Venkata: The past is another university

A conversation with a 1968 University of Minnesota alumna opened my eyes.

by Uma Venkata

The University of Minnesota Women’s Club is full of accomplished, lively and fascinating women. A few weeks ago, I had lunch with the UMWC and talked with its president, Maggie Hoover, whose dynamic life story captivated me. I learned a lot about her career, education and varied interests, some of which were present in the Twin Cities and at the University of Minnesota. I think a few things are relevant to many of us.

Hoover graduated from high school in 1964 and enrolled at the University. She began by studying zoology but changed to humanities her junior year. Hoover graduated on time in 1968, then completed library school and nursing school. In the 1980s she was a full-time nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at the University. At the same time, she earned her master’s of business administration from the University. She then moved to Florida and continued nursing until her retirement. (A note to any Sen. Maureen Walshes reading: nursing is hard.)

Hoover didn’t switch to the humanities because she was unsuited to the sciences or disinclined toward work. Hoover said she dropped zoology because the University community forced her out. These are Hoover’s experiences, as she described them.

In zoology studies, Hoover said she took chemistry classes with professors who didn’t expect her to continue into advanced chemistry classes. “I got the impression from our teachers that this was the best I was going to do,” Hoover told me. 

And the physics department was downright hostile to her — she experienced far worse treatment because she was a woman. Hoover said she took a class where the professor point-blank refused to acknowledge her, looking through her like she was air. There were places she wasn’t even welcome to walk through, including the architecture building. Women were not allowed in the School of Mines and Metallurgy unless it was after hours and they were cleaning, she said.

In a genetics lab class, Hoover said she had a few male classmates who were floundering in the class. They told her they had no idea what was going on and they were miserable. The course was done on workbooks, so Hoover completed their work for them. Hoover and the men turned in workbooks with the same answers. The men got As, Hoover got a C. When she confronted the teacher, he backed into a corner and shook his head. “No, women can’t do that in my class. Only men can get As in my class,” Hoover said the professor told her.

In 1970, Mines and Metallurgy was split and absorbed into the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering (CEGE). I would like to note that CEGE’s director of undergraduate studies is Professor Catherine French, a highly accomplished engineer whose research has enriched knowledge and industry far beyond the University campus. Had she been born in the 1940s, she would not have been allowed to be this accomplished. Had we included women in academic and industrial spheres before our parents’ generation, we may have been much further than where we are now.

By now, gender-equality climate has wildly improved — but there are still discrepancies. I fear these discrepancies widen as time goes on. After all, Jonas Salk changed the course of humanity with his polio vaccine. While memories of the iron lung, paralysis, deformities and death have faded, anti-vaxxers still have an audience. We need to know what happened before so we don’t repeat it.

Talking to Hoover was like talking to my grandmother, who also spent her career as a powerhouse nurse. Life was not easy for them, just for some cosmetic machismo. It’s hard to hear about their treatment and to imagine it without the burning resentment I would respond with if I received it today. But anyone can feel that way about women’s treatment, not just women. In some ways, men and women were born into their separate worlds, but they have the power to shape it further, too. I commend our progress. I look forward to our future.