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Opinion: Challenging sexism during the Strike

“You went to Mills College? Isn’t that the place where those girls were crying on television?”

“What a bunch of whiny women!”

Over the years, I have been confronted by this kind of verbal assault, more often by women than by men, when discussing the Strike of 1990.

It has been 20 years since Warren Hellman stood at the back door of Mills Hall, yet I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was positive, almost cocky in my conviction that we would remain a women’s college. After all, I had spent the better part of the year organizing rallies, handing out flyers and attending meetings. In fact, when the earth shook during the Loma Prieta earthquake, I was sitting on one of the committees analyzing the options available to Mills College.

The day I was interviewed for the Watson Foundation, I walked into the conference room with the bullhorn I had used in March during the meeting of the Board of Trustees. For some reason, the interviewer wasn’t very impressed with this accessory, but I was single-sighted in my purpose and didn’t fully analyze the potential consequences of my action. Surely the path was paved for Mills to remain a women’s college.

The cameras stood poised, ready to capture our reactions, and they were well rewarded for their patience. No one in the crowd heard a word uttered by the Chairman of the Board beyond “coeducation.” The press caught us at our weakest moment: some crying, some shocked, some angered by the announcement. The pictures in the newspaper and on television were those I have heard described to me over the years: weak women crying because they didn’t get their way.

They could not have been more wrong. Shortly after those pictures were published, the mood on the campus changed. As the letters of support from both single-sex and coeducational institutions poured in from around the country, a small group of students took over the administrative offices and staged a strike. They organized, wrote letters to the editor and rallied. Professors and administrators, men and women alike, stood by them.

At first I resisted, thinking, “It’s too late. We did all this.”

I even resented some of the women screaming for a women’s education: “Why hadn’t they done this sooner?”

Nonetheless, as the voices grew louder, the opposition stronger and our voices clearer, I too returned to the cause. I believed then, as I do now, in the value of a women’s education and proudly chanted “Strong Women, Proud Women, Mills Women.”

Women (and men) from many backgrounds brought their talents to the campus: chefs catered, lawyers negotiated, communications majors worked with the media and money people came up with the most important plan of all — a blueprint for the fiscal future of the College. For years, we had been borrowing from our endowment, and our future depended on the fiscal future of the College.

A plan was devised. Soon a strong group of students and alumni were appearing on the Phil Donahue Show not as victims but as empowered women defending women’s education. Then something else happened: News outlets that viewed us as weak women crying now saw us as educated women taking a stand for what we believed in.

I wasn’t on campus when the Trustees announced the reversal. I couldn’t bear another disappointment, so I took my parents to Sausalito to revisit the place where they had gotten engaged. As we drove back to Oakland, we heard the word “reversal,” barely audible on the car’s AM transmitter.

My father, who had been sitting in the back seat, started to cheer while hitting my headrest and saying, “They did it! Alright! They did it.”

I silently shed a tear and celebrated the victory with my parents.

The celebration would continue throughout the graduation festivities until the last of our over-stuffed cars drove off campus for the last time. I remain proud of what we accomplished on those May days of 1990 and still display the words “Remember who you are and what you represent” in my office as a constant reminder.

Read more related Strikes articles here.