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Panel examines role of women at ND

Nora Kenney | Monday, April 27, 2009

Notre Dame has come a long way toward making its campus more welcoming for women, according to the participants at a panel discussion held Friday to help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Gender Studies Program.

In the 1970s, as English professor Sonia Gernes set up for class, a male student mistook her for a student.

“He said, ‘Girl, you can’t put your books there. That’s where the professor sits,'” said Gernes, recollecting the incident.

A panel of Joan Aldous, sociology professor, Ava Preacher, associate dean in the College of Arts and Letters and Janet Kourany, philosophy professor, discussed the progress made since women were first admitted to the University.

Gernes said that in the mid-1970s, female faculty members had to be “very brave women who basically gathered to share war stories.”

Gernes shared several such stories. A security guard once denied her entrance to campus because he did not believe she could be a professor, Gernes said.

The panelists agreed with Preacher’s statement that “Notre Dame is a traditional institution that even now still has its prejudices” but praised the collaborative nature of the Gender Studies program, specifically for allowing students to pursue intellectual as well as personal development.

To reach these twin goals, the panelists stressed the importance of calling the department “Gender Studies” instead of “Women Studies.” This allows the department to articulate its principles in its namesake – all kinds of equality are important, including academic opportunities.

Aldous, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1976, was jubilant about the progress and success of the program that she has witnessed.

“Hooray for the 20th anniversary of this program!” she said. “That’s wonderful!”

“The whole University was essentially ‘Men’s Studies’ before the Gender Studies program helped form a more balanced curriculum overall,” Kourany said.

Helping to balance the curriculum, Kourany said, has been the program’s greatest achievement.

A second panel of distinguished Notre Dame alumni, including Wade Edwards, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Longwood University, Jacki Larson, director of Student Talent Development at Dakota Wesleyan University, Krista Duttenhaver, assistant professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame, Annie Envall, director of the S.O.S. Center in South Bend, and Lindsay Horvath from the National Organization for Women, shared perspectives on the roles of women at Notre Dame.

Horvath said her “roots in activism grew here at Notre Dame” where she could challenge her peers to embody Catholic values in their actions toward oppressed members of the community.