Many of America’s most powerful women went to a college you’ve never heard of.
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.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.