Early life and influences
Joan grew up in a working-class family with parents from Ireland, a first-generation American who went to a parochial Catholic school. At a very young age, her developing sense of fairness became evident. When turning seven years old in grade two, Joan got into trouble with the principal of her school for talking in class when the class teacher had become ill. Challenged by the principal for her misconduct and feeling "highly insulted", the young Joan defended herself with logic, principle, and passion:
I said to her, "It wasn't like real talking. I was helping someone do her math because we should have a teacher, because some kids have trouble with math and they weren't getting their pages done that you would tell us to do. No one was supervising us, we were just supposed to be good children, all 50 of us!" I wouldn't back down when she told me I was wrong; I said, "I'm not wrong, we should have a teacher and we are wasting time, because they don't know the math".
Such early respect for the needs of others and their developing minds was to prove prophetic. Joan's mother was a role model in her support of her daughter's position against the principal and a successful fight on behalf of Joan's sister, who needed extra help with her schoolwork. Joan saw how her mother stood with her children to defend their rights. Joan learned from her that to ask permission of someone is to give power to that person, whether they already overtly hold it, or not.