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STUDENT GOV’T INSIDER: Women fill upper tiers of government

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The election last spring of Liz Brown and Maris Braun marked the first time the Notre Dame student government presidency and vice presidency have both been filled by women. The University community and especially female alumnae celebrated the historic election, a moment they suggested showed how far the University has come since becoming coeducational in 1972.

Braun said she was aware there was “a lot of hoopla or hype” when they were elected.

“Liz and I stressed from the beginning that we hoped our gender was the least interesting thing about us,” she said.

They said they wanted their peers and the administrators and faculty at Notre Dame to focus on their capabilities as leaders rather than their gender. Brown said they were initially greeted with comments about the historic note. Since taking office, however, she and Braun have felt their performance has been judged based on their leadership, without consideration to their gender.

Most of the attention to their gender continues to come from the University’s female alumnae, Brown and Braun said. The fact that two women are the representatives of the student body means less for current students than it does for women who were at Notre Dame shortly after it became co-educational, Brown said. For them, the fact that two women are at the helm is a huge accomplishment.

“The Notre Dame they experienced was that women weren’t the majority, and having a female president and vice president was unheard of, so that feedback is still overwhelmingly positive,” Braun said. “It’s still wonderful.”

Since Brown and Braun assumed office last April, they have selected many women to the top-tier positions of student government. Sheena Plamoottil became their chief executive assistant, the No. 3 position under Brown and Braun. Michelle Zaldana and Kadeja Gaines serve as secretary and treasurer, respectively.

Carol Hendrickson, Brenna Doyle, Ninny Wan, Mariana Montes, Karen Koski and Callie Pogge lead six of the eight committees in the Student Senate. (Doyle co-chairs the Gender Relations committee with Patrick Tighe.)

Brown said she was “pretty wary” when she realized how many of the top leaders in student government were female.

“I have five brothers,” she said, “so I grew up in a male-dominated environment.”

Sophomore Ian Secviar, one of only three men who serve as chairs of Student Senate committees this year, has never been at Notre Dame under a male student body president. Last year, Lizzi Shappell served as president with vice president Bill Andrichik. Dave Baron was president the year before Secviar became a student at Notre Dame.

“When I first sat down in the room with everyone, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re the only three guys here,'” Secviar said, referring to Patrick Tighe and Colin Feehan, the two other male Senate committee chairs.

“I find it very refreshing,” he said.

But Secviar said he didn’t think gender made much of a difference, instead pointing out the strong leadership skills of the female executives.

“It’s nice to see that people are putting it in the back of their minds when they are voting – they are not seeing a split gender ticket or a two female ticket,” he said. “They are seeing what this candidate can do for the student body, and I think that’s the right direction.”

Senior Carol Hendrickson is the Senate Academic Affairs committee chair, and has served on student government in some capacity since she was a freshman. She said she thought it was simply chance that most of the top-tier positions were filled by women this year.

“I think it’s great that we’ve overcome that barrier of not having two women or three women as the executives,” she said. “But I really think it’s important to have a balance.”

Brown said when she and Braun were selecting Senate chairs and their chief executive assistant, they were not looking for a certain male to female ratio or to fill quotas, but were seeking the most qualified people.

“I think hopefully we are in an era now, where gender is not a top issue anymore, and it’s really who’s the most competent and the most qualified,” she said.