When the University of Notre Dame went coed in 1972, it did so on the crest of a wave that seemed poised to change everything for American women.
The Equal Rights Amendment had passed the U.S. Congress, leaving the nation just a ratification tour away from the constitutional prohibition of discrimination based on sex. Ms. magazine had recently hit newsstands for the first time. On the airwaves, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was the song of the summer (and a Billboard No. 1 hit) with its era-defining opening salvo: “I am woman, hear me roar.”
Feminists — a decreasingly dirty word — were on the cusp of achieving their goal: The freedom for all women to determine their own futures, whether that future entailed motherhood, education, a career or all of the above.
Nearly half a century later, things have unquestionably gotten even better — a shift exemplified at Notre Dame.
From the 325 women who entered that fall as freshmen or transfer students, the University has grown into a place where men and women perform on equal ground. In 2019, women were chosen to serve as student body president, valedictorian and salutatorian, and, for the first time, a woman earned a spot as one of the three leprechaun mascots. The most famous athletic persona on campus, one could argue, is Muffet McGraw, the women’s basketball coach who made her seventh national championship appearance earlier this year.
Yet as McGraw herself pointed out during a Final Four press conference this past April, the strides women have made do not yet mean equality.
The Equal Rights Amendment, as McGraw observed, never did reach the 38-state threshold required for ratification. Women are still underrepresented in fields as diverse as politics, athletics and Fortune 500-caliber business.
“Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender roles are already set,” McGraw said in her answer to a question about how seriously she takes her role as a leader in women’s basketball. “Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. . . . And when these girls are coming up, who are they looking up to to tell them that that’s not the way it has to be?”
Decades into the fight for self-determination, the idea that men work while women nurture has failed to shift significantly. And until it does, economists and sociologists say, one decision will impact a woman’s future more than any other: when, whether and how to become a mother.
The mommy gap
In feminist circles, the “wage gap” is an oft-discussed societal ill. Referring to the discrepancy in income between the average American woman and her male counterpart — a calculation that, in 2019, showed women making 80 cents for every dollar made by a man, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families — the wage gap has become a kind of shorthand for the many ways in which America has failed to achieve gender equality.
As impactful as this measure can be, many believe it shows only a sliver of the full scope of income inequality. Collapsing America’s 166 million women into one calculation — even one that seems dire — erases the fact that certain groups are even further away from economic parity. Black women, for instance, make only 61 cents to the white male dollar. Latinas earn just 53.
The biggest difference, though, comes when you compare women who have children to women who do not.
According to a 2017 study published in the American Economic Review, the bulk of the gender pay gap develops between the ages of 26 and 33 — the range in which the average American woman begins to have children. While men and women make roughly the same amount of money during their first years in the workforce, women’s earnings drop off sharply in their late 20s. By age 45, the average college-educated woman makes just 45 percent of what her male counterpart does.
“The gender wage gap is really a motherhood wage gap,” says Elizabeth McClintock, a Notre Dame associate professor of sociology affiliated with the Gender Studies Program.
Though economists have found evidence of so-called “mommy penalties” and “daddy bonuses” in the workplace, this disparity between average mothers and average men does not come solely from employers suppressing the incomes of women with children. It also reflects the ways in which women pare back or simply stop their participation in the workforce once they become mothers.
For all of the gains American women have made over the centuries, equality within the home has remained elusive.
It goes without saying that many women — including educated women like those among Notre Dame’s pool of 43,000 alumnae — choose of their own volition to leave the labor force once they start a family, which is a noble choice. The problem is when societal and workplace pressures make the decision of whether to pursue one’s career or care for one’s children not much of a choice at all, financially speaking.
Emily Remus, an assistant professor of history and concurrent professor of gender studies at Notre Dame, says government-subsidized child care would be the best solution to this problem of choice. If you give families child care, she posits, parents can decide for themselves who works and who doesn’t without the pressure of needing someone to stay home with the children.
Yet free daycare seems like a near-impossibility in today’s political climate. (Indeed, it hasn’t gained traction since 1972, when a child-care bill was vetoed by President Nixon.) Besides, many parents would want to care for their kids themselves instead of outsourcing the job.
In that case, flexible work arrangements seem best — at least at first glance. The 2017 income study found that, when employees pursue flexible or reduced-time arrangements for child care, companies tend to dock their pay at a rate disproportionate to the number of working hours lost. Dealing with unfairly docked pay while handling the pressure of balancing office work and domestic work can, for families with adequate means, make full-time stay-at-home parenting look more appealing.
Theoretically, these decisions could affect either parent. But practically — well, how many stay-at-home dads do you know?
For all of the gains American women have made over the centuries, equality within the home has remained elusive. According to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, women perform an average of 16 hours of housework per week, while men do only 10.5. And when men do participate in household duties, the balance of who does what can often be less than fair.
“When you start to break it down, you see that men are doing a lot of their time on the weekend,” says McClintock. “And they’re doing these more flexible tasks. You mow the lawn as opposed to making dinner every night.
“The meaning of parenthood has shifted,” she adds, pointing to the culture of “intensive parenting” that says children must be cultivated at all times rather than left to grow on their own as previous generations preferred. Yet the balance of which parents do that extra work has barely moved.
Pair this fact with a culture in which parental leave — insufficient as it is for nearly all families — encourages from birth the idea that mom will stay home while dad works, and it is little wonder why the wage gap hits mothers especially hard.
When, whether . . .
While society may not have made strides on equality at home, it has changed in terms of what those homes look like.
Illustrations by Andrea D'Aquino
When this story was originally conceived, the idea was to compare the experiences of alumnae who are stay-at-home parents with those of working-mom alums. I knew that I — an unmarried 20-something with no particular desire for children — didn’t fall into either of those categories, but I assumed I would be an outlier.
It turns out that I’m not.
In 1972, the average age of first marriage for American women was 20.9 years, and the average age at which a woman had her first child was 22. Among Notre Dame’s first classes of alumnae, it is safe to assume that most got married and started families within the first few years after graduation.
But by 2018, those numbers had risen sharply. The average American woman now marries at 27.8 years old — a number that, thanks to increasing societal acceptance of unwed mothers, sits just above the average age at first childbirth, 26.3 years. Among college-educated women, the ages are even higher: 31 at first marriage and 30 at first birth.
Make no mistake: As the five-weddings-per-weekend schedule at the basilica indicates, Notre Dame women are still getting married, many just weeks or years after graduation. But, like their peers in society at large, alumnae are taking more paths than ever toward the lives they want.
“I think I have a lot more options and freedoms around these choices than [women did] 20 years ago,” says Maria Martellaro ’12, who has no children but would like to have them one day, perhaps on her own. “I think there is a lot less stigma about the choice to not have children at all, to have them late, or to have them as a single parent.”
The national numbers tend to support that assumption. A 2018 Pew survey found that only a third of Americans from the Millennial and Generation Z demographics — those born between 1981 and 2005 — have a negative impression of single motherhood, while majorities of all age groups have favorable or neutral impressions of other non-traditional scenarios like same-sex partnerships and couples that cohabitate before or without marriage.
Katrina Harrington ’11 took a traditional route to marriage and motherhood, marrying Chris ’08, ’17M.Div. weeks before her graduation and having their first son nine months to the day after the wedding. She and her husband have since had three more children and are expecting another in the fall, and the two share parenting duties with babysitters while Chris works as a teacher and Katrina runs Rose Harrington Art, her line of religious paintings and prints.
“This was the story for us,” she says. “And how creative God is to not write the same story for everyone.”
Those different stories can vary most greatly across generations.
Rosemary Schwendler ’81 says her freshman year at Notre Dame was a “very different time” from her daughter’s first days on campus in 2010. “The women of Notre Dame, even back in 1977, were always thinking about more than being good wives and mothers,” she says. “What’s different is that everyone else on campus — professors, advisors, administrators, the male student population — thinks that way now, too.”
Kathy Beenen ’77 agrees. Fresh off of being named “Homemaker of the Year” by her high school senior class, she arrived at Notre Dame as one of the first female mechanical engineering students in University history. In her studies, she says, “there were times I felt isolated and other times when I felt fully supported.”
On the one hand, she says, the University had “high hopes” for its pioneering women, and a number of professors were supportive and attentive to female students’ unique challenges. But on the other, she says, there were setbacks even in simple things — like informal, all-male study groups that formed within classes, and academic buildings that hadn’t installed women’s restrooms until students like her began to arrive.
After graduation, Beenen set off for Minneapolis, inspired by The Mary Tyler Moore Show to pursue a career and not a family. “I hadn’t seen anyone have children and a career,” she says now.
'Having it all' as defined by some external benchmark might be worthless. But fighting for whatever it means to each of us seems pretty great.
Eventually, she became the woman that popular culture had lacked — her two sons were born in the 1980s while she worked as an engineer at 3M. She will “always have a fondness for Mary Tyler Moore,” she says, but she laments that women of her generation had just one role model for happy, career-oriented young womanhood.
“There are many more and different role models now,” she says, “in real life and on TV.”
Many such role models can be drawn from among Notre Dame alumnae.
Skylar Diggins-Smith ’13, former Irish basketball star and current guard for the Dallas Wings, gave birth to her first child with husband Daniel Smith ’14 in April. League watchdogs have already noted her return to practice, and speculation suggests she will return to full-time play with a baby at home.
Fellow 2013 graduate Katherine Masterton has followed a similar path. “I always wanted to be a mom,” she says. “In fact, it was the only part of my discernment that I never questioned.”
Yet she also wanted a career. After weighing her professional options during her time at Notre Dame, Masterton decided after graduation that nurse practitioner was the role for her.
“I chose nursing specifically because it would allow me the flexibility to be a mom,” she says. But along the way, the unexpected happened: She became her family’s primary breadwinner. Today Masterton works three 12-hour night shifts per week at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center while studying in Rush’s doctor of nursing practice program. Her husband, Dan ’11, is the main caregiver for their 2-year-old daughter, Lucy.
“Even though my day-to-day life is chaotic,” she says, “I feel more comfortable in my own skin now than ever before.”
Comfort in one’s skin — and one’s choices — is central to the priorities of many of the women I spoke to.
Anna Palcic ’14 found her comfort zone in being a stay-at-home mom.
She studied under professors Darcia Narvaez and James McKenna as a psychology and anthropology student at Notre Dame, where she “learned amazing things” about the relationship between mothers and babies. “We have been fine-tuned over millennia to stay together, nearly constantly, in the early years,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that in my own motherhood for any other career or academic interests I had.”
Palcic decided by her junior year to stay home with any children she might one day have, and that goal became reality when she married Jacob ’14 shortly after graduation. While her husband went to law school, Anna gave birth to a daughter and a son whom she now cares for full-time.
“I think that a lot of the pressure on educated women to stay in the workforce comes from the idea that staying at home would somehow be a waste of their intelligence,” she says. “I strongly reject [that belief].” The work of stay-at-home mothers is not rewarded monetarily, she adds, “but that doesn’t make it worthless.”
Though her path has been very different from Palcic’s, Nikki McCord ’03 has a similar view. In a society where childbirth and child care are expensive commodities and government support for new parents can be limited, she argues that women who choose to have children are “exercising a radical protest. And I support that!” she adds.
McCord, a black alumna and former president of the Notre Dame Club of Denver, has “no spouse, no children and no pets,” and intends to keep it that way. But between owning her own business, participating in church groups and other organizations and balancing a busy social schedule, she says she has a “pretty full life.
“I need other people in my life to help and support me,” she says, and she has them — even without the traditional social structures of marriage and parenthood. “I am not a person who lives my life in isolation.”
I mentioned to McCord that I admired her trajectory and hoped my life would prove as fulfilling as hers if I continue on the child- and husband-free path I tread now.
“Get ready for as you get older,” she replied. “Because it just gets better. It gets amazing.”
. . . and how
With the increasing number of opportunities available, millions of American women today find themselves in circumstances where their lives can be “amazing.” But obstacles remain, particularly when one’s path fails to align with societal expectations — or with the expectations a woman sets for herself.
For Kara O’Malley ’04, ’06M.A., reality and expectation diverged through the challenge of infertility.
O’Malley, who studied accounting and theology at Notre Dame, says she remembers telling friends as early as high school that she wanted to be a mom. When she married Tim ’04, ’06M.A. at age 23, she assumed that dream would fall quickly into place — and it didn’t.
“I had had disappointments in life previously,” she says, “but this was the first time I was really faced with the fact that you can do everything ‘right,’ you can pray and be a ‘good’ person and . . . you still won’t get what you want.
“It was difficult then, and it still has the power to sting me,” she adds. “I suspect it will forever.”
The O’Malleys have adopted two children, with whom Kara now stays home full-time.
“As an adoptive parent, I am always aware that my greatest joy comes out of someone else’s brokenness, and I know that I cannot hide or shield my children from feeling that pain as well,” she says. “But in spite of (or because of) that, I also know that these children are pure gift, and that I am so blessed to love and care for them.”
In our conversations, the 28 women I interviewed for this story brought up countless other obstacles in their paths toward lives that are both fulfilling and conventionally successful — from divorce and the loss of a child to the stigma of building a family as a gay woman or of using birth control or in vitro fertilization to control their motherhood decisions. But the most common hurdle was self-imposed guilt.
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- Only a few excerpts from the 28 alumnae interviews completed for this article made it into print, but all of these illustrious women are worth getting to know. To hear from each interviewee in her own words, click on this paragraph or on each interviewee's name.
Kaitlin Lalor ’11, a stay-at-home mother of two, had a path to family life drawn straight from a Notre Dame fairy tale: She met her husband, John ’11, at Domerfest, married eight years later, and then gave birth to two daughters, Tess and Maeve. Along the way, she also built a thriving career at Gallo Winery.
“After our oldest was born, I felt a little guilty about leaving her and also guilty because I wanted to go back to work,” she says. “And guilty for feeling this guilt and letting it take up brain space.”
Early this year, Lalor made the decision to leave her job in order to raise her girls full-time — “one of the scariest things I’ve ever done” — and she says that reactions from friends and family have ranged from mild disapproval to “About time!” But, she adds, “The toughest critic by far has been me.”
Masterton, the nursing student, expressed similar concerns while making the opposite choice. “I feel overwhelmingly guilty when I have to ask for help from family or friends,” she says. “I always wanted to be a mom first, and while I am, sometimes my being a mom manifests itself in going to work instead of playing at home.”
She insists that she “wouldn’t change anything” about her life, but she still has her moments of doubt. “I love Dan, Lucy gives me more joy than I can describe, and I know that I’ll be grateful for my hard work when my program is over,” she says. “But sometimes it would be nice to just . . . be in my 20s.
“The grass is always greener, right?”
The curse of having it all
The phrase “having it all” has fallen precipitously out of fashion in recent years.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO and author of the 2013 working-women’s manifesto Lean In, calls it “the greatest trap ever set for women.” The alumnae interviewed for this story referred to the idea as everything from “irritating” to “exhausting” to “particularly sexist”: As Molly Cruitt ’14 points out, you don’t often hear people ask about a man, “How can he be a successful businessman and raise a family?”
Emily Remus, the history professor, says disdain for the phrase makes sense, given the failed promise it represents. “The fact that ‘Can women have it all?’ is still a question is a mark of the stalled second-wave revolution” of the 1960s and ’70s, she says. “They asked for these things, and they didn’t get them. What feminists were saying is, ‘We need to change home, we need to change work.’”
Though “having it all” originally developed in the ’80s as a shorthand for women’s success in managing careers and family lives at the same time, the concept has since come to be seen as a burden — and an unrealistic expectation to boot.
“When I hear it, my brain parses ‘have it all’ as ‘must do it all,’” says Ashley Shannon ’96, ’99M.A., the chair of the English department at Grand Valley State University, who has chosen not to have kids. “I honestly want nothing to do with it.”
Yet look at what Notre Dame’s alumnae have achieved in their 47 years — as mothers, as professionals, and as every conceivable combination of the two.
Lex Lorenzo ’14 was sworn into the Florida Bar Association earlier this year from her room on the maternity ward at Tampa General Hospital.
Betsy Cornwell ’12MFA made The New York Times’ bestseller list while raising a son in a foreign country as a single mom.
Notre Dame women are doctors, lawyers, soldiers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Among our ranks are four Olympic gold medalists, five Rhodes Scholars and, in the case of perhaps our most prominent alumna, Condoleezza Rice ’75M.S., the 66th U.S. secretary of state.
In the early years of coeducation, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, wrote to Sister Jean Lenz, a popular rector of Farley Hall, about the transformation of the University that, as president, he had helped orchestrate.
“Jean,” he said, “the women have done it all. I knew they would!”
That sounds awfully similar to having it all — and, like Father Hesburgh, I’m inclined to think that such a notion can be positive.
The ability to pursue one’s own version of “it all” without impediment is, I think, the very crux of the fight for self-determination. “Having it all” as defined by some external benchmark might be worthless. But fighting for whatever it means to each of us seems pretty great.
For me, having it all would mean exciting travel and fulfilling work, abiding friendships and great loves — and maybe one day, an apartment big enough to have a guest bathroom. Another woman’s all might be a happy, healthy family and a future filled with grandchildren. Still others’ might be the corner office, or the Oval Office, or none of the above.
But to me, success in the fight for women’s rights means simply that all of those outcomes are valued, respected and available to everyone.
Father Hesburgh wasn’t quite right in his ’70s-era assessment that Notre Dame women have done it all. There are many glass ceilings that women — from Our Lady’s University or otherwise — have yet to crack, and as Coach McGraw said in her internet-famous speech, epithets like “first female African American governor of this state or first African American mayor of this city” are still frustratingly novel. But Hesburgh was right on at least one front:
We’ll get there someday. Just watch.
Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.