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Graduate students paved way for women on campus

Kristen Durbin | Monday, February 25, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-day series discussing the role of women at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, in honor of the 40th anniversary of coeducation at the University this year.

The current academic year marks the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Notre Dame, but a number of Catholic sisters and laywomen pursued graduate degrees at the University long before undergraduate women were first admitted in 1972.

Often unheralded as alumna of Our Lady’s University, these women received doctorates in English and economics, earned master’s degrees in education and paved the way for future generations of young women to be educated at Notre Dame.

Two of these women – Anne Lenhard Benington and Sister Victoria Forde – shared their stories with The Observer to commemorate this landmark anniversary.

Continuing the family tradition

Anne Lenhard Benington, a 1965 alumna of the University’s since-terminated graduate education program, began her master’s degree in teaching after completing one year of graduate study in French literature at Indiana University. She had also recently become engaged to her future husband, then a soon-to-be naval officer.

A native of Mishawaka, Benington said she was familiar with Notre Dame and its academic programs, especially the education program. Dr. Michael Lee headed the program at the time.

“I had heard about [Lee’s] approach and I really had always wanted to teach either college or secondary [school],” Benington said. “When I decided that I was going to get a degree in education I thought his program was really what I was looking for.”

Because her father graduated from Notre Dame and her relatives helped build the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center and Fisher Hall, Benington said her acceptance into the education program was even more meaningful.

“My life had been tied to Notre Dame for such a long time,” she said. “My father … had hoped women would be included … so I think he was pleased when I was accepted into at least a graduate program.”

Although the program was academically challenging, Benington said she felt no particular stress as a woman in a traditionally male academic environment.

“Dr. Lee ran an amazing program,” she said. “I was with his class mostly in groups of six or seven people,” she said. “There was lots of collegiality that way. There was no pressure at that point.”

‘A fact of life’

But outside the classroom, Benington said being a non-religious woman on campus brought unwanted attention.

“The women on campus who were not nuns definitely felt that they stood out,” Benington said. “You were sort of an anomaly. I would say it was … uncomfortable, especially coming from Indiana University where I was a resident assistant … and then going to Notre Dame, which was such a male bastion at the time.”

Fortunately, Benington said her engagement to her husband afforded her some protection from some of the issues faced by her female classmates. Still, she said the culture on campus was uncomfortable.

“I was engaged to be married that summer, but [gender inequity] was just a fact of life,” she said. “I think this was true of other students too, but it helped being in a program where we had definite goals and knew what we were doing.”

Even with a Notre Dame degree, strong family ties to the University and a 30-year teaching career, Benington said she did not feel like a full member of the alumni community until recently.

“I would say up until about the last three or four years I don’t think women from my age or older were really accepted [as alumnae],” she said. “Since they completely eliminated the education department, there’s no recognition at all for people who went through that program.”

Benington said this feeling of exclusion has diminished slightly over the years.

“You sort of felt like the orphaned child,” she said. “It was what it was and there was nothing you could ever do about it, but it was a little bit strange.[The University] is starting to address that a little bit more now.”

Sister and scholar

One of the last Catholic sisters to complete a graduate degree at Notre Dame prior to 1972, Forde traveled to South Bend in 1963 on behalf of her religious community, the Sisters of Charity. Her order asked her to pursue a master’s degree in English literature.

Once she completed her master’s in 1969 after taking summer courses, Forde said her professors encouraged her to complete a doctoral degree as well. Forde attained her Ph.D. from Notre Dame in 1973. Forde also served as as assistant director during the first year of Notre Dame’s London undergraduate program in 1984.

“[My Notre Dame education] impacted me immensely,” Forde said. “After getting my Ph.D. I went out to teach at the College of Mount St. Joseph, and I was using everything I’d learned.I was also able to bring in my dissertation adviser as a guest speaker and poet, so that was a lot of fun, too.”

Changing habits

As a young American sister, Forde began her Notre Dame education while the Second Vatican Council met, from 1962-65, an especially significant period in Church history.

The subsequent reforms implemented by Vatican II allowed the sisters to reevaluate how they chose to express their faith in everyday life.

“Some women came to talk to us … who were out of habit, or at least in the modified habit, which was really something for us who were all in full habits,” she said. “They asked if we were angry, and I thought, ‘Angry? What am I supposed to be angry about?’ It made us more aware of our position in the Church.”

The changes brought on by Vatican II encouraged the sisters’ further assimilation into the greater Notre Dame community, Forde said.

“When I started [at Notre Dame] … you could find any habit from orders from the United States and Canada on campus,” she said. “By the time I finished my master’s, we were out of our habits. When I was teaching as a graduate student teaching assistant, … the freshmen were seeing a different nun in lay clothes.”

However, Forde said she was treated differently while studying abroad in London for a summer.

“I was dressed in a blue suit. … People [in London and Ireland] made cracks about me being a sister not dressed in the habit, but my Notre Dame experience gave me strength. I just rolled it off and didn’t let it bother me.”

Among the University’s intellectual community, though, Forde said she always felt welcome.

“Maybe it’s different because I was a sister, but I always thought I had a lot of respect … among the underclassmen and people on campus,” she said. “As graduate students, we would all go to professors’ homes and had a good time socializing. I never felt uncomfortable.”

After completing her two Notre Dame degrees, Forde channeled her personal and educational experiences into creating women’s studies program at the College of Mount St. Joseph, the liberal arts college affiliated with her religious order.

“It all began at Notre Dame during Vatican II,” she said. “That [experience] has affected me greatly.”

Part of the family

Though their backgrounds differed prior to coming to Notre Dame, both Forde and Benington said their educational experiences at the University have shaped their lives ever since.

“I love Notre Dame, so I had a good experience all the way through it,” Forde said. “I still correspond with other sisters who were in Lewis Hall with me, some of whom have left their orders and are laywomen now.”

A member of the Notre Dame family by birth, Benington said she appreciates the role the University has played in her life and that of the young women who came after her.

“Having the Notre Dame degree and the whole family of Notre Dame as part of my life has been … very enriching,” she said. “I just feel so lucky now that women are … part of the school. I’m just glad to be sort of one of the forerunners of that.”

Contact Kristen Durbin [email protected]