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From the Archives: Notre Dame’s first class of women

, and | Monday, September 28, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

In the fall of 1971, after years of plans for a Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s merger were ultimately scrapped, the University offered a highly-contested consolation — the admittance of women into the class of 1972. 

This week’s edition of From the Archives explores the aftermath of the University’s coeducation decision: administrative adjustments, evolving traditions and the personal experiences Notre Dame’s pioneering women.

Observer archives, Sept. 8, 1972

Notre Dame welcomes first class of women, expands administration

Sept. 2, 1972 | Jerry Lutkus | Researched by Evan McKenna

On September 5, 1972, Notre Dame’s first class of 365 women registered for classes. Included in this historic group were 125 first-year students and 240 transfer students — 211 of whom were former Saint Mary’s students. 

But the inception of coeducation was more than just a point of progress — the addition of women to the undergraduate student body also changed the way the University operated on an administrative level.

Observer archives, Sept. 8, 1972

The fall of 1972 marked the beginning of Sister John Miriam Jones’ tenure as Assistant to the Provost. Appointed by Fr. Hesburgh, Sr. Miriam’s duties included the coordination of all on-campus coeducational activities. 

In hopes of making campus a more welcoming space for new female students, a number of other women assumed new roles in the fall of 1972, including Advisory Committee on Coeducation member Sue Roberts, who was added to the University administration.

Many male University faculty members were happy to see the University evolving. Fr. William Toohey, Director of Campus Ministry, said that coeducation would do much to “humanize” campus. 

Badin Hall rector Kathy Cekanski agreed. “It will make the University much more humanized,” she said, also arguing coeducation would help to diversify campus culture: “It’s more of a realistic living situation. An all male institution is totally unrealistic.” 

Many of the University’s administrative decisions followed closely the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Coeducation in May of 1972. The committee made a number of policy recommendations, including hiring more women in faculty and administrative positions, attending to the issues of women while avoiding “over-solicitude” and promoting “contact, communication, and co-operation” between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s women. 

Dean of Students Dr. Robert Ackerman expressed his confusion concerning the committee’s final recommendation. For the most part, Ackerman argued, cross-campus relations between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s were “in the students’ hands.”

Ghosts of the past and the present: Evolving tradition at Notre Dame

Sept. 2, 1972 | Jerry Lutkus | Researched by Adriana Perez

In an Observer Comment column, Jerry Lutkus shared his thoughts on tradition as the University welcomed its first coed class in September 1972 — a new tradition that was long overdue, according to Lutkus.

“Notre Dame is finally opening its eyes (and doors) [to] the reality of the world around us,” Lutkus wrote. “The world that is beyond the border of Angela [Boulevard] and Juniper [Road] is not all-male as some might lead you to believe. It is not the exclusive domain of those males we see around us.”

Lutkus suggested a counter to the belief that coeducation marked the “death of tradition”: “If a tradition, as beautiful and wonderful as it is, is lacking or falls short in some way, why should we maintain it in the form that we find it?”

To Lutkus, Notre Dame’s tradition of educating an all-male student body left much to be desired, because it meant the University had “neglected throughout the years to educate the other half of society.”

Lutkus reflected on traditions from his former residence hall, Badin Hall, which had been converted to a women’s dorm that year. Those types of male-centric traditions were “ghosts of the past,” Lutkus said.

“But give it time because soon there will be new ghosts,” he added. “New ghosts created by tradition present, no longer by tradition past. There will be new residents of the beams and attics and corners of Badin Hall.”

And to those who claimed tradition died when the University began educating women, he had something else to say: Tradition had not been upended — it had simply evolved.

“So, that tradition that you think is destroyed at Notre Dame is actually not destroyed,” Lutkus said. “It is simply enhanced, expanded. It is added to and given a dimension it’s never seen before.”

Women of Notre Dame discuss the ‘Era of Coeducation’

Sept. 9, 1972 | Jerry Lutkus and Anthony Abowd | Researched by Madilynn O’Hara

Notre Dame welcomed a cohort of 365 female students in 1972, beginning the “Era of Coeducation,” in the words of Jerry Lutkus (‘74). Lutkus compared the influence of these 365 women to that of the University’s founder — just as Fr. Sorin made his way through the Indiana woods with a revolutionary plan, the first class of female students were creating a revolutionary new space for themselves at the formerly all-male school.

In this special eight-page insert covering coeducation, Lutkus highlighted the reactions of students and faculty concerning the controversial change. Unsurprisingly, the decision was met with mixed feelings from male students and staff, but the women of Notre Dame expressed varying responses as well — describing the start of coeducation as the beginning of a new era, or just another day on campus.

Some women believed there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the decision, as Saint Mary’s women had been attending classes at Notre Dame since the introduction of a co-exchange program in 1965. One female student argued it was “simply Notre Dame’s 130th year — nothing’s different.”

Observer archives, Sept. 8, 1972

But many other women, especially those spearheading efforts for inclusion, spoke of the decision as a landmark of progress, and the women involved as beacons of strength and hope. 

“The undergraduate women are a beginning and a becoming,” said Sue Roberts, member of the Advisory Committee on Coeducation and a new member of the University’s administration.

Sister John Miriam Jones, Assistant to the Provost, described the class of women as a force to be reckoned with. 

“The girls coming are pioneer women in a sense,” said Jones. “They are coming with a challenge in mind.” 

While Lutkus did not provide quotes from new female students themselves, Anthony Abowd spoke with the University’s three newest hall staff, who expressed both concern and optimism when asked about the implications of coeducation.

Kathy Cekanski, third-year Notre Dame law student and rector of Badin Hall, stressed the progressive importance of this new class of women. 

“Throughout my law school experience I have been trying to break down barriers,” Cekanski said. “This year should be similar.”

Joanne Szafran, rector of Walsh Hall, acknowledged the difficulties of constructing a new culture within the women’s dorms.

“What’s really a challenge,” Szafran said, “is establishing a tradition and setting our own precedents. We have no example to follow. We are the first in line.” 

And Sister Jane Pitz, Campus Ministry employee and assistant rector of Walsh Hall, insisted women made campus a better place.

“It is not that women need Notre Dame,” said Pitz, “but that Notre Dame needs women.”

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Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

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