I don’t know what it was like to be one of the first women undergrads to enroll at Notre Dame. But I was a junior in 1972-73, so I know it was hard. They were oddities, and they were treated as such—stared at and scrutinized and asked for “the woman’s point of view” in class. They formed a small scouting party of aliens on a primitive, all-male planet. Most of us guys hardly knew how to talk to them—if we’d be so bold as to break ranks and actually venture into conversation with them (a leap into cross-gender social interaction almost always involving beer).
I remember sitting at commencement when my class valedictorian, Marianne O’Connor ‘74, talked about her aspirations in engineering. It was the first time (how do I say this now?) that I realized a woman would pursue a college education to enter a traditionally male-dominated field because she felt personally driven to it—just like guys were. It wasn’t the arts or nursing or teaching, or some endeavor that would serve as a nice safety net “if something happens to her husband.” You’ll be glad to know lights have been switching on in my dim head ever since.
I have never walked in their shoes, but I’ve watched and listened and read. As husband and partner, colleague, friend and father and observer of Notre Dame and the world, I’ve been swept into this revolution that has transformed American society, the family, the workplace, this institution. And I know it’s been hard, especially on the women—the women who strive to succeed at the office and at home management, who heroically nurture children and husbands and parents while also seeking some sort of personal fulfillment or peace, or even a quiet corner.
These pioneers have redefined “the woman’s place” and liberated coming generations, have taught half the population that they are people, too, and not just helpmates, mother figures or objects of desire—all the while dueling with stereotypes and double standards, barriers and boundaries, and the haunting voices of mothers and men, feminists, traditionalists, sociologists, scholars, clergy, daughters, experts, sexperts, talk show hosts and the dizzying, dulling fatigue that comes from multi-tasking role stress and . . . living.
On the 15th anniversary of co-education at Notre Dame I reported in this magazine that this institution was essentially still a very male club that had selected some women to join. Now that another 20 years have passed I’d like to think that things have evened out, but I don’t know for sure. There certainly are good signs and considerable maturation, and I do think Notre Dame’s women have a strong sense of solidarity, and their lives and achievements are inspiringly impressive. But the women would know better than I—although, as was the case 35 years ago, there is probably no single “woman’s point of view” on the subject.
That’s one of the reasons we recognize this anniversary not with the definitive analysis but by asking one of those women to tell the stories of a representative sampling of Notre Dame alumnae. We also asked a female faculty member to put the past 35 years into a societal context. But please take a look, too, at Patrick McGuire’s reflection on his mother’s life and Mallory McMorrow’s letter from campus and Katie Freddoso’s piece on her national driving tour of the Notre Dame family and Sally Ann Flecker’s profile of Carolyn Woo. These all add texture to the story being told by and about women over the past 35 years.
I also encourage you to read the other articles in what I think is a great issue. But this is all just one guy’s point of view.