Never in the history of the College have so many people in so many places through so many media heard the message of Mills. Before the May 3 decision of the Board of Trustees, the College was already receiving publicity throughout the country. After the decision, media attention was unprecedented. Press coverage was galvanized by three major factors:
The highly emotional quality of the issue: Newspapers and television screens carried pictures of sobbing Mills women across the country. Reporters who came from the campus announcement to a planned press conference off campus reported surprise at the intensity of the community reaction. Though the first coverage showed grief more than anger and determination, it became evident soon after that those two attitudes were the prevalent ones. In her commencement remarks on May 20, Shannon McMackin said, “Passion, more than logic, makes change.” There was passion aplenty.
The highly efficient student organization: There was a goodly amount of logic about, too. Students realized the importance of keeping the attention of the press, and of keeping the focus of the press on the appropriate issues. Student leaders deserve credit for the fact that, with very few exceptions, there was little sensationalism, and with few exceptions, the press coverage was positive. Students asked English professor Marilyn Chandler for guidance in language usage in dealing with the media. She provided guidelines, including a warning to avoid loaded words such as “sexist” and “racist,” which have lost power through overuse. Students set up their own guidelines and were careful in their statements. Most direct quotations from students sounded articulate, measured, sensible. Stephanie Salter, writing in the May 27, 1990, San Francisco Examiner, ended by quoting Mills junior Ruth Stroup: “‘I guess it’s a . . . challenge to the theory of revolutionary behavior,’ said Stroup, speaking like a true Mills woman—thoughtful, polite, and with galvanized steel in her voice.” Memos to students stressed knowing and following the ground rules for dealing with the media. Press were treated courteously but firmly. Press-free areas were set up in which work could go on without the constant interruption of reporters seeking new stories. One alumna reported, “A cameraman there wanted to take photographs of my bringing bags of food into the student center. He was told politely but definitely that the area was a designated press-free area. He was told by a young woman who couldn’t have been more than 18. He backed off.” Media respect, even affection, for students grew as the days went on. At the end of the fourteen days, students and correspondents were seen hugging and exchanging gifts. When Linda Kay, Alumnae Director, decided to call a press conference, she asked the students to organize it. They knew the system. It was student activity which created major coverage on such television programs as the “Donahue Show.” The importance of the issues involved: Could it be that after a hiatus of several years since the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment women’s issues are valuable discussion items again? Many Mills women believe that the intensity of the College’s debate has initiated the women’s movement of this generation. Thus was Caitlin Halloran quoted in a Montclarion article titled “Mills Protest Rekindles Women’s Movement.” Students and alumnae at women’s colleges throughout the country held rallies and sent press releases in support of the Mills cause. “Mills watched nationwide,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle of May 16. Newspapers and television programs carried items about sex discrimination in the work place and classroom, and about research which shows that graduates of women’s colleges are more likely to obtain graduate degrees and to take leadership roles in society. These are the sorts of items which are usually greeted by a mighty yawn when released to the press. The Mills debate was focused, defined, provided good photographic opportunities, and was readable. It made concrete an ethereal issue.
The coverage was extensive. Thanks to Associated Press wires, the story played around the world. An alumna called to report that she was in the South Seas when she read the news of Mills. Armed Services newspaper The Stars and Stripes carried the story internationally. Mills College was in the newspapers of several nations. Local papers placed a College story in every issue for an entire two weeks. The Los Angeles Times gave the College extensive and primarily positive coverage. The New York Times and the Washington Post covered the events of the College extensively. Time and People magazines were among those which ran features on the controversy at Mills. Television brought the story to the screen. CNN played the news of Mills. The “Donahue Show” gave Mills an hour on national television, and moderator Phil Donahue donned a Mills sweatshirt to show his support. Local KPIX gave the College an hour on “People are Talking.” “Nightline” and the “McNeil-Lehrer Report ” gave Mills time. Mills women, alumnae, students, faculty, trustees, and administrators appeared articulate, informed, and well-educated in each broadcast.
Some of the most thoughtful coverage, both for and against Mills as a women’s college, appeared in newspaper columns. William Safire, of the New York Times, wrote about Mills and Wellesley women. ” . . .at Mills they are celebrating diversity, which schooling at all levels needs more than it knows. . . . Challenging the conventional wisdom, insisting on diversity-these red-faced fresh faces, far from making fools of themselves, are educating us.” The Washington Post ran more than one feature about the College and the issues involved.
Of course, not all coverage was thoughtful. Herb Caen, venerable San Francisco columnist, played Mills-College-girls jokes throughout the fourteen days, and reported being chided for referring to the women students as “girls.” He responded by quoting Mills songs from the 1920s. His column became the repository of such quips as, “The good news is that the Raiders are coming back to Oakland. The bad news is that they will be housed at Mills.” “David Letterman’s Top 10” feature, courtesy of NBC, had one segment titled, “Top 10 Reasons Mills College girls don’t want men attending.” Reason number one was “They tend to spit a lot.”
Not all coverage was positive, either. Cries of sexism from both men and women were carried in the media. In the same newspaper in which Stephanie Salter’s pro-Mills article appeared, the May 27 San Francisco Examiner, an article by Washington columnist Marianne Means stated, “It is definitely not OK to suggest that sexism is legitimate if it comes from women. . . . ” and “Mills College officials are now stuck. They have shown they do not comprehend what equal rights for women is all about. Yet they somehow have to convince lots of young women that a female ghetto is appropriate preparation for a workplace run by men.”
But there is no question that one benefit of the media attention is that alumnae will not be asked the question, “Mills College, where’s that?” for a while. Our College is definitely known throughout the nation. It is up to us as alumnae to make sure that knowledge continues and is positive. Now, now, now is the time to seize the moment.