Many of America’s most powerful women went to a college you’ve never heard of.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
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.
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