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Female student body presidents set to speak

Emma Driscoll | Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It took Notre Dame 130 years to admit female students and another 29 years until the first female student body president, Brooke Norton, was elected in 2001. To date, there have been three female student body presidents – and all three will come together tonight at the event titled “We Can Do It! Women & Leadership at ND.”

Norton, 2002-03 student body president Libby Bishop and current student body president Lizzi Shappell will speak at the event, which is hosted by the Gender Relations Center (GRC).

It “seem[ed] like it was the right time to note that there have been three [female student body presidents] in the history of Notre Dame,” said Heather Rakoczy, GRC director.

Shappell said she feels privileged to be one of the female student body presidents – although she wishes it hadn’t taken so long for women to take charge at Notre Dame.

“I am definitely honored to be in this group of three with these other two women,” she said.

Each of the women will spend approximately 10 to 15 minutes addressing pre-selected questions about how gender affected their experiences with the election process and their leadership roles.

“The focus of the program is on specifically the only three female student body presidents at the University, so it’s kind of a unique opportunity to talk about that public display of female leadership,” Shappell said.

After the speakers give their presentation, GRC peer educators, called FIRE Starters, will divide the audience into small groups for discussion. Then the entire group will come back together for a general question and answer session, Rakoczy said.

Initially, Rakoczy said, she felt that “undergraduate women who are interested in student government and interested in following in the footsteps of Brooke, Libby and Lizzi” would be interested in the event because they could “get some ideas of how they can contribute to that legacy.”

However, as planning has progressed, Rakoczy said she now hopes that student leaders from various disciplines will also attend the event. She expects the three women’s “kernels of wisdom” to inspire a diverse group of male and female leaders in fields such as athletics, band and art.

“Campus culture will start to change when women and men collaborate together as leaders,” Rakoczy said.

The program is also intended to reach “those interested in the historic nature of having the three female presidents together in one room,” Shappell said.

Rakoczy pointed out that Notre Dame’s female student body presidents have made significant contributions toward generating positive gender relations at the University.

“We are indebted to all of these women in a really big way,” she said.

Norton pitched the proposal “30 Years of Celebrating Women” to the Board of Trustees in 2002. It called for the University to found and sponsor a Center for Women and Men. This move was instrumental in the establishment of the GRC in 2004.

“By virtue of these three women in particular becoming student body presidents, they have had just a different lens for looking at these issues on campus,” Rakoczy said.

She gave credit to the three women for helping to bring “gender and sexuality to the forefront.”

Shappell said she “definitely was conscious of the fact” that there had only been two female presidents before her, but it was not why she decided to run for the office.

“I wanted to run because I wanted to serve in this position,” Shappell said. “I don’t think that the fact that I would have been the third [female president] impacted that either negatively or positively.”

Prior to her time as president, Shappell was involved with gender relations on campus as a student worker at the GRC, senator for Badin Hall and Gender Issues committee chair.

As a female president, Shappell said issues such as sexual assault and eating disorders are important to her. Rakoczy noted that under Shappell’s presidency, the annual Eating Disorders Awareness Week has expanded to a full-fledged conference on eating disorders.

The “We Can Do It!” event will take place tonight from 7 p.m. to 8:30 in the Oak Room of South Dining Hall.