Where Were You on May 3, 1990?

From Los Angeles Times coverage of the Mills strike.

The weeks bookmarking May 3, 1990, were slow ones for news organizations. About the only interesting thing was a lava flow from a Hawai’ian volcano that threatened a few houses. And then Mills, a small women’s-only liberal arts college in northern California, decided to go coed.

If you were a regular consumer of news back in the spring of 1990, you probably now remember what you were doing around May 3.

When women’s issues make headlines, the coverage often wallows in the language of gossip and crisis. Its function, as Susan Faludi points out in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, is to focus the reader not on the “actual conditions of women’s lives,” but on “a closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising – an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood.”

When you are the public face of an organization dedicated to women’s rights, how do you avoid getting caught in that feedback loop? Is it possible, in a world where TV talk show hosts dismiss proponents of women’s equality by calling them “femi-Nazis,” to receive fair coverage?

Journalist Linda Ellerbee calls feminism “the new F-word,” an appellation so contentious that even women who’ve risen to the top of their professions feel they must assure the writers of magazine profiles that, No, they most certainly are not feminists.

Not that anyone, reporters included, can tell you what the F-word means exactly. Back in 1913, Rebecca West wrote, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

Twenty-one years ago, the students of Mills College in Oakland were sitting in doorways, blocking access to campus administration buildings, and behaving like anything but doormats. They were protesting the trustees’ decision to make the all-women’s college coed. I was one of two spokeswomen responsible for explaining to the world’s media (yes, I do mean reporters from all over the world; remember, it was a very slow news week) why they opposed the admission of men.

When the coed announcement was made to the Mills community, scores of students were filmed and photographed sobbing. Although many couldn’t understand why Mills women were crying, the reaction managed to pigeonhole them into one of the typical roles allowed to women in news stories. They were the perfect victims.

“We Will Not Accept This” – Students Take Over

It took only a few hours for students to move into strike mode and effectively shut down the college. Suddenly, Mills was swept into the world’s headlines, transformed into a symbol for women’ colleges and women’s rights. But, when the students threw off the victim mantle and took a stand on keeping Mills for women only, the headlines, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and cartoons turned absurd and nasty. Amongst the condescension there was a strong undercurrent of anger. A few even suggested the students should be punished.

“When is the administration going to bring in the police to remove students?” we were asked hourly. With the students sitting around studying for finals in doorways, there wasn’t much juicy “Film at 11” footage. The news media was left to rerun the scene of the crying victims.

In this uncomfortable climate – with some reporters panting for a confrontation between students and police – you’d think it would have been impossible to come off sounding rational in news reports while discussing the benefits women’s colleges offer female students.

How did we handle it? From the moment we heard the first mention of “coeducation” as one of four possible strategic directions for the future of Mills College, we knew that only a proactive approach would allow the Mills message to be heard.

Our first press release went out more than eight months before the trustee decision. We spent whole days talking with reporters who arrived on campus (some with fairly sensationalistic preconceptions), spoke with students and professors, and left with a greater understanding of women’s colleges.

In an educational environment, we set out to teach about the many studies which show that coed colleges offer women fewer chances to become leaders in and out of the classroom and why, given that research, Mills would consider the possibility of admitting men. During the months before the decision, we were repeatedly rewarded with intelligent media analyses of the coed debate.

Even in the midst of the two-week protest, persistence, patience and the educational approach tamed the most objectionable inquiries.

Did it work?

Syndicated cartoon.

The pre-work we’d done ensured reasoned stories from reporters who’d met students before the decision. They discussed why women’s-only education was important to defend. It was the reporters – and their editorial cartoonists back at the paper – dipping in to the story after the tears who didn’t always offer balanced coverage.

But, some journalists even reexamined the students’ tearful outburst on May 3. By May 18, Richard Price was writing in USA Today: “Shannon McMackin has a message for the world. She’s crying no more. McMackin was caught weeping on camera after Mills trustees voted to accept male students. ‘I couldn’t stand it if we were remembered as just a bunch of hysterical crying women,’ she says. ‘When we were done crying, we went our and did something about it.’”

What they accomplished – overturning the coed decision – has never been done before in the history of U.S. education. It’s since caused women’s colleges that were thinking about coeducation to re-evaluate, strengthening their resolve to continue to offer a curriculum for women only.

From Washington Post coverage.

After the Mills revolution, other stories, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, received wall-to-wall coverage. Since that time, I’ve noticed more women giving testimony in the news media about the empowerment they’ve received because of the fight for women’s equality. In fact, if you’re a woman, and you’ve ever told someone you feel empowered, you probably have Mills women to thank for that particular vocabulary choice.

This is not to say that 777 Mills students are entirely responsible for the resurgence of feminism and the support of true equality, but there’s no denying they were out there at the forefront, pushing women’s issues back into the public arena at a time when most politicians, reporters and even feminists were trying to sweep them under the doormat.