Daughters of Bernadette

As much progress as Notre Dame has made in amplifying women’s voices, more still need to be heard.

Author: Erin Drumm

I often visit the Grotto here at Notre Dame. I touch the stone from Lourdes and set my intentions. Then I kneel behind the statue of St. Bernadette gazing at Mary and I pray.

When Mary appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes, France, she asked her to dig into the ground and drink from the spring that would appear there. Bernadette listened. At first, the water was dirty and filled with mud, but Bernadette drank of it. The people of Lourdes were concerned and confused but she continued to dig. Little by little, the water became more clear and people began to understand Bernadette. Eventually, a miraculous spring appeared. In time, that spring became a beacon of hope, attracting people from around the world to the little town of Lourdes.

Undergraduate education at Notre Dame was not an option for women until 1972. Our presence in the years since has transformed the University for the better. Notre Dame is stronger, more dynamic and, simply put, just more interesting with women. The water has been made more clear by the presence of women here.

“It is not that women need Notre Dame, but that Notre Dame needs women,” Sister Jane Pitz, CSJ, ’72MFA, said at the time.

In 1972, the women who came to Notre Dame were greeted with dark, muddy water. Little by little, the water has become more clear, but it remains murky. There is still room for improvement.

In modern day America and on Notre Dame’s campus, it can sometimes seem like we’ve achieved equality, that men and women are afforded the same amount of respect. In some cases this is true. People care what I feel, what I think, and what I say. When I speak on this campus, I am given an audience that will listen.

That is also a position of privilege, one not afforded to every woman on this campus, and certainly not one afforded to every woman in America. While it may seem like we have achieved equality at Notre Dame, the proof is in the numbers. And the numbers point to muddy water.

Last semester I took five classes. Looking back at my syllabi, I found that 37 percent of the materials I was assigned were written or produced by women, while 63 percent were by men. One of my classes included the writing of 26 men and only three women (not that I’m keeping count or anything).

My only class taught by a woman actually had more women than men on the syllabus. Remove that class from the calculation and only 27 percent of my assigned materials were written by women. And in most of my classes, women’s voices are assigned only in units on gender or feminism.

Outside of Arts and Letters, there appears to be an even greater disparity. I asked my friend who is a chemistry major if I could take a look at her syllabi. No need, she said, the American Studies course we took together was the only course that included women. My friends from Mendoza shared a similar message — they had nothing written by women assigned on their syllabi last semester. These may not be representative samples, but they reveal that, on some level, women are not equally represented in course materials.

Research from Washington University in St. Louis calls this the syllabi gender gap. The study found that women were underrepresented in course readings relative to the proportion of them working in their respective disciplines.

Bernadette Grotto Cashore
“I feel such immense gratitude for this place it would be easy for it to eclipse any flaw. . . . But had the women before me allowed their gratitude to eclipse their desire for education and their longing for respect, the water here would be much harder for me to drink.” Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t read Aristotle. We should. Advocating to read the work of women does not mean we shouldn’t read men. The two are not mutually exclusive. And I don’t think professors are purposefully excluding women from their syllabi, but I know that Notre Dame students should not be reading only three women for every 26 men. We are drinking very muddy water. 

And while we’re at it, the University also should give women the microphone. In my lifetime, three women — and zero women of color — have delivered Notre Dame commencement addresses. Muddy water.

The University is allowing me to grow into a better writer, a better researcher and a better speaker. I only hope that one day my work might be assigned in classes, or that I might be welcomed back to speak at the podiums at which I now speak as a student.

Women do speak at Notre Dame, of course, and they play an important role here. In my lifetime, nine women have received the Laetare Medal, including two women of color. This semester Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow ’08 spoke with us in class, I saw Rep. Liz Cheney speak in Washington Hall and former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey read on campus. When I did read women in my classes — Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde were particularly meaningful — I read great writing. But there is still work to be done.

When I have a lot of work to do, I visit the Grotto. I often find myself drawn to Thomas Dooley’s letter, which is tucked away in the corner by the trees. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. In 1960, 12 years before undergraduate women were admitted to Notre Dame, Dooley lay on his deathbed and wrote his last letter to Father Hesburgh: “If I could go to the grotto now, I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness, and compassion. . . . Do the students appreciate what they have while they have it?”

I do my best to appreciate it. I spend a lot of time being grateful for this place and its people and all the wonder that Notre Dame holds. When I go to the Grotto, I think I do sing inside. I feel as though the water there is clear.

I feel such immense gratitude for this place it would be easy for it to eclipse any flaw Notre Dame might have. But had the women before me allowed their gratitude to eclipse their desire for education and their longing for respect, the water here would be much harder for me to drink.

Father Hesburgh said, “The spirit of Notre Dame requires the zeal that allows us to do more than we ever thought possible, to acknowledge mistakes and correct them.”

We can be grateful, and also demand better for ourselves.

As Peggy Noonan said in her 2019 commencement speech here, we should be more moved by what we love than we hate. If we love Notre Dame, we must acknowledge its shortcomings so we can all learn more.

May we have the faith and bravery of St. Bernadette to dig until the water becomes clear.

This essay is adapted from an address delivered in Professor John Duffy’s Great Speeches course. Erin Drumm is a junior from Philadelphia living in Pasquerilla East. She is majoring in American studies with minors in history and journalism.