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From the Archives: A history of women’s issues across the tri-campus

, and | Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Diane Park | The Observer

2022 marks 50 years since women were admitted to Notre Dame. Throughout this half-century, women have made vast strides towards increased visibility and respect with their perseverance and accomplishments.

In this week’s edition of From the Archives, we will examine women’s history at Notre Dame through the decades. In the ‘70s, Notre Dame experienced the arrival of women’s varsity sports teams, which culminated in a women’s fencing national championship victory in the 1980s. Then, with 1990 being declared the “Year of the Woman” at Notre Dame, we will explore the increasing number of women in STEM and the challenges they faced in those fields. Finally, the powerful yet controversial “The Vagina Monologues” came to the tri-campus community in the 2000s, bringing women’s issues front and center.


‘The dames have truly arrived’: The beginning of women’s sports at Notre Dame

Aug. 28, 1976 | March 24, 1987 | Terry Lynch | Researched by Erin Drumm

In 1972, with the arrival of female students on Notre Dame’s campus, women began participating in intramural and interhall sports. In 1976, the first women’s varsity sports teams were created at Notre Dame: fencing and tennis.

Tennis seemed to be the most popular sport among Notre Dame women in its first years on campus. This interest gave way to the development of a varsity tennis team. When the women’s practice greens were installed, associate athletic director Colonel Stevens was one of the first to comment: The dames have truly arrived.”

Observer archives, Aug. 28, 1976

There were no scholarships for women in their first year of varsity sports as the focus was placed on creating a well-rounded women’s sports program with the limited funds they were given. 

The Women’s Athletic Association, however, allowed women to get involved with sports on campus by becoming “hostesses for our visiting teams, officiating corps, equipment managers, athletic trainer aids, publicity corps, statisticians and even public address announcers for our emerging women’s athletic program.”

Both women’s tennis and women’s fencing worked in conjunction with their male counterparts under the same coaches. Women’s fencing emphasized that women would “have equal status, equipment, travel allowance and coaching.”

Notre Dame had a well-established and respected sports program, so it was “not Notre Dame’s intention to have a separate women’s athletic department, as the women [could] benefit immensely from Notre Dame’s nationally renowned coaching staff.”

In March 1987, the women’s fencing team became Notre Dame’s first women’s varsity team to win a national championship.

Observer archives, March 24, 1987
The women’s fencing team’s fight towards victory pays off in a national championship.

The national championship title marked the culmination of the women’s fencing team’s road to glory and established them as a force to be reckoned with.

Yves Auriol, who served as the head women’s fencing coach from 1985-1995, said that executive vice president Fr. Edmund P. Joyce asked him to start building a women’s varsity fencing team in 1974. 

“He did something that very few people give him credit for — he elevated women to varsity status on this campus long before Title IX ever came into vogue,” former men’s fencing head coach Mike DeCicco said. “Title IX forced a lot of schools to add women to varsity sports. He did it because we had enrolled women, and he saw their role carrying over to the athletic field as well.”

The women’s varsity fencing team proved themselves to be great athletes deserving of their varsity status and national championship title.

Today, Notre Dame’s female athletes continue to contribute to campus athletics, with 13 women’s varsity sports playing at the Division I level. Through their successes in and out of their respective sports arenas, these athletes honor Notre Dame’s tradition of excellence and camaraderie. 

Women in STEM persist at Notre Dame

March 6, 1991 | Chris Cooney | Researched by Uyen Le 

As the 1990s unfolded — almost 20 years after women were admitted for the first time at Notre Dame — Fr. Edward Malloy declared 1990-1991 the Year of the Woman at Notre Dame.” Chris Cooney (‘91) wrote a feature as part of a series celebrating the Year of the Woman on the increasing number of women in STEM at Notre Dame and the challenges they faced. 

In the class of 1992, only seven of the 78 mechanical engineers were women. Nancy Greene, one of the seven, experienced isolation, claiming that “any minority is going to feel alone at times.”

Greene’s sentiments echoed what is known as “Fishbowl Syndrome.” Dr. Kathie Newman, a physics professor and member of the Year of the Woman steering committee, explained that women in math and science fields often “feel isolated, with everybody watching them as if they are in a fishbowl.” 

Observer archives, March 6, 1991
Dr. Kathie Newman, a member of the Year of the Woman steering committee, worked to make the College of Science more inclusive for women.

Additionally, “the actions of anyone inside the fishbowl are magnified for those outside the bowl, causing them to come under closer scrutiny.” This added pressure leads to women second-guessing themselves in their work. 

Newman pointed out that women in technical careers faced a variety of “microinequities,” problems that seem acute at first, but that can lead to loss of interest over all. These microinequities include “speaking to women on a less intellectual level, calling on male students more often, asking men the more difficult questions and subtly implying that the women must prove themselves.” 

When Pam Flusche (‘90) graduated and went on to work at Commonwealth Edison Power Company in Chicago, she was only one of three women at the workplace.

Flusche quickly noticed she was treated differently than her fellow male newcomers. Her colleagues were “reluctant to teach her some of the more physical tasks” because of assumptions about her gender. However, Flusche gained respect by taking initiative and going out on jobs by herself. 

Despite the inequities, Newman claimed that in comparison to other universities, Notre Dame did better to help women succeed in science and math subjects. The physics department, where Newman worked, was dedicated to “discussing the problems female scientists face.” 

The Year of the Woman also helped to raise awareness on the problems women face in these fields. Various departments invited acclaimed female scientists to speak at Notre Dame, providing female students with role models who have made accomplishments in their fields.

Dr. Kimberly Gray, hired in 1989 by the College of Engineering, described how Notre Dame wanted to fill her spot with a woman to make the College more appealing to female students. However, Gray expressed some concern over this quota-driven hiring system.

“No one wants to be hired for a position just because of chromosomal makeup,” Gray said, “but because they’re the best for the job.”

However, Linda-Margaret Hunt, assistant chair of the biological sciences department, recognized the necessity of quotas. 

“If there’s an equally qualified male and female, they’re going to take the female because of the emphasis on Affirmative Action hiring,” Hunt said.

Though men continue to dominate STEM fields today, at Notre Dame there are many more female students in the College of Science and the College of Engineering than there were 30 years ago. Female professors, like Newman and Hunt, and female students, like Greene and Flusche, paved the way for women in STEM to pursue the subjects they love.

‘The Vagina Monologues’ canceled at Saint Mary’s, backlash ensues

Jan. 23, 2001 | Molly McVoyJan. 25, 2001 | Coleen McCarthy | Researched by Jim Moster

In 2000, Saint Mary’s College hosted a public performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” an off-Broadway play on women’s sexuality. The play, written in 1994, aimed to open dialogue on the issues of sex, rape and celebration of the female body.

A year after the controversial performance at Saint Mary’s, College president Marilou Eldred abruptly and unilaterally banned the play from making a reappearance in 2001.

Observer archives, Jan. 23, 2001
Saint Mary’s students perform “The Vagina Monologues” in 2001.

Eldred cited the alleged anti-Catholic themes of the show, including open discussion of premarital heterosexual and lesbian sex. Some students agreed, like Mary Dugan (‘03), who decried the show’s “vulgar” tone and disagreed that the vagina needed to be a central focus of rape discussions.

Others were comfortable with the play’s themes but thought the “shock value” would overshadow any practical discussion and turn away conservative women.

The previous Saint Mary’s performance, sponsored by the Campus Alliance for Rape Elimination (CARE), had offered counseling services for women following the show and raised money for the Sex Offense Services and Campus Rape Alliance.

Eldred’s decision caused immediate backlash amongst students, faculty and alumnae. CARE wrote a letter on the play’s importance to the Alumnae Board, Parents Council and the Board of Trustees, which Eldred blocked, leading to accusations of censorship. 

Eventually, the College decided to hold a student forum in place of the play to discuss the issue. Eldred did not attend the forum due to “prior commitments.”

Forum attendees debated the merits and drawbacks of holding “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. While the play never made another official appearance at Saint Mary’s, students organized an underground reading in 2004, unsponsored by the College. There were 80 students in attendance, reflecting the play’s powerful legacy which continues to this day.

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About Uyen Le

Uyen is a senior at Notre Dame, studying English and Gender Studies. She is currently serving as the Leader of the From the Archives Project. Though she loyally follows AP Style in The Observer, on all other platforms, she is a strong proponent of the Oxford comma.

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About Erin Drumm

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About Jim Moster

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