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110 Years of Pioneer Women!


Trinity's Pioneer Women: Red Class of 190

Among the many election post-mortems, I’ve not seen many commentaries on the considerable setbacks for women that Tuesday’s tsunami of change brought to Washington.   The front pages and lead stories were abundant with men reclaiming power in triumph over the first woman ever to be Speaker of the House.   While it’s true that some women continued to dominate the airwaves, in general, Sarah Palin’s “mama grizzlies” didn’t do too well, and excessively wealthy women with money to burn (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon) were left with nothing but bills to pay.  Women just did fair to middling this time around.  (It does now look like Lisa Murkowski will get her Senate seat back on a write-in vote in Alaska, a dubious historic “first” for a woman.0

Within the Trinity family, our politics are as diverse as those of the national electorate, so it’s fair to say that among Trinity alumnae, students, faculty and staff, some are very happy with the election results, and some are very distressed.   But regardless of political views, many are also disappointed that our alumna Nancy Pelosi, Class of 1962, outgoing Speaker of the House, was treated so badly by her opponents through the increasingly bitter and uncivil campaign of the last year.   The opposition to Speaker Pelosi went well beyond reasonable disagreements to outright demonization, vilification and character assassination of shocking proportions.   She never let this  turgid rhetoric get her down, though, she went right on pursuing ‘the people’s business’ as she called her work.  (In today’s Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson said it best, “She’s losing her job not because she does it poorly but because she does it so well.”)

Classy and courageous to the end, Speaker Pelosi will certainly live in Trinity’s history as an amazing example of women’s leadership and power to create change.

Ironically, this week, as we watch the end of Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker of the House, we also should pause to remember the great pioneer women who, 110 years ago this week, first ventured onto this campus to begin the life of Trinity College.   19 young women and six hardy Sisters of Notre Dame started class at Trinity on November 6, 1900.  That first class — The Red Class — blazed a trail that burns brighter than ever today.

Speaker Pelosi ’62, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius ’70, Ambassador Susan Burk ’76, and so many other accomplished Trinity Women of this age are the most prominent heirs of those hardy and courageous young women who embarked on the most radical idea Catholic women could have in that day —- the idea of pursuing higher learning, a college degree, a gateway to advanced study and even professional life.

The Pioneer Women of Trinity could not have imagined our lives today — they didn’t have Facebook or Twitter, no cyberlounge or wifi, no Moodle or cell phones — heck, they didn’t have telephones at all!  But they had that most precious gift of Trinity that we still treasure today — the gift of friendship and community among students and faculty, the enduring power of women who value their relationships and give life to their ambitions through hard work, intensive study and respect for learning.

Let’s remember the great pioneers in the Class of 1904 through the words of Elsie Parsons ’04, the first alumna to become a Sister of Notre Dame, who wrote this about those first days at Trinity (November 3, 4, 5 and 6, 1900):

“And this is how Trinity first opened its doors to its students.  It was Saturday noon, November 3, 1900, when amidst a depressing downpour of rain four students and one Sister wended their muddy way from the car track to the front door.  When I said that Trinity opened its doors, i should have been more explicit — Trinity opened its door for it had only one in a state resembling anything like completion… [for today’s readers:  only the south wing of Main Hall was built at that time, and the door she refers to is the door from today’s Admissions office out to the road by the library.]

“Once safely inside, our welcome was warm….By November 6th, there were nineteen students in the house, and the next morning, that all might be well begun, we had the Mass of the Holy Ghost…At 10 am, the same day there was an assembling of Faculty and students in solemn conclave… At the desk, Sister Superior Julia [Julia McGroarty, Trinity’s founder] who first addressed us on the reasons for undertaking the College; at her right, Sister Superior Lidwine, President of the College, who spoke to us on our opportunities and the great things expected of us; at her left Sister Josephine Ignatius, Dean of the Faculty, who outlined a college day as it was to be.  The Faculty were also present and were introduced in due order, after which there was an adjournment of the meeting, and the first lesson at Trinity took place at 11:30 that morning — it was an English lesson and was given by Sister Mary Josephine, who had come all the way from England.”

The writer goes on to list the next day’s schedule for all Trinity students:

8:30 – Assembly.  Mathematics

9:30 – Church history

10:30 – Intermission

10:45 – Greek

11:45 – English

12:45 – Intermission

2:30 – French

3:15 – German

4:00 – Intermission

4:30 – Help given by teachers in classrooms

5:30 – Free

6:00 – Social Ethics

6:30 – Supper

7:00 – Social Hour

8:00 – Study in rooms

9:30 – Lights out

She goes on to remark:  “We did work hard, one and all of us, and no one seemed to think it at all strange that we should; on the contrary, the usual advice of our many distinguished visitors could be summed up in these two words:  ‘hard work!’ “

Trinity students still work very hard, and our faculty are well known for taking the time to care for students, all in the cause of great learning.   While the subjects in the typical student curriculum may have changed, and “lights out” at 9:30 sounds wonderfully impossible today, the sense of adventure and determination to succeed continue to be great and timeless hallmarks of Trinity students.

Today’s students may also claim their rightful place as new pioneers — many are the first in their families to attend college, many are the first to earn graduate degrees, and many are helping Trinity to break new academic ground in nursing and the health professions, international security studies and criminal justice, among many new programs.   Through each generation, that great pioneer spirit has been a source of renewed inspiration and energy for Trinity students and faculty alike.

This week, as we try to figure out what’s next for our nation, and take stock of women’s leadership opportunities in the wake of the 2010 elections, let’s remember the great pioneer women who came before us at Trinity — from Elsa Parsons to Nancy Pelosi, from Marie Rotterman to Kathleen Sebelius (both from Ohio), from the first Red Class of 1904 to the Green Class of 2014, Trinity Women lift as we climb, with each generation blazing new trails for the next, each determined to make a difference in a world that still needs our witness, our voice and our power to create change.

What’s your take on women’s chances for getting elected in 2012?  Weigh in with your thoughts by clicking on ‘comments’ below…

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3 Responses to 110 Years of Pioneer Women!

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  2. php says:

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  3. çıldır says:

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: