Why you should care

Because women’s colleges might become extinct if someone doesn’t do something — again. 

He stepped up to a makeshift podium in front of throngs gathered at Toyon Meadow on May 3, 1990, and told the all-female undergrad student body that they would soon be mixing with men. F. Warren Hellman, chairman of the Mills College trustees, said that at the start of the following year, the school would drop its 138-year-old tradition and open its doors to both genders. Shrieks and tears ensued.

Fifty years ago, there were more than 200 women’s colleges in the U.S., but today there are closer to 40. That number nearly dropped again this summer when Sweet Briar College, which opened its romantic Virginia campus in 1906, announced that it was closing its doors for good. Students and alumnae contested the decision, and a court order has saved it for now. But with women-only colleges across the country struggling to prove their modern-day relevance, it reminds us of how those tearful women responded to the news 25 years ago. Their grief quickly hardened into outrage, and within hours the student union was converted into ground zero for a revolt that would seize the nation’s attention for weeks.

Few slept that night. Instead, the 800 or so students spent their overnight hours rallying support and preparing for battle with sleeping bags and walkie-talkies. The following morning when the faculty showed up, they found hundreds of young women, arms interwoven, blocking access to all the buildings. “That moment when we linked arms, we were all unified,” says Jennifer Bermon, who was a freshman at the time. “That bond was what we were protecting.” The speed and sophistication of their organization took everyone by surprise. Administrators and Oakland police were at a loss over how to respond, and the media were mesmerized.

Offices were converted into call centers. The women galvanized alumnae, went on prime-time talk shows and organized marches — all while ensuring their human wall never fell. Teachers held classes outside and waived finals. Friends and family brought food and supplies. Several students reportedly shaved their heads and glued their hair to a podium draped in a white cloth with pictures of past graduates taped to the front, calling it “an altar to our ancestors.”

Mills always encouraged us to use our voice, to lead; it shouldn’t be surprising we wouldn’t just accept their decision.

Jennifer Bermon, former student

Not everyone understood their vehement opposition, and even now it can be hard for some to articulate what’s special about an all-women college. But mostly the argument is that it creates a space where women can rise to the top without bumping up against a glass ceiling. They don’t get talked over in classrooms. They run the student government and newspaper. And some pretty powerful women have been products of this model, including Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Diane Sawyer, who all attended Wellesley, and Smith College grads Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. “A women’s college is not just to educate women, but to show them they have the ability to reach the highest points,” says Janet Holmgren, who was president of Mills from 1991 to 2011.

Two weeks after the protest began, Hellman stood on the same lawn and unfurled his own banner. “Mills. For Women. Again.” The women hadn’t just been demonstrating; behind the scenes, they’d been searching for a solution to the college’s financial woes. By getting professors to cut their salaries and to teach more classes, and securing more endowment pledges, they promised stability — at least in the short term. The notoriety from the strike would also pad enrollment numbers. “It was a revolutionary moment in the history of women’s education,” Holmgren says.

No other school has ever reversed a board’s decision to go coed, which many have done in recent years. Others simply close. Even Mills is once again facing financial uncertainty. But the message sent in 1990 still carries. “As women, we’re often told we can’t do something,” Bermon says. “Mills always encouraged us to use our voice, to lead; it shouldn’t be surprising we wouldn’t just accept their decision.”

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