Many of America’s most powerful women went to a college you’ve never heard of.
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.”
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