The Brave ones

Author: Jeanine Sterling '76

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.

I’m a proud member of that first class of 125 freshman women and a proud former resident of Badin Hall. It means a lot to be able to mark this milestone at an event that’s co-sponsored by my old dorm.

There are 125 different stories around the early years’ experience. I’m sharing part of my story in the belief that many of the themes are ones we all shared to one degree or another.

I love my alma mater, but those first years were challenging.

When some people hear that I was one of the pioneers they say, “Oh, you were so brave to do that.” Well, no. The brave ones were actually the St. Mary’s transfers who knew exactly what they were getting into and came anyway. Most of us freshmen were just naïve. We were excited, but, frankly, we didn’t know what we were signing on for.

A month or so before classes began, Notre Dame Magazine ran an article that interviewed some of the new incoming women. The title was “Alice in Irishland” — and, honestly, it was a good foreshadowing of what was to come. Once we arrived, we all felt like we had fallen down the rabbit hole!

Again, remember, we were very young. So the bombardment of mixed messages the girls received — especially that first year — was disconcerting.

On one hand, we were treated as something special. I remember CBS cameras trailing around after us during those first few days. Newspapers were interviewing us for articles that ran back home. The University hung up that big “We’re Glad You’re Here” banner at the welcoming picnic. Life was kind of cool.

But then the reporters and cameras left town, and the banner came down, and reality hit.

Suddenly you’re the only girl in a classroom of 30. You have upperclassmen telling you you’re not welcome at ND. You hear that a lot of alumni are angry. Really angry. There are guys in South Dining Hall waving score cards rating your looks. On that first football Saturday, a crowd of alumni stand silently outside the door to South Dining Hall, watching each of us emerge to go have breakfast. It was like running a gauntlet — every day.

And the poor guys didn’t know how to treat us. Some of the upperclassmen were angry because they thought they were attending an all-male school and — surprise — now they weren’t.

Then there were the flat-out insults: “If you’re smart, you must be ugly.” Or, “Who wants to go out with some girl who’s so smart she can get into Notre Dame?” Direct quote.

Some even questioned our credentials. One upperclassman found out I was a legacy, and said to my face, “Oh, so that’s how you got accepted.” I told him, “Yes, I guess it had nothing to do with being a National Merit Finalist, a straight-A student, and a Notre Dame Scholar.”

But I think most of the guys were just kind of befuddled as to how to treat us. For many, we were only a potential date or a future mate. It was hard to make real male friends during those first couple of years.

I couldn’t believe that so many people were telling me I was lesser, that I didn’t belong just because I was female. I look at this now and wonder why we didn’t pull together more as a group and say “This is unacceptable.” Maybe it was the “good Catholic schoolgirl” syndrome. Don’t make waves. Don’t cause a scene. Deal with it.

Many women were unhappy that Notre Dame hadn’t warned them about what they were getting into or hadn’t provided any tools or preparation beforehand.

I also take a parent’s perspective now and wonder why the University didn’t proactively and regularly take each of us aside after classes began and say, “Let’s talk. Tell me what you’re dealing with.”

I understand it was probably difficult for a basically all-male administration to even recognize the need for that kind of thing. But, at the time, I was ready to pack it in after a couple of months, and I applied for sophomore year transfer to one of the other colleges that had accepted me. I just couldn’t imagine another three years of 20:1 ratios and isolation and existing in such an abnormal environment.

Then I made friends, real female friends. I realized that I had professors I adored and classes that were incredibly interesting and challenging.

I was inspired by Father Hesburgh’s efforts toward social justice.

I fell in love with the campus, and the darn ducks down at the lake.

And my wise 18-year-old brain decided that — to paraphrase a certain marketing campaign — this was worth fighting for.

And so each year got a little better. By the fourth year, the male-female ratio was down to 4:1 and, honestly, that felt like normality.

We had our first female band members. And yearbook and magazine editors. And members of ROTC. And our first female valedictorian. And the original upperclassmen graduated out, leaving young men who only knew ND as co-ed. And we all relaxed a bit and it was easier to become friends with each other.

That’s not to say that things didn’t stay weird for a long time! The 1980s and ’90s grads have their own stories. But even in that first freshman class, only one or two women dropped out, and 1,600 in all graduated during the 1970s.

The biggest lesson I took away from my experience here was learning how to persevere when things got tough. How to hang in there and make things work, as Father Ted would say.

Those early years of coeducation were challenging, joyful, frustrating and crazy and I salute my fellow pioneer alumnae, the graduate women and nuns who came before us, and all of the female students who came after us. Notre Dame has been truly enriched by your presence and your energy.

Jeanine Sterling ‘76 is a principal analyst for Frost & Sullivan, a global research and consulting firm. After three decades of resisting the siren call of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, Jeanine is now in her eighth year as a director of the ND Club of Detroit, co-chairs the Club’s local alumnae outreach effort, and serves on the national steering committee for ND Women Connect. She lives in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.