Women Students Organizing

What problems in their campus and off-campus conditions motivated women students to organize?

Male students monopolized campus organizations and activities, routinely excluding women. Women paid dues to the ASUC, for example, but were not allowed to vote, serve on the executive committee, or hold most class offices. They were excluded from clubs, and even student disciplinary procedures were conducted entirely by senior class men. They were barred from the honor society, initially from Harmon Gym (the only gym on campus), and even the student rooting sections at intercollegiate games.

The university’s policy against providing non-academic facilities also gave an advantage to male students, who had greater access to faculty, administrators, alumni, and donors. For example, the men used the alumni network to have a gymnasium built for them by A. J. P. Harmon, the wealthy father-in-law of alumnus and faculty member George Edwards, who wanted a large indoor space to train the university’s Cadet Corps (Stadtman, 110). In contrast, the needs of women students went unrecognized, and even after graduation they were made to feel unwelcome at Alumni Association gatherings. One alumnus, for example, admitted he had told two alumnae “that girls weren’t wanted” at an Alumni Association reception for the new university President in 1886, “hoping they would spread the fact” (Clifford, 1998, 87). When a few alumnae showed up anyway they were seated at the most distant table with current women students. Women were thus dissuaded from entering the networks of power and patronage. Without representatives on the faculty or among the alumni, women students had no one to help them redress their campus exclusions.

Women’s living conditions also prevented their integration into campus life. They were far more likely than their male counterparts to commute to campus from their family homes in San Francisco or Oakland even decades after the founding.   President Wheeler approvingly reported that whereas half of all students commuted in 1894, in 1900 71% of the student body was then living in Berkeley near campus. Wheeler called the change a “fortunate tendency; an important part of university training comes from that contact with university life” (Biennial Report 1898-1900, 11). However, it was the male students who accounted for the increase in “living at the University” and who reaped the benefits. The majority of women were still living at home and commuting well into the 1910s (Biennial Report, 1913-14, 195). It’s likely that most women commuted from home because there was a long-term housing shortage in Berkeley, and many boarding houses would not rent to women. Sororities (which began as ways to address the problem) barely existed: the first had opened in 1880, but only another three had been added by the end of the century. Living conditions for women had become so intolerable by the late 1890s, that a group of students asked their university-appointed medical examiner to investigate the problem. After visiting the rented rooms of every enrolled woman, she found them generally “deplorable” (Stadtman, 1970, 159-161).  Conditions were often worse for the students who could not even afford boarding houses and instead worked long hours as domestic servants for lodging in private homes. 

Women on campus