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The place needed us’

Megan Doyle | Friday, March 1, 2013

In 1972, there were 325.

In 2013, there are more than 4,000.

When the University first included women in its undergraduate student body in 1972, female students were an extreme minority, a small contingent among more than 5,000 male peers. As Notre Dame marks the 40th anniversary of coeducation this academic year, women represent 48 percent of the student body.

In 1972, women’s dorms still had urinals from converted men’s dorms, and female students didn’t feel comfortable eating in the dining hall alone. But as the population of women has grown and bucked early stereotypes, the conversations surrounding gender relations here not ended. If anything, they have become more relevant to the campus climate at Notre Dame.  

Sisterhood and brotherhood
It’s the first weekend on campus, and freshmen jump into school traditions and dorm life. Girls’ dorms serenade boys’ dorms. Boys escort girls to brother-sister dorm events. But for senior Lauren Palomino, orientation at Notre Dame had “a weird dynamic.”

“We’re doing these serenades … [and] in the time a boy takes a knee and you sing back to him, you’re not going to build a solid friendship that lasts from that,” Palomino said.

Senior Pat Rice participated in Frosh-O four years ago as a new member of Alumni Hall. This year, he helped lead orientation as an RA. For Rice, freshman orientation is a change to introduce incoming students to the University. Dorm events and traditions aren’t gender-biased institutions – they are ways to help young men and women begin to interact with each other on a college campus.

“For me personally, Frosh-O was just a ‘Welcome to Notre Dame’ experience,” Rice said. “I never felt awkward, I never felt intimidated. … If nothing else, serenading and walking girls over to dances gives you something to talk about at the end of the night. You talk about Domerfest, you talk about what song you sang to the ladies.

“I don’t think there’s anything [awkward] inherently. Frosh-O isn’t supposed to be your entire college experience. It’s supposed to be ‘Welcome to Notre Dame.’ Let’s get out there.”

Orientation introduces students to the residence life structure at Notre Dame – 29 single-sex residence halls, divided into 15 male dorms and 14 female dorms.

“I think same-sex dorms are a strong foundational principal,” Rice said. “It’s what Notre Dame is founded on, creating sisterhood and brotherhood. A lot of bonding goes on after parietals. It’s always good to interact with the opposite sex, but you would never have the frank, open dialogue you might have [after parietals] if girls were around.”

For Palomino, parietals can sometimes stunt friendships between male and female students. A date might be worth the risk of evading hall staff post-parietals for students, she said, but just hanging out with a friend might not be enough incentive for breaking the rules.

“Parietals aren’t going to stop you from doing any shenanigans you’re going to. … Parietals are going to stop you from watching a movie because spending a night in your [opposite sex] best friend’s dorm, it’s not worth the last 20 minutes of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,'” she said.

“For me, it just limits friendships with the opposite sex.”

Senior Shannon Warchol, also an RA in Welsh Family Hall, said the Frosh-O experience and single-sex dorms don’t necessarily stunt friendships – they just make the process of meeting the opposite sex more “formal” than at other schools.

“I was raised like you don’t invite yourself to somebody else’s house, you wait until they invite you or whatever,” Warchol said. “So I would never go into a boys’ dorm and just walk around and see who was there. But if I lived in a co-gender dorm where they lived down the hall or on the next floor, I would just walk past and see whose door was open and I wouldn’t feel like I was inviting myself over to their house.

“So I think that makes it more difficult freshman year because it makes it so formal, you have to always be inviting someone over. You can’t just build a friendship because you’re there [in the same dorms.] Now I don’t see it as much of a problem.”

A classroom dynamic
Warchol decided to pursue civil engineering when she was a high school student living in Minneapolis. When a major bridge collapsed in the city, she witnessed the massive problem-solving effort to revamp transportation in the large metropolis and then build a safer bridge.

She’ll head to graduate school in May and then enter a male-dominated engineering field. At her summer internship, only nine of the 40 people in her office were women. But at Notre Dame, she hasn’t felt that same male monopoly, even though her department has enrolled more men than women.

“I almost felt like I was going to have to come in and work harder, work 10 times as hard as the male students, to prove that when I received special recognition, it wasn’t just because I was a female student,” Warchol said. “You don’t want to be recognized because you’re different. You want to be recognized because you do superior work.

“But there’s never been a problem with thinking I was receiving special treatment or different treatment because I was a female at Notre Dame. So maybe it’s prepared me to expect the best out of people.”

While her parents’ generation has populated the engineering field with more men, Warchol said she didn’t expect that trend to continue as her own generation graduates from school.

“You always hear this talk of people, especially in our parents’ generation or older, how they talk about industry in engineering being so segregated still and there’s such a high proportion of men,” she said. “Which doesn’t really mesh with what you see at the university level.”

‘A transitional moment’
Even in the 15 years since Dr. Susan Ohmer, professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre, arrived at Notre Dame in 1998, she has noticed a change in the percentage of women faculty at the University.

“I can see a difference. … In the time I’ve been here, there seems to be more openness about children, about talking about children, about thinking about work-family balance,” Ohmer said. “These are issues that people feel comfortable bringing up now.”

As the female population of professors and students continues to grow, Ohmer chairs the University Committee on Women’s Faculty and Students. The committee began in the early 1990s and reports to University President Fr. John Jenkins through the provost of the University.

The purpose of the committee is to “consider policies, practices and the general environment of the University as they relate to women faculty and students,” according to Notre Dame’s Academic Articles. The committee has 22 elected members from across the University, including 20 women and two men.

“I think that it’s a very important committee for bringing women faculty together to talk about issues that affect us as a group. … I think the committee feels empowered,” she said.

Currently, the full-time teaching faculty at Notre Dame breaks down to about 70 percent men and 30 percent women, Ohmer said, but she expects that demographic to shift as long-standing male professors retire.

“Over the past two years, we’ve had a number of key people involved in diversity initiatives, and Fr. John has defined diversity to include people of color as well as gender,” Ohmer said.

Some of these people, however, have moved on from Notre Dame to other institutions, Ohmer said, citing vice president and associate provost Don Pope-Davis’ recent decision to move to DePaul University.

“I hope there continues to be an effort to address issues of gender and diversity [in key positions,]” Ohmer said. “We are really in a transitional moment and I hope we don’t lose the momentum we have.”

As a high-ranking administrator, University chief of staff Ann Firth has also served in a number of positions involved with women at Notre Dame, and she was instrumental in beginning the Gender Relations Center (GRC). But when she first arrived on campus as an undergraduate in 1977, only 25 percent of the student body was female.  

“There were occasions when I was the only woman or perhaps one of very few in a class, and we were certainly outnumbered in the dining halls,” she said. “But this didn’t really detract from my sense of belonging and connection. … I guess I felt on some level like the place needed us, that having women here was part of an important and necessary evolution for Notre Dame.”

As the presence of women has grown at Notre Dame and Firth has climbed in the administration, she said.”A mentor gave me some very simple but profound advice when I was first embarking on my professional career – to always remember who I am,” she said.

“In some ways, that’s harder than it sounds, and while hardly unique to one gender, I think it can be a particular struggle for women.
“One of the things I have most appreciated about my career at Notre Dame is that I have found it possible to be myself here, which among other things means that I can bring my perspective as a woman to bear on the work I do.”

‘What is the stereotype?’
Before there were Notre Dame women, there were Saint Mary’s women. Holy Cross sisters established the College as an all-female institution just two years after Holy Cross brothers established Notre Dame in 1842.

Now, Saint Mary’s is one of the premier women’s colleges in the nation. But at one point, Saint Mary’s almost stopped existing. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s discussed merging their two universities. Talks fell through for financial and institutional reasons, and Saint Mary’s remains its own university today.

Saint Mary’s senior Ciara O’Halloran has participated in science classes at Notre Dame, taking advantage of the co-exchange program that still exists between the two schools.

“Well, my classes at Notre Dame were a lot bigger, so I didn’t know my professors as well as I knew my professors at Saint Mary’s,” O’Halloran said. “I didn’t get to know as many classmates as I did at Saint Mary’s.

“I guess the nice thing [at Saint Mary’s] was that I knew everybody in the class and I also probably took for granted in some respect that I had the professor for several classes.”

O’Halloran said Notre Dame students were sometimes surprised to find her among their classmates.

“For me, I would find people turn around and [say,] ‘You go to Saint Mary’s? You’re not like I imagined you.’

“I’m like, ‘What is the stereotype? What is the normal Saint Mary’s student?'”

Notre Dame sophomore Erin Klosterman began her college career at Saint Mary’s, but she transferred to Notre Dame to pursue her dream – playing volleyball for Notre Dame.  Even as she has changed schools, however, she said she sees the difference between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s as a positive one.

“I definitely think an all-girls education is unique,” Klosterman said. “I think it provides an excellent environment for learning as well as making friendships, and I think it really just allows the girls to go and really feed off each one another in an academic environment without having to worry about a lot of other things.”

As she moved from Saint Mary’s to Notre Dame, Klosterman said she really appreciated the environment of a same-sex dorm, so similar to her experience at an all-girls high school and at the College. And when she tells Notre Dame students she has transferred from Saint Mary’s, she said she hasn’t experienced any kind of discrimination.

“I think a lot of people hear about the stereotypes but their actions are based solely on the fact that they’ve heard about a stereotype but not necessarily that they’ve had a negative experience with a Saint Mary’s girl.”

Loyal daughters
This weekend, Palomino will direct this year’s “Loyal Daughters and Sons,” a student-run production that focuses on true stories of sexual violence and gender. The production is meant to open dialogue about sexuality, sex and its complexities on a campus like Notre Dame’s – one she said does not do the best job of opening itself to those conversations.

“If you can’t talk about sexuality, how do you talk about bad sexuality, about [good sexuality]?” she said. “How do you determine the difference is there? If all sexuality is bad, if all sex is bad, then what’s the difference between sexual assault and consensual sex?’
“It needs to be a safer place to talk [about] things.”

But Notre Dame has also helped her consider aspects of her own gender and sexuality, that Palomino had not encountered before.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of gender issues that my friends haven’t at other schools,” she said. “Because I’m not Catholic, I’m at a Catholic school, I’m from the West Coast. It’s a different place. So I’ve thought about things a different way. No one anywhere else has to be curious about whether they can get their birth control pills filled. No one anywhere else wonders if it’s okay to buy condoms. And so I’ve thought about things. And that has helped me to really understand why I believe what I believe, where other people haven’t had to think about that.”

As productions like “Loyal Daughters and Sons” continue, as men and women at Notre Dame continue to learn together, Palomino said she hopes the student body continues to learn to talk together as well.

“I hope it continues to be a conversation,” she said.