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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Revisiting early coeducation at Notre Dame

“We knew we were groundbreaking. We knew there were a lot of people against us. We knew we would succeed.”

Anne Pillai, class of 1977, remembers the day she came home from high school and her mother informed her Notre Dame was accepting women. Now working as the associate program director for education and outreach at ND Energy, Pillai has been with the University through its continued mission as a coeducational institution.

“We knew it was our time in history and we were all so grateful to be here,” Pillai said in an interview. Unfazed by suggestions that they came to the University to get their “MRS” degree, the first women admitted to the University in the fall of 1972 came ready to prove to any naysayers that they could do what any Notre Dame man could — though not without pushback. 

Few current students know the decision to simply allow women to apply was only one possible path to coeducation — and for University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, it was the second best option. In the years leading up to the first admitted class of female Domers, the administrations of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s had planned a merger between the two schools. Saint Mary’s students had already been taking classes at Notre Dame through an unlimited class exchange program intended to be a precursor to the merger when the plans unexpectedly and abruptly fell through in February, 1972. That spring, many former Saint Mary’s students who would have attended the merged Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s received Notre Dame diplomas, so the first women to receive Notre Dame degrees were formally Saint Mary’s students. The first women admitted to Notre Dame as first year students would find themselves with the unanticipated charge of shaping the relations between the two schools in light of their newly defined identities. 

The transition to coeducation did not come without its trials, Pillai said. Some male students erroneously believed the female students received preferential treatment, like getting into any classes they wanted without having to go through the pre-digital age process of dashing from department to department and waiting in line to get their cards punched. 

In fact, she said, there were differences in services provided to the men and women at the time: men received laundry and housekeeping service, while dorms designated for women’s use were retrofitted with washers and dryers (though men did begin to complain about having to pay for the full laundry services.) Although men and women paid the same amount for housing, men’s room service was much more comprehensive than women’s (back then, the service even made men’s beds.) 

Discriminatory behavior on the part of both students and staff was widespread. Women were discouraged from participating in activities like the marching band that were purportedly “too strenuous.” Pillai, a member of the women’s basketball team, remembers a professor who denied her request to miss lab to travel for a game because he thought women’s sports did not deserve equal status to men’s. While this was not uncommon to encounter, Pillai also remembers the leaders who fought for them, such as her advisor who was able to override the aforementioned decision. 

Maureen Maloney, class of 1977, remembers it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between male students’ hostile behavior and pure thoughtlessness or misunderstanding — for instance, she said she was offended and hurt when male students threw food at her in the dining hall, but they later protested that food fights were a student tradition and they were trying to make her feel “a part of the gang.” The sexist intentions of the young men who rated female passersby, however, were somewhat less ambiguous. Even worse, many women remember with bitterness how Notre Dame men would participate in regular “panty raids” — jogs en masse to Saint Mary’s during which they would demand the women who lived there throw down underwear they could take home as trophies. Despite these setbacks and insults, female staff and students courageously persisted in making this campus their own.

Aside from Hesburgh, Sr. Jean Lenz is probably the best known name of the early years of Notre Dame’s transition, and for good reason. In his introduction to her 2002 memoir, Loyal Sons and Daughters, Hesburgh notes Lenz as being “at the heart of all our coeducational efforts over the past quarter century.” Lenz is remembered by many for her deep commitment to the University, her dedication to supporting its early women students and the sense of humor she brought to all she did.

In addition to Lenz, the University would not have been able to make the transition without a whole cohort of women willing to give their time and talents to aid in the transition. Pillai remembers a male to female ratio of 17:1 at the time she entered. Those demographics were force enough to make many women feel isolated: women often found they were the only woman in the classroom and often asked to speak for the “female perspective.” Early coeds responded to this challenge by taking initiative to build community with each other — Maloney, for instance, played an important role in creating the University’s first intercollegiate sports team. 

The tireless labor of talented rectors and passionate RAs in women’s dorms were also essential. Pillai had particularly fond memories of Sr. Sally Duffy, the first rector of Lewis Hall after its transition to undergraduate housing. Duffy joined the ranks of female rectors a few years before she joined the Sisters of Charity in 1977.

“She was right down there with the students. She was everything you’d want in a Notre Dame rector,” Pillai remembers. Pillai recalls Duffy leading by example, particularly in her role as women’s basketball coach during Pillai’s junior and senior years. Duffy continues to lead through her continued work in activism and advocacy in Cincinnati. 

On the night of the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, women from various dorms spontaneously celebrated King’s victory by running out of their residence halls and storming the quad. They ran through campus together, making their voices heard to celebrate a win that resonated with them as fellow female trailblazers. This night, the Notre Dame women took the hated “panty raid” tradition and flipped it on its head: men’s dorms echoed with women’s voices shouting, “Jock raid!” 

Such was the character of the early Notre Dame women — boldly invading and reclaiming all-male spaces with fearlessness, humor and a fierce sense of sorority. 

Next week we’ll be exploring the continued significance that Notre Dame’s decision to admit women has had for the dynamics between the students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s from the 1970s to today. If you’d like to share your story (especially if you’re a Saint Mary’s graduate) please reach out at the email addresses in our bios.

Annie Moran is a senior hailing from Chicago studying psychology and education. She can be reached at or @anniemoranie on Twitter. She’d love to hear your musings on the wonders of fresh basil, experimental theater or the sacred space of public transportation. 

Katie Hieatt is a senior majoring in Economics and American Studies from Memphis, Tennessee. Her go-to streaming recommendations are Russian Doll and Killing Eve. She can be reached at or @katie_hieatt on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.