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