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Three female presidents discuss leadership

Sonia Rao | Thursday, November 30, 2006

The spirit of Rosie the Riveter filled the Oak Room of South Dining Hall Wednesday night as the three women who have been Notre Dame student body president gathered to discuss female leadership issues at the University.

Alumnae Brooke Norton (2001-2002), Libby Bishop (2002-2003) and current student body president Lizzi Shappell were the feature guests at the Gender Relations Center’s “We Can Do It! Women and Leadership at ND” lecture.

Norton, Bishop and Shappell each took a turn to speak about their experiences as student body president, addressing triumphs, inspirations, difficulties and lessons learned from the perspective of a female leader at Notre Dame.

Norton identified Father Hesburgh as a key figure in her path to becoming Notre Dame’s first female student body president.

“To [Father Hesburgh] it seemed like Our Lady’s University should be a place for women,” she said. “He felt it would only be complete when a woman would become student body president.”

For Norton, it would be a long process to decide whether or not to run, but in doing so she assumed a groundbreaking role, which allowed her to “[plant] the right seeds so that trees could grow later.”

Her influence spread both to Bishop, who became president during the following term, and Shappell, who realized her goal of student body president after looking at a poster of Rosie the Riveter – a gift from Norton to the student government office.

“Coming to Notre Dame I had no intention of becoming student body president,” Shappell said.

But after viewing the poster, which was displayed in front of the panelists during the event, Shappell said she “knew it was time for female leadership at Notre Dame to become less of an exception and more of an expectation.”

Each of the women acknowledged that being student body president was a demanding, stressful job with its own problems.

Bishop’s election came in conjunction with the administration’s ban on hard alcohol, putting her in a difficult position as a mediator between students with “unfeasible” demands and the administration.

“The people making the big decisions for the University at the time were still white males,” Bishop said, noting that her “feet didn’t even touch the ground” in the overstuffed chairs she sat in during meetings with the administration.

Shappell discussed her difficulties in dealing with controversial issues that ranged from evictions to the Vagina Monologues and sexual assault on campus.

While being a female student body president at Notre Dame certainly stands out as an anomaly, all three spoke of a sentiment to focus less on “female” and more on “leader.”

Shappell said during her campaign for president she tried to remain as gender-neutral as possible, trying to “make sure that no one pegged me as a crazy ‘femi-nazi.'”

Bishop stressed that future women leaders see “it’s not about being the best ‘female’ leader. It’s about being the best leader.”

For Bishop, being student body president at Notre Dame pushed her to focus on the smaller things.

“Leadership is not just having a title,” she said. “It’s not just being student body president. It’s in the actions, and it’s in the little things.”

Norton stressed “the best kind of leadership is servant leadership,” and relayed advice from Father Hesburgh, saying, ” … you don’t make decisions because they are easy; you don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they are popular; you make them because they are right.”