The University of Notre Dame recently changed the lyrics to the 114-year-old “Notre Dame Victory March” to specifically reference the women of Notre Dame. While once we cheered for Old Notre Dame “while her loyal sons [were] marching onward to victory,” now we will sing “while her loyal sons and daughters march on to victory.” This change coincides with the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to the University. But as with any other change to Notre Dame’s traditions, this lyrical change was met with mixed responses from alumni. A few initial conversations about this change made me wonder: When should we modify traditions to reflect new realities?
I believe that there is value in preserving traditions, especially those customs that create and sustain a sense of community. When the Italian side of my family gets together, I can count on a game of bocce ball. Every time we play, I’m reminded of our Italian heritage and I feel a sense of belonging to this group of people, my family. When I’m at a Notre Dame football game with other alumni and we hear the fight song, we all know the lyrics and the accompanying hand gestures. As we sing together, a sense of community arises.
In full disclosure, I have on several occasions complained about changes to Notre Dame’s traditions, and not always with good reason. This time, however, I wanted to actually think through the modification of a tradition. So, I read about the history of the “Notre Dame Victory March” in search of its original purpose. As a fight song meant to support the University’s athletes, it makes sense that the song was written in honor of Notre Dame’s “loyal sons” at a time when the University had exclusively male students, and therefore exclusively male athletes. However, this is no longer the case.
How Notre Dame's Daughters Have Marched on to Victory
Women have studied at Notre Dame since the fall of 1972. They have competed in intramural sports since that same semester and, at the initiative of several female athletes, they began competing in varsity sports in 1976 with the creation of women’s fencing and tennis teams. Ever since, Notre Dame’s loyal daughters have indeed marched on to victory: they won their first national championship in 1987 (fencing) and, in total, they have brought home 17 team (including 11 by the co-ed fencing team) and 7 individual national championships. Between 1995 - 2005, Notre Dame was one of four universities in Division I to win national championships in three different women’s sports. On the level of individual athletes, Notre Dame’s women have earned All-American recognition on 178 occasions and, on an academic note, their graduation rate is 20-percentage points better than the national federal graduation rate among all Division I institutions.
As we see, the “Notre Dame Victory March” stopped reflecting reality and fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. Ever since the start of women’s varsity sports at Notre Dame, the fight song’s lyrics failed to include all of its athletes. If it had been written exclusively for the all-male football team, or if its lyrics had read, “while her loyal children march,” then very well – I say leave the song as it is. But that was not the case, and so the “Victory March” needed an update in order to be what it was created to be.
Embracing the Contributions of Women
This brings me back to the question of traditions, those long-standing customs that we inherit, practice, and pass onto the next generation. To be clear, I’m not talking about Tradition, one of the sources of authority in the Catholic Church. But in terms of those long-standing customs, where else do we hold onto traditions that have stopped reflecting reality, and in particular, that neglect the contributions of women?
Pope St. John Paul II specifically honored the contributions of women in his Letter to Women, where he also lamented the failures to recognize women’s contributions throughout history. He said that “it is time to examine the past with courage, to assign responsibility where it is due in a review of the long history of humanity. Women have contributed to that history as much as men and, more often than not, they did so in much more difficult conditions. . . . To this great, immense feminine ‘tradition’ humanity owes a debt which can never be repaid.”
Women have something unique to offer, something of value that is distinct from the value that men bring to the table. The image of God is reflected in both woman and man, and so we need the contributions and perspectives of both His daughters and His sons. Are we willing to modify traditions for the sake of recognizing the contributions of women as women?
Throughout history, many of our ancestors failed to recognize women’s contributions, and even their ability to contribute. To correct this pattern, we must actively and intentionally include women, and give credit where credit is due. Sometimes, this will necessitate modifying long-standing customs. While preserving the value of traditions and without thoughtlessly throwing them away, I hope we will return to their origins, ask about the purpose for which they were created, and ask whether that purpose would be even better fulfilled if women were explicitly included.