Lizzy Seeberg and the dark side of the sister school experience

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg was a first year at all-women’s college St. Mary’s in South Bend, Indiana–the sister school to Notre Dame. On the night of August 31st, she told her friends that she’d been assaulted by a football player. That same night, Seeberg wrote a comprehensive recount of what happened. The next day made a full report to the Notre Dame police and sought treatment at a nearby hospital, where she submitted to DNA testing and underwent counseling. After taking a lethal dose of the anti-depressant Effexor, she died on on Sept. 10.

It’s deeply sad, and here’s what is downright criminal: Notre Dame didn’t pass on the case file to the St. Joseph’s County prosecutor’s office, who has jurisdiction, until just this week after the case became national news. The school continues to refuse to  release police records regarding what they know, even to Seeberg’s parents. Finally, the man accused of assault has played an entire season of football. Read more about the pathetic official response from Roger Canaff.

As I’ve been following the news about Seeberg, I’ve been thinking about the larger culture surrounding the events (as has Jaclyn, of course). Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, like Columbia and Barnard (where I went to school), have a horrendous dynamic in terms of gender. Women who attend the all-women’s college, in these and other cases, are made to feel substandard, stupid, and slutty. At Columbia, I would often hear the quip, “Barnard girls to bed, Columbia girls to wed,” for example, and from the moment I stepped on campus I was quickly put in my place–told that the only reason I didn’t go to Columbia was because I wasn’t smart enough, and I was probably easy and out to steal all the Columbia guys. I kid you not. Here I was, a little gal from Colorado Springs, simply amazed that I’d even gotten into Barnard in the first place and suddenly I was being typecast with every double standard stereotype in the misogynist playbook.

When I spoke at St. Mary’s a few years ago, the girls told me that the exact same dynamic exists on their campuses. St. Mary’s girls were made to feel less than, annoying, disposable. The couple of days I spent at St. Mary’s a few years ago came back to me in a flash when I read about Seeberg, and the way in which Notre Dame obviously didn’t value her accusations, or her rights–until her death became an inconvenient and public embarrassment.

Unless these institutions are truly independent, they suffer all the consequences of a half-changed culture. As much as I valued the academic component of my all-women’s educational experience, the social mores left me often feeling less equal than I suspect I would have, had I attended a co-ed school in the first place. I’m not saying that Seeberg wouldn’t have potentially received the same unacceptable treatment were she a Notre Dame student, or were she to attend any other co-ed school, but you can’t extract the circumstances of her case from the culture which perpetuated it.

I’m outraged at her treatment. It galvanizes me, once again, to speak out about rape culture and sexism everywhere, but especially when it comes to this particular dynamic which I once suffered under, and still abhor. All women’s colleges are supposed to be empowering experiences, and in some ways, they are, but in other, often brushed-under-the-rug ways, they are a social nightmare for super smart, feminist women who just want to get an education and some respect.

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