A tangled transfer

Author: Ann Therese Darin Palmer '73, '75MBA

Editors’ Note: The following piece is adapted from a speech given at “Paving the Way: Reflections on the Early Years of Coeducation at Notre Dame.” The panel discussion took place on Thursday, November 8, 2012 and was cosponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the Department of American Studies, the Program of Gender Studies and Badin Hall.

When I was an undergraduate here from 1969-1973, the football team was No. 1 more often than not. In fact, seven months after I graduated, most of us were in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl where we upset Alabama, winning by one point and becoming national champions. Wouldn’t a repeat have been a fitting way to end this celebration of 40 years of Notre Dame co-education?

When I was here on campus, Harry Nilsson’s “One” was one of the most popular songs, so blaring in and out of the dorms we heard, “One is the loneliest number you’ll ever do.” Being a co-ed pioneer was an exhilarating, baffling, thrill-a-minute adventure, but at times being a pioneer could be very lonely.

The year before Notre Dame went co-ed, the ratio of Notre Dame men to Saint Mary’s women was 7:1. That was daunting enough. One year later, with the 325 transfer students in Badin and Walsh plus about 73 of my female classmates who were grandfathered (or grandmothered) into the mix because we had Notre Dame majors and weren’t eligible for Saint Mary’s degrees, that 7:1 ratio ballooned into 20:1.

Another example of how goofy things were: the women of my class of 1973 are perhaps the recipients of the most unusual transcripts ND has ever issued. For reasons never explained to us, technically we were ND students for only 19 days. Our transcripts read: “transferred in as a transfer student May 1, 1973, graduated May 20, 1973.” Not only were we co-ed pioneers, we apparently revolutionized the definition of “quick studies.”

The majority of professors, deans, administrators and male students were supportive and encouraging. That said, weird things happened. One of my best friends was kicked out of a required class for her government major repeatedly because the professor said he’d never taught a woman before and wasn’t about to start. For two weeks, she bounced between Dean Waddick’s office in Arts & Letters and the class like a Ping-Pong ball, until she realized she was going to have to solve the problem herself. She called her brother at Tulane for guidance. He told her she wasn’t to leave that class again, even if the instructor tried to throw her out, and she had to make sure she got the top grade on the first quiz, after which the prof would end this harassment. She ended up getting the top grade in the entire class for the semester.

Amazingly she wasn’t my only classmate to experience this treatment from professors.

Being one out of 20 fundamentally changed the women my classmates and I became. Some changes were cosmetic, as in clothing. Notre Dame is one of the last places on earth — even today — that could be described as pink, fuzzy or frilly. One of the most basic ways to fit in, when you were one out of 20, was to dress like guys. Dark colors. Jeans. Sweats. Nothing to stand out. To dress like a woman at any time other than a football weekend was just inviting trouble.

A sense of humor also went a long way, particularly when you were called “Mr.” in class or constantly asked for “the women’s point of view.” A smile and some harmless, light flirting was absolutely essential when we wanted to do something that old-timers, who hadn’t gotten the memo about co-education, would tell us was forbidden — like golfing on the University’s course, donated with the stipulation women never be allowed on it.

What really helped us deal with the spasms of loneliness on the pioneer trail was the open-door policy on the part of all senior administrators, including Father Ted and Father Tom Blantz; the women’s residence hall staffs, especially Kathy Cekanski; college deans and academic department chairs, even if it meant meeting at night. The door was open if, and especially if, there was a problem, but also if you just wanted to talk, to unburden to someone in authority about the weirdness of your day.

They counseled problem such as what do you say to some of your closest male friends, classmates and co-editors at The Observer, when their beloved dorm, Badin, was selected as one of the first two to house women? They were stunned because it meant this close group of guys wouldn’t be living together any more. To their credit, even though they were heartbroken, after their first appeal went nowhere, they went along with the decision. That August, they even showed up to help the first Badin women move into their former digs — a classy thing to do.

In another incident that only occurred in my class of 1973, what do you say to the Saint Mary’s side of your class when you get back to your room at Saint Mary’s, after having spent the day at ND in classes? Because women’s dorm space was very tight at Notre Dame that first year, Notre Dame asked Saint Mary’s to allow the 73 of us to remain in the Saint Mary’s dorms for our senior year. We became a wandering diaspora, with the only constant in our lives being the shuttle bus. We were proud to be getting some of the first ND women’s undergrad degrees but very mindful of the feelings of the majority of our SMC classmates, many of whom still believe that they should have been awarded ND degrees, too.

As awkward as that was, rivaling it was the competition that developed among the Saint Mary’s freshmen, sophomores and juniors, most of whom applied to Notre Dame. About 750 of them applied for 350 openings across the street, competing not only against each other but also against female applicants from other colleges and universities. Business and engineering majors, who were juniors, were given preference because they were already well into their majors. That reduced the number of openings. There were a lot of hurt feelings at Saint Mary’s when those acceptance letters went out. Many friendships that started at Saint Mary’s didn’t continue once a woman moved across the street.

I really wish Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s had merged, not only for the Saint Mary’s side of my class but for everyone. It would have been and would still be a win-win for everyone. I’m still not convinced a merger won’t happen at some time in the future, when there’s an entirely new cast of characters with no prior history or prejudices.

In hindsight, being an ND co-ed pioneer was the best preparation for something my classmates and I could never have predicted was going to happen to us when we started college. My class became one of the first to benefit from the women’s movement. Those of us who went into corporate America after graduation weren’t limited to traditional women’s jobs. We were considered for and, in some cases, hired into jobs that had been primarily for men.

One of the selling points for getting considered and hired for those jobs was being a co-ed pioneer. I didn’t mind being the only woman in the room. I had been there, done that. It taught me how to comport myself as the only woman in the room. I had learned poise, confidence without brashness and to make sure you knew which team won what game by what score so you’d be readily accepted as one of the guys the next day.

Ann Therese Darin Palmer ’73, ’75MBA is a retired Lake Forest, Illinois,attorney and former freelance business news reporter for The Chicago Tribune and BusinessWeek Magazine. As an undergraduate, she won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Best Newswriting Under Press of Deadline for her reporting on Notre Dame’s decision to go co-ed. Palmer is also editor of the book, Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation.