In the same year, 1962, that Nancy D’Alesandro (later Pelosi) graduated from Trinity, and several years before Ohio Governor John Gilligan’s daughter Kathleen (later Sebelius) enrolled at Trinity, another woman who would have a remarkable political career — albeit quite different from the future Speaker Pelosi and Governor Sebelius — came to Trinity as an assistant professor of Political Science: Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick. Like so many strong intellectual women of that era, she was a graduate of a women’s college — Barnard — and had attended Stephens College in Missouri as well. Jeane Kirkpatrick spent five years on Trinity’s faculty before moving to Georgetown after earning her doctorate at Columbia. At Trinity, she was part of a highly respected Political Science department led by Dr. Edna Fluegel who had been one of the influential scholars contributing to the creation of the United Nations. Ironically, the United Nations would be the pinnacle of the career of her protege, Dr. Kirkpatrick.
Jeane Kirkpatrick’s death last week, on December 7, seems particularly ironic in light of the release of the Iraq Study Group report. She might have predicted the findings in that report, given her earlier scholarship and theories on the difficulty of introducting democracy in totalitarian states.
Dr. Kirkpatrick was a well known Democrat who became an influential voice in the development of the neoconservative movement in the late 1970’s. President Ronald Reagan was impressed with her theory on the political necessity of right-wing dictatorships, and he appointed her as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1981. She was the only Democrat in the Reagan Administration — she officially became a Republican later on, after she left public life.
Her support for right-wing totalitarian regimes, including the brutal contras in Nicaragua, earned her intense opposition. At Trinity, this opposition culminated in a campus-wide protest over an invitation to her to speak at the Trinity Commencement ceremony in 1981. At that time, the Reagan Administration was also increasing U.S. support to the military regime in El Salvador, and the U.S. Catholic Bishops and many religious orders, including the Sisters of Notre Dame, protested the Reagan policies in the aftermath of the murders of three American nuns and a lay woman volunteer in El Salvador by members of the military regime. As the protest at Trinity mounted, Dr. Kirkpatrick eventually withdrew from the plan to speak at commencement — instead, she spoke at Georgetown that year. This incident is not mentioned in her many obituaries, but is reported in the Washington Post archives in an article dated May 8, 1981,
In her obituary in today’s New York Times, Dr. Kirkpatrick was remembered as one of the first truly influential female policy advisors at the White House: “Ms. Kirkpatrick was the first American woman to serve as United Nations ambassador. She was the only woman, and the only Democrat, in President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. No woman had ever been so close to the center of presidential power without actually residing in the White House. ‘When she put her feet under the desk of the Oval Office, the president listened,’ said William P. Clark Jr., Mr. Reagan’s national security adviser during 1982 and 1983. ‘And he usually agreed with her.’ “
Women in public service associated with Trinity over the years — alumnae, faculty, Sisters of Notre Dame, friends — represent a broad spectrum of political beliefs. They have achieved many “firsts” for women leaders. While individually sparking principled disagreements about many different political issues, collectively these women have blazed trails and inspired new generations of women to step up to public leadership roles in legislatures, executive offices, judicial benches, school boards, civic associations and activist interest groups around the world. Many future generations of women leaders will rise on the shoulders of these first generations of women who broke through so many barriers.