Publication Date

October 2, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


Public History

Suellen M. Hoy

Photo courtesy Notre Dame Archives

Historian Suellen M. Hoy died on May 4, 2023, in Seattle, Washington. During her career, she moved seamlessly from political to public to social histories. Among her many achievements, Suellen was a founder of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the first to teach women’s history at the University of Notre Dame, and an award-winning historian of women religious and labor.

Born on August 14, 1942, in Chicago, she earned her BA from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Following seven years as a member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Suellen received her MA and PhD from Indiana University. While in Bloomington, she was the first woman to serve as a graduate assistant at the Journal of American History. Her dissertation, completed in 1975, was on Samuel M. Ralston, an anti-Catholic politician of the Progressive Era who served Indiana as governor and US senator.

After teaching at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, Suellen went to the American Public Works Association in Chicago in 1975 as the first director of the Public Works Historical Society and co-authored, with Michael C. Robinson, History of Public Works in the United States, 1776–1976 (American Public Works Association, 1976). It was during this period that Suellen helped to co-found the NCPH in 1980 and served on its first board of directors. She also co-chaired the 1982 NCPH conference.

Between 1981 to 1987, Suellen was deputy director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. William Price, who invited Suellen to work as his deputy, recollects, “She moved south from her beloved Chicago seeking a change and new responsibilities. In a matter of several months, she had revitalized our Federation of NC Historical Societies, guided preparation of a finding aid for records relating to women in our State Archives, and set up an in-house lecture series.”

In 1988, Suellen became a visiting associate professor at Notre Dame, where she turned from public to social history. Following a year in Ireland, Suellen co-edited with Margaret MacCurtain the diaries of two Dominican nuns who emigrated in 1889: From Dublin to New Orleans: The Journey of Nora and Alice (Attic Press, 1994). She next published Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), in which Suellen showed her “very dry wit and impeccable scholarship,” according to Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

After that, Suellen focused on women religious, deepening our understanding of their historical significance, particularly in Catholic cities like Chicago. Over the course of a decade, she published articles on women religious from the earliest schools and hospitals to their support of civil rights, gathered together as Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2006).

Suellen then turned her attention to Progressive women reformers. In Ellen Gates Starr, Her Later Years (Chicago History Museum, 2010), she focused on the Hull House co-founder’s ongoing work with labor causes and her conversion to Catholicism. Suellen continued to study Chicago women activists in “Chicago Working Women’s Struggle for a Shorter Day, 1908–1911” (Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 2014), which won the journal’s Harry E. Pratt Award, and two essays inLabor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas: “The Irish Girls’ Rising: Building the Women’s Labor Movement in Progressive-Era Chicago” (2012) and “Sidelined: The Chicago Women’s Trade Union League in the Interwar Years” (2018).

Suellen received numerous fellowships and prizes, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1979, 1992), a British Academy Fellowship (1988), a Spencer Foundation Fellowship (1997), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on the History of Women Religious (2007), and the NCPH Founders Award (2018).

In 1986, Suellen married fellow historian Walter Nugent. Until Walter’s death in 2021, the couple lived in Indiana, Illinois, and finally Washington. Suellen was an inspiration to other scholars. Timothy B. Neary remembers her as an informal mentor who “never failed to support and challenge me in becoming a better historian and a better person.” Suellen loved discovering a new word, watching a well-crafted movie, and hearing well-told stories. She is deeply missed for her generosity and insightful wit, especially by her colleagues and friends in Chicago.

Ann Durkin Keating
North Central College

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