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Alumnae recall transitioning to co-ed

Tess Civantos | Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pink jerseys in the bookstore, nuns as rectors and girls going to class are familiar sights to Notre Dame students today, but women 40 years ago fought for these privileges — and they’re not about to let today’s students forget it.

A group of Notre Dame alumnae established the “Thanking Father Ted Foundation” to thank University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, for admitting women since 1972.

The foundation’s book, “Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation,” describes the triumphs and challenges the first women students faced.

Female incoming freshmen will receive a copy of the book during Freshman Orientation.
The early years of Notre Dame coeducation were certainly rocky, alumnae said.

Anne Thompson, NBC’s Chief Environmental Affairs Correspondent and 1979 alumna, remembers the early struggles.

“My dad went to Notre Dame and he raised all four of us kids to believe we could do anything,” she said. “I went to Notre Dame believing that, and I encountered for the first time the belief that I couldn’t do something because of my gender.”

Even after she graduated, Thompson fought the assumption that a girl could not be a Notre Dame graduate.

“I spent 10 years telling people that I didn’t go to Saint Mary’s,” Thompson said.

Even a few years later, women at Notre Dame were not yet completely at home in the male-dominated school.

Anne Giffels, the foundation treasurer and a 1981 alumna, took a number of classes where women were in the minority.

“You were very aware that you were a woman,” she said.

The transition to a coeducational Notre Dame was rough on administrators as well as students.

In an interview published in the “Thanking Father Ted” book, Hesburgh described how he took criticism for nearly every decision he made, from not merging with Saint Mary’s College to insisting on single-sex dorms.

“I wanted women to have some downtime of their own,” Hesburgh said of that last decision. “As I see it, there are times when women want to get in their PJ’s, sit on the bed and talk women talk.”

Hesburgh’s understanding of “women talk” came from growing up with three sisters. Their influence was one reason he made Notre Dame co-educational, Hesburgh said.

“My life is a lot richer because I was not just formed by my mother and father but by [my sisters],” Hesburgh said in the book. “I didn’t have to have a big picture drawn for me to know that if Notre Dame had one big failing, it was the fact that it was only addressing half of the Catholic Church.”

After the integration of women at Notre Dame, Hesburgh made a point of making Notre Dame’s new daughters feel welcomed.

Giffels said she would often to go the Grotto late at night and would see Hesburgh.
“He would stop to chat,” she said. “It made me feel very much a part of the Notre Dame community.”

Giffels was also confident that despite the criticism, Hesburgh made the right choice.
“Having women at Notre Dame has really made it a better place,” she said.

Thompson, meanwhile, said she thrived as a student, in spite of some initial prejudice. She found professors who believed in her and drove her to succeed.

“My ability to get into Notre Dame provided me with tremendous opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she said.

As director and treasurer of the Thanking Father Ted Foundation, with accounts of their Notre Dame years appearing in the “Thanking Father Ted” book, Thompson and Giffels share their love for their alma mater while reminding today’s women students of just how lucky they are.

“It doesn’t even occur to the female students today that someone would not take them seriously,” Giffels said. “And I think that’s a very good thing.”

Thompson said today’s campus dynamic is what Hesburgh had in mind 40 years ago.

“Female students are not there to fulfill a quota system but because they are the best and the brightest,” she said.

Today, Thompson is still reaping the benefits of her Notre Dame education.

“Your Notre Dame education gets better every day after graduation,” Thompson said. “I appreciate it more now than I ever did then.”

And Thompson knows who she has to thank for that opportunity. Her work with “Thanking Father Ted” is her chance to give back to the man who gave her – and all Notre Dame women – a chance to be a part of the University.

“I could spend the rest of my life saying ‘Thank you,'” Thompson said. “And it wouldn’t be enough.”