Sister Margaret Traxler

By Serene Williams

Sister Margaret Traxler was a Catholic feminist nun and a civil rights activist who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. She was also an important supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment as well as a co-founder of the National Coalition of American Nuns, an important feminist organization for religious women in the United States.

Sr. Margaret Traxler, also known as Peggy, was born in Minnesota in 1924 and raised in the town of Henderson. Her father practiced medicine while her mother worked as his nurse. When Traxler was 20 years old, she became a Catholic nun, joining the order of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. After becoming a nun, she worked as a teacher for 17 years. After a successful teaching career, Traxler felt called to give up teaching and work full time for justice. She was particularly dismayed about how the schools where she taught were segregated, so she looked for ways to get involved in the civil rights movement that was expanding in the 1960s.

In 1965, Traxler marched in Selma, Alabama alongside civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. The march was a non-violent action intended to raise awareness on the importance of voting rights. This successful march ultimately led to the Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was rare for nuns in this era to advocate publicly for political campaigns based upon civil disobedience, but Traxler did not let this stop her from participating. Numerous newspapers noted that Traxler wore a full habit as she marched, which was still common for Catholic nuns at the time. For nearly three decades after the march, Traxler continued to publicly fight for justice using non-violent political tactics.

In 1972, Traxler participated in the publication of a historic statement for Catholic women titled “Declaration of Independence for Women.'' The statement was issued by the feminist organization she helped create, the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN). The essay called for complete equality for women within the Catholic Church and used language from the Declaration of Independence in its arguments. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Traxler was one of the most politically active nuns and fought for constitutional gender equality by publicly advocating for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In 1970, in her role as head of the National Coalition of American Nuns, Traxler testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the ERA. She said, “I should like to remind the Committee that further delay and subterfuge are simply intolerable. We accept your good faith only when the Constitution declares women free. Only when we are reassured by our Constitution that there will be no discrimination based on race or creed or sex, can we believe in the good faith of men of America. Until that day, we are forced to doubt.”

 During the political struggle for the ERA, Traxler traveled extensively and spoke in favor of its passage in front of 23 different state legislatures. In her later years, she worked alongside women in prison and founded Sister House, a center that allowed women who were experiencing homelessness to live with their children.

Traxler was also one of the most famous nuns to publicly support abortion rights and bodily autonomy. In 1982, she famously appeared on the Phil Donahue Show, a popular television program at the time, to discuss NCAN’s opposition to the Hatch Amendment, which challenged the constitutionality of abortions. She argued, “women must choose for themselves what they will do with their bodies.” Many of Traxler’s colleagues and friends were awed by her bravery to speak truth to power within her own institution. Her public support for women to have the ability to control their reproductive lives often brought her public criticism from the magisterium, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that was run by a male leadership. The criticism was especially high in the 1980s. Traxler was fiercely proud of being a nun and persevered through the criticism to show a devout public as well as personal commitment to her Catholic faith. She often referred to herself as a “loving critic and a critical lover” of the Catholic Church.

Traxler died on February 12, 2002. She is survived by two sisters and numerous nieces and nephews. In an obituary that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune shortly after her death, the paper noted she was viewed as “the Catholic equivalent of feminist Betty Friedan and civil-rights activist Rosa Parks.” Her legacy lives on today in Margaret’s Village, a center for women and their children who are experiencing homelessness in Chicago. It also lives on in the ongoing campaigns for women’s ordination, a cause she frequently supported, as well as the continued effort towards ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

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By Serene Williams | Edited by Emma Rothberg, Associate Educator, Digital Learning & Innovation