Caption
Students getting on the coexchange program bus between Notre Dame and Saint Mary's College, 1969-1970.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Coeducation: The Beginning


I grew up with three sisters. . . . They were wonderful ladies. My life is a lot richer because I was not just formed by my mother and father but by them.

– Father Hesburgh

The First Women

When the University of Notre Dame was founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1842, it was an all-male institution. Though it was still officially considered an all-men’s school 110 years later when Father Hesburgh became president, thousands of women, largely religious sisters, had earned degrees from Notre Dame.

In 1917, the first two women graduated with masters degrees, Sister Mary Frances Jerome (MA, with the thesis The Position of Woman in Greek Literature) and Sister Mary Lucretia (MS, with the thesis Domestic Chemistry). A year later, Notre Dame officially opened the Summer School Program, which included both undergraduate and graduate courses, and admitted both men and women. Women came from all over the country to study at Notre Dame, but since most could only attend courses during the summer months, it often took them several years to earn their degrees.

First class of doctoral students in chemistry and the largest contingent in the newly created 1918 Summer Session for Advanced Studies, including Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland, C.S.C. (center front row).  
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

In 1922, five women received their bachelor’s degrees, including four religious sisters and one laywoman. They were the first women to receive undergraduate degrees in the school’s history. They were: Sister Mary Aloysi Kiener (Sisters of Notre Dame, Cleveland, Ohio), Sister Margaret Mary (Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, Lakewood, Ohio), Sister Mary Josephine (Ursuline Sisters of Brown County, Ohio), Sister Mary Veronique (Sisters of the Holy Cross, Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, Indiana), and Antoinette Semortier (South Bend, Indiana).

Women would continue to earn degrees at Notre Dame, but were largely overlooked because they were only present on campus a few months out of every year. In 1932, the graduate school officially began admitting women. If a woman lived in town, she could attend school during the academic year, but if not (as was the case for most), she was limited to the summer sessions.

A Home on Campus

Lewis Hall exterior with female students (religious sisters), 1965. 
This photo was published in the Dedication program for Lewis Hall, August 10, 1965. 
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

In 1965, a new hall was dedicated at Notre Dame: the first women’s dormitory. The Frank J. Lewis Foundation donated $1 million for the construction of the dormitory on campus, specifically for religious sisters, which allowed women to attain their degrees much more quickly.

The same year Lewis Hall was built, Notre Dame began a co-exchange program with Saint Mary’s College, a natural first step toward full coeducation. Though Father Hesburgh was supportive of coeducation, and Saint Mary’s students had been quietly sitting in on classes at Notre Dame for years, many administrators and alumni were adamantly opposed to the idea of coeducation.

A woman looking through a broken window on the Rockne Memorial that reads "Ladies Not Allowed," 1968.This photo was published in Scholastic, November 22, 1968.  
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

In an interview, Father Hesburgh recalled:

It struck me that if we are in the education business for higher education in the Catholic Church in America, we can’t say we are doing this and ignore half of the American Catholic population. So, I began to make a few noises. It was obvious this was not going to be an easy thing to do.

So he, and his supporters, took baby steps initially. Father Hesburgh mentioned in his autobiography, “I resolved to do whatever I could to improve the relationship between the two schools. I supported anything that would give the Saint Mary’s women a reason to visit our campus—dances, plays, concerts, and so forth.” In 1965, the co-exchange program between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College officially began. Women from Saint Mary’s and men from Notre Dame, could enroll in undergraduate courses at the other’s campus that were not offered at their respective school. Very few took advantage, but it was a start.

Female students getting off of a bus outside of the Fieldhouse, c. 1966.  
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

In the 1960s, Saint Mary’s women were admitted to staff positions at Notre Dame student publications, and became more involved in social life at Notre Dame. In the late 1960s, Father Hesburgh opened the doors to women in the Law School. In 1967 the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s theaters combined. All signs pointed to an eventual merging of the schools, and a questionnaire went out to the students and staff of both schools concerning future cooperation.

During this time, the University of Notre Dame was also considering a possible merger with Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois. Barat College nearly made the move, but a potential sale of their Illinois campus fell through, and the move to South Bend would have been prohibitive. Two other schools that were also being considered were Rosary College (now Dominican University), and Mundelein College, both in Chicago. Rosary College decided to become coeducational on its own, and a relationship with Mundelein College never materialized. (The college was later absorbed by Loyola University of Chicago.)

A Merger

In 1969, two academic consultants, Rosemary Park (former president of Barnard College) and Lewis B. Mayhew (Stanford University), studied Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s and the potential for future collaboration. Their report (the Park-Mayhew Report) in January 1971, suggested that the two schools work in cooperation but not merge entirely. The compromise for the time being would include a merging of most departments and offices, and would allow for students at Saint Mary’s to pursue majors at Notre Dame, and students at Notre Dame to pursue majors at Saint Mary’s.

Two months after the Park-Mayhew Report was made public, the University issued a press release stating:

A unification of the University of Notre Dame and neighboring Saint Mary’s College has been recommended by the executive committees of their boards of trustees. The unification will begin immediately and be completed not later than the academic year 1974–75.

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.

 

In May, the merger was formally announced, and the two schools moved toward unification, to be completed by September 1. There would be no housing changes, but departments of the two schools would merge, student governments would combine, and students could register in any degree program at either school. Father Hesburgh explained,

We would have one faculty, one extended campus. Women would continue to be admitted to Saint Mary’s or through Saint Mary’s, but they would receive Notre Dame degrees with a notation that the degree had been granted at Saint Mary’s College. There would be a common board of trustees, a common budget, a common everything. We would do our best to integrate the two campuses.

As the fall semester began, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College seemed to be busy organizing a merger. In November, it was becoming clear that the merger was not going as smoothly as hoped. Father Hesburgh wrote,

The main difficulty was tied up with the problem of identity. They did not want to lose their identity. 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 identity.

On Tuesday, November 30, 1971, nearly the end of the fall semester, Notre Dame issued a press release that in part read: “It is not possible to accomplish complete unification at this time.” That announcement was followed by the decision to go coed with or without Saint Mary’s College.

The ND/SMC Relationship

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about Notre Dame’s relationship with Saint Mary’s College

Transcript

Well, when I came onto the scene, came to school at Notre Dame, it was a very ambivalent relationship. Guys would go over there on Sunday afternoon, the only time they were allowed, at two o'clock, could stay till four, sit in the big parlor, and at four a nun would come in and ring a bell and everybody had to go home. That was about it. And then there was often bad feeling back and forth. I don't know why. It was kind of a love-hate relationship, a lot of love, and—hate is too strong—but . . . Things were not really—they were too competitive. They weren't really, I didn't think, what they should have been. And I made a resolution as I started to get into administration, I was going to do everything possible to correct that. I went over and gave a retreat at Saint Mary's to the women. And I used to always favor anything that gave them a sense of welcome at Notre Dame.

Joining Forces

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about the merger that almost was

Transcript

We thought, honestly, the best way to solve the problem of getting more women into our orbit was to join forces with them.

There was much discussion back and forth about this, and everybody was in favor of it. If you had taken a vote in 1952 about whether or not Notre Dame should be coeducational, 95 percent of the students would have said, “No, we like it male the way it is.” In the early 1960s, I would guess it would probably go—only 60 percent would say no. And by the time we were into the Co-Ex, there were just no questions, and it was going up very fast, beyond 95 percent, in fact, probably close to 100 percent, if you can get it in any human body. And it was obviously the time when we should go coeducational, either directly or through the Saint Mary's route. Now because of our long association, over 125 years with Saint Mary's, we felt that we really should try first to do it with them, not in kind of distinction from them. Our idea was very simple and quite straightforward. I’d say if I could put it in the most simple terms, as we began to talk merger after some experience with Co-Ex, it was that we would have one faculty, we would have one extended campus, we would admit all women to Saint Mary's, or through Saint Mary's, if you wanted to put it that way. All degrees would be Notre Dame degrees, but in the case of women they would have underneath The University of Notre Dame, “Saint Mary's College grants the degree,” et cetera. We would have a common board of trustees. We would have a common endowment, common budget, common everything, really. We would do everything we could to integrate the two campuses.

More on the Breakup

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about Notre Dame’s relationship with Saint Mary’s College

Transcript

While we thought we were talking about the same thing, we were really talking about two different realities. They wanted to preserve their particular way of living and operating and not be interfered with by all these men running around. And we, on the other hand, were looking at a coeducational type thing that would integrate us completely and totally. The word kept coming up, “We're going to lose our identity,” and I guess the only answer to that is that when you merge two things something gets lost. Something greater emerges, but something does get lost. And I don't think any question about it, that Saint Mary's as an independent college would have been lost. And I'm not all that sorry that the merger didn't work, in retrospect. I think there is now, contrary to what was being thought of then, there is a place for all-women's schools. And I think there are women who can get into Saint Mary's and enjoy Saint Mary's and have all the advantages of Notre Dame, from a distance. And maybe in the long run that's a better experience for them than being at Notre Dame as a woman in what has long been an all-male school and now is a predominately male school until you throw in Saint Mary's. That balances the thing out fairly well now.

Notre Dame Goes Coed

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about the transition to coeducation

Transcript

Anything else you'd like to say about coeducation?

No. I think we left off the most important thing, that at the end of this whole discussion we decided to go coeducational. We started it quietly. We dropped men for the women we accepted, up to 1500. So we had 1500 less men and 1500 women added into the total body. Then we decided that was too few, and after discussion with Saint Mary's we went up to 2,000 women. We're completing that this year, I believe. To do that we had to get new residence halls, Pasquerilla, and that was a marvelous thing that that came along at precisely that time or we couldn't have done it. I don't believe in women living off campus at Notre Dame in any large numbers.

The other thing to say is, the effect of coeducation, I think, has been monumentally beneficial to Notre Dame. I've lived when it was an all-men's school for most of the time up until 1972. Then I've lived ten years there since. And I wouldn't trade the reality we have today for all those other years when it was all male.

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