I was unprepared for co-education too.
Sure, I had an older sister who had attended Saint Mary’s College shortly before I arrived at Notre Dame, but I had gone to an all-boys high school and entered Notre Dame when it was an all-male bastion of masculinity. Even my co-ed Catholic grade school divided the boys and girls into separate classrooms when they reached the seventh grade.
The segregation actually turned members of the opposite sex into foreign objects. Few of us entering Notre Dame in 1970, as I did, had a sense of women as people. The scarcity of women — seven of us for each one of them — made it worse.
Then again, none of us expected a social life from Notre Dame. It was cold and dark, academically demanding and athletically competitive, and boys were boys. Few would break ranks to dare spend time with a girl, and the herd behavior led to lots of rowdy foolishness and deep male bonding.
Things changed little in the early years of co-education. Complaints about the social life persisted for years, the roots so securely embedded in the old-school, Catholic soil. Still, even I winced when some poor female classmate was asked for the woman’s point of view — with a room full of predatory eyes peering at her.
A male point of view on co-education is similarly inadequate. We all experienced it differently, though most were hardly impacted. There were sightings in the dining halls and an occasional woman in class, but few opportunities for real interaction.
Most of us thought having women around would brighten the landscape, better our chances, improve our lives. It also meant leaving residence halls and close friends, and other inconveniences (though the guys still got laundry and maid service; I’m not sure the women did).
Farley Hall had been the first “stay hall,” with many student leaders choosing to live there and see what an exemplary campus community could be. We griped when we were told Farley would be going to women our senior year, but most of us accepted it as a necessary sacrifice for more women to get in. More women seemed like a good thing.
Alumni, on the other hand, were divided, with many upset — and a certain percentage very upset.
Then again, how could one argue with Father Hesburgh’s reasoning: How could he explain to the lady atop the dome that women are not allowed at the school named in her honor? And how could Notre Dame make a difference in the world while keeping its doors shut to half the population?
Then, too, the times simply demanded it. It was a period of great social upheaval, of civil rights and equal rights, the implementation of Vatican II, societal and sexual revolutions. Gender roles were questioned and dramatically rearranged. Higher education provided a most visible stage for such cultural waves — with virtually every single-sex college or university going co-ed then.
The decision may have seemed radical and jarring, but it was time for change.
The voices of dissent have quieted over the past 40 years, with many silenced when a daughter was admitted.
Some defended the move at the time by saying women would civilize the place. I always cringed when I heard that. But there’s a lot of truth in it.
It took years, though, for Notre Dame to outgrow being an all-male institution that happens to have women to being a leading university that educates men and women alike. Notre Dame has matured as an institution.
It’s probably no coincidence that the maturation coincides with admissions policies that eventually brought the number of undergraduate women into balance with undergrad men. College-age women, on the whole, may be more mature than college-age men. And even though the men’s and women’s dorms may be home to distinctive cultures, the new normal in campus life is much healthier than before — for everyone.
It feels a lot more natural than the more monastic, boys-will-be-boys days of yore, and a lot better than those difficult years of pioneering bravery and strength to transform the place into a 21st century institution that serves the world. In the process a lot of us have been educated by women, following them to a much richer world than the one we knew before.
I remember sitting at my commencement in 1974. The valedictorian was Marianne O’Connor. Some friends — premed majors with sparkling GPAs — resented the fact that she had not been a full-time Notre Dame student for four years; we knew the choice was partly symbolic.
But her talk had a great impact on me — although the reason is embarrassing. I really don’t remember what she said, but I know she offered a vastly different perspective on why women go to college and what they want from life and their ambitions and goals. They were the same things I wanted — not the traditional roles and expectations and career choices I had learned to assign women.
A light bulb clicked on. The awakening began. Co-education had finally come to me. I’ve been learning ever since.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.