50 Years of Women at Notre Dame

Author: Genevieve Redsten

50 Years of Women at Notre Dame

            The young women covered the urinals with flower pots, Carol Latronica recalled, because, well, “how do you make a men’s hall ready for women?”

Latronica knew what she was getting herself into when she applied to Notre Dame in 1972, the first year women could enroll  as undergraduate students. She’d grown up watching “Knute Rockne, All American” in black-and-white film; as she watched, she told her dad that, one day, she’d be a Notre Dame student too. “Of course it was all male,” Latronica recalled, “and he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’” 

When Latronica was in high school, rumors began to spread that Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., was interested in opening the school to women. A civil rights leader with a strong vision for the school, Hesburgh said he couldn’t justify keeping the nation’s top Catholic university closed to women. 

When the news broke in 1971 that Notre Dame was becoming coeducational, Latronica was sold. “That was it,” she said. 

Fifty years have passed since that decision changed the identity of Notre Dame forever. No longer the exclusive domain of Catholic boys, Notre Dame was opened to new perspectives and traditions. The women who arrived on campus in the wake of that decision — Latronica among them — contended with the quirks and obstacles posed by a school built by and for men. In the years since, campus has transformed, physically and culturally, to make way for the women who followed.

But it wasn’t clear then what would happen when the institution that had been all male for 130 years opened its doors to women. Latronica recalled the way some people reacted at the time: “All of a sudden, these crazy women are going to be in there? Wait a minute. How does it change?”

But first, a historical caveat: We may have the timeline wrong by about 50 years. “It’s always made me wince a little when I hear that coeducation came to Notre Dame in 1972,” said Erin McDonnell, a Notre Dame Law alumna, “because it never acknowledges that there were women in the graduate schools before that.” 

McDonnell was among those early women in the graduate schools, beginning her studies at Notre Dame Law School in 1969, the first year the law program went coed. She arrived on a campus that was mostly male but opening to women, as Hesburgh took more steps to welcome female students to his campus.

There was a sense among some of her classmates, McDonnell recalls, that women didn’t deserve to take up space at Notre Dame. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging on, and men who were enrolled full time in school could qualify for draft deferment. McDonnell remembers some of her classmates telling her that by attending Notre Dame, she was taking the seat of a man who might be sent to fight in Vietnam. “I don’t hold onto things. I really don’t hold onto things,” McDonnell said. “But that was just something that made an impression.”

But in fact, the university had been open to women, albeit quietly, for decades as documented in the Hesburgh Library Archives. In 1917, two Holy Cross sisters became the first women to graduate with master’s degrees from Notre Dame. One year later, Notre Dame began the Summer School Program, with its classes available to both women and men. In 1922, five women graduated with bachelor’s degrees from the university. And in 1967 — two years before McDonnell’s arrival — Graciela “Grace” Olivarez became the first woman to attend Notre Dame Law School.

Although women had been on campus for a long time, the campus was still designed for men. McDonnell and her fellow female classmates quickly discovered that the athletic facilities — which their tuition money paid for — weren’t open to women. The law students took up the issue with the associate dean of the law school, Thomas Shaffer. “Notre Dame cannot fairly continue these ladies in a second-class status,” Shaffer wrote in a letter to the vice president of student affairs in December 1969. Within a short time, the higher-ups agreed, and they adapted the facilities to accommodate women.

“I was always so appreciative for the way that we were accepted by faculty and the

administration,” McDonnell said. “If they had betrayed any misgivings, or reluctance, it would’ve made it so much harder. But they didn’t.”

By her third year, McDonnell said, “the women in the classes behind us seemed to have better interactions with the guys in their classes. It seemed like things were getting better for them.”

Coex to coed

In the mid-1960s, Hesburgh started taking steps to bring women of Saint Mary’s closer to the men of Notre Dame. His ultimate goal was coeducation, but he knew he would face sharp resistance. In 1965, as a first step, he began the co-exchange program — or “coex,” as it was commonly known — which allowed Saint Mary’s students to attend Notre Dame to take classes that weren’t offered on their campus, and vice versa for Notre Dame students.

Katherine Kersten spent most of her time on Notre Dame’s campus as a coex student,

but at night, she would return to her dorm room at Saint Mary’s. It was hard for Kersten, in those days, to feel like she belonged at either school. “I was very isolated,” she said. 

Socially, Kersten relied heavily on her boyfriend, who had a group of Notre Dame friends. But the arrangement was far from ideal. “I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, if I break up with my boyfriend, I’ll lose all my friends, because my best friends are his best friends,’” she said.

The men of Notre Dame and the women of Saint Mary’s would mingle, of course, but not in the way classmates do. It was tricky for the men and women to spend time together during the week, with a road dividing the campuses and strict parietals limiting the hours they could fraternize. In the pages of Scholastic, the dynamic was described as “weekend syndrome.” Kersten recalled, “There was a lingering kind of ‘50s atmosphere.”

The coex program kept Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame in close contact over those years. And as their bond grew stronger, Notre Dame administrators began to propose a marriage of the two schools.

The courtship period, however, presented new obstacles. In “Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation,” Richard Conklin, former Notre Dame spokesperson, detailed the fraught negotiations between the two schools. “At the height of the back-and-forth between the two parties, I can recall a Notre Dame football game where I carried sealed notes between Father Hesburgh, Edmund Stephan, trustee chair and Father Joyce in the old administrative box above the stadium press box, and Saint Mary’s officials in their fifty-yard-line seats on the east side of the field,” Conklin wrote.

Hesburgh, Conklin and their team made progress with their Saint Mary’s counterparts,

eventually even signing a merger agreement and posing for a photo-op in the spring of 1971. But then, disagreement broke out again.

The marriage fell apart for reasons both poetic and prosaic.

As an institution, Saint Mary’s felt that its identity would be overshadowed by the larger,

more well-known Notre Dame, Conklin wrote. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hesburgh recounted the conversations he shared with Saint Mary’s leadership before the merger collapsed: “‘Sisters, . . . I get the impression, because you’ve been talking to us for two years, that you want to marry us, but you don’t want to take our name and you don’t want to live with us,’ Hesburgh recalled. ‘They said, “That’s exactly it.” I said that’s not what we want and that’s not what we’re interested in, so why don’t we agree to disagree.’”

And then, there was the difficult question of money. Notre Dame was reluctant to pay the price Saint Mary’s sisters wanted for their campus property. The sisters, on the other hand, had retirement funds to worry about, Conklin recalled. Without that infusion of cash, their future was uncertain. “St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., broke off a long courtship with the University of Notre Dame... because the dowry simply wasn’t big enough,” proclaimed Scholastic at the time.

So Notre Dame went for it alone. In the fall of 1971, the school announced it would no longer be merging with Saint Mary’s; it would become coeducational in its own right. 

But the transition wasn’t so simple. Suddenly, many Saint Mary’s women in the coex program were ineligible for Saint Mary’s degrees. If their major was only offered on Notre Dame’s campus — as was the case with Kersten — they were considered Notre Dame students.

Notre Dame needed to refurbish its campus to accommodate women. The men in Badin and Walsh halls were forced to relocate to make room for women on campus. With only two dorms to accommodate women, Notre Dame men outnumbered their female counterparts nearly 20 to one. The 365-odd Notre Dame women who started at Notre Dame that fall were often the only women in an entire classroom.

Battles of the sexes

“So where do we go from here?” Scholastic staff wrote in the fall of 1972, bemoaning the strained gender relations on campus.

To some, the gender imbalance was appealing. Nan Runde, a Saint Mary’s junior, applied to transfer as soon as Notre Dame opened to women. “And, of course — being 19, or 20, or whatever it was — a big factor was: The male-to-female ratio looked really good,” Runde recalled.

But even for the romantically inclined women, such a ratio had its drawbacks. Kersten

remembers sitting in a mathematical logic lecture hall as the only woman in the class. “It was a tough class. And I knew that if I didn’t show up, he would always know I was gone.”

People disagreed about how to handle the new dynamic on campus. “The ratio of men to women could be lowered. The dorms could become coed... Parietals and locked dorms could be abolished,” Scholastic proposed. “These would be grand solutions, but they still would not overcome that basic shyness, that subconscious segregation in the dining halls, that gap between men and women on the Notre Dame campus which has been one hundred twenty-five years in the making.”

When talking to women, Kersten recalled, many Notre Dame men seemed out of practice. “They didn’t seem, any of them, to know what to say, or how to begin a conversation, or just how to feel comfortable and relaxed in mixed company,” she said. 

But some men were emboldened by the excitement of coeducation. In the spirit of the ‘70s, men streaked across campus — sometimes even breaking into women’s dorms. 

“We had an incident in Farley, and I’ll never ever ever forget it,” Latronica recalled. “Here we are. It’s below zero. The men had stocking caps and maybe shoes on. And [then-Farley Hall rector] Sister Jean met the men — stark naked — at the door saying, ‘You’re not coming in dressed like that.’”

In the stairwell, the women watched, huddled together, cackling. “Can you imagine this poor nun?” Latronica said.

And there were panty raids, a prank that started at Saint Mary’s and carried over to Notre Dame once women moved on campus. Marauding groups of men would find their way into women’s dorms. “All of a sudden you hear this noise where they’re chanting from building to building,” Latronica recalled. The women’s halls were locked, but an unsuspecting female resident would usually open the door for the men. If a woman left the door to her room unlocked, she’d find her underwear drawer raided. “They were souvenirs,” Latronica said.

The boy-versus-girl shenanigans of those years were propelled by a spirit of activism that was sweeping the nation. In 1973, Latronica’s freshman year at Notre Dame, female tennis champion Billie Jean King defeated male champion Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match. The victory gave Notre Dame’s women a needed push. Latronica remembers women blaring “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy nonstop. Some women even decided to go on a panty raid of their own, through the men’s halls, Latronica said. But when the women arrived at their dorms, the men intercepted them and tossed the women in the reflection pool behind the library.

While many of the pranks were lighthearted, some of the antics were intimidating, Latronica said. In the dining halls, men would hold up score cards rating women’s appearances on a scale from zero to 10. Many women avoided walking into the dining hall alone, knowing they’d be safer from scrutiny in a group, Latronica said.

In the Classroom

But in Latronica’s years at Notre Dame, the women pulled together, forging strong bonds in their residence halls and classes. In Latronica’s pre-med classes, women often formed study groups, while the men would refuse to collaborate with other classmates, she said. “The men learned a lot more about that cooperation and collaboration,” Latronica said.

Kersten relished the opportunity to be an officially recognized student at Notre Dame. “I really loved the Catholic intellectual tradition there, the combination of moral seriousness that that entailed,” she said. “But also there was such a sense of fun at the school as well. Not the keggers and the Wapatui punch — that was never my thing. But nevertheless, it was a wonderful campus environment.”

McDonnell was glad to be recognized as an equal, slogging through law school with her male and female peers. “They treated us just as well and just as bad as the guys,” she said, chuckling. “That’s fine with me. That’s all I wanted was to be treated on equal footing.” 

“I just think about the difference.”

Four decades later, Latronica found herself back in the residence halls on Notre Dame’s

campus. After a long career in counseling and education, she returned to the university to serve as the rector of Welsh Family Hall in 2014.

“It’s so exciting, and as I meet with the freshmen, I just think about the difference,” Latronica said.

Fourteen buildings on campus now serve as dedicated women’s halls. According to Notre Dame’s 2021 enrollment numbers, women make up 49% of the student body. When Latronica arrived, Hesburgh greeted her and the other new rectors. When their meeting ended, Hesburgh — who was blind at the time, and in his late 90s — asked Latronica to help him light his cigar.

Paging through her old photo albums recently, Latronica stopped to look at a picture she took back in her college days: a view of campus from the 13th floor of the library. The entire landscape of campus looks different now, she pointed out: new student centers and academic buildings and dorms. “A lot of exciting things have happened,” she said, adding, “So much has changed.”