Sister Clare Dunn was the first and only nun to serve in the Arizona State Legislature and the first nun in the United States in the 20th century to enter public office. She joined the Congregation of St. Joseph in 1955 at the age of 21. She obtained a bachelors and Master’s degree in Political Science and in 1965 she was assigned by the Los Angles Congregation Sisters of Saint Joseph to come to Tucson to teach history and government. She taught there for nine years.
In 1972 she entered politics through volunteer work on the George McGovern presidential campaign and attended the Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, Florida as an Arizona delegate for McGovern. A year later, she fasted for four days, contemplating the burden of becoming a legislative candidate. Difficult discussion and disappointments followed her decision to do so. At that time, running for public office required permission from her church superiors. Initially turned down by the Provincial Council of the Catholic Church in Los Angles over concerns about blurring the lines between church and state, Sister Clare continued to petition for permission to run. Finally, in May of 1974 she received that permission.
She was comfortable with leadership, an excellent speaker, and well versed in the workings of government by virtue of her education and having taught the subject for more than a decade. Her candidacy received national attention because of her religious status. In the mid1970s many women were entering politics. Referring to the media, she told the Arizona Daily Star, “They love to run my [election] story with the madam from Nevada [Beverly Harrell, who ran unsuccessfully for the Nevada Assembly] If I understand the Christian teaching, Jesus was with sinners, so I am not out-of-place.”
At the beginning of her legislative tenure in the House of Representatives some Arizona press dismissively referred to her as “the flying nun,” a reference to a television sitcom starring Sally Fields. These comments soon disappeared as the press recognized the seriousness of her intent. In her first year in office she introduced 29 bills and cosponsored nine bills. Among the first issues she addressed was increased access for voting. She supported voting by mail, automatically restoring voting rights to freed prisoners who met sentencing and parole requirements, requiring that the language printed on ballots be easy to read and understand. She worked for women’s and children’s rights. She co-sponsored a bill initiating January 15 as Martin Luther King Day and a legal holiday. For all her hard work and dedication, it was not until April 1976 that one of her bills passed and became a law that outlawed elected and appointed officials’ use of political influence to circumvent the state’s personnel system.
One bill always denied that she promoted repeatedly during her tenure was the House of Representatives resolution for the Equal Rights Amendment. On February 16, 1978 she said of efforts to block a vote on the amendment, “I protest the issue of an arbitrary ruling by the House to prevent consideration of my substitute amendment seeking a House vote on the Equal Rights Amendment …. By such action, the House has once again taken the position that equal rights for women is not an issue, when in fact the people of our state have shown consistently that they favor passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “
An activist for social justice, she was always quick to be the voice for those who could not defend themselves. She was instrumental in the creation of the Arizona Lottery, making sure that benefits went to schools, as well as legislation requiring ballots be printed in English and Spanish. She was vital in legislation that made generic drugs available. Molly Dollin, secretary during Sister Clare’s tenure, described getting that bill through as “climbing Everest without oxygen.” She was central to abolishing the tax on groceries based on the disproportionate affect the tax had on the poor. Also important to her was her work with immigration and farm workers. She used her name recognition to affect participation in farm workers’ rights, often joining picket lines.
Sister Clare died in a head-on collision with a driver going the wrong way on a freeway on July 30, 1981. Her legislative legacy continues to impact the people of Arizona. Former students praise her passion for social justice and for inspiring them to work with the poor and disenfranchised and for civil rights. She taught them that “ injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere and that we must speak out against injustice every time we witness it, no exceptions.”