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Coeducation pioneers reminisce

Mary Kate Malone | Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Notre Dame legend, a soft-spoken nun and a female alumna gathered in LaFortune Wednesday night to reminisce about a special time nearly 35 years ago, when the University first opened its doors to women.

About 25 students, most of them women, attended the panel discussion, which was sponsored by Pangborn Hall and the history department. It featured University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, Sister Jean Lenz and 1976 graduate Jill Donnelly.

Having been an all-male institution for 135 years, Notre Dame’s transition to a co-ed institution was lengthy and not without opposition, Hesburgh said. Hesburgh spearheaded the plan during his tenure and originally believed a merger between Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame was the best way to bring women to the campus.

“I got together with the nuns at Saint Mary’s, and we agreed in principle that we would merge,” Hes-burgh said. “But as conversations went on, as soon as we would get close to closing the deal, the nuns said they needed more money, more buildings or that they didn’t want to lose their name.”

After a year of weekly conversations that showed little progress, Hesburgh gave up, and Saint Mary’s was left on its own. A few years later, Notre Dame admitted its first class of women.

They were welcomed as academic equals, and perhaps they were just what the University needed to tame the men of Notre Dame, Hesburgh said.

“I had started to notice that the longer I was at Notre Dame, the more brutish the men were becoming,” he said. “Without women, men degenerate into something less than human. That’s why God put women here, because he didn’t want the world to be a zoo.”

Since the fall of 1972, when only a few hundred females were enrolled, thousands of women have been handed their Notre Dame diplomas and have left lasting legacies behind them.

Sister Jean Lenz, the first female rector of Farley Hall, spoke proudly of the first women she watched over – a group that contained future judges, doctors and lawyers.

“I always felt I was with a special group of young women,” Lenz said. “I can count 22 doctors in the 10 years I was rectress. And many of those women married and had children.”

Although the first women that walked the quads of Notre Dame were clearly in the minority, Donnelly said this was not necessarily a drawback.

“In some of my classes, I was the only woman,” Donnelly said. “The male students valued my perspective on discussions, as did my professors. The men were respectful and tried to impress every woman on campus.”

Still, all three panel members agreed the transition was sometimes met with opposition – from professors, students and alumni alike – who believed the presence of women at Notre Dame was not necessary.

“In my economics class, I had gotten an A on every exam, but my midterm grade was a B-,” Donnelly said. “The professor said it was because I had poor attendance, but I always sat in the front row and had never missed a class. He refused to change the grade.”

Despite the fact that Donnelly’s stubborn professor cost her an A, Donnelly and her female coeds were some of the best and the brightest in the nation. Small female quotas made admissions highly competitive in the early years and created classes filled with bright women.

“In the beginning women were superior to the men. They took the cream of the crop across the [United States],” Lenz said. “The women had the brains [and] the men were more average.”

As the years have passed, women have comfortably blended into the Notre Dame culture. But Hesburgh believes women need to continue pursuing more leadership positions, both on campus and in the business world.

“We need a few more Joan Krocs [2003 donor of $70 million],” he said. “Eighty percent of our alumni support comes from men.”

The conversation progressed into the topic of single sex dorms and parietals, a philosophy firmly advocated by Hesburgh but often opposed by students.

“I just think that come 12 o’clock, you ought to have some time for yourself to make friends you’ll have for the rest of your lives,” Hesburgh said.

As the discussion concluded, firm conviction resonated from Hesburgh’s voice as he praised the University for its inclusion of women.

“The student body is much better today than before co-education, and the reason is because half the students are women,” he said. “It’s a simple fact.”

Inscribed on a rock at the Grotto are words of thanksgiving from the first women admitted to Notre Dame: “We are and forever will be grateful daughters of our Notre Dame du Lac.”

And that inscription lays beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary, the namesake of the institution – a woman herself.