America’s Last Women-Only Catholic College Tried to Admit Males—Here’s How Two Students Successfully Reversed the Policy

By Ashley McClure

Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, is the nation’s last women-only Catholic university—but that title was endangered until recently.

In recent years, the erasure of sex-specific spaces in the secular world has gained significant attention, from male swimmers like Lia Thomas gaining access to women’s locker rooms to legacy genealogical organizations like Daughters of the American Revolution accepting male applicants. 

Less well-known, however, is the push to introduce gender ideology into the halls of religious institutions like Saint Mary’s. According to Franciscan Father Daniel Horan, Saint Mary’s director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality, of the eight Catholic women’s colleges in the United States, seven have allowed males who identify as women to attend. 

Saint Mary’s was set to follow the example of those seven colleges until one courageous underclassman, Macy Gunnell, caught wind of Saint Mary’s new policy to admit males and played an instrumental role in its reversal.  

“I was working in the admissions [office] in mid-November, and I overheard talk of the new admissions policy. I was very confused as to what that was,” she said. “But after talking with my boss, I found out that it was actually ratified in June of 2023, and it wasn’t until November that it surfaced. They said that they had been hiding it.”

Gunnell explained that the new admissions policy was buried in an update to Saint Mary’s non-discrimination policy, which stated that Saint Mary’s “considers admission for undergraduate applicants whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women.”

According to Gunnell and her friend Claire Bettag, they initially chose to attend Saint Mary’s because they were seeking refuge from America’s politicized culture and prejudice against conservative and religious beliefs. However, they said that the reality of campus culture was not what they expected to find at a Catholic university. 

“The amount of radical silencing and threatening of conservative voices on this issue is absolutely insane,” Gunnell said. “One of our girls got harassed to the point of tears because she was trying to stand up for her opinion on this, and the school did nothing to take care of her.”

Independent Women’s Forum reviewed screenshots of threats that Gunnell and Bettag provided, and confirmed that harassment took place. 

Despite the pressure and threats that Gunnell and Bettag received, they continued to speak up against allowing men to attend Saint Mary’s—even after being directly confronted by the school’s president, Dr. Katie Conboy. 

“The meeting was with President Conboy and her vice president, and it was embarrassing for them. They quite literally asked us what our issue was with men in women’s bathrooms,” Gunnell said. “We ended the meeting saying that we would continue with legal action if they tried to further implement this policy, and we like to think that definitely scared them into working towards the reversal.”

In addition to the student-led resistance, Gunnell said that the school’s biggest donor pulled out after learning about the new policy. Also damaging to Saint Mary’s attempt to admit men was the explicit condemnation of Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades.

“To call itself a ‘women’s college’ and to admit male students who ‘consistently live and identify as women’ suggests that the college affirms an ideology of gender that separates sex from gender and claims that sexual identity is based on the subjective experience of the individual,” Rhoades said in a November 2023 interview with The Catholic Telegraph about Saint Mary’s policy change. “This ideology is at odds with Catholic teaching.”

Saint Mary’s publicly reversed its male-inclusive admissions policy in December 2023, making Gunnell and Bettag’s success story a model for other women who may be facing similar attempts to erase their sex-specific spaces. According to Gunnell and Bettag, however, their fight is just beginning.

“[Saint Mary’s] said in their apology email that they’re going to try to implement this down the road with ‘further education of the Saint Mary’s community,’” Gunnell said. “So it sounds like whatever has happened is only going to double, and we definitely know that this is not over. They think they’ve convinced us that this is resolved, but it’s not.”

Gunnell and Bettag stated that they have a “responsibility” to defend the truth and will continue to do so in spite of any pushback they may receive. In fact, they told IWF that they are calling for the resignation of President Conboy on the grounds of “neglecting the entire SMC family, compromising the college’s identity, and causing damage to the school.” 

“My number one thing is not being scared of cancel culture, because that’s what is silencing students into being scared to speak up,” Bettag said. “Not being afraid of cancel culture is the number one piece of advice that I could give to any young woman or young man who wants to stand up and fight.”

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