The University of Notre Dame is a world-renowned research institution known for competitive acceptance rates, elite academics, and a football team with passionate fans across the United States.
However, the opportunities for success and personal growth allotted to their students were not always open to women. In fact, Notre Dame did not officially welcome female students until 1972 — now 50 years ago.
This month, Notre Dame concludes a year-long celebration of 50 years of coeducation. The commemoration was filled with stories of glass ceiling-shattering accomplishments, of friendships that flourished despite discrimination, and of a diverse and welcoming trajectory for the university.
Notre Dame also hosted events such as a “Golden Gala,” multiple “conversation” presentations with some of the first female alumni of the university, and an exhibit set up by Elizabeth Hogan, a senior archivist at the university.
One such event was the ND Women’s Connect event, “Celebration of ND Female Firsts”, held via Zoom on Nov. 16.
“We’re so grateful that [the speakers] have stepped forward to share their stories and also stepped forward years ago to be leaders on campus for women across campus and across the Notre Dame family,” said Karen Dehais, Board Chairperson of Notre Dame Women Connect.
This presentation was about what the female pioneers of Notre Dame experienced.
Brooke Norton Lais ’02, the first female student president; Molly Kinder ’01, the first female member of the Irish Guard; and Sister Jane Pitz ’72, one of the first female rectors, shared their experiences with the attendees.
For Lais, promoting equality on campus was central during her time as class president. She presented to the board of trustees on what it was like to be a woman on campus years ago and gave recommendations for further improvement.
One such example was the creation of what is now called the Gender Relations Center, which designs and implements programs about healthy relationships, gender, and sexuality.
Among other projects, she worked to enforce equal security and oversight in male and female dorms and to change the fight song to include women. She says that the latter suggestion received audible gasps from the board but was implemented 20 years later.
“I recognized that I was the first person who held that role who really could appreciate what it was like to be a woman at Notre Dame and bring that perspective of what it was like to live in a women’s dorm and what it was like to walk into a room for a meeting and be one of the only women there with male faculty and administrators,” Lais said.
Kinder has seen her influence through changes within the Irish Guard, the elite group of students who lead the university’s band onto the field before football games, of which she was the first female member. As a full-fledged member, she passed the same tryouts her male colleagues faced and also met the former 6’2” height requirement.
“I had the sense, even at age 20, that this was an opportunity to be a role model, and I really felt like the women in the community saw this as a win for Notre Dame. I felt that very strongly, and I still feel it today,” Kinder said.
But even though other women praised her bravery, she felt pressured by Irish Guard members and alumni who thought her presence hurt the “fraternity” of the group, which had only accepted men since its founding in 1949.
Her fellow guardsmen refused to speak to her, completely ignoring her for the entire time she served. The after-practice plans and secretive rituals never once included her.
“They were classmates and friends — guys that I had tried out with and bonded with,” Kinder said. “The captain of the guard was my neighbor. I had a party the night before [tryouts] at my apartment. They came; we were cheering each other on.”
Despite the cold treatment, Kinder knew that she was an inspiration for other young women, and she took courage from the fact that she was paving new ground. She worked hard to be a part of the group, keeping her mistreatment a secret from the press, and even cutting her hair short when the men shaved theirs.
In 2014, the Irish Guard eliminated its height requirement, and other women have joined in the years since Kinder’s time.
Although she began at Notre Dame decades prior to Kinder and Lais, Sister Pitz does not recall dealing with much misogyny, nor did she receive complaints from the women for whom she was an assistant rector.
However, Sister Pitz does remember that there were many logistical issues to sort through as she worked with the women in her dorm. While her dorm was expected to function in the same ways that the male dorms had for decades, they were often left in the dark regarding the expectations.
“We didn’t have rules. We made them up as we went along,” Sister Pitz said.
Women now make up about half of the University of Notre Dame’s campus, and efforts have been made to make Notre Dame a more inclusive university for all attendees.
“We’re also excited about the future of women in the Notre Dame family and what our collaboration together and our connections together will look like,” Dehais said. “This is quite a remarkable moment as we close out 2022 and think about the close of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation.”
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.