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First female undergraduates recall fall of 1972

John Cameron | Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Class of 1976 alumna Diane Bourke didn’t know what to expect when her parents dropped her off at Notre Dame in the fall of 1972. Not only had she enrolled at the University sight-unseen, but she would be a member of the first freshman class to include women.

“I was very naïve,” Bourke said. “I was the first person in my family to go to college. I kind of walked in with no preconceived notions and no clue what this was supposed to be.”

Bourke arrived on campus in the wake of failed discussions to merge Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, which led to the University’s decision to admit women directly. Adapting campus to house female newcomers did lead to some tension with the male students, Bourke said.

“At the beginning it was a little awkward … especially among the men who had been displaced,” she said.

Men from Badin and Walsh Halls were required to switch dorms or move off campus to open up campus housing for the newly admitted women, which left some existing male students feeling dejected, she said.

“I think for a lot of the men, this is not what they bought into,” she said. “The dorm system at Notre Dame is really important as far as your social network.”

Much as it is today, Bourke said eventually groups within certain residence halls developed into social circles.

“As it evolved, groups of women became friends with men in different dorms,” she said. “I got connected with Holy Cross Hall because my good friend’s brother was there, so I became friends with the Holy Cross Hogs.”

But female students generally tended to keep to themselves in those early years, Bourke said, as a little more than 300 women integrated with approximately 5,000 male students.

“There weren’t a lot of women, so I think that kept a lot of the women close,” Bourke said. “For example, no one wanted to go to the dining hall alone. I think everyone thought we were dating every weekend, but in a lot of cases we hung out with each other.”

Bourke was a member of the first class of women to attend Notre Dame for four years, but she was not the first female student to receive an undergraduate degree.

Under unique circumstances, Mary Davey Bliley was allowed to graduate from Notre Dame in the spring of 1972, the semester prior to the official beginning of coeducation.

Bliley, initially a history major at Saint Mary’s, changed to the business program under the pretense of a pending merger between Notre Dame and its sister school.

“My junior year was when the merger talks started, and I decided I wanted to be a business major and wanted to get a Notre Dame degree,” she said.

When the two schools called off the merger, the Saint Mary’s administration told her she could not graduate, as the College did not offer the degree she had been qualified to receive at Notre Dame. While she had completed all her major courses at Notre Dame, the University would not be accepting female students in time for her to transfer.

“I was basically a day student, I went to Notre Dame all day and came back to Saint Mary’s at night,” she said. “In April, [Dean Vincent Raymond of the College of Business] called me into his office and said, ‘Mary, we’re going to let you graduate from Notre Dame. You’ll be the first female and the only one in the class.'”

Bliley never lived on campus and had a different Notre Dame experience than the women to follow in her path, but she said she never had a negative vibe from male students or professors due to her gender.

“I didn’t feel animosity,” she said. “All my friends were dying to have the school merge. They wanted more girls to choose from.”

Bliley, who went on to a career in investment banking in New York and Europe, said the willingness of the University to confer her degree before officially going coed was essential to her success.

“I’m really fortunate to be the first one, that I got a Notre Dame degree,” she said. “Coming from Columbus, Mont., I never thought I’d be working in London.”

Like Bliley, Ann Cisle Murray started her college career at Saint Mary’s but today holds a Notre Dame degree. While Murray was also pursuing a business degree under the planned merger, she was only a sophomore when it fell through. She was given a choice.

“I could apply to Notre Dame and keep my major, I could stay at Saint Mary’s or I could transfer out,” Murray said.

With many Belles facing this decision at the time, Murray said this was the most difficult part of the transfer process.

“The hardest part was leaving most of my friends back at Saint Mary’s,” she said. “It split our class. Most of my friends didn’t even apply [to transfer]. They were happy in their majors and I think they were, truth be told, probably a little disappointed [the merger failed].”

Once she transferred, Murray coincidentally followed in the footsteps of her father, a former resident in her new home, Walsh Hall. Due to the rushed transition, the building had not changed much since her father’s time there, and the new residents didn’t do much to modify it.

“They didn’t really have a whole lot of time to modify the dorms,” she said. “As I recall they just boarded up the urinals. Not much else changed. The women when we arrived would put up curtains and that sort of thing.”

While the female residents displace the men formerly living in Walsh Hall, Murray said their resentment was minimal.

“I thought they were very gracious about it,” she said. “When we arrived the first there, there were a lot of them who helped up move in. To this day I’m still in contact with some of those guys from Walsh Hall. They welcomed us as the first women.”

Murray quickly engaged the Notre Dame tradition, joining the cheerleading squad in time for the Irish’s defeat of Alabama at the Orange Bowl and the men’s basketball team ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.

“It was kind of a charmed year,” she said.

Traveling to away games gave Murray the opportunity to meet a number of alumni, many of whom were opposed to the idea of coeducation at Notre Dame.

“There were a few people who weren’t really happy about it and they let me know it,” she said. “I felt it was sort of my job to be a good representative of the University.”

Alumna Betsy Brosnan, a member of the Class of 1976, said the experience of being a woman at Notre Dame changed substantially over her four years.

“When we came as freshmen, we had never experienced college life before, so as it might have been awkward sometimes, that seemed normal,” Brosnan said. “Certainly by the time I got to senior year, I would expect there might have been 1,000 or 1,200 women by that time. Looking back, we kind of laugh. We thought freshman year was normal … but things were different back then. So often we were the only female in class.”

While the women of the first classes at Notre Dame had different experiences along their paths to graduation, their stories bore one common thread – gratitude to University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the impetus of coeducation.

“It was his vision that brought coeducation to Notre Dame,” Brosnan said. “The Air Force Academy went coed a few years after us. … This was an era when a lot of this was happening, but we owe him a great debt.”

Bliley, who was the first graduate to receive a kiss from Hesburgh at graduation, said the entire Notre Dame community owes the former president for his transformative decision.

“Every student ought to thank Fr. Ted for not only the vision he had, but when he had it,” she said. “I walk around today, and campus is vibrant and exciting. … The school’s a better place for it.”