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Monday, May 20, 2024
The Observer

‘Loyal Daughters and Sons’: Panel discusses 50 years of female progress at Notre Dame

The campus-wide celebration of 50 years of women at Notre Dame came to its close Monday evening with a panel discussion between five women who have both witnessed and enacted change toward women’s empowerment. 

Each panelist was selected for her unique perspective and contribution to the tri-campus community. The panel was broken into four sections that traced the evolution of women on campus. 

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Panel members and student government organizers pose for a post-discussion photo in Jordan Auditorium.
Panel members and student government organizers pose for a post-discussion photo in Jordan Auditorium.

Women at Notre Dame before 1972

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the Rev. John A. O’Brien collegiate professor of American studies and the director of the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism, remarked that there were women on campus before the famed year of 1972. 

“There were women who earned bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and even doctorates from Notre Dame,” Cummings said. “They would do that in a variety of ways, like summer school. Though the direct admission of women into the undergraduate program is 1972, women were certainly present on campus all along in a particular way.”

Father Hesburgh’s decision to co-educate

Mary Bliley reflected on her own unique experience as the first and only woman to receive a bachelor’s degree at commencement in 1972.

Bliley explained that when the merger between Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame was proposed, she laid out a plan to earn a degree from Notre Dame. But when the merger fell through, Bliley had already completed all the credits that went towards a bachelor’s in business administration, a degree that was not recognized by Saint Mary’s College.

“In January of 1972, I received a letter from Saint Mary’s stating that I would not graduate,” Bliley said. “In April of 1972, my senior year, Dean Raymond called me in and said, ‘Mary, you are going to graduate from the University of Notre Dame, you are going to be the first female undergraduate and you will be the only female in the class’ … My claim to fame is that Father Hesburgh gave me my diploma and kissed me.”

Cummings went on to describe a misconception — that 1972 somehow pinpoints a date of immediate equality. The culture at Notre Dame didn’t change quickly or easily, she said. 

“There [were] the early years in which the ratio of men to women on campus was 17 to 1,” Cummings said.

In addition to female minority in the student population, Cummings said there were also very few female professors.

She proceeded to quote Rosemary Mills, the editor-in-chief of The Observer in 1980. 

“Notre Dame has admitted women as students for eight years, but it has yet to accept them,” Mills wrote. “And the difference between admittance and acceptance is the difference between the success and failure of co-education.” 

Katie Conboy, who currently serves as the 14th President of Saint Mary’s College, recalled witnessing these early years of women on campus. As a doctorate student, Conboy taught an introductory English writing course. In teaching this course, she had one student encounter in the fall of 1984 impacted her for a lifetime, she said. 

“I walked into my class on the first day of class, and there were 25 white men and one black woman,” Conboy said. “And I just had to stop for a second and say to myself, what is this experience going to be like for her? How can I ensure that her voice is heard, that she has a place in this class?” 

In June 2020, Conboy’s office received a call from that student. 

“It turned out that [the student] had just been on a panel that was promoting a book called Black Domers,” Conboy said. “She had written one of the chapters, and in it she’d written about the class and her experience … Not only was she the only woman and the only person of color in that class, but she never had another woman professor.”

Recent advancements in gender equity

Although the integration of women at Notre Dame has been a long process, the panelists express pride for how far the University has come.

Carolyn Woo, former dean of the Mendoza College of Business, believes the best way to empower women is to serve as an example.

“In those days, business schools were not run by women. In fact, there were more women presidents of universities than women deans,” Woo said. “If people ask me what is the most impactful thing that I have done here, it was simply to succeed … there is this real thing called a glass ceiling, that if one person breaks it, it all of sudden really does open up for other women.”

Woo also said that, when it comes down to it, “the whole empowerment of women is really just being able to recognize their potential … basically to say, ‘yes, women can.’”

Goals for celebrating a century of co-education

Considering the next 50 years, the panelists agreed the University is headed in the right direction. What’s next, Woo said, is to include more females in senior leadership and to “start helping women see how they can use their success.”

Indi Jackson, a 2017 Notre Dame graduate, former student-athlete and current regional director at Notre Dame echoed this message through her own experiences. 

“Once you get in a position of power, oftentimes, especially if you’re a double minority, you have to bust down that door, and you have to drag your chair to the table,” Jackson said. “But when you are in that position, when you talk about empowerment, it’s about inviting others to the same table. I know as long as women continue to do that, as long as our allies continue to do that, there’s a future that we can’t even imagine.”

Jackson explained that each individual woman’s success is a success for all women.

“I commend all of you for being here, listening to these wonderful women’s stories,” Jackson said. “Take them in, share them and know that for all of us to succeed, you have to make room for everyone at your table.”