t hurt that the college’s supporters began pointing to their opponent Shroeder’s weakness for all-night sojourns in disreputable saloons.) By December the war had subsided. Trinity College enrolled its first students on November 3, 1900.

If anything, the pitched controversy over simply opening
Catholic higher education to the “weaker sex” obscured the grander ambitions behind the school’s founding. Garrigan described Trinity as a place “to take our young Catholic women to a higher plane than has been so far reached by our Catholic schools; in a word do for them what Vassar and Wellesley and Bryn Mawr are doing for American women.” The Trinity faculty—mainly Sisters of Notre Dame—studied the course catalogs of the Seven Sisters with care. Admission was contingent on examinations that were administered in major cities nationwide. Incoming students were expected to demonstrate proficiency in Latin, English, either French or German, history, and mathematics. The daily schedule for the first class of Trinity women began with Mathematics at eight thirty a.m. and proceeded through History and four different languages to lights out at nine thirty p.m.—with a half hour for “free time” at five thirty, just before Social Ethics.

In those first decades, many Trinity graduates entered the sisterhood or became teachers, following one of the few career paths available at the time for educated women. Others pioneered the entrance of women into medicine, business, and law. By 1965, fifty-seven Trinity alumnae had earned MDs from universities ranging from Harvard and the University of Southern California to the University of Rome. Many others entered social work, none more famously than Jane Hoey, Class of ’14, who became director of the Welfare Council of New York City. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as the first director of the Bureau of Public Assistance. For the next two decades she was one of the few powerful women in the federal government, until she was ousted by President Eisenhower in 1953 in favor of a political appointee. In a letter to then Undersecretary for Health Education and Welfare Nelson Rockefeller, Hoey refused his request to resign. “There is nothing political about poverty,” she declared.

By the late 1950s, Trinity was thriving as the Baby Boom swelled college ranks nationwide. In 1959, the college appointed Sister Margaret Claydon, Class of ’45, as president. At thirty-six, she was one of the nation’s youngest higher education leaders. She promptly called a press conference to explain her goals. A reporter for Time magazine was on hand. “The modern world needs more people—including girls—who think for themselves,” Claydon said. “We’re not in the business of training committee women or bridge players.”

Fifty-three years later, Sister Claydon has lost none of her conviction. When I asked what, exactly, she did to train her students to think for themselves, she turned and looked me square in the eye. “We treated them like women,” she said. “Not like little girls.” It was a distinction she returned to numerous times as she explained how the charism of Saint Julie Billiart became the educational philosophy of Trinity College. If students were going to heed Saint Julie’s call to go out into the world, they needed self-reliance. Trinity had instituted student government in 1914. Exams were unproctored, and integrity was upheld by an honor system. The college didn’t perform bed checks and didn’t take attendance at Mass, but seniors took the GRE as a matter of course. Students were constantly reminded—“until they got sick of me,” Sister Claydon said—of women like Jane Hoey and the legions of teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, and PhDs who had come before them.

Nancy Pelosi still remembers the thrill of being accepted to the most rigorous Catholic women’s college in America. Raised in a strict religious household, her college options were limited: it had to be Catholic, all female, and within forty-five minutes of Baltimore, where her father was the mayor. Luckily, Trinity fit the bill. The nuns were “severe,” Pelosi told me in a recent interview between votes on the House floor, and the academic standards tough, but the atmosphere was empowering. “When you look around the room, everybody you see is a woman in a leadership role,” she said. “It gave you a sense of confidence that, yes, women do these things. You’re not just the secretary of the student class—you’re the president.” Speaking in her office overlooking the National Mall a few weeks earlier, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius made the same point. “Girls did everything,” she said. “There was no thought that you could be the treasurer but not the president.”

Trinity was also, in its way, a long-standing oasis of progressive politics. In the 1920s and ’30s, Monsignor John Ryan— the famous “Right Reverend New Dealer”—had taught his influential theories on social justice and the living wage as an adjunct professor. Students were encouraged to pursue internships on Capitol Hill. When the civil rights and antiwar movements surged in the 1960s, student involvement was so commonplace that the dean of students kept a cash reserve on hand to bail protesters out of jail. Many of the nuns marched too.

The college’s activist streak was undergirded by a socially conscientious reading of the Bible. During our conversation, Pelosi quoted from memory a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that, she said, still “overpowers” her. “ ‘When, Lord, did I not give you food or drink or housing or clothing. When did I not visit you when you were in prison?’ And Christ responds, ‘When you did not do this to the least of my brethren,’ ” the congresswoman recited. “That gospel of responsibility from one to the next is something that was ingrained in us,” she said.

The order’s charism, Sister Claydon explained to me, called for the college not just to educate, but to “educate for peace and justice.” Patricia McGuire, Class of ’74, puts it more bluntly: “Most people think of nuns as little shy retiring people. They’re not. They were revolutionaries.” The Trinity sisters, McGuire said, harbored the same “latently subversive” attitude toward authority that had led Julie Billiart to decamp for Namur. “We weren’t meant to be held under one jurisdiction,” says Sister Claydon. “We were meant to go to the whole world.”

What’s remarkable is just how many graduates took their Trinity education—and some version of the sisters’ charism—to heart. True to Sister Claydon’s statements in Time, the class of Trinity women who enrolled under her watch did not content themselves with committees or bridge. Instead, they formed one of the most distinguished cohorts of women ever to graduate from an American college or university.

Jurate Kazickas, Class of ’64, was told by her editor at Look magazine that she was too inexperienced and female to cover Vietnam. So she went on a game show, won $500, and used the money to buy a one-way ticket to Saigon. A rocket explosion at Khe Sanh left scars that remain today. Caryle Murphy, Class of ’68, hid from Iraqi authorities while filing anonymous dispatches from Kuwait during the occupation. She won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize.

Others aimed for government. Barbara Kennelly, Class of ’58, was elected to Congress from Connecticut in 1982 and served eight terms. Maggie Williams, Class of ’77, became Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff. After three decades working to limit the spread of lethal weapons, Susan Burk, Class of ’76, was appointed ambassador for nuclear nonproliferation by President Obama. Claire Eagan, Class of ’72, is the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, academia welcomed dozens of Trinity graduates into doctoral programs—women like Jane McAuliffe, Class of ’68, today the president of Bryn Mawr—and scores of alumnae followed their predecessors into education, medicine, science, and law. Among the roughly 3,400 women who graduated from Trinity between 1955 and 1975, more than half went on to earn advanced degrees. By the late 1960s, Trinity was producing twice as many Woodrow Wilson fellows as any other women’s college, and bested even Georgetown and Catholic on that count.

But at the same time, larger forces began eroding Trinity’s foundations. Vatican II concluded in 1965, encouraging a less insular Catholicism in the modern world. Meanwhile, the women’s movement was breaking down gender barriers in higher education and the professions. Georgetown went coed in 1968, along with other elite universities, Catholic and otherwise. Trinity was simply not positioned to compete. For years, it had enjoyed a kind of sole-supplier status for smart Catholic women looking for a rigorous education. It had never grown large, averaging fewer than a thousand students. It never built a big endowment— the sisters had taken vows of poverty and didn’t care much about money. By the middle of the century, the vision of building a Catholic women’s college to rival the best secular institutions seemed to have been fulfilled. Then it seemed to unravel overnight.

The steady pipeline of women from the best Catholic high schools began to slow, and the need for Trinity faculty dwindled along with it. For years, Sister Claydon had sat in chapel, looking out at the students in the pews and updating a mental roster of those who were most likely to enter PhD programs and eventually return to Trinity to teach. Suddenly she had no place for them. As enrollment dropped she was forced to fire twenty-five young faculty members. Others left the order to join various social justice causes, convinced they could do more good outside the college walls.

By the 1980s the institution had fallen into precipitous decline. The college’s always-tenuous financial situation turned dire. A series of presidents came and left in quick succession. Facilities built at the beginning of the century were crumbling, and no new ones rose around them. Scores of other Catholic women’s colleges went coed or shut their doors.

At the same time, as the spectrum of professional options open to women broadened, fewer and fewer became nuns. Like other American religious orders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur no longer enjoyed a steady influx of girls from Catholic families. Near the end of our conversation, I asked the four nuns how many members of their order were left in America. A couple started to guess before Sister Mary Hayes jumped in. “There are 929,” she said, in a way that made clear she keeps track of the decline.

The Sisters of Notre Dame continued their work in the
following decades, and when they occasionally rose to prominence it was for familiar reasons. During the 1984 presidential election, two sisters who worked in a West Virginia homeless shelter joined twenty-three other nuns, priests, and brothers to sign a pro-choice statement that was published in the New York Times. The Vatican reacted angrily and forced all the other signers to make “public declarations of adherence to Catholic doctrine on abortion.” Only the two sisters refused. The Vatican demanded that they be dismissed from the order. The order refused that, too. After four years of stalemate, the sisters resigned to continue their work as lay members.

In 2005, the assassination of seventy-three-year-old Ohio-born Sister Dorothy “Dot” Stang provoked outrage worldwide. When she refused to abandon her lifelong work advocating for rainforest preservation and the rights of peasants in Brazil, local ranchers had her gunned down in the street. While their American numbers continue to dwindle, the order is expanding in South America and Africa, with concentrations in the Congo, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Trinity, meanwhile, has made a remarkable comeback. In 1989, with dissolution fast approaching, the college turned to another young alumna, Patricia McGuire. Raised in a middle class Philadelphia household and the sister of a nun, McGuire had gone from Trinity to law school, been bored by firm work, and ended up the assistant dean of Georgetown Law.

During her interviews for the presidency, McGuire asked how she would navigate relations with the local Catholic hierarchy. The nun across the table gave her the hard look McGuire remembered from her student days. “Don’t worry about the bishop,” the sister instructed. “Just fix the college.”

There was no money. “Poverty,” McGuire likes to say, “is one of our grand traditions. Something we took from the nuns.” A previous president had started a teacher education program for older students to attend on nights and weekends. McGuire expanded it, bringing in much-needed cash. Then she turned to the historic women’s college itself.

The traditional Catholic student population was not going to return. But Washington, D.C., was filled with young women who needed a good college education. Many came from impoverished homes and suffered under a local government that couldn’t manage to provide a functional system of public education. They were much like the poor, school-deprived girls that Saint Julie Billiart had founded her order to serve. Trinity welcomed them in.

Over time, word spread and enrollment steadily grew. Today the college has topped 2,000 students, as big as it has ever been. The endowment is a little less tiny, and new buildings are rising again. Chapel services have filled back up, although now the Catholic students are joined by Baptists, evangelicals, and Muslims. The large majority of Trinity students are black or Hispanic, and Howard University has replaced Georgetown as the place to find a date. There’s a banner hanging front and center from the high ceiling of Trinity’s main hall as you walk in the front door. It says “Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House.” On one occasion when she was visiting the campus, Pelosi told me, a young student came up to her and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Madame Speaker. But I’m going to be president of the United States someday.”

Sister Claydon still lives at Trinity, on the top floor of the
north wing, with a small group of fellow nuns. After stepping down from the presidency, she taught at Yale for several years on a fellowship before returning to Trinity to teach English until retiring at the age of eighty, in 2003. She attends Mass every day and delivers the occasional speech at alumni events. And, of course, she keeps up with her correspondence, sending handwritten notes (and, increasingly, e-mail) to women who were, and still are, her students.

To mark the day she took the speaker’s gavel, Pelosi attended a special morning Mass in Trinity’s small stone chapel, sitting in the front pew surrounded by her many grandchildren. Sister Claydon was in the audience. Anti-abortion protesters picketed outside. A few weeks earlier, President McGuire had preemptively called the archbishop of Washington to inform him that she had no intention of canceling the Mass.

In her first months on the job, pundits openly questioned Pelosi’s smarts and fortitude. They talked about her as if she was little more than a glorified hostess—good for a cocktail party or a fund-raiser but out of her depth in the rough-and-tumble man’s world of power politics. Republicans painted her as a grotesque caricature of ultra-liberal excess.

But when the Affordable Care Act teetered on the brink of collapse in early January 2010, with wise men and White House politicos calling for compromise and retreat, it was Pelosi who stood firm. Behind closed doors, she dismissed the bowdlerized version of health care reform being pushed by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel as “Kiddie Care.” In late January, she held a press conference and declared, “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will polevault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.”

Barbara Kennelly, Class of ’58, now president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, helped press for comprehensive reform. Kathleen Sebelius watched over the debate as the official who would be in charge of implementing whatever reforms took shape. At a pivotal public event at Blair House late that February, the president and vice president were flanked by Pelosi and Sebelius. As the meeting began, Pelosi glanced at her fellow alumna and thought, “If Pat McGuire could see us now.”

Weeks later, when Pelosi succeeded in corralling a reluctant caucus to pass the historic reform, Sister Claydon immediately emailed a note of affirmation. “Thanks for sticking in there,” she wrote, “and holding on to the real version of the law.”

On March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. The mood in the room was festive as Obama surrounded himself with friends and allies. Pelosi stood behind him, hands on the back of his chair, as he signed half a century of progressive aspirations into law.

Afterward, the attendees stood around the signing desk on the crowded platform, smiling for pictures and congratulating one another. Pelosi walked over to Sebelius. She touched her fellow alumna on the arm, and said, “We need to have the president take a picture! With the Trinity sisters!”

The two went together to Obama and Sebelius said, “Mr. President, would you take a picture with the Trinity sisters?” The president said, “Sure—where are they?” and began looking around the room, perhaps for a small group of nuns applauding in the crowd. Sebelius corrected him. “We’re the Trinity sisters. Nancy and me.” Obama laughed and signaled to a White House photographer, putting his right hand around Sebelius’s shoulder and his left around Pelosi’s, smiling. At the moment the shutter closed, Sebelius looked at Pelosi and gestured between them, as if to affirm, We’re the ones, you and me.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.