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Women saints of Notre Dame

The closest people to saints I’ve ever met are my two sassy loudmouth lesbian grandmas from rural Washington. Known as Moo and Ne, they represent the best and most thoughtful Christians I know. 

Moo, a veteran, spent most of her adult life running the chicken soup brigade, offering hospice and medical care for people living with and dying of AIDS. Spending long days and nights ministering to and serving as a shoulder to lean on when they had no one else to turn to as they were dying.

Ne, who is always caring for others: nurturing those excluded (people and animals) and assembling menstrual kits those without access. She’s a magical crafter and makes quilts for friends sick in hospitals — carefully sewing each string and getting everyone that loves the person to sleep with it to fill it with love for them.

Neither would have been able to go to Notre Dame or to share their gifts with the Notre Dame family 50 years ago because women were not admitted. 

In discussing the 50 year anniversary, Professor Kathleen Cummings, Director of the Cushwa Center and Professor of American Studies wrote about how Holy Cross Sisters were foundational to the existence of Notre Dame. Women have been integral to the creation of the school, well before they were admitted. However, it’s not hard to see the ways that our community has grown stronger since women have been admitted. 

In the past 50 years Notre Dame women have made campus and the world a better place. Condelezza Rice became the first black woman to be secretary of state. Brooke Norton, the first woman ever elected student body president became one of the most consequential in history then had a successful career in political communications. Jenny Durkan served our country as the first Lesbian woman to become state attorney in Washington and was later elected mayor of Seattle. Women have made their mark since being admitted.

While we as a community have grown stronger, we haven’t always provided the best environment for all women who we let in. While some have found their home and others have been excluded from Notre Dame feeling like their home. 

In 1996, before she was a famous journalist and academic, Nikole Hannah-Jones was a junior at Notre Dame. She spent long nights in Hesburgh reading, cheering on the football team on the weekends, and trying to find her people.

One night when she was finally starting to feel like she belonged on campus, she had the n-word hurled at her by a white student, causing her to write how, ‘Notre Dame is yours but the world is mine’. Hannah Jones felt like Notre Dame fundamentally wasn’t built for her, that she didn’t belong. This reality still reflected today in 14% of minority students stating they don’t feel like they belong here, while only 6% of white students say the same.

A story echoed in another experience just a few years later: Jeneka Joyce was on the women’s basketball team in the early 2000s and was often described as a “study in success”, a woman who electrified the basketball court and had engaging academic conversations after the game.

In 2003, when she was a junior, Jeneka began questioning their sexuality; coming out as queer, which she defined as more all-encompassing for everything not deemed heterosexual. She got more involved with LGBTQ+ communities on campus and spoke out against the ways that the campus does not always fulfill its mission of being home to its students; for her feeling like queer students were excluded from much of campus life.

These two brought unique and wonderful gifts to the Notre Dame community. Throughout my time at Notre Dame, I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with similar saintly folks who have changed the trajectory of my own life here. 

Last year I wrote an article discussing the perils of my friend. A person so filled with love and kindness for others but so filled with pain from feeling that Notre Dame doesn’t love him back. A reality felt in campus policies that force him into dorms and housing situations that don’t match the lived reality of his gender identity.

Hannah Jones, Joyce and my friend’s stories are not universal for folks of different backgrounds, but are also not sillowed from the lived realities of many on campus. And with just small tweaks to how we run as a institution we can make a community 

This year further marks 50 years of the federal regulation Title IX being signed into law, which enshrined protections for women in educational institutions in classrooms and playing fields. 

This summer, the Biden administration announced reforms to Title IX; to roll back Trump-era rules, expand protections for survivors of sexual violence and protect LGBTQ+ students from sex-based discrimination. 

One of the most controversial parts of these new regulations is the expansion of Title VII employment protections for LGBTQ+ employees to Title IX by defining sex-based discrimination to include discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity.

After new regulations are announced there is a 60-day period for public comment on the regulations, schools or organizations of schools will announce their responses to the rules and then within institutions there arises much debate over how the regulations will be implemented.

Notre Dame choose not to write a comment of their own and instead is signing on to another schools comments. Legal council and the Office of Institutional Equity are currently in debates about whether or not we should, as a University, take a religious exemption to the sections of Title IX around LGBTQ+ discrimination for the first time in our institutions history. 

If we decide to take a religious exemption we make ourselves poorer in the spirit, we close our doors and ourselves to so many potential students, faculty and staff because of who they are. And, for those who do still end up coming to Notre Dame, we turn our backs on them.

Notre Dame isn’t, and shouldn’t, be made for everyone, but it should be a place where more feel this is their home. No school can possibly be made for every individual and unique soul. However, it is foolish to think our best days are from when this school was only wealthy, white, straight, Catholic men. Our faith and our school is strengthened by the diversity of our heritage.

According to recent inclusive campus survey numbers, many students from non traditional Notre Dame backgrounds: students of color, disabled, first generation, low income, from different nationalities, queer students and feel like they don’t belong at much higher rates. 

Creating a community where ALL women are able to thrive should be a central aim of the next 50 years of women at Notre Dame. It’s not enough to just admit people, we fundamentally have to make everyone feel like this is their home too

To take one step towards making the next 50 years even a fraction better, send an email today to the Assistant Vice President of Institutional Equity, Erin Oliver, (eoliver2@nd.edu) and the Assistant to the Vice President of Student Affairs, Laura Connelly (laura.connelly@nd.edu), expressing your desire for Notre Dame to be compliant with the new Title IX regulations as a testament to our faith as a Catholic University.

We can do better Notre Dame and we have to. We risk losing the immense sacred gifts of queer saints like my grandmas, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jeneka Joyce or my friend put in the wrong dorm. Take one step today to make a better home for them tomorrow.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, Peace Studies, Philosophy and Gender Studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS want to chat and can be reach at @danesherm on twitter or lsherma2@nd.edu.

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