The history of women at the University of Notre Dame is a complicated one. What many do not realize is that there were female students on campus prior to 1972. The first female students were mostly religious and set foot on campus for the University’s summer sessions that began in 1918. Some lay women also participated, but these sessions were largely designed to help religious teachers make their work more interesting and wide-reaching. The lay women who were enrolled were also teaching in Catholic schools and desired additional classwork for that. “In 1960, ‘One out of sixty-five nuns in the United States [was] improving her skills as a teacher or administrator at the University of Notre Dame [during the] summer’ with a total of 1373 nuns enrolled.” The University ultimately saw a decline in religious enrollment in the coming years, but this program serves as the model for the current summer session for all students.
By the mid-1960s, there were full-time female faculty at the University and Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. was instituting a series of changes at Notre Dame. Lewis Hall was built and dedicated for female graduate students in 1965. In 1971, Dr. Rosemary Park became the first woman on the newly-created Board of Trustees. Then in 1972, Fr. Hesburgh opened the doors of Notre Dame to female undergraduate students. In the immediate years following his decision, the applicant pool grew and academic standards for students rose dramatically. Not long after in 1974, Marianne O’Connor was named the first female Valedictorian of Notre Dame.
Today, thanks to the extraordinary vision and dedication of the leaders who have succeeded Fr. Ted --- first Fr. “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C. and now Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. --- Notre Dame is the world’s premier Catholic research university, in no small measure because of the invaluable contributions of women. Just over forty years later, the number of female students is almost equal to male. There are twelve women’s varsity sports teams and fourteen women’s residence halls on campus. Members of the female faculty have tenure and students can major or minor in Gender Studies. Female students are leading clubs and running for student government. There is no doubt that Fr. Hesburgh’s decision to allow female undergraduate students has forever changed the face of Notre Dame and elevated the University’s stature.