Editor’s note: On May 3, 1990, the Board of Trustees at Mills College voted to admit men to the school’s undergraduate program for the first time in the college’s 138-year history. The announcement became the catalyst for a sixteen-day student strike that gained national attention, and resonated with women across the country. In the face of the recent battle to keep Sweet Briar College open, this anniversary is particularly poignant. Jennifer Bermon, an alumna of Mills College, who played an active role in the student strike, reflects on the history she and her classmates made for women’s education.
By Jennifer Bermon – Twenty-five years ago I stood with my classmates on the grassy meadow we walked through every day to get to class, waiting to hear the fate of our college. I was a freshman. Many of us were weary from the late-night meetings, phone calls and final attempts to persuade board members to vote to keep Mills an all-women’s college.
We were now face to face with those board members and the college president, standing above us on a makeshift platform. The head of the board stepped towards the microphone, paused, and announced that the oldest women’s college west of the Mississippi was going co-ed starting in the Fall of 1991. Shock, anger, disappointment spread among the students, faculty, and alumnae standing alongside me. People screamed out, cried, from the shock and to what many felt was a betrayal. Crying quickly turned to loud, clear, steady shouts of “We will not accept this.” Most memorable to me was what followed: the crowd chanting “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
Hours later, we were standing in the student union. You could feel the energy and determination in the large room, tables and chairs pushed to the side to make room for all of us. The undergraduate school was less than 800 students, yet the room was filled with hundreds of people ready for action. It became the unofficial strike headquarters. Looking at my classmates’ faces, I could see feelings of defeat were redirected into purpose.
Later that night, it was unanimously decided that we were going to strike! We planned to surround all the buildings on campus and block entry. We went to gather sleeping bags, comforters, anything we could find, so we could sleep outside the buildings.
After the sun rose and people started arriving on campus, we were ready. When faculty and administration walked towards us, we stood up, linked arms and blocked their access. They had no other choice but to turn away. We were prepared to be arrested. The Oakland police showed up, but I don’t think they knew what to do with us. And how would they arrest and transport hundreds of young women?
The strike was established.
No other school has ever reversed a board’s coed decision. It remains a shining example of how well women can work together to achieve a seemingly impossible goal and make history.
We split up into groups and different roles. Each group served an important purpose – planning strike strategies, staging protests, marches and rallies, making signs, designing t-shirts, getting food to people on the strike-lines, making sure the buildings were blocked, calling alumnae. Each group worked hand-in-hand. Long before we heard “It takes a village,” we were that village.
I had already starting working in TV and radio. I worked for NPR covering the 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake and its aftermath, so I became part of what we called the “press group.” I called producers at NPR and within the hour I was being interviewed on-air, the strike was national news on the radio. Friends cheered and hugged as we heard the story live from one of buildings we had occupied.
We continued to barricade the buildings, taking shifts. We staged rallies, marches and protests. Students led crowds with rousing speeches. Alumnae came to campus to help, and raised money in phone-call drives; friends and relatives joined in the effort. We boycotted most classes, many of the professors understood and worked with us. The school that had taught us to have a voice, to lead as women, and to work hard for what we wanted, was seeing it in action.
The strike was a good example of how women work together, not the false stereotypes of “cat-fighting” that we often hear, and now see perpetuated on reality TV shows. Many of us were teenagers and under the age of 22, all prepared to be arrested for our protesting. We had a lot on the line — risking incompletes; seniors needed credits to graduate, yet the strike went forward. Late night, with a box of half-eaten pizza, a dry erase board filled with things to do, we were there for each other with pep talks, hugs, and reminders that we could do this if we stuck together. Sleep deprived, concerned about our grades and a campus in chaos, we were more unified than ever. I learned as much from the strong and determined women around me, as I did in my classes.
Women’s colleges from all over the country called, mailed us personally written letters and large poster-boards filled with colorfully-written words of solidarity and encouragement. We hung them in our make-shift offices and on walls lining the campus. Our community had extended to our sister schools.
We made headlines all over the world, from the New York Times to the International Herald Tribune. Barely 19 years old, I was there to meet the NBC News producer and satellite truck at 2 a.m. to go live for the Today Show. Talk-show host Phil Donahue was running from audience member to Mills panelist on his New York set, holding his microphone out for people, trying to keep up with the debate we had created. I later achieved my goal as member of the press group – to book us and get the topic discussed on Nightline.
The press was there the day the board made their second announcement a little over two weeks later, on May 18th. The head of the board unrolled a large, white banner that said, “Mills. For Women. Again.” I can still hear and feel the shouts and screams from the crowd standing at the steps of the student union. As corks popped on champagne bottles, arms raised in the air, students gleefully chanted “We did it.”
Mills has remained all-women ever since. No other school has ever reversed a board’s coed decision. It remains a shining example of how well women can work together to achieve a seemingly impossible goal and make history. I went to Mills an only child, and left with more sisters than I ever could have imagined.
About this contributor
Jennifer Bermon is a network television producer, specializing in documentaries, national news and newsmagazines and a photographer. Last month, WYSK featured Jennifer’s photo series Her?Self, 28 black-and-white portraits. You can find Jennifer on Facebook, and you can follow her on Twitter.
Photos by Peg Skorpinski, courtesy of Mills College. A version of this article appeared on Ms., and is republished here with the author’s permission