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Now & Then: Gender Relations

Marissa Frobes | Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The University of Notre Dame was established as an all-male institution in 1842. Though women were admitted to the university in 1972, the men of early Notre Dame marked their territory on this campus. Their continuing legacy is reflected in the skewed gender relations present on campus today.

Maintaining single-sex dorms, parietals and numerous male-female stereotypes (i.e. the atrocious “ring by spring”), Notre Dame has preserved archaic notions of gender as a clear-cut social construct. Looking at the history of women at Notre Dame unearths some of the roots of Notre Dame’s unique view of gender.

The early 20th century “Dome” yearbooks are chock-full of abstract jokes, poems and caricatures, a nice departure from the current typical headlines of “Academic Life, “Student Life” and “Sports.” One spread in the 1909 yearbook features dueling “N.D. Boy” and “N.D. Girl” poems. The male’s poem, seemingly written from the perspective of a woman, details the ND boy’s growing ego but then acknowledges submissively “with all your faults, we honor you.” The ND girl is described as “petite and coy” and beautiful — we learn only of her physicality, and the men’s hatred for her hat.

Though Saint Mary’s College was founded in 1844, only two years after Notre Dame, those women were not necessarily hot commodities in the eyes of Notre Dame boys around mid-century. “The Dome” of 1938 recounts tales of dances and balls on campus where “lovely guests arriv[ed] on every train… for those who waited too long, dates from the lake.” SMC students were a last resort.

And then WWII happened. The 1953 yearbook praises The Marriage Institute’s work on campus and introduces “Vetville,” which was a set of 39 housing units for veterans and their families. It was located just off the east end of campus and was autonomous from the university, but the vets were an integral part of the social community at ND.

As the idea of co-education began to loom at Notre Dame, “The Dome” presented conflicting views of the issue. One SMC student, cheerleader Terri Buck, was interviewed for the 1971 yearbook and expressed her support for the introduction of women to the university. She believed it would promote an improved social environment where women were regarded as peers, not just possible dates for the weekends.

“The Dome” of 1972 may actually be a representation of the university’s reaction to the inclusion of women that occurred that year. It did not include the individual portraits of graduates as is customary for yearbooks, and obscure lyrics rather than any expository text covers the pages — it seems as though women on campus were an issue too new to be addressed.

But a little later in the ‘70s, some progress was made. Pictures of a sign on South Dining Hall in 1973 states “We’re Glad You’re Here,” as a welcome to the women. In the 1974 yearbook, a poem is included that expresses the woes of one student about “living on a campus…/ where men and women/ often seem too conscious/ of playing their roles / as male vs. female.” Discussion is often the best catalyst for change, so it was positive to at least have these issues recognized.

That brings us to today: when many current students’ mothers went to Saint Mary’s and fathers went to Notre Dame, when you can still see a handful of senior girls with rings on their finger after spring break.

The legacy of these norms has provoked some newer conflicts with sexuality on campus. AllianceND, a gay-straight alliance group on campus, petitioned for the inclusion of sexual orientation to the University’s non-discrimination clause last spring. The university has yet to officially recognize the club or edit the clause, but at least there is a community working toward those goals.

Also, the Gender Relations Center is in its seventh year, and serves as a campus resource for discussion to promote “the human dignity of each person” regardless of gender or orientation. The standard definitions of the “N.D. Man” and the “N.D. Girl” are changing.

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

Contact Marissa Frobes at mfrobes@nd.edu