Digital Extra: Abigail's Story

Digital Extra: Abigail's Story

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, a look back into the life of Abigail Quigley McCarthy ’36
By Sharon Rolenc

Since St. Catherine University’s Center for Women was dedicated in her name nearly 30 years ago, thousands of students, alumnae, faculty and staff have passed through its doors. But who is Abigail Quigley McCarthy, and why does this intellectual haven for women bear her name?

As one of the most prominent, nationally respected alumnae of the mid-20th century, Abigail was best known as a political wife, a progressive Catholic feminist and a prolific writer — tackling women’s rights, civil rights, social justice, ecumenism — and often, how these issues intersect.

“While she wasn’t the first feminist, she was most definitely one of the early agitators to speak out on the role of women in the Church,” says Ruth Haag Brombach ’60.

Abigail herself might have argued that she was born with her feminist viewpoint.

Born in 1915, Abigail Quigley grew up in the Mississippi River town of Wabasha, Minnesota — a cultural hot spot due to the town’s highly educated women who organized the orchestra, opera house performances and public lectures.

In her memoir Private Faces/Public Places, Abigail notes that her “single biggest intellectual influence” was her aunt and namesake, well-known Minnesota educator Abigail O’Leary. Her aunt largely raised Abigail after her mother died when she was nine. Abigail went on to attend St. Catherine and earned a double major in English and German. She started her career as a high school teacher in Mandan, North Dakota, where she met her future husband.

Her marriage to Eugene McCarthy propelled Abigail into the national spotlight as he secured a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving five terms before becoming U.S. Senator, and later during his first bid for president. Known on the campaign trail for her intellectualism and quick wit, Abigail at one point reduced her opponent to tears during a wives’ debate.  

Abigail was active in the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and her husband’s 1968 presidential bid, all while raising their four children. The couple separated in 1969, but never divorced.

Abigail went on to a successful career as a writer. She wrote a memoir and two novels, plus spent 25 years as a columnist for Commonweal, and she was an occasional book reviewer for The New York Times and Washington Post.

The consummate politician

“Abigail was that rare combination of someone that does what’s expected of her in her role — as mother, as senator’s wife — but also being a consummate politician in her own right. She promoted, spoke and wrote about the future, about the practical things we had to do as a church and as a society,” says Brombach.

Despite the couple’s separation, Abigail maintained her position of senator’s wife and remained a political force in Washington, D.C. until her death.

“Even into the 90s, Abigail talked about the politics in Washington, D.C. and of her good friend Barbara Bush,” says Kay Bendel ’56. “Back then, the politicians would argue on the floor, but they socialized afterwards. You just don’t see that anymore. Things are so polarized today.”

Abigail befriended Kay when the two served together on the St. Catherine Board of Trustees in the 1980s. Their families remained close until Abigail’s death in 2001. Kay and her husband, Rick, remember many Washington, D.C. trips where they rubbed elbows with the likes of Teddy Kennedy and watched debates on the floor of Congress, while in the company of Abigail.

“Abigail enjoyed being with people of power and prestige — and they enjoyed her. She was on the guest list for almost every European embassy. She lived not far from Embassy Row, and would say ‘oh, I just went to the French Ambassador’s house for a party last weekend,’” says Rick Bendel.

Abigail undoubtedly used her position as a Senator’s wife and consummate diplomat to influence opinions.

“She was known for being a great conversationalist who was up to date on things, as well as a vigorous politician,” adds Brombach. “You can bet that when she visited with the French ambassador, they talked a little politics. Not one of her visits anywhere was wasted.”

An avid reader of Abigail’s column in Commonweal, Kay Bendel reflects on how Abigail’s writing matched her personality. “Yes, she was very political, but she had this very nice way of presenting her argument; a way that was so logical that any other opinion on the matter seemed unfathomable,” Bendel says.

Even outside politics, Abigail had a diplomatic approach in all her interactions. She would often contact Ruth, suggesting follow-up with certain St. Kate’s alumnae after significant life events.

“She had a way of speaking that got right through to you,” says Brombach. “You’d start out thinking this call was just a pleasantry, but it wasn’t long before you realized that you had some work that needed to be done. And whatever it was, it was the absolute right thing to do — whether you thought about doing it before or not.”

Staunch supporter of women’s education

Abigail’s ties to St. Catherine ran deep and were lifelong — as an alumna, English professor (1940–45), trustee (1967–83), trustee emerita and one of St. Kate’s Centennial 100. 

In 1986, the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women was dedicated in her name. Because of Abigail’s national prominence at the time, naming the Center for Women after her attracted funding from unanticipated sources — including a $15,000 donation from Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips), the popular syndicated advice columnist.

Abigail remained a staunch supporter of women’s education, specifically women’s Catholic college education, throughout her life. She was often quoted in articles and academic books on the topic.

In Women in Catholic Higher Education: Border Work, Living Experiences, and Social Justice, she speaks to ground-breaking influence of this educational focus: “From the beginning, the institutions founded by women religious were the testimony to the worth of woman in herself…They came to America and what they accomplished was prodigious…what they built was the most far-flung and accessible system of higher education for women the world has ever known.”

Abigail experienced the bold vision of Mother Antonia McHugh first hand, having attended St. Kate’s during McHugh’s presidency.

In Private Faces/Public Places, Abigail admits “I am the beneficiary of what Mother Antonia had accomplished, but during my college years I, like my classmates, rather took it for granted. We did not realize how recent such a good education for women was, nor what boldness Mother Antonia’s achievement required in the world of the Catholic Church.”

Besides bearing her name, the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women is now home to Abigail’s personal library, as well as copies of Commonweal, and the three books she authored: Private Places/Public Places, One Woman Lost (co-authored with Jane Gray Muskie), and Circles: A Washington Story.

Abigail Quigley at her St. Kate's graduation.

Abigail Quigley at her St. Kate's graduation.

 Learn more...

...about the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women in this lively Q&A with Sharon Doherty and Sia Vang: "Where the head meets the heart."

Photos from Private Faces, Public Places and More than a Dream

Pauline Oo
MAOL Cert ’14, MBA '16

Class Notes Editor
Sara Berhow

Art Director
Carol Evans-Smith

Molly Orth
Joey Blanchard

Production Assistants
Kara DeMarie MLIS '16
Kayla Forbes MBA '17

Director of Visual Communications
Jayne Stauffer

Director of Marketing and Communications
Kristin Kalstad Cummings '91

Vice President for External Relations
Bea Abdallah

Mary Pattock '66, Ruth Haag Brombach '60
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