Still a few loose threads | Stories | Notre Dame Review
- Sister, Sheila Weller
- My hot spot, Genevieve Redsten ’22
- Who do I say I am? Maraya Steadman ’89, ’90MBA
- Those Who Came Before, Elizabeth Hogan ’99
- A Benevolence of Friends, Mary McGreevy ’89
- Still some loose threads, Maggie Green Cambria ’88
- Flamethrower, Tess Gunty Interview ’15
- Rider on the Storm, John Rosengren
- Under the long term, Abby Jorgensen ’16, ’18M.A.
- Writing her own screenplay, Madeline Buckley ’11
- Unanswered Calls, Anna Keating ’06
- Much More Than Baby Talk, Adriana Pratt ’12
- Undeterred, Abigail Pesta ’91
- The Good Place, John Nagy ’00M.A.
- Scenographer, Jason Kelly ’95
- She’s got game, Lesley Visser
In my Notre Dame scrapbook circa 1984-88, assorted treasures abound – photos of roommates, photos of SYR dances, and a yellowed copy of an invoice from the student accounts manager. “Undergraduate Fees and Expenses 1983-84” says tuition is $6,450. Room and board for women is $2,105. Men are charged $2,205 for room, board and laundry.
During orientation, I learned that all female dormitories have washing machines. The ladies didn’t have the ability to have our laundry done for us. Men did not have the ability to do their own laundry; they were given the luxury of not do it – do not sort, wash, dry or fold anything. They hid the dirty clothes in large bags with their names on them, had them picked up from their halls of residence, then brought them home clean, neatly folded and wrapped. The Notre Dame girls discovered early on that no matter how smart we were, officials expected us to find time for laundry. If I remember correctly, we laughed at the ridicule and learned to accept our reality of being women at a university for men.
In my mandatory Arts and Letters course, we read books and wrote articles on such compelling topics as ‘man versus man’, ‘man versus nature’ and ‘man versus God. “. None of the required books focused on women struggling with these issues. Women, I began to realize, were forced to converse with each other as they tried to find their way in a world of powerful men.
The class reading list included many innovative works such as things are falling apart by Chinua Achebe, a novel about the influence of European colonialism and Christian missionaries on a West African community and the devastating effect these forces had on the protagonist, a member of the Igbo clan. During a class discussion, I commented that the scene depicting the horn-blowing ceremony—the exclusive domain of the male clan chief—was eerily similar to how only male priests consecrate the Eucharist at Mass. . My comment was reflexive and obvious, I assumed, but I was met with eye rolls and other signs of disdain from most of my classmates, even some women.
My professor, who was a French Jesuit and holder of a chair of theology, surprisingly praised my observation and asked me to speak to him after class. The moment initiated a lifelong friendship with a learned priest who was not afraid of discussions of equality within the Church.
Around this time, after a long day of science class and cramming for organic chemistry and biology tests on the 13th floor of the ‘brare with other pre-med students, I took my tray to the station of milk in the south dining room. To my horror, a group of male students wearing sunglasses and trench coats were brandishing numbers from one to 10, rating my physical appearance for all to see. Laughter and applause echoed. It was so humiliating that I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Occasionally, similarly dressed undergraduate men would bar women who approached the ice cream vending machine.
No one stopped this persecution. None of us girls wanted to confront these boys openly and be accused of ‘not having a sense of humor’ or being ‘too sensitive’ or not understanding what it was.” just kidding”. It is unlikely that the culprits realized the damage caused by their “jokes”, or the staggering number of their classmates struggling with eating disorders.
As the first girl on my father’s side to attend college, I was expected to be an example of a good Catholic life for my four younger sisters. I was pro-life and went to mass more than once a week – or at least that’s how I started at Notre Dame. One day in the spring of my second year, I cringed when a teacher said, “It’s so nice to have a feminist in my class.”
“I’m not a feminist,” I protested reflexively.
“It’s not an insult,” she said.
“I’m not sure about that,” I remember saying, then I wanted to leave his class as quickly as possible. I hoped no one, especially any of my male classmates, had heard her comment. I had been raised in a family where Phyllis Schlafly—certainly not Gloria Steinem or any of her fellow pro-choice ERA feminists—were to be emulated.
How could my Church, my religion and my college – which I loved so much, which were part of my very being – could push me to accept and internalize my “lesser”?
“Feminist” is a powerful word. It evokes all kinds of emotions and is a polarizing label even among Notre Dame alumni. It suggests a range of stereotypes, criticisms and divisions. And yet the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary defines a feminist as “a person who supports the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men”.
In 1987, my freshman year, I wrote a persuasive three-page essay for a journalism class detailing my first experience of gender discrimination – in sixth grade at Holy Trinity Catholic School. I described how a few of my classmates and I had the honor of being chosen by our pastor to serve at Mass. We went through the same training as the boys; we were well regarded by priests and parishioners as we served at daily and weekly masses, funerals, etc. Then came the bishop to officiate a confirmation mass.
The bishop refused to allow the girls to serve at this Mass or any future Masses, as being an altar boy was the first step to becoming a priest and women would never become priests. Some of the boy servers quit to support us; the adults apologized to us. Despite the letters of protest, our bishop had spoken.
In my Notre Dame essay, I didn’t finish with the sixth-grade anecdote. I went on to say that the time has come when “church leadership roles should be open to women.” I wrote, “Women should be included in decision-making processes that dictate new moral and ethical standards and canons,” and “Current religious texts and missals need to be reviewed and updated to include more Catholic language ( i.e. universal) which includes all of God’s people, not just men.
My teacher read my article aloud and I was more than embarrassed. I dreaded the backlash. None came. Instead, the class discussed the number of women in our family and the nuns who taught us were also frustrated with the institutional church’s treatment of women. We discussed the failure of some Vatican II reforms to take hold. My like-minded, forward-thinking male teacher encouraged the long-term view. Fortunately, today, altar servers are strictly in most parishes, but too little has changed in the Church in general.
Reluctantly, as I became more educated, I saw how my beloved Church had been part of my subordination, that I was part of a larger culture of ingrained male dominance. How could my Church, my religion and my college – which I loved so much, which were part of my very being – could push me to accept and internalize my “lessness”?
After considerable internal debate and discernment, I chose to educate my Catholic children and become a member of a vibrant Catholic parish that prioritizes “radical inclusiveness.” I don’t go to pro-life rallies anymore; they are too polarizing and focus exclusively on banning abortion in all cases. Other pro-life issues – war, the death penalty, environmental degradation – receive little support. Likewise, I find so-called “women’s marches” polarizing because the organizers don’t welcome pro-life women or allow conservative women to speak from their microphones.
Of my four children, all raised Catholic, none has put Notre Dame at the top of a college wish list. My eldest son and daughter are now at university. My twins are in their second year of high school. They were baptized by the University’s President Emeritus, Reverend Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A., and are about to pass the application process to the university. As much as I would love the myriad magical bonds their presence would provide, I never pushed my children to attend my alma mater, mostly because of the way women like me were treated when I was there. . . and because the institution doesn’t seem to prioritize us very much, yet.
Let me assure you that one of the accomplishments I am most proud of is my Notre Dame degree. My closest girlfriends from Notre Dame remain among my best girlfriends today. I have also maintained friendships with professors and priests since graduating. I wear ND badges everywhere I go, earning eye rolls from non-Notre Dame family members and friends. I’m part of the ND Women Connect network and attend at least one football game a year – and never miss a televised one. I donate annually and recently joined the Sorin Society, a decision I was hesitant to make because I wanted to give to a society dedicated to advancing women-centered causes. There are not any. As the University celebrates 50 years of co-education, it’s time to create a giving society named after a prominent Notre Dame woman, created with the goal of advancing women’s issues at Notre Dame. Dame and beyond.
Despite many positive advances regarding women at Notre-Dame, a reluctance, even intolerance, persists towards discussions of feminism. While I was a student, I was not brave enough to speak out against patriarchal attitudes. The subject of equality between men and women is complicated. It matters that Notre Dame – Notre Dame University – becomes proudly feminist, in the true sense of the word, so that when future generations of women consider studying or working in school, a culture of male dominance will not deter them, because it will no longer exist.
Maggie Green Cambria is a mother of four who spends her time between Arlington Heights, Illinois, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She is co-editor of Running the Reds, The First 100 Years of Water Safety Patrol.