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Mills College Celebrates 20th Anniversary of Student Strike
"BETTER DEAD THAN COED"—THE RALLYING CRY THAT
MADE HISTORY FOR WOMEN'S EDUCATION
Oakland, CA—April 20, 2010. Twenty years ago this May, the students and alumnae of Mills College took a stand for women's education, staging a 16-day protest on the cusp of graduation. Their bold mantra—"better dead than coed"—reverberated through the local, national, and international media and served as a turning point in the debate over the future and importance of women-focused education.
The strike, replete with sit-ins, blockades, honk-a-thons, yellow ribbons, armbands, and berets, might have seemed more at home in nearby Berkeley. But the women of Mills College felt there was a major principle at stake, when the Board of Trustees decided that the only way to increase enrollment was to expand the applicant pool and admit undergraduate men. The Mills women who had chosen to attend the oldest women's college in the West were outraged. As Time magazine put it, "The earthquake that rattled the San Francisco Bay Area [in 1989] caused millions of dollars worth of damage, but the tremors set off by the College's decision to boost revenue by accepting men have shaken Mills' foundations more severely than any natural disaster."
Students, supported by alumnae and faculty, acted quickly and shut down the campus during the now legendary 16 days in May 1990. With sheer determination and a grassroots communications campaign (that elicited support from their sisters at Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and St. Catherine, among others), students garnered media coverage as far-reaching as the New York Times, the Economist, People magazine, Nightline, and the Phil Donahue Show. With mounting pressure from students, faculty, and alumnae, and a commitment of increased support from all constituents, the Board of Trustees rescinded their decision to admit men as undergraduates.
F. Warren Hellman, a prominent San Francisco investment banker and president of the Board of Trustees at the time, told students, "Sometimes, in your lifetime, you're involved with something that may not just change an institution, it can change the world. I think you've done it."
History has affirmed the wisdom of the students' actions and validated the change of heart on the part of the Trustees. Under the leadership of Janet L. Holmgren, who became President of Mills a year after the strike, enrollment and applications are at all-time highs with undergraduate student diversity at an impressive 39 percent. The Mills endowment tops $175 million (after growing to more than $230 million before the economic downturn), and more than $100 million in capital improvements have enhanced the 135-acre campus. Among the notable additions are facilities to house the School of Education (offering Mills' first doctoral degree), the environmentally sustainable Betty Irene Moore Natural Sciences Building, the beautifully restored Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall (home to the College's internationally renowned experimental music program), and a new LEED gold-certified facility for the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business.
"The students and alumnae who participated in the 1990 strike played a pivotal role in showing the nation and the world that women's voices and opportunities for women truly matter. They demanded that Mills keeps its eye on the prize of educating women for leadership and putting women at the center of the enterprise," Holmgren says. "Their commitment is indicative of the leadership skills and commitment to social justice that are fostered at Mills, and we owe them a debt of thanks."
The number of women's colleges has dwindled from nearly 300 in 1960 to less than 60 today, although research clearly shows that women educated in a single-gender institution are more than twice as likely as women graduating from coed institutions to receive doctoral degrees, enter medical school, and earn doctorates in the natural sciences. Women now represent more than half of students nationwide at coed institutions, but women remain marginal, not central, to the academic establishment.
Holmgren cites an impressive list of women's college graduates such as Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (Trinity), Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Wellesley), pioneering journalist Barbara Walters (Sarah Lawrence), activist/author Gloria Steinem (Smith), and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Mills) as prime examples of the power of women's colleges. According to the Women's College Coalition, graduates of women's colleges represent 15 percent of women serving in the House of Representatives and 11 percent of women serving in the Senate.
Although significant progress has been made in advancing women's access to educational opportunities, much work remains. At the current rate, it could take 40 years for women to equal men in corporate officer positions. Only 15 women currently serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, though they represent 50 percent of the labor pool. A recent survey by the Catalyst organization also found that women hold only 15.2 percent of board seats, and 13.2 percent of executive office positions in Fortune 500 companies.
"When you look at the number of women in leadership positions compared to the disproportionate number of women who are the product of women's colleges, the need for global models of educating women for leadership has never been greater," Holmgren says. "We can be very proud that the Mills women of 20 years ago elected to stand by their principles, ensuring that women—today and in the future—will continue to make even greater strides toward equity."
Mills plans to mark the 20th anniversary of the strike with a series of events and programs in May. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives and a women's college graduate, will serve as Commencement speaker on May 15. Alumnae who participated in the protest will "robe up" and attend Commencement to celebrate both the past and the future of Mills. Current students will help create a "Walk of Honor" on the Mills campus depicting significant milestones in the advancement of women, from the founding of Mills, to the suffrage movement, to the first African American Mills woman to serve in Congress.
Holmgren says this anniversary celebration is a particularly poignant moment for her, having announced in February that she will step down in 2011 after 20 years at the helm of Mills to focus on teaching, research, and women's leadership issues.
"Twenty years is a milestone for institutions and individuals," she observes. "I hope two decades from now our 2010 graduates can look back and say that they, too, received the cutting-edge, intellectually challenging, and socially responsible education that has been the hallmark of Mills since its founding and that they used it to make the world a better place for all."
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