In one corner of her Chicago office, Sister Margaret Traxler displays a small ceramic nun—a sweet, smiling figure in the traditional habit. "A friend found that at a garage sale," laughs Traxler, clad in a blue pantsuit. "It reminds me of where we once were." Adds Sister Donna Quinn: "That's when we were the fluffy little nuns and never taken seriously on the issues."

The two nuns are taken seriously now. This spring Traxler, 58, the founder, and Quinn, 45, the current president of the 13-year-old National Coalition of American Nuns, sparked an uproar by breaking with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops over the abortion issue.

Last November the bishops endorsed the Hatch Amendment, a proposed change in the U.S. Constitution which would overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. In April the 1,800-member nuns' organization became one of the first Catholic groups to publicly oppose the amendment. While stressing their personal opposition to abortion itself, the nuns attacked the amendment as a violation of women's rights. "How can these rich, white, male legislators express such great concern for fetal life," says Quinn, who helps run training programs for minority women, "when they do not support child nutrition programs, aid to education or a thousand other things which would support babies after they are born?"

New Chicago Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin has so far ignored the nuns' statement, but Catholic anti-abortion activists have reacted angrily. Fumes Joseph Scheidler of the national Pro-Life Action League: "It is deceitful, hypocritical and very damaging to stay in an organization that preaches one thing when you are teaching what we used to call heresy."

The Vatican has not responded to Scheidler's demand for an investigation, but such a probe would have unexpected support from Traxler. "We'd love to be investigated," she says with a grin. "That's exactly what the Vatican needs—to be in touch with the people."