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.

Join the Conversation

  • Lori

    I attended Notre Dame, and unfortunately you are absolutely right about the culture of the Saint Mary’s/Notre Dame dynamic. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t do much to help break down the stereotypes that exist and run rampant on the Notre Dame campus–it’s pretty common to hear that “Smick chicks” (the “nickname” for women who attend Saint Mary’s) are only there to get their “M.R.S.” degree–cute, right? It did cut both ways too, assuming that ND girls were ugly or prudes, while Saint Mary’s girls were sluts and dumb.

    That being said, I’m not convinced that the case would have been handled any differently had Seeberg been a Notre Dame student. Notre Dame is horrendous at handling sexual assault/rape claims (especially when a football player or other student athlete is involved). I’ve heard stories of young women who were told they had to choose between filing a complaint with the police or pursuing the school’s disciplinary process, and the women would be encouraged to take the school route because of the lack of “evidence” (usually meaning the woman was drunk or it was only her word against his).

    I am utterly ashamed of my alma mater for the way they handled Seeberg’s case. I agree that the sister school culture needs to be analyzed in a situation like this but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the only issue at play here. Notre Dame and schools around the country need to improve the way they handle sexual assaults that occur on campuses, because from what I’ve seen, it’s not done right.

    • Roger A Canaff

      Lori, you’re correct- investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults on campuses is woefully inadequate. Much of the problem stems from the fact that most investigative agencies and prosecutors offices shy away from cases that involve no physical or forensic evidence (most of them) or that involve some perceived “compromising” behavior on the part of the (usually) female victim, like alcohol consumption, etc. And of course, the great majority of campus sexual assaults involve voluntary consumption of alcohol on the part of both parties. Because of that, and especially because victims have often been drinking before they’re attacked, investigators and DA’s either judge them and ignore/downgrade their cases, or throw their hands up and claim the case just can’t be proven. In short, the case concentrates on the victim- what she did, how she “allowed herself” to be victimized, the “mistakes” she made, etc, etc, etc.

      What’s lost, and what myself and other ADA’s are teaching now throughout the country, is to change the paradigm and put the focus where it belongs- on the offender. Most rape is serial rape, and most men who rape do so again and again. They use things like alcohol, perceived vulnerabilities on the part of the potential victim (she has a reputation as a slut, a liar, a person with a mental illness, etc). They set a trap, often with alcohol and other manipulative tactics (promising to get her home, isolating her from her friends, etc) and then they execute. The great majority of the time, the victimized women just don’t report at all. The few who do are often met with exactly the reaction they fear, and the case goes nowhere.

      I tend to think that NDSPD might have begun to do the right thing in Lizzy’s case- I’m not sure, but it seems they did take a report and ask if she’d undergo an examination. I think the case completely fell apart and was ignored, however, after she died. I could be wrong- it could be that the case was going nowhere because the accused is a football player. But for now I’m willing to cautiously give the police the benefit of the doubt for the 10 days Lizzy was still alive. After that, though, I think they figured it would just go away.

  • nazza

    Colleges and universities need to own up to the fact that student-athletes are, in fact, cash cows. As a result, they are granted breaks and matters like this are routinely swept under the rug. But the cruelest irony of all comes when athletes aren’t pro material and find themselves utterly discarded without much of a college degree to fall back upon.

    Again, this is a matter of money and a risk-averse strategy to never have bad publicity. Universities and colleges have grown beyond any sensible level, and they need increasingly higher and higher amounts of tuition money to survive. The female student who is sexually assaulted needs to have legal recourse, but the whole system itself needs to be reformed, badly.

  • Morgane

    This is absolutely not a new phenomena. College judicial systems have no idea how to deal with issues pertaining to sexual assault and rape on their campuses. Even institutions that are truly independent (Middlebury, Tufts, Connecticut, etc) have piles of cases that are never sent to the appropriate authorities and women end up living on the same grounds (and even dorms!) as their attackers/abusers. You are right that it is a social nightmare… something needs to be done to stop this trend from happening.

  • Dan

    I agree that the ND-SMC gender relations dynamic is extremely unfortunate (a friend of mine was one of the SMC girls you talked to when you visited, and I’m sure she let you know all about it).

    However, I would argue that this is more of a story about Notre Dame’s culture in general, and less to do with the position of St. Mary’s students within that culture. Notre Dame’s method of handling rape cases “in house” makes it much more likely for rapists to escape unpunished and for the victims to shoulder the blame. This has happened irrespective of whether the victim was from Notre Dame or St. Mary’s.

    To be honest, though I wouldn’t want my children to go to religious school, if I had a daughter, I would rather she go to St. Mary’s than Notre Dame. St. Mary’s has a much stronger women’s studies program, and unlike Notre Dame, St. Mary’s allows for the Vagina Monologues to be performed on their campus. All in all, I would argue that Saint Mary’s is a much more pro-feminist environment.

  • Roger A Canaff

    Courtney, thank you for mentioning my take on this situation, and also for the terrific insight into the larger issue. I went to co-ed state schools (not to mention that I’m white, tall and male) so I just haven’t been exposed to the kind of subtle (or not so subtle) injustice you’re describing even within the elite academic world. Keep up the fight-

  • ktncro

    Courtney – I’m curious as to why you think Roger Canaff’s response is pathetic. I found it validating, and indicative of the kind of awareness of the dynamics of sexual assault that I wish more of the people I know had. While I don’t want to give undue credit or over-congratulations because “finally! a man gets it a little bit!” I also think it’s important not to denigrate the awareness that we do find. I work for a domestic violence project in Maine, where I am one of the educators, and I think, instead of blank criticism, it’s important to foster that awareness.

    • Sam

      I think she worded it strangely — what she meant to say was that the official response was pathetic, not Roger Canaff’s.

  • Amelia

    at my all girl school we were known as either “fridge on the ridge” or “sluts on the hill”, depending on who you spoke to.

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