How Notre Dame admitted undergraduate women 50 years ago

Former Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., never one for drawn-out group decisions, decided that “the time was ripe to take a historical step.”

“It was the mid-sixties and the sentiment on campus was overwhelmingly in favor of admitting women to Notre Dame,” Father Hesburgh wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “God, Country, Notre Dame.” “That was a pivotal change from when I became president of the university in 1952.”

“Because of the success of Co-Ex and of our 125-year association with Saint Mary’s and the Sisters of the Holy Cross, we thought the most logical and correct way to go co-ed would simply be to merge the two schools.”

– Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.

In his recent history of the University, Rev. Thomas E. Blantz, C.S.C., lists several reasons that Father Hesburgh and other administrators had become convinced of the benefits of coeducation after more than a century of exclusively male tradition. They included attracting better students and faculty by recruiting from the other half of the human race; changes in Catholic high schools as single-sex parish schools merged into coed central schools; and financial pressures closing many small Catholic women’s colleges that couldn’t attract funding without graduate research, leaving those women in need of new options.

The most obvious solution sat right across the street.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross founded Saint Mary’s College two years after Notre Dame and had by then built an enrollment of 1,800 women. Students from the two campuses had long associated with each other, though the social mores of earlier times placed strict limits that were under stress in the hippie era.

To encourage more interaction, a formal co-exchange program had been instituted in 1965. Saint Mary’s students could take classes at Notre Dame, chiefly in languages and sciences. Notre Dame students interested mainly in education courses could take them at Saint Mary’s. A bus shuttle service began, and the co-ex students could eat lunch on the opposite campus. The co-exchange program started with 200 students and expanded to 2,000 by 1971.

Women students exit a school bus on Notre Dame's campus.
Female students getting off of a bus outside of the Fieldhouse, c. 1966. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.
Male and female students wait to get on a bus.
Students getting on the coexchange program bus between Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College, 1969-1970. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

“Because of the success of Co-Ex and of our 125-year association with Saint Mary’s and the Sisters of the Holy Cross, we thought the most logical and correct way to go co-ed would simply be to merge the two schools,” Hesburgh wrote in his autobiography.

Combining the schools would create cost savings, especially in areas like admissions, public relations and the fire department. Father Hesburgh envisioned integrating the two campuses with “a common board of trustees, a common budget, a common everything.”

A committee was appointed in 1966 to gauge faculty sentiment on both campuses. There should have been early warning signs when many of the Saint Mary’s faculty raised concerns that decisions already made would lead to the college losing its identity. Still, change kept happening. The speech and drama clubs combined. The Observer newspaper listed Saint Mary’s students on staff, and four became Notre Dame cheerleaders.

On May 2, 1969, the two schools released a joint “Statement of Principles” announcing “initial steps which will eventually make them co-educational with each other.” Notre Dame would limit freshman enrollment to 1,500 men and Saint Mary’s College would admit about 500 women the next fall. The first-year students would share four classes, dining halls and game seating. Sister Alma Peter, the acting Saint Mary’s president, supported the change and became their liaison.

The following spring, the schools hired two outside consultants: Rosemary Park, a UCLA education professor and former president of Barnard College, and Louis Mayhew, professor of education at Stanford University. Their report in late 1970 recommended that the two schools “function cooperatively while still retaining separate corporate identity and … separate interests.”

Fr. Hesburgh signs a document at a table, with 3 others.
Officials from Saint Mary's College and Notre Dame sign the documents to complete the merger of the two schools, May 14, 1971. Left to right: Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., Sister M. Olivette Whelan, C.S.C. (superior-general of the Sisters of the Holy Cross), Edmund Stephan (chairman of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees), and Sister M. Alma Peter, C.S.C. (acting president of Saint Mary's). Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Negotiations continued until an agreement was signed on May 14, 1971, to fully unify in the next four years. Sister Alma was made a vice president at Notre Dame. Men and women would be housed on both campuses, and women would still graduate through Saint Mary’s. Left unresolved were the complex financial issues.

“We got so close we signed a letter of intent to merge,” Father Hesburgh wrote. “There is a picture of that signing, taken in that big lounge at Saint Mary’s where our students used to meet theirs on Sunday afternoons.”

Two weeks later, Father Hesburgh said, the negotiations “crashed in flames.”

“The main difficulty was tied up with the problem of identity,” he wrote. “It was very much their own. You could not blame them. For more than a century, talented and heroic Holy Cross women had devoted their lives to achieving that identity.”

Father Hesburgh reports that he brought the differences to a head at a meeting in Palm Beach, Florida. It wasn’t until Nov. 30 of that year that the board chairs of the two schools announced the termination of talks, saying “it is not possible to accomplish complete unification at this time.” The only explanation: “We are unable to solve financial and administrative problems.”

The thorny issues were believed to be the division of property on Saint Mary’s campus between the college and the sisters, the different financial situations and the inability to figure out how to preserve the name and identity of Saint Mary’s College. The co-exchange program would continue, but Notre Dame abruptly announced that it would admit women, both first-year and transfer students, in the fall of 1972.

Student reaction was predictably mixed. There were angry students at Saint Mary’s who felt the college had breached its promises. Father Blantz notes that the decision to admit undergraduate women had happened quickly, “and some would say too quickly.”

Female students unload boxes from a car on move in day.
The first female students move in to the dorms on South Quad in front of the Hammes Bookstore, September 2, 1972. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

The preparation for 325 women was put on overdrive. Student Affairs had to figure out how to house the women and quickly settled on single-sex dorms. Walsh Hall, as the only hall with built-in closets and ample common areas, was chosen first. Badin Hall became the second. There were $150,000 in renovations: new locks inside and outside, laundry rooms, renovated bathrooms, new dressers and more. Plans to hire more women faculty advanced more slowly.

Female students walk on campus.
Male and female students walking on campus, c. 1970s.Photo by J.J. Cottrell. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

“The university community in general welcomed the young women with open arms, although not universally,” Father Blantz writes. “Some professors preferred not to have women in their classes, others occasionally called on them ‘for the women’s point of view,’ and it could be uncomfortable to find oneself the only woman in a class.”

Father Hesburgh chose to look on the positive side, noting that the women broadened Notre Dame’s commitment to educating students for leadership and created a “healthier atmosphere” on campus.

He compared the transition to places like Yale and Princeton that encountered more resistance, and said the male alumni took solace in the fact that their daughters could now get in. Still, he did note that some of the first women felt more like visitors: “You cannot take an all-male tradition that is well over a century old and make it disappear overnight. I doubt if that feeling still exists among the women.”

In fact, there were several female firsts before 1972. The first graduate degrees were awarded to two sisters of the Holy Cross in 1917. Four more religious sisters and Antoinette Semortier of South Bend earned the first female undergraduate degrees in 1922. Sister Suzanne Kelly, O.S.B., and Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford became the first full-time female faculty member and lay woman faculty member in 1965.

Student newspaper articles from the fall of 1972 record the immediate reactions to coeducation on campus. Notre Dame ended up enrolling 265 transfers, 211 of them from Saint Mary’s College, along with the planned 125 first-year students.

Kathy Cekanski, a third-year law student who became Badin Hall’s first female rector, said coeducation would improve the campus culture. “It will make the University much more humanized,” she told The Observer. “It’s always been seen as a rah-rah, football school, and now it’s getting with it. It’s more of a realistic living situation. An all-male institution is totally unrealistic.” 

Jerry Lutkus, an Observer writer forced out of Badin Hall, wrote that it was time for Notre Dame to be updated. The world beyond Notre Dame campus is “not the exclusive domain of those males we see around us” and the male-centric traditions were “ghosts of the past.”

A banner hangs from a dorm reading We're Glad You're Here with female and male students out front.
Coeducation Picnic on South Quad outside of South Dining Hall, with a banner that reads "We're Glad You're Here," September 14, 1972. Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

“It’s not that women need Notre Dame, but that Notre Dame needs women.”

– Sister Jane Pitz, C.S.J.

“But give it time because soon there will be new ghosts,” he wrote. “New ghosts created by tradition present, no longer by tradition past. There will be new residents of the beams and attics and corners of Badin Hall.”

On Sept. 8, 1972, The Observer published an eight-page insert titled “The Era of Coeducation.” It introduced the new female administrators and rectors and their viewpoints but somehow failed to quote any of the new undergraduate women.

Sister John Miriam Jones, S.C., was hired as assistant to the provost with the task of easing the transition for the women. “The girls coming are pioneer women in a sense,” Sister Jones told The Observer. “They are coming with a challenge in mind.” 

In one major sense at least, the new women met that challenge. The first class of undergraduate women at Notre Dame averaged a higher GPA than the men.

Sister Jane Pitz, C.S.J, a Campus Ministry employee and first assistant rector of Walsh Hall, said women made the campus a better place.

“It is not that women need Notre Dame,” said Sister Pitz, “but that Notre Dame needs women.”

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