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Election breaks gender barrier

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, March 8, 2007

After weeks of campaigning, a tense and lengthy election process and an eventual triumph, only now are Notre Dame student body president-elect Liz Brown and vice president-elect Maris Braun beginning to grasp the reality of their win – one that breaks a 35-year barrier since women have been admitted to Notre Dame.

With their victory, Brown and Braun became the first all-female ticket to be elected in Notre Dame history.

While both state that they are proud to be a part of that history, breaking that barrier was never their intention.

“When I was considering running and … thinking about choosing Maris [as a running mate], it was in the back of my mind that it was going to be an even bigger challenge since we’re both female, but that wasn’t why I picked her,” Brown said. “I didn’t pick her to go up against that [barrier], and we didn’t even bring it up in the campaign.”

Braun agreed that “making history” was never an objective of theirs.

“Liz and I, from the start, acknowledged that we were the first all-female ticket running, but our gender never really crossed our minds,” Braun said.

While it certainly wasn’t their goal, Brown did concede that they are “certainly proud” and that “it’s definitely a cool benefit.”

And when they announced the appointment of current Pangborn senator Sheena Plamoottil to the position of Chief Executive Assistant (CEA), they added another female to the head of the student government hierarchy. Both Brown and Braun said again, however, it was “never an effort” to have an all-female leadership, nor to “continue to make history in that way,” Brown said.

Still, gender was at first an issue in selecting their CEA.

“To be honest, the gender issue did come up in that conversation, not in direct relation to individuals, but initially, Maris and I were thinking, ‘We have to find a guy, we have to find a gender balance because we’re already pushing it with two women,'” Brown said. “But as we thought about it, we [thought], ‘Why not just pick the best candidate?’ And it ended up being female.”

Braun said they felt the constituency wouldn’t be concerned about another female in a top leadership position.

“We recognized that we were elected because Notre Dame considered us the best candidates, and we felt we needed to honor that and choose the best candidate, regardless of gender,” Braun said. “I think we would have been doing an injustice if had picked the candidate purely based on the fact that we thought a guy would look the best.”

While they admit that Plamoottil’s selection and their election has broken boundaries, they don’t consider themselves to be progressive. Braun said she even thinks people may consider her more traditional.

“I think Liz and I are both really ambitious and really go-getters, we’re really dedicated, and are willing to take risks, but I don’t think that we’re really trendsetters,” she said.

Regardless of how gender neutral they have tried to keep the election, all three women acknowledge that a new precedent has been set at a school traditionally led by men.

“I’m only starting to grasp the reality of the significance of the whole thing,” Plamoottil said.

“Just last week, I was at the library, and one of my friends came up, and she was like, ‘You know, in my theology class on gender, our professor has been talking about you guys, and how amazing it is that the student body has elected three women to the top tier of student government to represent them,’ and it truly struck me that this is something that will go down in history,” Plamoottil said.

And while they don’t expect their gender to be an issue during their administration, Brown and Braun say they are prepared for criticism.

“We know we are going to catch heat, we’re going to be criticized or we’re going to do stuff that not everyone’s going to like, but I think we fully accept that – it’s part of the job, it comes with the territory,” Braun said. “But I don’t foresee issues resulting from an issue that we can’t control, like our gender.”

As of yet, Brown said they have had no negative feedback. The positive response, on the other hand, has been overwhelming, they said.

“I think we were both kind of surprised at the amount of positive feedback we got from alumni and University administration over the fact that we were the first all-female ticket,” Braun said.

“It’s really cool to get letters from alumni, from women who were in the first class of females here, saying ‘I could never believe that the student body would elect two females,'” Brown added.

While they feel experience – both at home and in Notre Dame student government – has prepared them to assume such difficult roles, neither see themselves going much further in politics, according to Braun.

“The reason why we ran wasn’t some desire to be involved in politics, but really because we wanted to give back to Notre Dame – we saw aspects that we thought could be improved upon, and we wanted to capitalize on those,” Braun said.

Already, they hope to “give back to Notre Dame,” through this year’s election and the precedent it sets for future elections, she said.

“I think that [gender] doesn’t have to be such a huge consideration as it has been in the past,” Brown said. “In past elections I’ve been involved in – before I asked Maris to run with me – we always said, ‘You have to have a male and a female, however you do it, you can’t have two females,’ and I was definitely of that thought as well. But I think now [this election] shows that that’s not as big an issue as everyone thought.”

Braun added that this election really says that it’s not at all about gender. Rather, it shows that “your ticket should be comprised of the people who you think are best to do the job.”

And she feels that’s precisely the reason they were elected.

“Yes, we broke a standard and broke some boundaries, but I hope that people still remember why we were elected,” she said.