Black Power and the Mills Girl: Gender and the Black Campus Movement at Mills

The cultural and political forces of the late 1960s that helped reshape the College into the institution it is today are the subject of an academic article.

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The late 1960s were a time of great societal shifts and change in the United States, and those forces did not bypass the Mills campus—especially given the role that the Black Panthers and the city of Oakland played during that tumultuous time. Spurred by the national call for civil rights and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., growing numbers of Black students at the College attempted to push for academic and social equity with limited success. 

In an article published in the fall 2019 edition of the Journal of Civil and Human Rights, which is published by the University of Illinois Press, Denison University professor Lauren Araiza outlined how this eventful time across the country was also transformative for the College. The interviews and research she conducted detail how Mills, as with other women’s colleges, occupied a very specific space in its earliest days—as a destination mostly for the daughters of the wealthy (and usually white) elite. But growing activism, led by students of color at institutions across the Bay Area, pushed colleges and universities into diversifying their faculty and class offerings in the latter half of the 20th century. At Mills, those actions reached a crescendo with an occupation of President Robert Wert’s office in Mills Hall on March 21, 1969, which directly led to the establishment of the College’s first ethnic studies program. (Archive images from the occupation appear throughout this piece.) These efforts echo across the decades now in the College’s stated mission and emphasis on social justice: Araiza’s argument is that Mills wouldn’t be the institution of higher learning it is today without the efforts of these student activists, even though—at the time—their actions were considered antithetical to the ideal “Mills girl.”

This excerpt of Araiza’s article concentrates on the conditions in the 1967–68 school year that led up to occupation, including efforts by Black students to appeal to the Mills administration by embodying the stereotype of a typical women’s college attendee—polite and mannered. As this excerpt begins, Araiza is referencing a press conference held by the newly formed Black Student Union (BSU) on May 7, 1968, after some of its members had taken actions such as writing newspaper editorials and petitioning the administration for change, but to no avail.  –Allison Rost

An excerpt from a Journal of Civil and Human Rights article about Mills in the late 1960s.

By Lauren Araiza

*Note: This article includes a direct quote with an outdated racial term.

The BSU’s press conference and threat of militant protest challenged both the conventional image of the Mills girl and notions of proper feminine behavior. However, it was not the explicit intention of the students to challenge ideas of femininity and ladyhood. Rather, they deliberately employed respectability politics and thus saw their protest as consistent with the behavior expected of a Mills girl. [Elizabeth “Liz”] Reynolds ’68 later explained that holding a press conference was in line with respectable behavior because they did it “not to be mean, not to be disrespectful, but to get what we want.” Furthermore, according to Barbara Morrow Williams ’68, the students presented themselves as ladylike Mills girls, in opposition to students on other campuses, even when protesting. She later described a photograph of the students taken at the press conference that was published in a Bay Area newspaper:

When you have photos of like San Francisco State and some of these other schools that are exploding, you’ve got people out there in combat jackets and boots and looking like Che Guevara knockoffs. We’re sitting there and we’re all wearing I. Magnins and we’ve got our Vidal Sassoon haircuts. I mean, we’re looking anything but radical. We look about as radical as the Junior League.

Morrow Williams later wondered if it was the contrast between their respectable appearance and radical actions that some found particularly disconcerting.

Despite the BSU’s attempts to employ respectability politics, many outside observers were alarmed by the students’ threat of direct action. Some in the Black community were concerned that the students’ femininity, ladyhood, and marriage prospects had been compromised. Morrow Williams recalled that family friends had criticized her parents for sending her to Mills because they felt that women should marry and have children, not pursue higher education. They echoed the many critics of higher education for women, who had argued since the 19th century that intelligence was unfeminine and that a college education rendered women unsuitable for marriage. In response, at Mills—as at other women’s colleges—marriage was promoted as a goal for students and was tied to ideals of ladyhood. Long-standing college traditions included the elaborate formal announcement of engagements at dinner and a ceremony at graduation that honored seniors who had married or become engaged while students. Mills administrators encouraged this and stressed the importance of training students to be both ladies and wives.

Lynn White, who was president of Mills from 1943 to 1958, called for courses that would supposedly prepare students for marriage and motherhood, such as home economics, interior design, and child psychology. Regardless of these efforts, Morrow Williams’s parents’ friends pointed to the press conference as evidence that college had corrupted their daughter.

Criticism of the BSU’s press conference was divided along racial lines. White critics were unconcerned about the Black students’ jeopardized femininity or marriage prospects. Moreover, they did not consider the students to be ladies, despite their use of respectability politics. The mother of an alumna wrote to Wert criticizing the students for “rank ingratitude and gross discourtesy.” Other letters and telegrams maligned the BSU as radicals and “communist inspired negro agitators” who were using threats and coercion to get their way and urged Wert to stand up to “unlawful conduct” and “any form of anarchy.” The press conference thus revealed that, to many white people, the celebrated ladyhood of Mills girls did not apply to Black women.

Interested in reading the full article by Lauren Araiza? Click here for more information.

Although some—especially outsiders—were alarmed by the new militant image of Mills girls, many students and alumnae challenged the critique that protesting was unladylike and thus not in keeping with the Mills image. An editorial in the Mills Stream declared, “Most parents hate to admit to their friends that their little girls might harbor ‘radical ideas’ like students at Berkeley and Columbia. After all, they go to Mills! What they should tell their friends is that Mills girls can mobilize” (emphasis in the original). Furthermore, many Mills students and alumnae were supportive of the BSU’s endeavors. [Associated Students of Mills College] officers, class officers, and residence hall presidents sent  individual letters to Wert expressing their support for the BSU’s requests and asking that the ASMC be kept informed of all progress made on fulfilling them. The staff of the Mills Stream wrote editorials supportive of the BSU and noted that the union’s requests benefitted the entire college, not just African American students. Several white alumnae wrote to Wert expressing their support for the BSU, and some donated money to Mills with the express purpose of enabling the hiring of Black faculty.

Not only did the BSU’s press conference and threat of direct action challenge the image of the Mills girl as a lady who did not engage in protests, but it also represented a shift in strategy that was ultimately successful. Wert met with the students on May 9, two days after the press conference, and subsequently announced to the press that, due to a last-minute resignation of a professor in the mathematics department, African American professor Lawrence Gurly had been hired full-time to begin that fall. An anonymous donation had also enabled the College to create a new faculty position in the sociology department, with the intention that an African American professor be hired by September. An African American clerical staff member had also been hired, and plans were underway to hire a Black student advisor. The college was also in process of raising funds to endow a scholarship in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The hiring of African American faculty and staff elicited praise from the local Black press and was pointed to as evidence of the strengthening of the relationships between Mills and the Black community.

Although the Mills BSU achieved all of its goals and more, the threat of direct action forever altered the relationship between Wert and student activists, as Wert immediately became an outspoken critic of student radicalism, dissent, and protest. At the Mills commencement ceremony on June 9, 1968, which happened to be the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Wert decried the recent protests at Columbia University and then said to the assembled audience, “Anarchy and violence seem to be spreading at an alarming rate and we are subject to a barrage of threats, demands and warnings that, if various groups do not get their way, more disorder will follow. So far, most of this dissent has emanated from students, the left-wing, and in our country, from these plus a disposed minority.” He went on to ask the audience, “Do we, as citizens of this country, stand with Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy for moderation rather than extremism, or do we stand with Mark Rudd, the leader of the student revolt at Columbia, and Stokely Carmichael?” In subsequent speeches and writings, he minimized the accomplishments of Black student activists and did not mention the Mills BSU’s actions.

Despite Wert’s attempts to discredit student protest, the 1968–69 academic year ushered in renewed Black student activism at Mills and elsewhere. Although the Mills BSU protests in the spring of 1968 had achieved their initial goals, Black students soon noted that other significant issues remained. Ruth Johnson editorialized in the Mills Stream that, while she was pleased that the BSU’s efforts had led to an increase in the number of admitted African American students, she was concerned about the discriminatory treatment they would receive at Mills, from both fellow students and staff. Micheline Beam ’72, who entered Mills in the fall of 1968, confirmed Johnson’s trepidations. She recalled that not only did African American students experience discrimination and were the victims of racist acts in the residence halls, but there was no support system in place to help them: “[There were] no minority faculty, of color, whatsoever, no administrator or support staff of color. . . . They brought us here onto a campus, and the campus was not prepared for us, and there was no one to be supportive of us.” Therefore, Johnson pledged that the BSU would continue to agitate on behalf of Black students and would employ direct action if necessary: “All in all we were very pleased to see that our requests, after having been ignored for so long, were considered favorably. But we also know what we had to do to effect such action—and therefore we know what we will have to do in the future.” The members of the Mills BSU thus began the academic year by rejecting respectability politics and notions of ladyhood connected to the idealized Mills girl.

Black History Month programming at Mills in 2021 will include a virtual panel discussion, “The Black Campus Movement at Mills College,” with Araiza and Assistant Professor of Education Wanda Watson on February 22 from 6:00 pm-8:00 pm. Link to register TBA!