January 2021 In Her Own Words: That First Year
Being in the first group of women at Notre Dame came with its challenges. With the male-to-female ratio of 17:1, a dining hall would sometimes fall silent when a woman entered. But, as Rose Lennon '74 shares, the breadth and depth of women's experiences changed the University for the better.
In Her Own Words: That First Year
by Rose Lennon ‘74, ‘77 JD and Cathy O’Donnell ‘75 MA*
Shortly before 8 a.m. on the first day of the fall 1972 semester at Notre Dame, Rose Lennon arrived in O’Shaughnessy Hall for a class in American literature, but all the seats had been taken by young ND men. Eyeing Lennon in the doorway, one guy stood up, flipped a trash can, parked on it, and gestured for her to take his seat. Thanking him, she sat, and minutes later, the class began. Then 19 years old, Lennon was in the first group of ND undergraduate women. The decision to welcome women had been announced the previous November, and the first group arrived in the fall.
Years later, at the 25th anniversary of undergraduate coeducation, Lennon heard Sister John Miriam Jones, S.C., say ND leadership hadn’t been absolutely certain coeducation would work. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh had made Jones assistant provost (later associate provost) and assigned her to integrate the first 365 women. The ratio between men and women was about 17-to-1. In plenty of instances in those first years, Lennon said, it was apparent that students, faculty and administration were searching for the best ways to include women in ND life.
Lennon definitely wanted to be at ND, influenced by her father having been there in the V-12 program, which added officers to the Navy and Marine Corps during WWII. The ND experience would shape Lennon’s choices long after graduation, but navigating that first year proved challenging. There was, for example, no orientation for women like her. Lennon was a junior rather than an incoming freshman, having transferred from Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, Ill. The 125 freshmen arrived together and were a cohort unto themselves, but almost 90 percent of transfers had come from St. Mary’s College. So not knowing anyone before enrolling, Lennon found friends gradually.
Two dorms had been designated for women: Walsh and Badin. Lennon was assigned to the latter. Badin itself was a work in progress. Physical changes not easily reversed were left in place. Although the majority of male students seemed to support co-education, it required some personal sacrifices. Men who had lived in Walsh and Badin were assigned to other housing, upsetting dorm traditions. Some resented it, and sometimes the anger bubbled over. Outside Badin one football weekend, a mother whose son was reassigned to another dorm after three years in Badin, said to Lennon, “You’re one of those girls who has ruined my son’s senior year!” At the end of that first year of coeducation, dorm lotteries determined which rising senior men had to find off-campus housing, as additional space for women was needed. In the early 1970s, off-campus housing was neither as plentiful nor as convenient as now.
There were also smaller changes. For example, instead of shipping their laundry to a central building on campus where everything from sheets to underwear got washed, women could use coin-operated washing machines installed in the basements of Badin and Walsh. The women’s dorms also had security-controlled entrances, whereas the men’s dorms did not. In the dining halls, food had been carb-focused and heavy. Women asked for and received diet soda, low-fat milk, and salad bars. “Of course, there were also homemade cookies and doughnuts every day, too,” said Lennon, “but at least there got to be more options.”
The male-female ratio sometimes made for awkward moments. “I remember a couple of times entering North Dining Hall with other women,” Lennon said. “When we walked in, there was absolute silence, and all eyes were on us.” Because so many ND students had attended single-sex parochial high schools before enrolling in all-male ND, learning to simply be friends with the opposite sex now encountered in classes, clubs and the dining halls proved challenging experiences for many.
“The broad range of classes offered was more challenging than I had faced at Rosary,” Lennon said, but it was also exhilarating, and while professors in upper-division courses didn’t always know all male students, they often knew all female ones. “The professors wanted us women to succeed,” Lennon said. “Some would send me notes on things like fellowships, suggesting I apply. The opportunities offered on campus for classes, lectures, concerts and clubs broadened my views.” Shortly before finishing her undergraduate degree in history, Lennon was accepted to Notre Dame Law School. Her mother was bemused, as she hadn’t embraced the idea that her daughters would have careers beyond marriage and children.
At the time, ND Law School was about 25 percent female, and many students were somewhat older, bringing several years of postgraduate experience, which made for a very different student body than that of the undergraduates. While a law student, Lennon was a resident assistant, first in Breen-Phillips Hall, then back in Badin. She doesn’t recall any particular training for the job, just a list of her duties along with rules on things like parietals. The common denominator among those new undergraduates, she said, was brains.
By the time Lennon was ready to practice law, she was used to being a woman in large groups of men. “I don’t think I was quite as shocked to be one of a few females,” she said. “A male-dominated environment did expand my career considerations. At Notre Dame, if you were smart enough to complete the academics, gender was not seen as a stumbling block, although the outside world did not share blindness to gender.” Lennon went on to practice law in Chicago and Washington D.C. for almost 40 years. Her daughters Katie and Molly Millet graduated from Notre Dame in 2010 and 2013.
*Editor’s note: Rose and Cathy knew each other as RAs in Breen-Phillips Hall.