In Her Own Words: The Only Woman in Class

Jan 01, 2020

by Mary Anne (Madden) Hoffman '73

Mary Anne (Madden) Hoffman's senior picture.In the fall of 1972, newly returned from a year at Saint Mary's College Rome Program, and one of 90 women admitted to the University from Saint Mary's, I enrolled in Dr. Bernard Norling's "European History from 1880-1920" class. Based on the catalog description, the course was to have been a social history of Europe during that 40 year period.  I eagerly looked forward to the course, feeling well prepared by my year abroad studying history, art, and culture -- favorite topics.

I was the only woman in the class of about 70 students.  It was apparent from day 1 that Dr. Norling wasn't quite sure about this co-educational "experiment."  He addressed me as "Miss" while my fellow students were called by their first names.  He routinely called on me for "a woman's point of view."  I was terrified, fearful that I would fail to outperform my peers and of being judged harshly because of my gender.  I did everything to ensure I arrived early and never missed class, fearing the extra attention I might otherwise attract.  Dr. Norling had quite an interesting take on the world.  How well I remember him saying, "The world is an insane asylum run by rival groups of inmates."

My heart sank on the first day of class when Dr. Norling announced he was changing the focus from social history to military history.  My male peers were as enthusiastic about this new focus as was Dr. Norling.  There were 15 books to read that semester, all focused on the mechanics of war, some of which had been written by Dr. Norling.  He told us we'd have a quiz every Friday over the assigned book for the week.  If we didn't want to take the quiz, we could write a book report.  I don't think I have ever read as many books or written as many reports as I did in that 18 week period.  I knew I didn't stand a chance on a quiz where I'd be asked to dissect the merits of a Howitzer.  Dropping the class was an option I was unwilling to consider.

By the end of the semester, I discovered under Dr. Norling's tough, crusty exterior, a kind-hearted, brilliant man, one of the best professors I enjoyed at the University. The class really became one of my favorites and I later wished I could have taken it in my 30s or 40s, when I would have had enough "life seasoning" to appreciate Dr. Norling's world view.

Unfortunately, his approach to women in class was not unique.  I also took a Russian class that semester, again, where I was the only woman.  This course, filled with competitive pre-med students, provided its own challenges.  The format of the class was for the students to take turns reciting Russian dialogues in front of the class.  That was all well and good until the men took turns reading the "Boris" lines and  I became the sole reciter of the "Natasha" lines.  My suggestion to the instructor that perhaps we could all participate, whatever the role, fell on deaf ears, and my male peers didn't seem to see the same inequality issues I did.   

Father Hesburgh was a visionary and very supportive of this first class of women.  He made it clear he believed this was the right path for the University and his leadership and encouragement were key. My experience at ND has proved to be very helpful throughout my career, where I have continued to be the only or one of the few women in my professional settings, especially as I have advanced to senior leadership positions.  In many ways, it was the best preparation I could have had.  

Mary Anne (Madden) Hoffman has had more than 35 years of success in Human Resource strategic and executive leadership roles with Fortune 50 companies. She is currently Vice President, Human Resources at Allison Transmission, Indianapolis. Mother of 4, including triplets, and grandmother of 5, she met her Domer husband of 42 years while both were studying in Saint Mary’s College Rome Program. She enjoys reading, the arts, and travel, especially to Italy, where she holds dual citizenship.

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We want to hear from all of you pioneering alumnae — about the swim test, the dining hall, being the first (fill in the blank) —  as we prepare to celebrate 50 years of undergraduate coeducation in 2022. If you are interested in participating "In Her Own Words," please let us know.

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