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‘Objects in the Rearview Mirror’: The story behind the first women at the University

When Deborah Dell, known to her loved ones as Debi, arrived at the University of Notre Dame in 1972 with the first cohort of women, she entered with a sharp mind and a lot of determination. 

Now, almost exactly 50 years later, Dell is publishing a book, “Objects in the Rearview Mirror: A Social History of Coeducation under the Dome.” The story took shape over the span of 20 years and with the help of more than 150 contributors who were impacted by the decision to implement coeducation. 

The first years – inspiration and roadblocks

Sitting at the desk of her Morris Inn hotel room, Dell looked at a blank page. 

“Was I the right person to be doing this?” she wondered. 

Dell lived in Breen-Phillips Hall, Walsh Hall and Lyons Hall during her time on campus. She admitted that her circle of friends was small and stuck to themselves most of the time. 

“Books like this should be written by somebody who was important,” she explained her hesitation. 

She was in the midst of a lull in motivation. Dell said she came back to Notre Dame to get inspired. 

“I’m in the hotel room, and I’ve just been to the library to get some stuff out of the archives and I’m struggling,” she said. “It’s like I hear Father Hesburgh, saying ‘Debi, put your faith in the Holy Spirit and His mother, and stop thinking so hard and just trust.’”

Dell said she started brainstorming and researching for this book in 2000 and wrote a couple drafts with a few of her friends contributing in 2001, 2006 and 2011. Her trip to the Morris Inn was during the second draft in 2006. 

“[This book] was a long time coming. That’s an understatement,” she quipped. “I think the only book that took longer was the Bible.”

Debi and Darlene — missed connections and missing pieces

Darlene Connelly, class of 1977, was Dell’s right-hand woman during the second half of the project. She was also Dell’s neighbor on the first floor of Breen-Phillips Hall in 1977 — unbeknownst to either of them until a classmate introduced them a few years ago. 

“Darlene — we lived in the same hall, and I didn’t know her!” Dell said. “It was just the perfect timing and the perfect marriage as far as her approach to things and my approach. We just complemented each other so well.”

Connelly said she was introduced to Dell because she was also thinking of writing a book about her experiences. Connelly’s inspiration came in the form of a mentor, Fr. Tom Tallarida. 

Connelly explained that she had a long friendship with Tallarida throughout her time as an undergraduate and that she maintained contact with him as an adult. 

“We stayed in touch over the years. One year, I think it was 1992, he sent me a letter. He pleaded with me to write the real story about coeducation in those early years at Notre Dame,” she said. 

Connelly said she forgot about that plea until one Christmas when she decided to pay Tallarida a visit. A few days before her plans, Connelly said she got a letter from Tallarida’s niece that he had passed away. 

“I carried Catholic guilt,” she said. “I never got to it. I never got around to it, and I am so sorry, so sorry that I don’t know what the story was that he wanted to tell.”

Dell said Connelly not only brought her expertise to the project, but also the contributions of the women of the class of 1977. 

As Dell hosted mixers for her classmates in South Bend before home football games, word about the project got out, and men started chiming in. The men of the classes of 1976 and 1977 were soon added to the list of the writing process contributors.

Around that time, Dell said she started gathering information about the second generation of women at the University — what had changed and what had not. This was done with the help of Emily Weisbacker. 

Dell also mentioned she believed it was important to include what was going on at Notre Dame’s peer institutions and in the nation at the same time. 

“It was very important to me to also make sure that it wasn’t just the Notre Dame story. We looked at Yale and Princeton, and we looked at what was happening in the culture of the United States during the 70s,” she said. 

Dell said she finally felt ready to write the book once she had collected the experiences of the women and men of the first five years of coeducation, the second generation of women at the University and the historical context for the story.

“So now we had the women who went through it, the men who went through it and then the second generation that was benefiting. [They] were able to tell me about the things that hadn’t changed in 30 or 40 years,” she explained. “[The book] really became so much bigger than the original concept because of the delay that took place.”

Those who went without mention — early women’s athletics 

When the girls first arrived on campus, nothing was set up for them, Dell explained. Other than two hastily renovated dorms, the first few classes of women at Notre Dame had to fashion everything themselves. This included clubs, policy groups, information sharing networks and sports. 

Ron Skrabacz, class of 1976, oversaw the research and writing of the chapters on early women’s athletics. 

Skrabacz, who was only participated in interhall sports during his time on campus, was recruited to write the section because of his work as a sports writer. He wrote for the Daily Herald — a newspaper covering the Chicago suburbs — as a sports columnist for 20 years. 

Skrabacz got involved with the project when he was at Dell’s South Bend house on one Friday night before a football game. 

“Debi is a very brilliant woman, but you can put in a thimble what she knew about sports,” he joked. “She knew it was critical that sports be covered.”

Skrabacz explained that he wrote about the general atmosphere of sports during his time at the University and specifically what the women went through to start their varsity sports. 

Luckily, Skrabacz said his work would not have been possible without the research of Anne Dilenschneider and Jane Lammers. 

The two women were at a 30-year reunion of coeducation when they were shown a video about women’s athletics. Skrabacz explained that Dilenschneider and Lammers were upset that the video did not show the early years or how the women made the programs that today yield national championships.

Lammers and Dilenschneider then started researching. They made posters and sought out connections. The women complied “a boatload” of material, which they turned over to Skrabacz.

“All I did was the easy part. I took all their information, summarized it and turned it into a story,” he said. 

Other than their inclusion in the book, over 250 women who participated in the early building stages of each varsity sport will be memorialized with honorary monograms during a home football game the weekend of Oct. 21 to 23. 

Looking back and looking forward

“Objects” came out Sept. 1 and is now available for order at Barnes & Noble. There are two versions: a paperback and a special edition hardcover.

“We’re limiting the hardcover edition to 365 copies to commemorate and honor the 365 first female undergraduates,” Dell said. “The first 365 hardcover books will have a special cover that commemorates that number.”

The Hammes Bookstore is hosting two book signing events for the new release Friday, Sept. 9 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday, Oct. 14 from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. 

A labor of love of over 20 years, Dell said she hopes the book is a tribute to the strength of the Notre Dame family through good times and bad. 

“It was a time when men and women came together and there were struggles, but we found each other. We had the ability to get through some pretty weird tough times, and that’s the value of the Notre Dame family,” she said. “[The book is] a balanced picture: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Bella Laufenberg

Contact Bella at ilaufenb@nd.edu

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Women’s clubs share their experiences

This semester marks 50 years since women first stepped foot on Notre Dame’s campus as students.

To honor this milestone, The Observer reached out to leaders from five student clubs that are either geared toward women or focus on advocating for women’s rights.

Baraka Bouts Notre Dame Women’s Boxing club

When Rachel Salamone was a first-year, she knew she wanted to try a new sport.

Walking the stadium concourse at the Student Activities Fair three years ago, Baraka Bouts, the Notre Dame Women’s Boxing club, caught her attention.

“I had heard a bit about the boxing club, but when I saw people throwing mitts at the Activities Fair, I thought it was the coolest thing I had seen all night and I was sold,” she recalled.

Now in its twentieth year, the boxing club is the largest women’s club on campus, Salamone, now the club president, said. With over 300 members, it is also the largest all-female boxing club in the world.

Salamone said the club “works to instill confidence, skill and community” in its members through daily training. At least 100 club members train each year for the club’s best-known event, the annual Baraka Bouts boxing tournament – three nights of club members going head-to-head for one minute and 15 seconds in the Duncan Student Center’s Dahnke Ballroom.

“The dual nature of Notre Dame Women’s Boxing that blends female empowerment with boxing and makes quality education more accessible in Uganda makes the program especially unique and inspiring,” Salamone said.

Feminist ND

Chess Blacklock, a senior with plans to go into public health after graduation, is the president of FeministND.

She said FeministND was one of the first student organizations she got involved in as a freshman and joined its executive board as service chair her sophomore year before becoming president as a junior.

Blacklock said the club’s mission is to “shed a positive light on feminism and the value of the ideology and movement as well as to bring a greater awareness of women’s role in history and women’s contributions to our current society.”

“We bring strong women’s voices to campus, celebrate powerful women and encourage women to seek out positions of power,” she continued. “Additionally, we seek to provide a space free of political or religious bias [for] students to share their opinions and ideas concerning gender issues and feminism while also acting as a general support group for women.”

One of the club’s biggest events is its annual menstrual product drive, which collects pads and tampons for local shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Blacklock said the success of last year’s menstrual product drive is one of the club’s proudest accomplishments.

“This past year, we collected over 900 products to donate,” she said. “Additionally, we collaborated with Campus Cup to allow students to sign up and receive a free menstrual cup. We had over 300 sign-ups for this programming, and while many students picked theirs up for personal use, many also chose for us to donate them.”

FeministND currently has about 200 members. The club has existed since 2016, but Blacklock said feminist clubs have had a presence at Notre Dame since women were admitted to the University half a century ago.

“Though we know these previous clubs existed because of the active role alumni have in our club, we don’t know too much about how these clubs operated due to the lack of consistent and thorough record keeping,” Blacklock explained.

Magnificat Choir

Hannah Schmitz, a junior theology major living in Welsh Family Hall, is the alumni relations and social media manager for the Magnificat Choir, a liturgical choir that welcomes all tri-campus students who sing in the treble range.

The choir sings each week at the 5 p.m. Saturday Vigil Mass at the Basilica and rehearses three times a week.

Schmitz said she decided to join the choir last fall when she was looking for community and a way to continue doing music ministry.

“I had grown up singing in a church choir, and it was something that I had missed doing my freshman year of college,” she said.

After realizing how much joy the choir had given her in just a year, she said she desired to pursue a leadership position.

The choir currently has about 45 members and Schmitz said they’ve built a great community centered around a passion for music and enjoyment of one another’s company.

In addition to rehearsal, choir members participate in group outings about once a month, including ice skating, volleyball and volunteering in the community.

“But honestly, sometimes we have the most fun just going to dinner together after a rehearsal or Mass and enjoying each other’s company,” Schmitz said. “During the fall semester, we love singing at the football Masses and seeing everyone decked out in Notre Dame gear.”

Schmitz said her proudest moment with the choir was last spring when they recorded the first half of their upcoming album.

“We worked for months to prepare these pieces before diving headfirst into a five-hour long recording session in the Lady Chapel of the Basilica,” she said. “We are very proud of what we accomplished so far and we are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to finish the album this upcoming spring. We are all very excited to hear the final product.”

Network of Enlightened Women

Gavriella Aviva Lund, a senior neuroscience major with a minor in theology, said one of her many passions is “bringing people of diverse backgrounds together to learn more about each other and to find common ground to build stronger communities locally and beyond.”

In fall 2020, Lund and Theresa Olohan ’21 began the process of founding a chapter of the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW) on Notre Dame’s campus.

NeW is a national organization, originally founded at the University of Virginia in 2004, that connects conservative college women and creates a space for them to talk about public policy and conservative values, Lund explained.

Lund said she and Olohan wanted to establish a chapter at Notre Dame to “provide an open community where women on campus could discuss and learn about social and policy issues they cared about while developing a network of women across the country who pursue the same mission as leaders in their professions.”

NeW at ND was established in the spring of 2021, and, now, the club has about 125 members. They meet at least twice a month, and members have enjoyed fun activities such as roller rink trips and ice skating, as well as lectures and professional development opportunities.

Lund currently serves as president of NeW at ND and said, though the club is branded as a space for women with “conservative values,” it does not endorse specific political parties or candidates.

“The university setting was originally meant to be a space where ideas are exchanged, which requires a difference of opinions,” Lund said.

She said NeW at ND plans to highlight this with the theme of the club this year: “Embrace and Engage.”

Instead of being afraid of those with different opinions on social issues or policies, she continued, she encourages people to, first, embrace the dignity and goodwill of every person and then “engage in an open dialogue to understand where our peers are coming from.”

“Coming together as one united community, we can learn so much from each other and make prominent social change,” Lund said.

Shades of Ebony

Thaddea Ampadu, a senior accounting major, is the co-president of Shades of Ebony, a club geared toward Black women at Notre Dame focusing on service and sisterhood.

Shades was founded 21 years ago by Arienne Thompson ’04 and Terri Baxter ’05 to create a space where Black women could come together and share their experiences.

Its mission is to “unify, empower and inspire women of all shades” through engaging in dialogue and service in the South Bend community, Ampadu said.

The club’s general meetings – which take place weekly or biweekly depending on what leadership has planned – often include discussions on topics like mental health, mentorship, career development, social life and equitable access to resources at Notre Dame and beyond.

“There are very few women of color on campus, and because of this, there are rarely opportunities to meet and have dialogue,” Ampadu said. “Attending our meetings is always the highlight of my week because I don’t have to explain certain parts of my identity because most, if not all, of us share those same identities and experiences.”

She said Shades has about 30 active members and about 50 who attend events more occasionally.

The club cohosts events and holiday parties with other student clubs including Wabruda, the Black Student Association and the Gender Relations Center.

Last year, Shades was named the “Club of the Year” by the Club Coordination Council. Ampadu and other club leaders are proud of the events Shades has organized and their successful efforts to revive the club after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The community is absolutely beautiful,” Ampadu said. “When we meet, I can visibly see how relaxed and comfortable our members become surrounded by women that look like them.”