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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

The separation of the sexes

On the first floor of O’Shaughnessy Hall, the men’s and women’s bathrooms are on opposite ends of the hallway. I vividly remember the first time that I noticed this. I was a first-semester first-year, unfamiliar with the building. I remember leaving class to go to the bathroom and then seeing the women’s bathroom nearby. “The men’s bathroom has to be right across the hall then, right?” I thought to myself. But much to my frustration at the time, it was actually all the way down the hall. As I made the surprisingly long walk, I remember wondering why anyone would ever design a building that way.

In case you haven’t noticed, our school treats the dichotomy between men and women differently than many others. Firstly, in some of our buildings, the men’s bathroom is like a five-minute walk away from the women’s bathroom; secondly, we have parietals; and of course, thirdly, men and women live in separate dorms on our campus. No one really questions why we live this way. Notre Dame’s perpetual separation of the sexes is the natural product of tried-and-true Catholic values. It encourages chastity, endows men and women with a sense of reverence for each other and allows everyone on campus to be able to tap into a sense of fraternity/sorority in their residential halls without ever needing to go through an annoying pledge process. But what if I told you that our approach to gender creates space for ignorance, toxic attitudes and harmful “locker room talk,” at times enabling dorm cultures directly in opposition to the values of chastity and reverence that our University is trying to promote in the first place? What if I told you that our approach to gender fails to prepare students for inter-gender socialization in the real world? 

For instance, think back to the “Zahm House” situation that went down a few years ago. If you were here during that time, I’m sure you remember what that was like, and if you weren’t here, you’ve almost certainly heard stories about it by now. Since I’m in Alumni Hall, I’ve been living in Zahm this year and I know that acts of vandalism and brazen disregard for University policy were commonplace. But I didn’t bring up Zahm to lament the fact that they carved Zs into anything imaginable (though in fact, there is one carved into the door of my room and many of my neighbors’ doors as well). I’m mentioning them because another one of their crimes was perpetuating a toxic culture of disrespecting and dehumanizing women. Each year this culture was imposed upon a new generation of malleable first-years. As a byproduct, venomous attitudes toward women, statements about women and traditions carried out at the expense of women began to infuse themselves into the lifeblood of their dorm and by extension the lifeblood of our school. Ask yourself: would something like this have happened if there were women living in Zahm Hall?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to integrate O’Neill or Baumer or anything. The shift we need isn’t so much changing anything tangible (though I would be in favor of doing away with parietals). It’s more so trying to reshape intangible attitudes and ways of thinking that have, over the last five decades that women have been at Notre Dame, firmly embedded themselves into the fabric of our school. For instance, ask yourself why so many friend groups (at least in your first year) are so homogenous in terms of gender. I’m sure most of us have friends of the opposite gender, but how many people can say that they have a close friend (or even a best friend) of the opposite gender? The answer is probably not many, and that’s because our campus culture/environment doesn’t exactly encourage people to have best friends that aren’t the same gender as them. A large number of students here are already coming from single-gender education. Being open to developing meaningful platonic relationships with people of the opposite gender is a huge part of becoming more mature socially and emotionally. Plus, I know at least a few guys here whose style and decorum would probably benefit from having a good female friend. In all seriousness though, close relationships with the opposite gender are also a crucial means of preparing ourselves for the world outside of Notre Dame, where we will likely be working closely with both men and women. 

Notre Dame’s attitude toward gender may need some progression forward. This framework of separation between men and women permeates countless aspects of campus life and I think it does a disservice to the social experience here and the social development of our students. More importantly, sometimes it enables the harmful culture and attitude that it’s been engineered to prevent.

Oluwatoni (Toni) is a freshman majoring in Business Analytics at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at

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