Remembering the Mills College Coed Strike

From Los Angeles Times coverage of the Mills strike.

On May 3, 1990, Mills, a small women’s-only liberal arts college in northern California, decided to go coed and, much to the delight of media outlets and pundits, the students struck back and shut down the school for the rest of the semester. The events of those two weeks swept Mills and Mills women onto front pages and TV talk shows around the world.

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, 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.”

Two decades ago, the students of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., were blocking access to campus administration buildings, behaving like anything but doormats. They were protesting the board of trustees’ decision to make the all-women’s college coed. I was one of two spokeswomen responsible for explaining to the world’s media 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” – The Students Take Over

Syndicated cartoon.

It took only a few hours for students to move into strike mode and effectively shut down the college. 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 students sitting around studying for finals in doorways, there wasn’t much juicy “Film at 11” footage. The news media resorted to rerunning the scene of 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?

The pre-work we’d done ensured reasoned stories from reporters who’d met students, faculty and trustees before the decision. They discussed why women’s-only education was important to defend. It was the reporters – and editorial cartoonists back at the paper – who dipped 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 out 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 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. In the years following the strike, I 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. For two solid weeks, empowerment was at the heart of the students’ messaging to the world and, with all that media attention, “empowerment” did the 1990s’ equivalent of going viral. Nike even created an ad campaign aimed squarely at women, all about empowerment (and sneakers).

This is not to say that 777 Mills students are entirely responsible for the resurgence of feminism and the support of equality and empowerment, 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.