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Notre Dame needs to step up on intercampus stereotyping

and | Friday, September 27, 2019

Among the attempts to characterize Notre Dame culture that line the shelves of the Hammes Bookstore, there exists a cheeky character called “Things Notre Dame Students Like,” its contents compiled from a blog of the same name. Being lovers of relatable and self-deprecating humor (read: Twitter. We like Twitter.), we were eager to discover aspects of ourselves in its pages. But we soon stumbled across a section that made us feel uneasy: “Making fun of Saint Mary’s girls (and then dating them).” 

A redacted version of the chapter reads:  

“It is relatively easy to make fun of Saint Mary’s Students as the school is essentially one group of 1600 Marys, Katies and Megans that all major in Nursing or Elementary Education. While the olden days might have required Saint Mary’s to counter the All-Male ND, the modern Co-Ed Notre Dame has no use for Saint Mary’s College. Or so a Notre Dame woman would want you to think. … Notre Dame women are jealous of Saint Mary’s students. … Saint Mary’s students are more fun. … They don’t spend most of their hours in the library (does Saint Mary’s even have a library?). … Because of this, as much as they like to make fun of Saint Mary’s girls, Notre Dame guys also like to date them.” 

It wasn’t just the blatant bias that made us uneasy. These misconceptions felt familiar. We’ve heard the offhand comments informed by these stereotypes. We remember early interactions with Saint Mary’s women who, just weeks into their time here, were already concerned that Notre Dame women would not be hospitable. 

We preach about community, but these stereotypes do nothing but harm the prospects of forming it authentically. First-year students deserve the first weeks of their experience to be filled with welcome, not with insecurity over their place in the order of things. 

Having recently looked into the early years of coeducation, we wanted to know what the women of these institutions’ pasts had to say. All of the alumni we interviewed emphasized positive relationships across institutions and positive experiences within their chosen school environments. But they also acknowledged the tensions they experienced.

Ann Therese Darin Palmer, a member of the Notre Dame class of 1973 and editor of the collection “Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation,” maintains strong relationships with friends on both sides of her class after the failed merger split them between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. But that was not the case for everyone. In her remarks at a conference that commemorated the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Notre Dame, she remembered, “many friendships started at Saint Mary’s didn’t continue, once a woman moved across the street.”

Johanna Ryan, Notre Dame class of 1973, recalls in her letter in “Thanking Father Ted” that the early women felt “caught in a custody battle between ND and Saint Mary’s (or rather, the lack of one), planted firmly on the yellow line dividing U.S. 31, wondering which parent, if either, was going to pick us up after school.”

Palmer remembers that tensions surfaced surrounding the conferral of degrees: “[Some Saint Mary’s women] felt like they were promised Notre Dame degrees and all of a sudden someone pulled the rug out from under them, and there’s still a lot of bitterness in our class about that.” 

Beyond the tension surrounding the split, the drastically unequal male to female ratio of co-ed Notre Dame that persisted into the early ‘90s colored the early stereotypes made about Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s women. 

Ryan recalls that “the ND women were seen as a threat, both academically and socially” — a perception that the women responded to by dressing in sweatpants and baggy clothing to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Women who chose to dress more effeminately, it was thought, were more likely to be subject to male students’ bullying, including the infamous dining hall rating system. 

Notre Dame professor Elena Mangione-Lora, Saint Mary’s class of 1990, remembers how the toxic undercurrent of rivalry and bitterness toward their new female colleagues caused Notre Dame men to respond with “the unspoken, unfair idea that the Notre Dame women were butchy, that they were unfeminine, that they wore sweatpants and no make-up and they were no fun.” Saint Mary’s women, in comparison, were described as “made-up and cuter and not as smart and not as dedicated to their studies.” 

Mangione-Lora continued, “These perceptions would come out anonymously — in the classified ads, in the Viewpoint section, sometimes just in conversations at parties where people thought they could easily identify whether a woman was from Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s based on how they dressed or how they carried themselves or what they talked about.” 

Memories of tension continue into the decades that follow. Heidi Ryan, Saint Mary’s class of 2013, remembers how Notre Dame friends would tell her, “You’re not like those other Saint Mary’s girls.” She also remembers an instance in which Notre Dame students mistook a Saint Mary’s student to be a Notre Dame student and told her, “These Saint Mary’s girls in our class are so dumb!” 

Meghan Larsen-Reidy, Saint Mary’s class of 2009, recalls a few instances of less-than-hospitable words and actions from Notre Dame students. She recalls one instance in which she was taking the bus back to campus from the airport when it passed the “Welcome to South Bend” sign that listed the three schools in the tri-campus community: “Saint Mary’s was the first college listed, and I can remember two Notre Dame students in front of me on the bus saying ‘I can’t believe Saint Mary’s is listed first. It’s not even that good of a school.’”

The excerpt from “Things Notre Dame Students Like” is not the only indication that these stereotypes persist today. Wherever they appear, they’re inappropriate and sexist. It is impossible for a woman to win.

We would be remiss to suggest that the mistreatment of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s women is equal when the hard truth is that the stereotypes against Saint Mary’s women have remained pronounced even as Notre Dame women have gained numbers and, in turn, power. While we can only speak for ourselves, we believe we are the ones who must take a long, hard look at what it means to be a woman in the tri-campus community. The onus is on us. 

As for what this means going forward, the women who have come before us have some ideas to offer. Palmer believes there is promise in the possibility of coming together over the issues that unite us: “Nobody has addressed the commonality among the tri-campus community of women, and that’s where I think the future lies.”

Larsen-Reidy notes the power of seeking out opportunities to get to know students from other campuses and to understand their experiences: “It’s easy to hate what you don’t know, but it’s a lot harder to hate something when you see it from other people’s perspectives.”


Annie Moran is a senior hailing from Chicago studying psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected] or @anniemoranie on Twitter. She’d love to hear your musings on the wonders of fresh basil, experimental theater or the sacred space of public transportation. 

Katie Hieatt is a senior majoring in Economics and American Studies from Memphis, Tennessee. Her go-to streaming recommendations are Russian Doll and Killing Eve. She can be reached at [email protected] or @katie_hieatt on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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