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20th Strike Anniversary: Honoring the past and future of Mills women

The audience of alums, faculty and current students gathered in May 2010 for the Strike Launch party to celebrate the 20th anniversary in the Student Union. (Melodie Miu)

The Mills College community came together May 4 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of a campus strike to protest the Board of Trustees’ attempt to turn Mills into a coed institution at the undergraduate level.

“I remember the day that they announced to go coed and it was the deepest, most emotionally-wracking moment,” recalled alumna Elisabeth Carter, Class of 1992. “We were not little girls crying, we had a mission and we had a movement,” she said.

Alumna Elizabeth Carter speaks to the crowd on May 4 at Mills College about her experiences as a participant in the Strike. (Melodie Miu)

“I was shocked and angry when the announcement was made,” said alumna Robin Sackett Smith, Class of 1990, who helped blockade entrances to Alderwood Hall during the Strike. “It was one of the most profound experiences of my entire four years at the school and to come back later to this thriving institution for women today it is just amazing.”

The event was coordinated by Strike cartoonist Kristen Caven and Senior Class Adviser Mandy Benson with the Enhancing History Theme Floor.

“I’m really glad they did this. I feel like the school should discuss this more often and that students should learn more about what the Strike was,” said Desirae Tongco, a member of the Enhancing History Theme Floor. The group plans to pursue future informational events in the following year.

Caven sold her book full of her work satirizing the event with editorial cartoons.

“What the media saw as hysterical women, I saw as hysterical wit,” she joked.

Alumnae and staff who participated in the strike had the opportunity to talk about their experience at the strike.

“It wasn’t one big two-week slumber party. We were working really hard. Classes may have been canceled, but we were still doing our class work,” said alumna Linda Jaquez-Fissom, Class of 1992.

Alumnae talked about the efficiency of the strike as students, alumnae and staff came together supporting one another by taking shifts for the barricade, providing childcare and dining services providing free meals.

“Behind the scenes, staff was supporting students 100 percent,” said Student Accounts Coordinator Nancy Cooney, who also worked for the M Center during the time of the Strike. She said staff members were told not to get together to help aid the studnets’ efforts, but did so anyway, selling T-shirts to raise money and even taking money out of their salaries to support the College financially.

“These people were really at risk, and they stood up for you,” said math and computer science professor Barbara Li Santi, who has been teaching at Mills since 1981 and also supported students during the strike.

“It was like a mini army,” said alumna Marady Conner, Class of 1990, who was one of students who participated in the barricade, even meeting tour groups who visited the campus. “The Strike created a network that has lasted.”

Current students also spoke about their experiences remembering the strike and how Mills brings the community together.

“It was very moving, I was almost in tears. It was like there was a feeling in the air that we did this and if we had to I think we would be able to do it again,” said sophomore Shoshana Burda.

Senior graduate public policy student Alexa Benedetti gave a moving testimony about her journey through women’s education. The fall after she graduated from New York’s Wells College in 2005, the school went coed. Though she and her fellow students rallied for six weeks to stop the move, even introducing lawsuits, they weren’t able to reverse the administration’s decision.

“It is so amazing that Mills succeeded with this,” she said, adding that Mills was one of several women’s colleges to allow Wells students to transfer without question.

Mary Rose Kaczorowski, a graduate student and alumna from the Class of 2004 also attended the event.

“I think this event was so important to celebrate and I am still moved by the courage and sacrifice that students, faculty and staff took to ensure that Mills is still a college for women and the diversity of women that came through,” she said.

When I entered, I knew Mills was something special, but I didn’t know how special,” said senior Kelsey Lindquist, one of this yera’s Pearl M recipients. “I have never been more proud and grateful to be a Mills woman than I am right now.”

Check out the photos here:

Read more related Strike articles here.