Cokie Roberts Delivers Stirring Talk on Impact of Civil War-Era Women, Including Visitation Alumnae

At this year’s Rosemary Hannan Mother-Daughter Book Talk on Tues., Jan. 17, acclaimed journalist Cokie Roberts discussed her recent work “Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868.” The book explores the lives and contributions of area women during this period—including several Visitation alumnae—and considers the war’s lasting impact on women’s roles in America.

“Capital Dames” seems like a natural extension of Ms. Roberts’ oeuvre, which includes the bestselling women’s history books “Founding Mothers” and “Ladies of Liberty.” But as she told the large crowd gathered at Visitation, she’d never wanted to write a book about the Civil War. Ultimately, though, she became curious about whether this conflict had its own Rosie the Riveter. As she began to research the topic, she discovered that indeed, it did.

“Women started pouring into Washington as the war began, mainly because they needed work with all the men gone,” Ms. Roberts said. “There were women in every division of government after the war.”

Ms. Roberts shared stories of the women who performed the dangerous and sometimes deadly work of making munitions, who cut up the large sheets of greenbacks used to fund the war, who served as nurses and founded social service institutions, who exerted influence on powerful men and thus helped them shape history, who attempted to keep the peace while tempers flared and battles raged around them. Among others, Ms. Roberts introduced the crowd to Dr. Mary Walker, whose medical service on the battlefield earned her the only Medal of Honor ever awarded to a woman, and Visitation alumna Harriet Lane, who served as the diplomatic First Lady for her bachelor uncle President James Buchanan and who was involved in a number of worthy causes, including the founding of the National Gallery.

Ms. Roberts did some of her research at Visitation’s Monastery Archives, as she has done with at least one prior work. “I understood as soon as I started doing my research how key Visitation was to the period of the Civil War,” she said. As she shared with the crowd, the school was extremely unique in that it not only stayed open during the war but also continued to house both northern and southern students--just part of Visitation’s rich history.

Following Ms. Roberts’ remarks, she fielded a variety of questions from students, including what advice she might have for young women aspiring to be journalists or politicians. “Get in there and do it,” the author told them.

“Ms. Roberts’ discussion of her work ‘Capital Dames’ offered a timely example of how the past can inform our contemporary responses to debates in society,” said Principal Mary Kate Blaine. “Her stories of how women of the past, including Visitation alumnae, created opportunities for service and leadership in spite of societal constraints inspired and called each of us to ask how we are doing the same today.”

Former English teacher Patty Branson, also inspired by the evening, said, “The Mother-Daughter Book Talk offered yet another lesson to each student attending that for four years, they are not only led by admirable women, but are surrounded by vestiges of previous women who learned, who thought, and who eventually acted for the greater good.”

Ms. Roberts is the author of six New York Times bestsellers on women in America, serves as a political commentator for ABC News and NPR, and writes a syndicated weekly column with her husband, Steven V. Roberts. She has won countless awards during her 40-plus years in broadcasting, including three Emmys, and she holds 25 honorary degrees.

The Rosemary Hannan Mother-Daughter Book Talk honors President Emerita Sr. Mary Berchmans Hannan ’48 & ’50 and her mother, also an alumna--two faith-filled women whose passion for reading and learning inspired and continues to inspire so many others.

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