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You are probably singing the wrong words to the fight song

and | Friday, November 1, 2019

I (Katie) was caught off guard when I sang the Victory March with the student body for the first time my freshman year. My parents, Notre Dame grads, were ecstatic football fans. I’ve known the song by heart since I was young. But when I sang the line, “While her loyal sons and daughters march on to victory,” it didn’t match up with what I heard the students around me singing. My words clashed with the line familiar to most students nowadays: “While her loyal sons go marching onward to victory.” Disappointed by the less accurate language, but feeling a little awkward sticking out, I sang it their way from then on. Reflecting on this memory, we wanted to explore why this once-popular alternative has disappeared from the echoes of the student section (or at least from where we sit).

Diving into the archives, we found that ever since Notre Dame went co-ed, intermittent flurries of Observer Viewpoints have been sparked by suggestions to change the song to make it more gender inclusive, and they were successful — at least for a while. Mostly men — and, in some cases, women — consistently have written back dismissing the importance of the issue, but the sheer amount of responses — and the vitriolic, belittling or satirical nature of many — leads us to suspect that critics of “political correctness” think that language is more important than they let on. 

The first reference we unearthed was in a satirical piece by a male columnist in a September 1973 issue. It opened, “[last] week was not a good week for the average Notre Domer chauvinist,” and satirized the ND man’s “plight” in light of women’s empowerment. This is hardly the last time that the patriarchy shows its face in this recurring discussion. 

After much debate over the issue throughout the 1970s, mentions of changing the fight song appear to re-emerge in the early 1990s, in light of The Year of the Woman and an outbreak of discussion around the interplay between inclusivity, sexism and tradition. 

Heidi Hansan, a senior at the time, reintroduced the topic in a September 1990 Letter to the Editor, responding to any naysayers that “women [knew] that it [was] not a minor, insignificant point.” But those who responded to Hansan made sure to demonstrate how insignificant they believed it was. In response, a male student took the liberty to suggest that the concept of “alma mater” be changed to “alma mater et pater,” that we construct a second dome topped by St. Joseph, and that the Year of Women be followed by a Year of Men. Reading this, we can’t help but hear the precursors to calls for “White History Month” and “Straight Pride” echo in his statements. But his jokes are hardly the end of the satire.

Another deluge came with the start of the next football season. This time, women’s voices joined the chorus of naysayers. Erin O’Neill, in a September 1991 Letter to the Editor responding to the latest call for the change, suggested that demanding a change only succeeds “in making ourselves look insecure and petty.”

Columnist Robyn Simmons had addressed this line of thought the year prior by noting that “[t]he issues that have been discussed on the Viewpoint pages in the last two months may seem small in and of themselves, but when you look at these issues as a whole, they become part of a much larger picture.” Like Robyn, we wonder what it might say about our dedication to fighting any good fight if we consider the smaller fights along the way to be insignificant. 

Our tale picks up in 2007, when a mother-daughter duo’s Viewpoint suggesting the fight song return to the more inclusive version incurred a whopping eight responses. The following fall, one male Viewpoint columnist was apparently shaken by all this discussion and decided to take matters into his own hands. He declared that for the sake of “more challenging and nuanced issues,” three topics should be banished from campus conversation: the Vagina monologues, the bullying of Saint Mary’s women and the case for the inclusive fight song. But not before he voiced his own opinions, of course. 

Hidden beneath the ways we usually conceptualize tradition, there are hints of a tradition of creative, subversive inclusivity at Notre Dame formed by students determined to make a place for themselves here. There is by no means just one approach. Some, dating back at least to the 1990s, have suggested another option that has the advantage of being inclusive of all genders and being interchangeable with “sons” wherever it appears: “while her loyal ones go marching onward to victory.” Unfortunately, the fight song is still not inclusive. However, this is not for a lack of boldness and creativity on the part of students who continue to create belonging here, but for the efforts of people who have sought to keep it that way. 

Many who hold Our Lady’s University dear would recoil at the mere suggestion that sexism could be possible on her watch. But it might be this vehement denial that betrays its presence. We’re not writing to convince you one way or another regarding the fight song. But we would like to suggest that, when we reference the tradition that so many hold dear, we pause to consider whether that tradition necessitates upholding the patriarchal structure on which this university was built. And if it does, maybe it’s time we had a reckoning.


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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